Consider this short conversation in Kannada.
Vanaja: ನಾನು ಇಂದು ಕಿರಣ್ ಅವರನ್ನು ಭೇಟಿಯಾದೆ (I met Kiran today)
Kumar: ಓಹ್, ಅವರು ಏನು ಹೇಳಿದರು? (Oh, what did they say?)
Vanaja: ಅವರು ನಾಳೆ ಮನೆಗೆ ಬರುವುದಾಗಿ ಹೇಳಿದರು (They said they will come home tomorrow)
Kumar: ಆಹ್, ಕೊನೆಗು ನಾನು ಕಿರಣ್ ಅವರನ್ನು ಭೇಟಿಯಾಗುತ್ತೇನೆ (Ah, finally I get to meet Kiran)
Once Kumar meets and becomes comfortable with Kiran, maybe he will refer to Kiran as he or she, as the case may be. If Kiran is much older than Kumar, he will continue to refer to Kiran as they, out of respect.
In Kannada, we say they/them when we want to address someone with extra respect, or if we do not have close ties with them.
In this conversation, Kumar has never met Kiran. We do not get to know Kiran’s gender. Kiran is a unisex name. Unless we explicitly call out the gender, the name Kiran can represent a male or a female.
In today’s English-speaking world, they/them is used to address a person in a gender-neutral way. But in languages such as Kannada, we have had they/them since the beginning of time to address people respectfully. Or so I thought.
Maybe there is a gender angle that no one mentioned?
My guess is our ancestors were so evolved that they did not attach any special significance to a person’s gender. That’s why the brilliant coupling of gender-neutrality with respect. You respect a person regardless of their gender.
My example is in Kannada but a lot of Indian languages follow the same principles.
Even today, there are many communities across India that address everyone by the respectful pronouns they/them rather than him or her. I know of Tamil-speaking families in Coimbatore who address their kids using respectful pronouns. The first time I heard their way of conversation I was surprised. Why bother treating mere tots with so much respect, I wondered. I soon realized though, that this respect ingrained at an early age makes them more polite and well-mannered as they become adults.
As I understand more of the world’s ways, I am blown away by how thoughtful some of these ancient Indian languages are. By building respect into the language, they have infused a way of being as a natural part of growing up. Give respect, take respect!
In the guise of respect, Indian languages enable everyone to be who they are without the veil of discrimination clouding our judgment.