While we were in quarantine, I had quite a few American female friends reach out to me asking me,
They were obviously taken aback as they weren’t sure what the word meant and why the person did not use their actual name to refer to them. Calling someone by an honorific term, even someone who’s considered a friend or colleague is one of the cultural differences you may notice when interacting with people from India.
While didi (Hindi) is one translation of this word one could hear from India, as there are a multitude of languages in India, the three I am most familiar with are Hindi, Tamil and Malayalam. The words below are listed in that order – in Hindi, Tamil, and Malayalam script, following by the English transliteration.
Have you made friends from India online or in person? If you are a female, have any of your friends from India called you didi, akka, or chechi?
These three words come from different Indian languages, and tend to be used alone or after your name. Such as “Hi didi….” or “Good night, Jennifer akka….” or “Chechi… did you have your breakfast?”
As a person who’s not from India, you may wonder why your new friends are calling you these terms. I talk about these terms in the video below. Take a listen. The transcript follows.
Men may also be called the male translations of these words as listed below:
Transcript of video:
[00:00:01] Didi, Akka and Chechi.
[00:00:05] Didi is Hindi, akka is in Tamil and chechi is in Malayalam, three of the many, many languages of India. And all of these words translate into the same thing in English – elder sister, or older sister.
I’m Jennifer Kumar from Authentic Journeys, I Bridge The Cultural Gap between India and the U.S. mostly in the workplace, but sometimes in these semi formal and casual environments where you’re just trying to make friends and make small talk.
[00:00:39] If you’re a female and you are making friends with people from India, whether they be male or female, if you’re perceived older than them or they really don’t know your name at first or don’t feel comfortable pronouncing your name because it’s a foreign name, sometimes they’ll be calling you by one of these three terminologies or a different term from their mother tongue – that is the language in which their family speaks from the native place they come from in India.
What does “native place” mean?
[00:01:14] Native place is not just a home town, but it’s actually where the family originated in India and where their heritage stems from. Similar to my family came from Hungary to the US. So you could say my native place is someplace in Hungary. It’s similar to that.
[00:01:36] So, I told you the terminologies, I told you which language each of them are from. But I want to tell you a little bit more about the languages of India, and then I’m going to go back to these three terms again to wrap up the video.
Languages of India
[00:01:52] If you’re new to learning about India. India is highly diverse. You could say it’s like a Europe in one country, like a whole continent of Europe. Take that and just make Europe a country instead of a continent. Europe right now, as you know, many, many different countries. But, just take Europe and say it’s a country, one country, then you can understand what India is. India has…. I forget exactly without looking now, but I think it’s like twenty five states. And generally, you could say each state has its own language and own script for that language or a variation of a script from, you know, a more popular language. Now, it is quite possible that the language does not have a script, as well. There are several languages in India that are only spoken languages and are not written languages. So, the Constitution of India actually recognizes about twenty five, I think, languages of India. And you can kind of guesstimate that based on someone’s native place, whatever state in India they come from originally their family originally come from, most likely they speak the language of that state. Because each state tends to have a dominant language or a language affiliated with that state. For example, West Bengal, which is in north east India.. that’s the state of India. The city that everyone knows or many people know, Calcutta or Kolkata. They speak Bengali. Each of these languages tend to have a different script. Although, sometimes some languages share scripts or share versions of similar scripts, for example, Hindi, which is spoken in most of the states of India, has a lot of dialects. However, the native language or mother tongue of Maharashtra state, where Mumbai and Pune is is a Marathi. Marathi and Hindi have a very similar script. There are a couple of letters that are different. While you might be able to read both of these languages, if you know one script or the other, the vocabulary will be different. It’s like being able to read in English and Spanish. The letters are pretty much the same, but you have some differences between the two, obviously. And, also you need to know the vocabulary. So that’s the analogy you can make there. So back to the three words on my list, because I only have three. But, like I said, there’s like a million languages in India. I’m exaggerating, but there’s a lot of languages in India. So, every language would have their own translation of the same term- older sister or elder sister.
|Didi in Hindi – Devanagarii Scripti|
[00:05:06] Didi D – I – D – I is how I’ve normally seen it spelled in English letters and this is from Hindi. So this is spoken in most parts of India, especially north India.
|Akka as written in Tamil script|
[00:05:26] The next one is AKKA, A – K – K – A.
[00:05:32] This is very regional to Tamil Nadu. So if you are in Tamil Nadu, you have a friend whose native place is some place in Tamil Nadu – whether they are in Tamil Nadu or another part of India or the US or any place else in the world, it’s probably safe to say that they will call you as Akka.
[Not noted in the video- I think that akka is also used in Telugu to mean “elder sister” and anna is used in Telugu to mean “elder brother.”]
Chechi written in Malayalam – one of the many scripts of Inida
[00:05:54] And the last is chechi. Chechi is from Malayalam. Malayalam is spoken in the south western state of Kerala. People from Kerala are known as Keralites or Malayalees.
[00:06:12] Someone from Tamil Nadu would be known as a Tamilian. So, these are the three words. These are where they come from in India. You might have heard other words from other dialects or other languages of India. You can share those in the comments. I’m always interested to learn new, new words, but these are the ones that I’ve heard the most.
|Kerala is the state highlighted in red. Tamil Nadu borders it to the east.|
[00:06:33] Keep in mind, again, that when your new friend from India calls you by one of these terms they may or may not use your name with the term if they don’t use your name. I know as an American it feels very weird to not have someone call you by your name. I felt the same way initially, but then over time I realized that actually it- it does -it’s their way of being close. It’s a way of people from India being close to you by calling you by one of these terms.
[00:07:06] And it’s not supposed to make you feel distant or far away from that person, but actually make you feel close to that person. So, take it as a sign of respect and that they want to be friends with you and that they like you, not that they don’t like you and they want to be distant from you. Because initially, as an American, I kind of was taken aback by these terms. But I’ve spent two and a half years living in Tamil Nadu and six and a half years living in Kochi in Kerala state, India. So I got used to these terms pretty fast, I guess, and now I really enjoy it. And I feel happy when someone reaches out to me and calls me by one of these terms. So again, I hope this is kind of a really helpful tutorial for you to learn something new about India that you might not have known before. I’m Jennifer Kumar. I mostly work with virtual teams between U.S. and India to help bridge the culture and communication gap through one on one and small group coaching. You can reach me at info at authentic journeys dot info. Thanks for listening.
Note: In smaller towns or more traditional companies, these terms may be used in the office as well. In big cities in Kerala, the ladies who work in the office as assistants or who bring tea are often called “chechi,” while men who do similar jobs may more often be called by their name. That’s been my experience, and I could be wrong.
If you’d like to be in touch with us for cross-cultural coaching, click here. We provide India culture training as well as US culture training in addition to other related coaching services to help you find balance when adjusting to a new culture.
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