Woman and Power in the Namboodiry Community


Abstract: This article discusses the use of pronominal and kinship terms in the patriarchal Namboodiri community. The aim of the article is to reveal the patriarchy reflected in language. It has been found that the position of the dominant male, in the past was reflected covertly, never expressed overtly. The change however is towards the equality of women, at least in linguistic expression, which could be the result of urbanisation and formal education.

 Keywords: kinship terms, language as means for women’s oppression (inferiority), terms of women’s objectification, connotations of power

The Namboodiri community of Kerala, which is fanatically patrilineal and largely patriarchal has, as naturally expected, a set of very rigid social behavioural norms with regard to women. The rigidity was so much marked as to formulate world views which were totally male-centred. This extreme attitude has however given way to a more lax one at present, but the inner core of an average Namboodiri presents a picture of an ever dominating patriarchal self. This article tries to examine the usage of pronominals and kinship terms with reference to the women of the community and to observe their present status with reference to the power semantics that they carry along with them.

Pronominals have always been the most effective raw material to examine the power semantics of any social group. The works of Brown and Ford (1964), and Brown and Gilman (1970) have set definite patterns through which the usage of pronominals have been correlated with the social structure. Such studies have made later researchers aware of the productivity of this area of enquiry. The second person singular pronoun nii in Malayalam has always been associated with the inferiority/ familiarity/ intimacy of the receiver. See the illustration below:

Sender Receiver = nii of power

In the Namboodiri community, this pronoun had a restricted usage in the past. It was not used by parents to children, husbands to wives, or elder siblings to younger siblings freely, although in some families such a usage was permissible. But this term was not used to refer to the wife. There have been instances where husbands have been scolded by elders if they happened to use this term to refer to their wives. With the passage of time, the restriction has become lax. At present, the community has a large number of husbands who use nii to refer to wife. But this nii does not have the connotation of power. It is more a nii of intimacy. In the past, although nii was not overtly employed there existed a covert nii which could be proved by the inferior status accorded to the woman of the past. So there existed a zero (f) second person which had a hidden nii behind it. In the past where there existed a second person pronoun we can now find a nii of intimacy and not power. This change can be framed into a diagram as follows:

f / power nii / intimacy

(zero in the context of power gives way to nii in the context of intimacy)
Although nii was not used in the past, there was always an invisible nii of power, not employed in speech. This invisible nii of power has given way to nii of intimacy. See the diagram:

Covert nii /power overt nii / intimacy.
(covert nii in the context of power gives way to overt nii in the context of intimacy).

The second person plural pronoun ninnal is also used in the singular sense and its prestige is really determined. It is honorific in north Kerala while it is not considered to be very polite in south Kerala. This pronoun was not used by the Namboodiris in the context of in-group communication. The honorific form taankal ‘you (Hon.)’ was also of restricted usage within the community. The form annu ‘you (Hon)’ which indicated that the receiver was reigning on the peaks of power was used while referring to respectable men. However, there was no feminine counterpart for taankal and annu. This is the case with not only the Namboodiri speech, but Malayalam language as a whole. There is no second person pronoun to refer to a respectable woman, except for the form bhavati ‘you ( Hon )’ which is only rarely used in day-to-day social interaction.

The third person singular pronouns avan ‘he’ and aval ‘she’ were not used in in-group communication, but were directed towards the men and women belonging to the out-group which constituted of people belonging to the communities lower in the social strata. These two pronouns generally represented the inferiority and familiarity of the listener. Atu which means ‘that thing’ is a pronoun generally employed to refer to non-human beings. In the Namboodiri community, this has a marked status because its semantic range is wider. Atu in addition to being used to refer to non-human beings and inanimate objects was used by the Namboodiri to refer to small children and women. Its status — whether it is a pronoun of endearment or inferiority — can be checked by examining its distribution in wider contexts. Atu thus was used to refer to children irrespective of their gender. A grown up man was rarely referred to as atu by elders or close senior relatives. At the same time referring to adult women by employing atu was common. For eg: “atine ariyuoo? atu ivitatte aatteemmaaraanu” — “Do (you) know her? she is a woman of this family”. The atu used in the above sentence can be translated as ‘she’. Such a sentence is clearly acceptable within the community. But “atine ariyuoo? Atu ivitatte nampuuriyaanu” — “Do (you) know him? He is a man of this family” is totally unacceptable. Ayaal ‘he’ was used to refer to an adult Namboodiri male, if he was younger than speaker. As the respectability increased the pronoun addeeham ‘he (Hon.)’ was very frequently used to refer to the men of the community. Thus it can be seen that there was a dearth in the pronouns referring to a respectable Namboodiri woman. See the following diagram which illustrates the situation:

Male Female
Least respectful atu atu
Neutral ayaal atu
Most respectful addeeham atu

Recently avar to refer to a respectable woman is being employed with increased frequency.
The present generation is more liberal in the use of the third person pronouns. atu is now used to refer to children alone. avan and aval are used where the person referred to is the speaker’s close kin or friend. Here too we witness the precedence of intimacy over power in the choice of pronouns.

Kinship Terms

The importance of kinship terms in reflecting social structure has been stressed both in anthropological and linguistic studies. Many a time, an apparently casual observation of a kinship term has been instrumental in revealing novel features of the social rules embedded in a society. The present discussion focuses only on the kinship terms used by the Namboodiris , with reference to women.

Gender has played a very significant role right from the birth of any individual. Once the gender of the baby was known, the boy was referred to as unni and the girl as pennu. Sounds of rejoicing and fireworks were associated with the birth of a baby boy. He was cared for and pampered and given valuable gifts. On the contrary, the girl’s birth did not mark any festivity. She was never a permanent resident in her father’s house. She had to be married off and was to be gifted to her husband. Often, she remained a burden if the parents were financially backward. The girl was referred to as pennu for the purpose of gender identification. After this was over, the term kutti was used to refer to her. The boy continued to be called unni till he grew up to become a full fledged Namboodiri, after being initiated into Vedic scholarship, following upanayana, ‘the donning of the sacred thread’. His status as unni is now replaced by Namboodiri, which covertly signifies his ascent to adulthood. This was not the case with the girl. She remained to be kutti till her marriage. Only if married was her designation changed to aatteemmaaru. If unmarried, she would be kutti ‘child’ till death. The enhanced position of the woman could be achieved only through marriage. The term aatteemmaaru can be split into akatte + ammaar which means ‘women inside the house’. So people could refer to a married Namboodiri woman as aatteemmaaru. Another term akattullaalu (akattu+ ulla+aalu ‘a person inside the house’) is used by a man to refer to his contrasted to that of a woman who is primarily identified as a member of her husband’s family.

The woman after marriage was merged into the husband’s family. Her premarital identity was revealed through terms mahal and marumahal. mahal means the daughter of a family who is now married off to another family, while marumahal indicates the woman’s relation and position with reference to the mother’s paternal family. Thus mahal refers to her relationship with her paternal family and marumahal refers to her relationship with her maternal family. Suppose, for instance, one says Saavitri vatakkeetatte aatteemmaaraanu, karutteetatte mahalaanu, tekkeetatte marumahal aanu. The reference has furnished a detailed information regarding the identity of the woman on the basis of three identification marks:

1. Her status in relation to her husband’s house.
2. Her status in relation to her paternal house.
3. Her status in relation to her maternal house, which is naturally her mother’s paternal house. Out of these three identities her position as the wife of the husband’s family, is supremely important. In this context it can be noted that in this community, individuals are primarily identified by relating them to their respective families rather than individuals like father husband. Mahal, meaning an individual’s daughter has thus secondary importance. The semantics in this is not the same as that of mahan. mahan means one’s own son alone. It does not extend to mean ‘son of a family’. For that, the terms nampuutiri or unni are used. marumahan is the identification of the male namboodiri with reference to his mother’s paternal family. So, a male has two markers of identification, viz: with reference to his family of birth (which is his paternal house) and with reference to his mother’s family (which is his mother’s paternal family)

A man’s identity in relation to his spouse’s family is not important as contrasted to that of a woman who is primarily identified as amember of the husbands family.

Even in the present day aatteemmaaru and marumahal are used without any change while referring to a woman’s identification with the three different families in the order of precedence.

The woman in the husband’s family

A woman had to consider her spouse’s kins as her own relatives, whereas laxity of rules, was the rule, when it came to a man using kinship terms to refer to his wife’s kins. To a man, these kins were outside the boundaries of kinship and the rule expected him not to use any kinship term while referring to even the respectful relatives of his wife’s family, viz: father, mother, grandfather and grandmother. They could all be referred to impersonally as nampuutiri, or akattullaalu, of such and such family. This impersonal colour could become slightly more personal in the case of very few people who dared to refer to the wife’s parents secretly as acchan and amma. But such a reference was not publicly acclaimed or accepted.

The wife, bound by the rigid rules of society called her husband’s parents, acchan and amma. A newly married girl was praised if she had no difficulty in calling her parents-in-law as amma and acchan. Language, here, was the most effective tool that tested the woman’s adaptability and adjustability. She had kinship terms to refer and address husband’s relatives except for a few kins like husband’s brothers. Although this immediate adaptability could be viewed as the lack of power of the woman, it was always a way for her to achieve power in her husband’s home. Moreover, such forceful usage of kinship terms on the part of the woman made her feel comfortable in her husband’s family, although this comfort could be euphoric.

The married woman was accepted in the husband’s house immediately after marriage. This was reflected by the kinship terms generally directed to her. But certain terms had restricted usage. A woman could not address her husband’s elder brother, using the kinship term eettan although she could use its feminine counterpart, eetatti without inhibition. If husband’s younger brother happened to be older than her, she could not refer to him, using any kinship term. The men too had restrictions in using kinship terms to a woman who was the wife of their male sibling or male cousin. The men who were older than the woman referred to her using an unmarked eettanre akattullaalu ‘elder brother’s wife’ or aniyanre akatullaallu ‘younger brother’s wife’. Men younger to her referred to her as aatteemmaaru. Only in this delicate area of the relationship to male affinal kins did this restriction apply. And this restriction was mutual too.

The present day men and women have progressed a lot when it comes to addressing and referring to in-laws. The young men use kinship terms to refer to in-laws, without any inhibition. Occasionally one might find a rigid youth exhibiting his chauvinistic attitude by refusing to use kinship terms to in-laws. But this is an exception rather than the rule. The taboo- based hesitation in referring to affinal relatives of the same generation, has also vanished now. Brothers-in-law are brothers and sisters-in-law are sisters.

The Power of Women in the Community: Can the aforesaid facts prompt us to declare that empowerment of women has taken place in the Namboodiri Community? Peripherally, it might seem that the women have achieved a better position. To a certain extent, this is true, thanks to education and urbanisation. But, the deep core of the kinship system, and the kinship terms, have not changed as to ensure the increased power of the woman.

Banks, Stephen P. “Power Pronouns and the Language of Intercultural Understanding” in Language, Communication and Culture- Current Directions. Stella Ting, Toomey and Felipe Korzenny, Eds. London: Sage, 1989.

Brown, Roger and Albert Gilman. “Pronouns of Power and Solidarity” in Readings in the Sociology of Language. Joshua A. Fishman, Ed. Hague : Mouton & Co., 1970.

Brown, Roger and Marguerite Ford. “Address in American English” in Language in Culture and Society. Dell Hymes, Ed. New Delhi: Allied Publishers. 1964

Nambudripad, Usha. The Speech of Namboodiris : A Sociolinguistic Study. Unpublished Ph.D. Dissertation, Department of Linguistics, University of Kerala. 1989.


USHA NAMBUDRIPAD. Was awarded Ph.D. in Linguistics for the thesis “The speech of Namboodiris: A Sociolinguistic Study.” Worked in two research projects of FOSSILS (Folklore Society of South Indian Languages) on “Tribal Kinship Terms” and “Tribal Folklore” as co-ordinator. Was a Reasearch Fellow in the Kerala Sahitya Akademi. Has a number of published articles and a book on Sociolinquistics. Has translated short stories from English to Malayalam and Malayalam to English. Has also translated two plays of Shakespeare into Malayalam.

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Was awarded Ph.D. in Linguistics for the thesis “The speech of Namboodiris: A Sociolinguistic Study.” Worked in two research projects of FOSSILS (Folklore Society of South Indian Languages) on “Tribal Kinship Terms” and “Tribal Folklore” as co-ordinator. Was a Reasearch Fellow in the Kerala Sahitya Akademi. Has a number of published articles and a book on Sociolinquistics. Has translated short stories from English to Malayalam and Malayalam to English. Has also translated two plays of Shakespeare into Malayalam.

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