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'Aap' and 'They'; Language and Gender Identity

Updated on February 1, 2020
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Thank you for stopping by! I teach drama, run a drama club, and write because I must.

Word of the Decade

American linguists have chosen singular they as their word of the decade, thus recognizing the increasing use of third-person plural pronouns as a singular form to refer to people who identify their gender as neither entirely male nor entirely female.

'They' in Urdu: 'Aap'

Pakistani. Yes, we all look like that! :-)
Pakistani. Yes, we all look like that! :-) | Source

I’d like to introduce you to they in my other language(s) - no, not Pakistani, since there is no such language - but rather, Urdu/Hindi/Hindustani, where (if you include both singular and plural forms) it goes by the names of aap, vo, iss, uss, in and un. However, I'll be talking about aap alone.

'Aap' means 'They'?

Now you tell me!
Now you tell me! | Source

That aap can also mean they may have come as a surprise to you if you’ve ever tried to learn Urdu, where you were almost certainly told, in your very first lesson, that aap is formal you and the second person plural, just like vous in French. While it’s true that that is how aap is used most of the time, it carries other meanings, too.

Other Meanings

Nativity scene
Nativity scene | Source

It isn’t unusual for a pronoun to have more than one meaning.They, for example, can also mean generic he, we can also mean I, he/she can mean you, and you can (sort of) mean I and we. With the exception of thou, however, aap can be used to translate every subject pronoun in English.

Take a look at the following sentences:

I am Jesus Christ.

You are Jesus Christ.

He is Jesus Christ.

She is Jesus Christ.

It is Jesus Christ.

We are Jesus Christ.

They are Jesus Christ.

In Urdu, they can ALL be translated as Aap Jesus Christ hain. (hain - is/are)

'I' and 'You'

'Nahin!' | Source

You may already know that, in Urdu, the same word - kal - is used for yesterday and tomorrow. That the same word can be used for I and you - and, by extension, my/mine and your/yours - is perhaps a little odder still.

There is a story, said to be true, about an Englishman who was trying to learn Urdu. One day, he came across an Indian man holding a baby. Wishing to practice his Hindustani, the Englishman asked the Indian:

Yay kis ka bachcha hai?’ (Yay - this; kis - who; ka - of, bachcha - child; hai - is: This who of child is?/Whose child is this?)

The Indian smiled proudly and replied: ‘Aap ka.’

Nahin!’ exclaimed the startled Englishman. ‘Mera nahin hai!’ (Mera - mine; nahin - no; hai - is: Mine no is./It isn’t mine.)

As a Gender Neutral Singular Pronoun?

'They left a note for you.'
'They left a note for you.' | Source

In a sentence like ‘I don’t know who it was, but they left a note for you’, aap would probably not be used to translate they. You can easily translate that sentence into Urdu without using any pronoun for they.

Direct into Indirect Speech

'It's like this . .  .'
'It's like this . . .' | Source

In English, when we use reported speech, it seems logical to us to replace pronouns like this:

Me: I am ill.

Assuming you don't know my gender, you to someone else: They said they were ill.

In Urdu, it seems equally logical to leave pronouns as they are:

Me: Meh bimaar hoon. (meh - I; bimaar - ill; hoon - am)

You to Someone Else: Ussnay kaha meh bimaar hoon. (ussnay: he/she/it; kaha - said)

In other words, Urdu doesn't necessarily use a word that means the same as they where English would.

'Aap': 'You'

Use 'tu' to address God.
Use 'tu' to address God. | Source

Like I said, if you've ever tried to learn Urdu, you've probably been told that aap is formal you. You may also have been told that tum is middling formal and tu the least formal. But aap is not used to address God. Nor is it used when addressing revered persons in poetry. For that, we use tu. In other words, tu is in Urdu what thou is in English. Depending on where they live or what they prefer, parents may be addressed as aap, tum or tu.


'De' - 'Give'
'De' - 'Give' | Source

The word that sounds closest to the English word they in Urdu is the word for give, usually written in the Roman script as de. The sound represented by the letters th in the English word they is not found in the Urdu alphabet.

Some Related Words

Cat licking 'apna' paw
Cat licking 'apna' paw | Source

Urdu speakers sometimes write ‘silly’ sentences in English like ‘The cat was licking my paw.’ To a speaker of English it is 'obvious' that the cat was licking its paw; to a speaker translating Urdu to English, not so much: the word, apna, the equivalent of its here, means own, and can replace my, your, his, her, its, our, and their.

Someone you know or are closely related to is also an apna.

Aap also means self: your autobiography is your aap beeti. Aapay say bahir means out of control (of self). Your eldest sister is your aapa.

In Tapori (Mumbai slang), apun means I.

The Complexity of Language

Complexity | Source

Learning what a new word means is like eating and digesting something with your brain. For example, the sound they in English meets the sound aap in Urdu at one point. Then they branch off into other, separate directions. They also means vo, iss, uss, in, and un, though it is not quite exactly the same as any of those either. With the exception of thou, aap can replace every other subject pronoun English has, but aap is formal in a way that they usually are not. Also, aap is not necessarily used where its English near-equivalents are.

Food for Thought

Questioning is learning.
Questioning is learning. | Source

Given how complex language is, does singular they truly also mean people who identify their gender as neither entirely male nor entirely female? Or is it used to refer to them while we mentally continue to register each individual as either male or female? Is singular they truly singular in our minds? If not, could that mean it dehumanizes the person it refers to, rendering them something of a chimera or monster in the minds of those Anglophones who identify themselves as entirely male or entirely female?

More Food for Thought

'Let me think . .  .'
'Let me think . . .' | Source

What did them mean to you in the preceding sentence? Did it mean him or her (which would underline the point that the person referred to could be either male or female)? Did it mean someone whose gender is unknown to the writer and/or irrelevant to the point being made? Did it mean someone who could be either male or female or neither entirely male nor entirely female? Did it mean someone who identifies their gender as neither entirely male nor entirely female? Was the verb phrase in your mind could be or could identify as? In which case/s was it could be and in which case/s was it could identify as? Also, why is singular they always qualified by the adjective singular? After all, no one speaks of singular you. Please share your thoughts in the comments section.

© 2020 Anya Ali


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