Forms of address: Then and now
My own wandering mind recently stopped at a village well in Siyane
Korale. Named Kanuhetta it had a wide platform and a massive Kumbuk tree
against which the village folk brushed their backs with fierce gusto.
The Kumbuk tree, served to keep the well waters cool.
Not that I was mindful of it then, for I had been uprooted from my
village culture by a peculiar set of circumstances which may explain the
first incident I am going to relate. It was school vacation and I was at
home away from my hostel in a sea side city.
Greetings vary according to culture
Our own well had run dry and I was forced to use this public well.
But halfway through the bath I returned home sobbing.
“What on earth is the matter?” my mother asked, flummoxed.
“A man at the well called me umba. He said, umba mokada anda me
lindata ave? (why did you come to this well?)
My father now having joined us just guffawed.
“Enough he didn’t ask, why did tho come to this well today?”
My mother too was aghast at that.
“Tho? Why should that man call her so? She has not committed a crime
“One needs not commit a crime to be called tho. It was simply the
form of address in olden days. Go through the ancient literary works.
This form of address occurs frequently. A husband would say to his wife,
‘Sondura, tho ada mata daval kema kalin lesthi karanna’ (Dear, prepare
my lunch early today).”
Incidentally my father was a school head. My mother, herself a
schoolteacher, was far from the docile Eastern woman.
“If you call me tho, be sure that your lunch will come after dinner”
Actually this memory of my childhood seeped into me when reading the
chapter on “Forms of address” by Dr Alawattage whose book on conjugal
traditions of ancient Lanka I have just finished translating. I will now
go on to quote some peculiar plus edifying references to the topic. Let
the edifying come first.
I may venture here an opinion that a good part of our social patterns
including conversation modes seem to have been established by Buddhist
Here is Buddha himself setting the precedent on how to address a
superior. Subsequent to his enlightenment he had first visited his
former disciples who addressed him on equal terms. But he instructs,
“Do not address my by name or on equal terms.” Thus the Master
rightfully asserts his authority and superiority. Yet paradoxical
situations arise. A superior may call an inferior on intimate terms as
sambada and sambadini. But woe befalls if the inferior one responds by
calling the superior one, Sabanda or Sabadini!
One really has to be careful in this area of ‘Forms of Address’ then
as now. Little “misses” can even cost you, your job. Or stall you in the
ladder of promotions. Such incidents I know by experience after having
worked in several offices.
Back to old times. How did a husband call a wife in those days?
“Sondura’ seems to have been the usual term thugh Prof Ariyapala
(According to the mentioned text) differs saying that it was a literary
term used in books. Maybe the lower strata used it much less. Evidence
can be got only from books where authors insert their own terms.
Women had also addressed their husbands as “Swamini”; “Himiyani”.
Today modern wives cull some pet names too for their better or worse
halves and vice versa. Swamini had also been used when a lower person
addresses a higher person. Monks and today’s judges on the rostrum are
addressed as Swamini.
Today the field of address by a man and his wife for each other is an
interesting field due to the diversity. In the socially elite and
Western oriented group they call each other by name.
But especially in rural Buddhist society a tradition has grown that
it is sinful for a wife to call the husband by name. So they would coyly
say, lamayinge thaatha, “Meya” “Araya” and so forth.
A servant woman I had used to call her husband “Lamayinge appachchi”
even though she had no children! When I asked her why she did so, she
replied bashfully that she would burn in hell if she called her husband,
Aron Appu. If pressed further she would go on to quote the Buddha
There was and is an endearing practice in our society when
non-relatives too are addressed as relatives.
In which other country is the laundry woman called your aunt? But we
are democratic enough to call her so. Redi Nanda is the term used for
this dear homely character now eclipsed by laundries.
Perhaps the roots of addressing even strangers as relatives could be
traced to the survey carried out by Vishaka Situ Doo of Buddhist India
as to why so many women take Sil. In order to endear the ones subject to
the research, she addresses the aged women as Amma, the middle aged and
younger as Nanga or buhuni and little girls as Daruwani.
Here is seen the motive behind ie a pretence of affection for favour.
But today favour or not, this practice is again noticed in our society,
whether we like it or not.
Once I was at the Pensions office, seated in the corridor till the
relevant officer came into his room.
A female of aristocratic bearing joined me and was chatting to me
when the officer walked in who passing us said in all good faith,
“ammala denna mokada ada me paththe? (why are these two mothers here?).
That put my new friend into such a rage that she told me,” If not for
this blessed pension I would have given him a good knock on the head and
I also remember a taxi man who drove me round addressing me as Amme.
His head was a froth of grey hair and actually I must confess that I did
not relish being called amme by him.