“Et aap, Brute?” – North Indian Julius Caesar

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I borrow my title from a Tweet by one Shivam that is part of a Twitter Storm sweeping over India these days.  It is playfully described in this BBC article today:

Tu v Aap: The Indian woman who sparked a Twitter battle on pronouns

By Geeta Pandey and Meryl Sebastian, BBC News, Delhi

Never mind how one says "you" in French or German, it matters much how one says "you" in different parts of India.

In India when you call someone "you", how do you address them? Do you call them a respectful "aap" or an informal "tu" or use the middle-of-the-road pronoun "tum"?

That's the question that Indian Twitter has been debating for the past few days.

It started earlier this week with a tweet from Pratibha, a 31-year-old Delhi-based woman, who said it was rude to use the informal "tu" to address a stranger.

"Never engage with Bombay [Mumbai] people in Hindi. You could be complete strangers and they'll still feel free to address you with a 'Tu'. Unacceptable behaviour," she wrote.

While Delhi people may complain about the insensitivity of Mumbaikars, people from elsewhere may take exception to the incivility of Dilliwalas.  All of these prejudices have emerged in the explosion of Tweets following Pratibha's initial Tweet.

The post went viral – with over a thousand responses and more than a million views – and kicked off a debate on appropriate use of pronouns in Hindi.

While the language is spoken by over 46% of the country's population, it is rarely the preferred language outside northern India. Hindi also has several dialects and the use of pronouns varies according to region.

In Bambaiya Hindi – the dialect spoken in the city of Mumbai in Maharashtra state – "tu" derives its meaning from Marathi language spoken in the region and is not closely associated with disrespect as it is in several parts of northern India.

It's even used in reference to Hindu deities like Ganesh and Vitthal, Marathi speakers say, and features in literature, devotional songs and prayers.

"What it indicates is a close bond or intimacy," BBC Marathi's Amruta Durve explains. "It's not derogatory at all."

Pratibha told the BBC her tweet referred to an incident from 10 years ago. She was talking to a colleague in Mumbai for the first time.

After chatting for a while in English, he shifted gears and asked her in Hindi, "Tu Hindi me baat kar sakti hai [do you know Hindi]?"

Pratibha, who always uses the respectful pronoun "aap" to address her parents, her elder brother and all those she doesn't know, uses the more informal pronoun only with her younger brother or classmates.

"I was taken by surprise. I think that among strangers, 'tu' implies a false sense of intimacy when it should be respectful distance."

Pratibha said she didn't expect the response she got after she wrote about the incident on Twitter. "I have less than 2,000 followers and I thought this would get two responses and I'll respond to them and that will be that. But it's taken a life of its own."

Her post was "written in jest", she says, and even though some trolled her, she found that a majority of responses were fun.

Pratibha says … the conversation on Twitter has been a bit of a learning experience and that she now understands there could be linguistic and cultural differences between regions in the manner they speak.

But she "stood by" her initial opinion, saying that those trying to speak a language should make an effort to speak it properly and be aware of the sensitivities.

One major takeaway from the debate for her, she says, was how much jollity it created.

"I take credit for the fact that Twitter became fun for a bit – for a change, we weren't fighting over religion and politics. I'm happy I contributed to something as positive as this.

The BBC article is preceded by a photograph of Delhi-based Pratibha and includes half-a-dozen screenshots that I warmly recommend aap / tu read to get a sense of the spirit dominating the Indian Twitterverse these days.


Selected readings

[Thanks to Chau Wu]


  1. Cervantes said,

    February 13, 2023 @ 8:32 am

    Wow, that's weird. There is the exact same issue in Spanish, and with the exact same pronoun — tu. In some Spanish speaking countries/societies, it is indeed rude to address a stranger as tu, or a person you know who with whom you do not have a familiar relationship. Others are more relaxed about it. (The formal pronoun is usted, so that's different.)

  2. Jim said,

    February 13, 2023 @ 9:18 am

    Sounds oddly familiar–"Get thee hence!", but "thank ye kindly"

  3. Gene Anderson said,

    February 13, 2023 @ 11:40 am

    I've watched Mexico evolve from formal usted (originally vostre merced, "your mercy") to tu in my lifetime. Moreover, there are two levels of usted: with the d in formal Spanish, or without (uste') in colloquial. This is a pretty important marker. In Chile, vos survives as formal "u." It says a lot about the English mind that we went the other way: from informal "thou" and formal "you" to "you" for everybody, in spite of the Quakers trying hard to make "thou" the universal singular.

  4. Tim Lubin said,

    February 13, 2023 @ 12:15 pm

    The quoted article suggests the use of "tu" in "Bambaiya Hindi" is influenced by Marathi "tu," which is (by implication?) less informal and thus less disrespectful when used to address someone one is not intimate with. It goes on to say to that "It's even used in reference to Hindu deities like Ganesh and Vitthal, Marathi speakers say, and features in literature, devotional songs and prayers."

    The situation in these respects for Marathi is really no different from that of Hindi, in Mumbai or elsewhere. "Tu" is for intimates, or for elders to address children, … and, revealingly, for masters to address servants. American-style informality may be on the rise in many places, but even today for a man to address a new female acquaintance with "tu" seems to violate decorum, especially in by-passing the more neutral "tum."

    The argument about how to address a god is misguided. Modern Hindu sensibilities in this regard — and not just in Maharashtra — are shaped by bhakti-devotionalism which asserts an absolutely close initimacy with god for the faithful, which is signaled by the use of "tu" in addressing god: he bhagavān, tū hī dayā kar! "Oh Lord, have mercy on me!"
    But don't try that with your boss! Or the police!

    Side note: In this respect, the implications of Hindi tū and Sanskrit tvam are similar to those of Europeans cognates, English thou, Latin and Romance languages' tu, etc. In English, in the 17th c., "thou" gradually fell out of use for reasons of politesse, replaced in all contexts by plural/respectful "ye/you," American informality being still yet to be invented.

  5. Tim Lubin said,

    February 13, 2023 @ 12:22 pm

    P.S. Caesar was thought to have used the 2nd person singular pronoun with Brutus precisely to signal intimacy, and thus the enormity of Brutus' betrayal. Indeed, the actual words he used (we are told) were, in Greek: "kai su, tekne" — addressing Brutus affectionately as "child." "Et aap" (or in proper Hindi, "aap bhi") thus removes the sting.

  6. Cervantes said,

    February 13, 2023 @ 12:36 pm

    Gene Anderson — yes, and in Argentina "vos," which is technically plural, is used as a formal singular address. Once I heard a Puerto Rican say "Cómo está" to my Argentinian friend, she replied "Bien, ¿y vos?" to which he said "Vos está bien." The joke of course would make no sense to people unfamiliar with the nuances of language and local custom.

  7. Andy said,

    February 13, 2023 @ 2:24 pm

    @Tim Lubin: Well Latin and Ancient Greek actually have no T-V distinction, so tu/su are just the default options for singular address. 'Teknon' is neuter, so the vocative is also 'teknon', not 'tekne'.

  8. DaveK said,

    February 13, 2023 @ 3:14 pm

    From Shakespeare (Twelfth Night) advice on how to write an insulting letter:

    …taunt him with the licence of ink:
    if thou thou'st him some thrice, it shall not be

  9. Tim Lubin said,

    February 13, 2023 @ 9:09 pm

    @Andy – Thanks for the corrections. Misremembered from decades ago. It is interesting that T-V developed in parallel in Europe and India, no? It is found even in classical Sanskrit.

  10. crturang said,

    February 13, 2023 @ 9:48 pm

    I have known a extended family from Varanasi in which children were addressed with aap. That could be a refinement found in some groups of native speakers.

  11. Hiroshi Kumamoto said,

    February 13, 2023 @ 11:14 pm

    In the Mahābhārata, Book 8 (Karṇa Parvan), the eldest of the five Pāṇḍava brothers, Yudhiṣṭhira, frustrated by his brother Arjuna's failure to defeat their enemy Karṇa, accuses him as a coward, and tells him to hand his precious Gāṇḍīva bow over to his charioteer Kṛṣṇa. Infuriated, Arjuna, who had earlier made an oath that he would kill anyone who would force him to part with the bow, tried to kill his elder brother. Kṛṣṇa intervened, and pursuaded Arjuna to have milder resort, just addressing his brother by "tvam" as an insult.

    MBh 8.49.66-67 in a recent translation of Bibek Debroy, (Vol. 7, p. 223) reads:

    You have always honoured the king, together with Bhima and the twins, and so have the foremost and aged men in this world. You should offer him a trifling insult. O Partha! Address the king as “tvam”.

  12. Chris Button said,

    February 14, 2023 @ 10:35 am

    I remember my mind boggling over the number of ways to say "you" in Japanese.

    In addition to most commonly just using the addressee's name, I recall:


    I'm sure there are more … I dont think i ever had the need to use the last two on the list :)

  13. Scott P. said,

    February 14, 2023 @ 11:41 am

    Is there any etymological connection between 'wallah' as a Hindi suffix and the root of "Wales," Wallachia," "Vlach", etc.?

  14. Philip Anderson said,

    February 14, 2023 @ 3:05 pm

    @Scott P.
    It would seem an unlikely connection at first sight, but then I know the latter words came from the Volcae tribe:
    Compare this with:

  15. Philip Anderson said,

    February 16, 2023 @ 8:07 am

    It’s unrelated to the thread, but the Volcae tribal name appears to have meant wolf or warrior originally.

  16. Victor Mair said,

    March 1, 2023 @ 8:41 pm

    From Fred Smith:

    Philip is right. Tim Lubin, an excellent and erudite scholar, has made excellent comments. But the very title of the post, "Et aap, Brute", reminds me of a newspaper listing I saw in Bombay maybe 25 years ago for a play performed at one of Bombay's better theaters, Makkhi Choos," by Molière. "What," asked I to my Bombay host, "is makkhi choos?" It means, broadly, miser, which indeed is a play by Molière. So, this was a performance in Hindi of the Miser. However, my host explained to me, it literally means, "fly sucker" (makkhi – fly [Skt makṣikā], sucker [to suck cūṣati – he, she sucks]), the standard example being, "if a fly falls in your ghee, remove it and suck off the ghee – it's too valuable to waste." Perhaps not even Molière could have thought of that.

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