Saturday, December 18, 2010

How Old Are You?

When I lead teams and conducted interviews for the 2010 US Census, I thought it was interesting that these were separate questions on the form: "How old will you be on April 1, 2010?" and "On what date were you born?" The information in the second question makes the first question unnecessary. But when I interviewed Somalis at an organization that provided housing for refugees, I noticed that the math consistently didn't add up: they always claimed to be one year older than the age obtained by counting from their birthdate.

Eventually I figured out the reason for that. In Somalia, the age of a newborn child at birth is one. After 12 months they turn two, and so on. In America we consider a baby zero years old until their first birthday (we say they are 2 months old, 9 months old, etc.).

That system seems more logical to us, because in English the question "How old are you?" actually means "How many years of life have you completed?" So I turned 24 on December 10th, which actually means that I have completed my 24th year of life and am now precisely 24 years and 3 days old at the time of writing this.

But in Somalia "How old are you?" means "Which year of life are you currently in?" In your first year of life you are one, in your second year you are two, in your twenty-fifth year of life you are twenty-five, etc. This is the difference between inclusive and exclusive counting, and I used to find it very confusing. We count certain things 1, 2, 3... and for certain other things we count 0, 1, 2...

Any of you who know anything about computer programming and had to learn that the first element of a string is not str[1] but rather str[0] know what I'm talking about, but it comes up elsewhere. When I was in middle school nobody could adequately explain to me why we would say that historical events that happened in the 1900s were said to happen in the 20th century, or why a sportscaster would refer to a play at 85:47 as having occurred in the 86th minute of the game. We tend to count most things inclusively (the Somali way, starting from one), but things can get complicated when there is a "rollover," when 99 years becomes century 1, when 59 seconds becomes minute 1, or when 11 months becomes year 1. In English we count the higher expression exclusively, starting from 0.

So in Nepal I have been told that they also count age from 1, which would mean that on December 10th I turned 25. But when I try to explain why I'm 24 in the USA and 25 in Nepal, I'm often met with blank stares.

This is because there are actually two different general ways to express your age in Nepali:

Ma      paachhis      barshako      umer     chhu.
I          twenty-five  years-gen.       age        am.
(I am twenty-five years old.)

Ma      chaúbis           barshako      umer       bhaé/bhaisaké.
I          twenty-four     years-gen.     age         became/become-completed.
(I have completed twenty-four years.)

I believe the second expression is actually the more common one - Nepalis don't usually ask "What is your age?" but rather "How many years of age have you completed?" But if you do ask for a person's age, they will count it inclusively, meaning that their response will always be one year older than it would be in the USA. In English, I would not be able to tell you whether an age of 24 means "24th year of life" or "24 years completed" without thinking about it for a couple minutes. But in Nepali people actually use the expression "24 years completed," so they instantly understand which is referred to.

My questions: does the fact that Nepalis commonly employ both constructions give them an increased faculty in understanding inclusive vs. exclusive counting? Could you say the language gives different grammatical constructions for inclusive vs. exclusive counting? Will the 2011 Nepali Census be more successful on that particular question?


  1. Not only that, but you completed your 24th year 10 hours and 45 minutes earlier in Nepal that you would have if you were in Austin. So does that make you even older?

  2. Very interesting. For me the main reason to have the two questions on the Census is I need both information. When I have to read hundreds of applications for a position, I find it quicker to look at the age rather than subtract the year of birth from the current year. Moreover, even a given birthdate the corresponding age depends on the MONTH of the birthday. Written by a fellow "December birthday." Very best wishes, Cecile

  3. I'm curious, are there birthday parties in Nepal?

    Also, I wonder if any countries ask, "How many calendar years have you lived?" That way it could be inclusive/exclusive on both ends. So you could be considered 22 years old in one country on Dec 31 (all of 1987 - all of 2008) and then 26 years old the next day on Jan 1 in another country (part of 1986 - part of 2011).

  4. From what I can tell, birthday parties are not as big a deal, but maybe that's changing. In the Newari culture there are big celebrations for certain birthdays (I think even birthdays as opposed to odd ones) but not others. I wanted to blow out my candles and I was told that the candles represent your life so you really shouldn't be so eager to blow them out.

  5. Celebrating birthdays (blowing candles on a cake, singing the "Happy Birthday to You" song etc.) has become quite common among the children and youth of Kathmandu, particularly among those who attend English-medium private schools. While the birthday celebrating group of people comprise a tiny fraction of the population of Nepal, the trend of going out for a "treat" during birthdays is quite common among urban youths. A "treat" involves the birthday boy/girl paying for the food of friends who join the celebration. For many Nepali youths who are used to "treats", the culture of paying for one's own food at a birthday get-together (as in the U.S.) can come as a shock and I personally know a few who have expressed their shock.
    Following is an example of a Nepali sentence where "treat" is inserted:
    "XYZ,tero (or timro) birthday aunalagyo, treat khuwaune hainata?"
    Translation: 'XYZ, your birthday's coming up, won't you be giving [us] a 'treat'?"

  6. Another expression related to age marker in Nepali is "laagnu". For e.g., If Shyam just had his 20th birthday (i.e., completed 20 years of his life), then his age would be referred to as "Shyam bees pugera ekkais lagyo" [Shyam completed 20 and is stepping on 21]