India: First Name or Title?

2015-06-12

Addressing others with respect

When addressing a person, it is advisable to prefix the name with a ‘Mr.’, ‘Mrs’. or ‘Miss’, or the professional title of the person [‘Doctor’ or ‘Professor’] unless the person asks you to refer to him by his/her first name.

In general, people are addressed by their name [without the prefix] only by close acquaintances, family members, or by someone who is older or superior in authority.

The naming conventions in the southern states of India [Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, and Kerala] are different when compared to other parts of the country [often broadly referred to as North India, though it also encompasses the eastern and western regions of the country]

In North India, most people have a family name [e.g., Sharma, Patel, Singh, etc.], and the names are written in the western style–first name followed by the surname. Sometimes, there may also be a middle name, such as ‘Chandra’, ‘Kumar’, ‘Prasad’, etc. For instance, Mr. Praveen Chandra Kulkarni will be addressed as Mr. Kulkarni–or as Praveen, if the relationship is informal.

In contrast, in southern states, men do not have a family name. Instead, the name of one’s father and/or the ancestral village/town is used for the purpose. These are normally abbreviated and prefixed before the first name. For instance, a south Indian name ‘Kamundari Ranganthan Gurumurthy’ will be written as ‘K. R. Gurumurthy’, signifying that the person’s ancestral place is ‘Kamundari’, father’s name is ‘Ranganathan’, and his first name is ‘Gurumurthy’. He will be addressed as Mr. Gurumurthy–or if the relationship is informal, as just Gurumurthy.

Due to assimilation in the local culture, often even non-Hindu communities follow the same naming conventions in the southern states. For instance, the present President of India, Dr A. P. J. Abdul Kalam, is a muslim from southern India, and the initials in his name are an abbreviation of his lineage [Avul Pakir Jainulabdeen].

Women normally adapt the husband’s name [family name in North India, and first name in southern India] after marriage.

Changing Conventions

It must be mentioned that with time and social mobility, the naming conventions are also changing. For instance, many south Indian families have started adapting the north Indian naming conventions.

Since the family name in north India also denotes the person’s caste–and therefore, place in the social hierarchy–some liberal-minded north Indians do not use the family name [or use their father’s name instead].

There is an increasing trend among educated professional women of keeping their maiden name after marriage.

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