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Calling Each Other

The way we call each other now resolves a long and interesting debate about kinship. The old debate was between the search for the universals in human relations and that which saw in the terms we used to address each other the trait of languages – fluid and symbolic.

Fluidity and a strong sense of the arbitrary are the rules in kinship terms. Listen to couples calling each other “Papa” and “Mama” instead of their respective names. Where did this start, and what was the reason for the dominance of this labeling? Some parents I asked informally years ago told me that the reason for this calling was to instill early on in their kids the manner by which they wanted to be addressed. I do not understand this explanation because in my generation, our parents never called each other “Papa” and “Mama.” Does this mean the succeeding generations of children were slow to learn the proper names for their father and mother? Were the children more distracted and dumber?

In my family, I learned to call my elder brother, Manong, even if my father and mother called him by his nickname, Pempe. I knew that he was Manong and that I could not call him Pempe. My parents did not call him Manong so that I would learn to address him in that manner. I just knew that he was Manong.

In families now, elder male children are addressed as “Kuya,” again using the same reasoning that the siblings would then learn to call him as such.  This is most interesting because out in the public areas, in internet cafes, for example, staff would usually address little boys as “Kuya.” Again, this has no explanation except perhaps for us to assume that the name boosts the maturity of the male little kids.

Addressing authorities is even a more complex field, as baroque as the studies done by early anthropologists.  We have varied choices but “Sir” and “Ma’am” have become current and popular appellation. In campuses, teachers are either “Sir-This” or “Ma’am-That.” The noble sound in those names does not readily translate into respect. You can hear students talking about how gross “Sir __” is, and how dumb “Ma’am __” is.

In Bikol, I know a student is not from Naga when s/he calls his/her female teacher “Madam.” This is eerie because in many novels and short stories “Madam” has collapsed from her shining pedestal down to a more dubious level of being a caretaker of “brothels.”

The universe of titles, to illustrate how complex and fluid it has become, is social-status sensitive. However much you respect or pretend to respect the janitor or the woman managing the canteen, they will never be “Sir” or “Ma’am” but Manong and Manang. This is a Manila import, a practice of students especially in exclusive schools where the term is rural enough to implicate the roots (as perceived by students) and origins of these canteen help and assistants. In Naga, these “Manong” and “Manang” have taken roots also. The variation is “Manay” and “Manoy.” A word of caution: even if you want to go native and go cute, never addresss a teacher “Manong” or “Manang.”