Invoke the Vocative

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“Johnē! Oru pencil tharāmō?”

Here’s a grammar lesson: English doesn’t reshape a person’s name when you say “This is John,” versus “John, can I borrow a pencil?” But other languages force you to do more fiddling with your words, tacking on affixes or adjusting pronunciations to make it clear when you’re calling out to someone rather than just naming them. The Malayalam language is one example, contrasting the vocative case (Johnē!) with the nominative (John). And I love it for doing this.

Described in English, the structure looks silly: Mom (vocative)! What’s for dinner? or John (vocative), this is my friend, Sarah (nominative). But I’ve always enjoyed the incredible sense of closeness the vocative case can bring. In a story, I’ll read about someone calling his wife priyē (vocative, “beloved”) and get more than a little teary. At home, my dad’ll refer to me with mōlē (vocative, “dear”) and I’ll suddenly feel like I’m wrapped in all the safety of childhood again.

And it’s not only closeness in terms of intimacy. Sometimes, it’s closeness in the form of incredible condescension. The whiplash is equally mesmerizing: Ente prīyanujā (vocative, “my beloved little brother”), a guy in a movie will say, archly and archaically, and you can expect the next words out of his mouth to be you’re a total dumbass. Ente ponnu sārē (vocative, “my literally golden, figuratively dear sir”), for all its respectful framing, is usually followed with that’s the worst idea I’ve ever heard.

The vocative has my heart for this — its indomitable capacity for both affection and brutal sarcasm. But I am not very good at the vocative case, myself.

I’m an immigrant, and Malayalam is my mother tongue. I’m an immigrant, and Malayalam is my second language. Both sentences are true, but it’s the latter I’ve always hated admitting. When I was 5, I’d accidentally call out to my American friends in Malayalam as we sprinted around the school playground. Athe ! (“Hang on!”) I’d start a sentence, confused at their confusion. By the time I was 8, I’d long stopped running into this problem, but I started having very regular, very specific daydreams of popping out of a corner of the house and astounding my parents with a newfound skill: The ability to speak my mother tongue again.

Yes, I started losing it before I could even realize, in bits and pieces. Although I’ve always understood spoken Malayalam, it’s taken me several years of grinding and scraping to get back to being able to read and to speak it haltingly. And for all I’ve tried to scramble back to the language, I’ve learned that there are things you still lose.

Like the vocative. 

I can tell you this is an apple, that person is Lily, but I hesitate to invoke either. I’m inconsistent in my grammatical accuracy, too — my father, Achan (nominative, “dad”), is correctly Achā (vocative) when I speak to him, but I call my own mother Amma (nominative, “mom”), and not Ammē (vocative). It’s as if I’ve lost a way to express the things I delight in in the vocative: The closeness, the fondness, the familiarity of reshaping my words for someone I love.

Over the years, I’ve affectionately and despairingly called this a part of my “cultural identity crisis.” I’ve fretted over my inability to pronounce the multiple different ra sounds in Malayalam, churned out pages of mildly melodramatic writing about how I, a person who likes words so very much, fear losing the words of my heritage. It will come back to you, I kindly promised in a self-reflective piece bashed out for high school journalism. A more recent journal entry of mine contains, instead, a fragmented and furious argument with myself: Does my pronunciation make you cringe?

Even now, it gnaws at me. Will it come back to me? But I’ve had time to mull over the answer in the past year and a half at-home-almost-always with my parents and with our language, as I’ve hesitatingly started speaking more of it and painstakingly paged through textbooks for first graders in hopes of bettering my reading comprehension.

It will not come back to me.

Because I can’t quite tell a rra apart from a ra when I hear it in rapid-fire conversation, yet the ra pronunciation that’s evaded me for years has been hiding in my name the whole time; because I think I’ve never called my mother Ammē in my entire life, but the word resurfaces in other contexts of my vocabulary, such as the feminine vocatives that reemerge when I pray. For my mom, though, I instead pave a new way around the vocative that’s eluded me, making up my own substitute that’s lasted two decades. Ammā (vocative, invented)! I yell to my amma to bemoan a pair of missing socks, seizing her exasperated distraction to wrap my arms around her.

So, no, it won’t come back to me, because there is nothing to come back to. Like the ra in my name or the way I call for my mother, I have carried some form of it with me all along — perhaps mixed up, but still there. Ente ponnu bhāshā (vocative, “my golden, beloved language” — this time, with no sarcasm): As much as I might worry, it will always be a piece of me.

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