Language and Relationships in Ekiriya

As I have written about before, I am spending much of my time as a Fulbright scholar living and doing research in Ekiriya, a rural village in the central highlands of Sri Lanka. My experience in Ekiriya can hardly be encapsulated in words, but I do want to reflect on how the nuance of language conveys so much cultural value and meaning in this special place.

It is first worth offering a glimpse into the distinct ethos of Ekiriya. Ekiriya is a predominantly agricultural village of about 60 families who depend on rice and vegetable cultivation for their collective sustenance. Naturally, there is an enormous amount of time and energy that needs to be devoted to cultivation, and people fulfill these demands by ascribing to a system of labor exchange and reciprocity. When it comes time for my neighbor to harvest rice, I meet my obligation to help him or her (almost always without pay), because when it comes time for my own harvest, I will certainly need all the help I can get from my neighbor and others.

The paddy fields serve also as a locus of social life, reinforcing the family and broader village relationships that ultimately put rice on the table. Men and women (usually working together, while fulfilling distinctly gendered responsibilities) exchange jokes and stories, while ritually pausing and coming together for tea and snacks in the midst of a hard day’s work. During the rice harvest, children often accompany their parents to the paddy fields, playing around in the heaps of newly cut hay as both parents carry out their labor-intensive responsibilities.

The small village community is also bound together by its shared religiosity grounded in the Theravada Buddhism tradition, though evidently incorporating elements of Hinduism and local religious consciousness. Regular merit ceremonies provide a forum for people to come together in the event of a new home, sick person, death, or religious holiday. The village temple itself resides at the center of physical, social, political and spiritual life in Ekiriya, serving as a focal point across generations for informal social gatherings, village meetings, and the local preschool, as well as for more formal occasions of worship.

Thus, you could say, life in Ekiriya is largely grounded in shared responsibilities and lived relationships. While these days, more and more people are breaking with tradition and taking up jobs overseas, in the military, or in other capacities away from the region, the fabric of personal and vocational interconnectivity remains strong.

And this is precisely where language carries such cultural importance. In Ekiriya, in every interaction with another, one is expected to use a personal moniker that reflects the particular relationship between individuals:

nangi – younger sister

akkaa – older sister

malli – younger brother

ayyaa – older brother

aachchii – grandmother

siiyaa – grandfather

putaa – son

duwa – daughter

naeaendaa – aunt

maamaa – uncle

In fact, mothers will often scold their children in front of me for  calling me “Sam” as opposed to “Sam ayya,” “Sam maamaa,” or just “ayyaa.” To be honest, it also takes somewhat of a burden off me to remember each and every person’s sometimes tough-to-remember Sinhala name–I am constantly using this interpersonal language in my interactions with others, navigating the sometimes uncomfortable liminality of wondering whether to call a middle-aged woman “akka” or “naeaendaa“–an older man “maamaa” or “siiyaa.”

It’s become mostly unconscious as I spend more and more time here, a linguistic prerequisite to manifest most any engagement with another. But my background in the Northeastern US offers enough difference in cultural perspective to notice the uniqueness of this way of relating to others. I can’t help but think of what the implications would be back home if I called a woman “sister,” or “sis” (which may well be the equivalent of the more informal Sinhala word, akki), or an older man I ran into on the street “grandfather.” Out of perhaps an immediate family context, it may well come across as condescending or just unwelcomely personal.

That said, we have to be careful about taking such linguistic idiosyncrasies out of their different cultural contexts, and speculating about what they might mean for different ways of constructing meaning, values, and relationships. In the States, we may well reinforce social relationships through other means of spoken word, body language, or other avenues altogether. I don’t have enough nuanced insight to speculate much further cross-culturally–I only use this reference to frame the unique interplay of language and culture in a rural Sri Lankan reality.

I do wonder, though, in addition to considerations of agricultural necessities and lived religiosity in Ekiriya, if this linguistic convention also reflects a more philosophical notion grounded in Theravada Buddhism–namely, the concept of anatman–that there is no permanent, unchanging self entity that we could call “Sam” or “Savantha” or even “Siddhartha.” Perhaps an emphasis on the relationship between people reflects an attempt to break down this self-concept, and illuminate the chains of conditionality understood to bind people together in a realm of dukkha–often understood as “suffering,” “unsatisfactoriness,” or “imperfection.” In Zen Action, Zen Person, the author T.P. Kasulis explains how the tradition of Zen Buddhism arose out of a Japanese linguistic and cultural context where persons “A and C” gain their identities through how they relate to “b,” or the particular medium through which they come together (AbC). Perhaps something similar is at work here in Ekiriya, where religion, culture, and language are virtually inseparable. After all, Sri Lankan Theravada monks are often expected to use “api” (we), “apiTa” (to us), and “apee” (our) as opposed to “mama” (I), “maTa” (to me), and “magee” (my)–reflecting a distinct consciousness of language and what seems like a deliberate commitment to the values of “no-self” and “non-attachment.”

Whatever its precise origins, the use of interpersonal language in Ekiriya–and certainly many parts of Sri Lanka more broadly–reflects the centrality of relationships between people. While “Sam” may stick out with his white skin and ever-germinating Sinhala, depending on who you ask, he is either a son, a brother, or an uncle. And call him Uncle Sam, but this reality and system of identity is certainly different than what he might expect back in the States.