Hey, Dude! <small>by I.J. SINGH</small> <!-- <small>March 1st, 2010</small>--> Readers know that I often refer to Guru Nanak as Nanak, without the appellation of Guru. Similarly for all the other Gurus, when I append neither "Guru" nor "ji" - the latter is de rigueur in the Punjabi and Indian culture when speaking of or to anyone who deserves respect, that is, someone who is older, grayer or higher on the food chain. Teachers would routinely merit this, as would older relatives, including siblings. Political leaders, too, get the title, even though they may not get much respect. At times, Sikh friends have lashed back in anger. And I admit, at times I, too, have wondered if I am being unnecessarily cheeky and provocative. Believe me; I understand my critics' point of view. I have never known a Muslim refer to Mohammed quite as simply, without any honorifics, the commonest being: "Mohammed, Peace be upon him," sometimes written as PBUH. Many Christians would not utter the name of Jesus without the word Lord or Savior appended to it. Orthodox Jews feel so much in awe of God that they will write this word only as 'G-d', without ever spelling it out fully. In the traditional Indian culture of my parent's generation, most women would not use the first name of their husbands in conversation with or about them. One heard euphemisms instead - some even most imaginative. Students in India rarely ever learn the first names of their teachers, and would never use one in public. Children rarely, if ever, use the first names of their parents, uncles or aunts. When I filled out a college application at age 14, it may have been the first time that I wrote out my parent's first names. Luckily things are changing at a lightning rate. These were quaint customs of yore, largely meaningless today. Out West, in Oregon, where I attended graduate school, manners were much more informal than in New York. I learned to address my research advisor as Dave rather than Dr. Gunberg. And when I acquired graduate students of my own in New York, I asked them to call me by my first name. There was no lessening of respect, merely greater comfort in communication. I have lived in American cultural pockets where children addressed their parents by their first names - this I found awkward. It would never be condoned in the traditional Indian society that most of us come from. Then I saw that these children were just as respectful to their parents as any children might be. Over the years I have become sort of a generic "uncle" to many young Sikhs; they often reflexively add the honorific almost like a last name. I hope not to be the sort of crazy drunk of an uncle that many families have. So I was not caught entirely unaware when some readers took me to task for what they considered my insufficient respect to our Gurus and to the Guru Granth. All the extensions attached to names, to me, are like the tail that wags the dog. I have talked about these unnecessary appendages at length in an essay that is available on sikhchic.com. But there is an odd sort of a distinction here between the sacred and the profane that bothers me sometimes. Just days ago I was idly ruminating about our Sikh congregational prayer (ardaas). I must have heard and read the words a zillion times and missed the significance every time until now. In a line addressed to God, it goes, "Hey Akal Purakh..." The best I can do with a translation would be "Hey, God..." Or, in contemporary American slang I might say "Hey, You!" or "Hey, Dude!" Should one conclude that the words in the Sikh ardaas are not sufficiently reverential? But then I see that in some hymns in the Guru Granth, the language for God preferred by the Gurus is one of familiarity, not reverence. Think of the hymn that usually precedes the ardaas, "Tu Thakur tu paeh ardaas ... Tu maat pitaa hum baarak tayray ..." Literally translated, it says "You are the Master, I beseech you ... You are the mother and the father ..." Is reverence or respect for God missing in these words? Surely not. Why then do we encounter here the language of familiarity rather than the words traditionally used to express respect? Like many languages (such as French, e.g.), Punjabi, too, has a clear lexicon for indicating either respect or familiarity. "Tu" as opposed to "tusi" for example. In the subsequent lines of the same pre-ardaas hymn that I cited above, the Guru shifts to the language of respect and says. "Tumri gut mit ..." and not "Teri gut mit ..." The difference is small but critical. It refers to love that is not any less but now the Guru is speaking the language of awe and reverence. People express love in a language that is more personal, less formal; more intimate, less focused on stature and position. Readers will find copious references - many more than the few that I have cited - to addressing God in both formal and informal language in the Guru Granth. As an aside, in a conversation with a friend, Manjyot Kaur, it emerged that all Romance languages have distinct and precise construction and vocabulary for the formal and informal usages; this includes not only French, but also Spanish and Italian. Many languages, from Afrikaans to Yiddish, some that come from entirely different linguistic trees, show this trait, such as Punjabi, Hindi, Urdu, even Russian, among others. (In this, Hindi and Punjabi share a common lineage; Russian is of entirely different antecedents, while Urdu has a mixed pedigree.) Modern linguists make a distinction between pronouns as informal (T-form that comes from the Latin tu) and the formal (V-form from the Latin vos). The T-form is derived from the singular; the V-form from the plural. For the user, the choice is largely determined by the difference in power and/ or relationship. Middle English was not devoid of this delineation between the formal and informal language; witness the use of words like thee, thy, thine and thou that have since been discarded, except in prayer and worship, and the royal "We." Modern English is a bit of an anomaly and shows little syntactic distinction between the T-form and the V-form; perhaps because it has borrowed so heavily from so many languages from around the world and has become the essential coin of commerce. The distinction between the T-form and the V-form may have gotten lost in the wholesale borrowing from many languages and the parallel development of the nascent idea of equality of all people. As is said in jest, in modern English, the V-form "We" is now the prerogative only of royalty, editors and those who are infested with worms. Punjabi, too, has the borrower's lineage, but it still retains the old world charm of the personal-familiar and the respectful-formal usages. Sometimes the distinctive use of the formal shows up most tellingly in mock respect and taunting; clear examples of such usage abound in Indic languages when words in V-form are slowly, deliberately and rhythmically enunciated, along with a wink - for enhanced significance of satiric context. There must be an explanation for all this and here is my way of looking at it. There is the precise language of ideas and then there is the intimate language of friends and lovers that is no less precise but has a different purpose. Formal communication often rests on the difference in status and starts from that awareness. We all collect titles in this world; they are like toys and, in the language of love, titles become superfluous. Between friends the language is informal, and as personal as between lovers. It can't get any more personal. Between strangers and acquaintances or where the lines of the relationship are clearly defined by authority, it is correct and formal. And that's why in Punjabi culture we do not address parents and teachers with the familiar "tu," but as "tusi." The Gurus were so imbued with love of God that the depth of their intimacy plainly shines through in their public pronouncements. What else would it be but the language of love when speaking of God that is within us, not up on the mountaintop or in a different zip code on some undiscovered continent or planet somewhere in outer space? Personal love is not a petition; it is an experience. So, in the language of intimacy: "Hey, Dude, be with me, let me walk in your shadow and live in your awareness." sikhchic.com | The Art and Culture of the Diaspora | Hey, Dude!