Monday, September 7, 2009


Dapat noong isang buwan ko pa ito ipinost, dahil Agosto ang Buwan ng Wika. Sa ano't anuman, huli man daw at magaling (magaling nga kaya?), naihahabol din.

This is a slightly revised version of a piece I wrote for an English-language magazine nearly 40 years ago. I decided not to revise the "fearless forecast" that I made back then. Obviously, I am not a good manghuhula. Otherwise, I think the piece is not entirely outdated.

Or, The Decline And Foreseeable Fall Of English In the Philippines.

by Jose F. Lacaba
Staff Member
Philippines Free Press, August 29, 1970, pp. 6-7

SEVEN YEARS ago, just before I dropped out of college, I liked to annoy some of my friends—intense young writers who dreamt of crashing the New Yorker or the Free Press with labored Nabokov or Nolledo imitations, and who were all under the delusion that they were destined to write what we called the GFN, or the Great Filipino Novel—by telling them they were wasting their time mastering the niceties of English prose, for there was no future in their efforts, posterity would be able to appreciate them only in translation. English in the Philippines was on the way out, I said, and would surely go the way of Spanish. Its days were numbered. I gave it fifty years or less.

Today I am inclined to say “less.” I’m giving English in the Philippines a decade at the most. That’s a fearless forecast based on a concrete analysis of concrete conditions.

Seven years ago, being myself afflicted with the GFN Complex, I wrestled with The Language Problem. In what tongue was I to express my Filipino soul? In what language was I to write the GFN that I thought was struggling to get out of my skin? Part of the reason I became a college dropout—aside from the usual “sensitive adolescent” compound of existential angst, the alienation bit, the crisis-of-faith thing, the complete De Profundis Syndrome—was the conviction I had arrived at, that the language of my GFN could never be English. The characters I wanted to write about were people who spoke no English at all, or spoke it only when drunk. How could I make a jeepney driver curse the cop at the corner in English? I wrote about a housemaid once, and though the story was accepted for publication in this magazine, I thought it was funny to have a maid speak like a Maryknoll coed. None of the attempts made by established writers to render the native speech in English could satisfy me. The narrative portions of stories by the best Filipino writers in English were almost letter-perfect, but dialogue was something else. My ear always told me something was wrong.

What language was I to use then? Spanish was definitely out. Not only was it deader than a dodo; the 21 units of it that I had passed couldn’t even enable me to read Mabini’s memoirs without consulting a Spanish-English dictionary after every other line. Though I was born in Cagayan de Oro, a Visayan-speaking city in Mindanao, and though my father was a Boholano who wrote poetry in his native tongue, my GFN could not be in Visayan either, because I had left my birthplace at an early age and could no longer speak the language; besides, I knew absolutely nothing of its literary tradition.

The only logical choice then, for me if for nobody else, was the only other language I knew besides English, the language my mother had been teaching in school since I was a year old: the national language. At that time, I didn’t want to call it Pilipino; I preferred Tagalog.

I was an English major in a school renowned for its English, or at least for the way its students spoke English—the Ateneo. I should have been happy enough with English Lit., but the Language Problem kept, as we used to say in our philosophy classes in those days, “impinging itself on my consciousness.”

I had a professor in philosophy, a disciple of the Christian existentialists, who liked to tell the class of Tagalog’s strength and beauty as an “existential language.” At its current stage of development, he said, Tagalog was weak in abstract concepts, but in dealing with “existents,” it was more sophisticated than English. I remember one of his examples. Tagalog would say: Umuulan—“Raining”—and have a complete sentence. English, to complete the sentence, would have to say: “It is raining.” What, my professor asked, did it refer to? Nothing that could be measured by hand or eye; nothing that could be found in existence. He told us about the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, who, confronted by what in his time was also an existential language, decided to “teach German to speak philosophy.” (This was in a time when the language of philosophy was either Greek or Latin.) I wasn’t too keen on philosophy, but since I was wrestling with The Language Problem, I wanted to prove that the language I was inclined to favor was adequate for 20th-century needs. I decided to teach Tagalog to speak philosophy. I started by trying to translate Kierkegaard, and gave up after a few attempts. It was not that Tagalog could not cope with philosophy, I reasoned out; I could not cope with philosophy.

As an existential language, however, Tagalog was perfect for poetry. I had two English professors who, strangely enough, were passionately interested in Tagalog literature. They wrote Tagalog poetry, as I did. This was, I think, my most fertile period (I was writing at the rate of a tula a night), and after class I would discuss Tagalog poetry with my English professors. Twentieth-century Tagalog poetry, we agreed, not only lacked roots in native tradition, but, worse, was alienated from contemporary world literature. We arrived at the conclusion that the trouble with Tagalog poetry was its addiction to sound and conventional music; it badly needed the ballast of imagery. We thought it was vital to established the importance of the concrete thing, the real object, the image. So we launched, without benefit of manifestoes or any other formalities, the Bagay Movement.

Today, seven years later, other Tagalog poets whom we didn’t know at the time, but who were themselves on a parallel course with us, speak to me of Bagay. I am surprised that they have even heard of it; we published only in the Ateneo’s literary journal and in an avant-garde magazine that folded up after the first issue. There are those who still do not quite understand what we were trying to do at the time, equating Bagay poetry with the “mestizo poems” of one of our members, who was writing a la The Sun before The Sun was ever thought of, and with more ease and naturalness. On the whole, however, as I keep discovering to this day, the Bagay Movement created something of a ripple in Tagalog literature. I like to think that it has, anyway.

So there I was, an English major writing in Tagalog, and all the while still debating in my mind what language to champion unreservedly. In my last year of college, I began to find it more and more difficult to write term papers on “The Archetype in Canterbury Tales” or “The Early Cantos of Ezra Pound,” things like that. Down went my grades and out went my scholarship, and I decided it was time to write, not the GFN, but something, anything, in Tagalog. I dropped out.

This was towards the end of 1964. Early in 1965, an election year, I found work as an interviewer, at the six-peso minimum wage, for Robot Statistics, a survey firm and a subsidiary of the international Gallup Polls. I liked the job: there was something offbeat, adventurous, glamorous about it; it brought me closer to the people I wanted to write about but felt alienated from; and it enabled me to stop wrssh-wrsshing like a goddam Arrnean. The job brought me to the wilds of San Nicolas and Tondo, to the hinterlands of Sapang Palay, to godforsaken barrios in the Tagalog region. I made mental notes of the linguistic quirks, in accent and vocabulary, that could be discovered in Batangas, Bulacan, Rizal, Marinduque. I spoke virtually no word of English during those trips; in the barrios I met nobody who was “English-spokening.”

I left Robot after about five months because I began getting what to me were bum assignments. Robot must have found out I could wrssh-wrssh like the best of its executives, and it put me to work in the plush districts of Manila, where most of the time I had to wait outside a high gate while the maid who had peered at me through a small round hole went into the house to inform the lord and master of my presence. Never was the gap between have and have-not more clear to me than it was in those humiliating hours of waiting—and I could see that language was an important instrument to maintain the gap. Once inside the Class A home, sunk in the soft sofa, surrounded by stereo and television and refrigerator and modern painting and maids in uniform, I found myself once again exercising my Arrneow acent, what little of it I had imbibed by osmosis. After two weeks of Ermita-Malate assignments, I said goodbye to Robot. It was no way to write a GFN.

Ironically enough, I ended up here in the Free Press. Jobs that required a knowledge of Tagalog were hard to come by.

It was here in the Free Press that I became finally and irrevocably convinced that English in the Philippines was in horribly bad shape, so grievously ill I doubted if it had any chances of recovery. I worked at the desk for more than three years, as copyreader and rewrite man, and the most irritating thing I had to do was edit the copy of earnest schoolteachers who angrily insisted that Filipinos had mastered English as a medium of communication and that English was here to stay. What reached my desk was copy that the executive editor already deemed worthy of publication—that is to say, it wasn’t as excruciatingly bad as the usual stuff he received. The stuff that the executive editor rejected outright and didn’t bother to pass on to me for copyreading was simply unbelievable.

Here’s a typical example of the sort of thing that pours daily into the Free Press office (it was passed on to me because it praises one of my articles to high heavens):

“Sunog! (Ang Lagay E…?) FP—June 14/69, by Jose F. Lacaba. Its enough to fervor your feeling against this redden society of ours with all sort of evils. It’s no longer a joked this Nation is really edging to ‘Satan’s’ path. The cunning characters of all government personnel are the inherited facts from the Americans. Their excessived display of their unmannerism and auspicious wheeling of their personal needs, which is not supposed to be conducived within our Nation, plunged those with weaks humors in such dubious weal.”

I wasn’t much of a newspaper reader before I joined the Free Press. Because in the beginning part of my job was to do a weekly news roundup, I found myself reading the papers daily, almost line by line, from front page to back. Reading the papers regularly, I soon found out, was an infuriating experience, a stomach-turning exercise, not only because the news was invariably bad but also because the grammar was worse. Never mind the reporters, but the columnists who were supposed to be tops in the trade! One could count on the fingers of one’s left hand those who could write a straight English sentence without garbling the syntax, putting subject and predicate at odds, misusing words, mixing metaphors, and wallowing in clich├ęs. The mass media were often cited as proof that English was widely understood in the country; as far as I was concerned, they were the best evidence that the language was being debased and would come to ruin.

At the same time that I despaired of the future of English in the Philippines, I became hopeful about Tagalog. It was at this time that I learned to call it Pilipino.

As staff writer for the Free Press, I have done quite a lot of traveling around the country. What strikes me the most whenever I come into a new town is the abundance of theaters showing Tagalog movies, and stands selling or renting out Tagalog comic books. Nora Aunor is everywhere, from Jolo to Sorsogon, and I suppose all the way to Ilocos Sur, where I have not been to yet. I remember a film exchange representative telling me that in the provinces Tagalog movies beat English-language pictures any time, even if the Tagalog moviehouses are mostly rundown and flea-bitten. And everywhere, too, Pogi and Pilipino Komiks and all those little comic books available at every corner in Manila are doing brisk business.

What this proves is that Tagalog-based Pilipino is more widespread than its enemies think. The squealing teenager in Naga who adores Nora Aunor will not endure the fleas and the bedbugs if she cannot understand what Nora Aunor is saying between songs, and the housewife in Samar who buys Romansa Komiks will not throw away 50 centavos of hard-earned money if Romansa Komiks will not make her momentarily forget the routine and the drudgery of housework. Thanks to the movies and the comic books, I have very seldom encountered difficulty in communicating with people born and bred in a different Philippine language. They may not be able to express themselves very clearly in Pilipino, they may not be able to pronounce it properly, but they understand me and we understand each other.

I am talking, of course, of the so-called lower classes, those who have not had much of an education and can only afford the inexpensive pleasures of Tagalog movies and comic books. Higher up on the social scale, one needs English to communicate—and these are usually the people who are opposed to Pilipino as the national language, knowing as they do that it endangers their position as the current elite.

Dr. Bienvenido Lumbera, professor of English at the Ateneo, writing in Pilipino for Pilipino, sister magazine of the Free Press, has this to say on the situation:

“In the bourgeois mind of the power elite, the interests of their small group represent the interests of the entire nation. What is good for their class is good for the entire masses….

“Perhaps the Philippine situation can never be fully understood by someone belonging to the power elite. The Westernization of those who have graduated from the university is practically complete. The students who have learned English easily are the same ones who have quickly embraced the culture embodied by the English language. They are the citizens alienated from their fellow Filipinos because they live in an artificial society, a society built on the principles and objectives imported through the use of English. It is not surprising that many intellectuals believe that nationalism and the language problem are separate, that it is possible to show concern for the country without supporting Pilipino….

“As it is now, English is the language of government leaders, of the rich, of the professionals. While a leader unavoidably stands out from those he leads, the two should never be kept far apart. Neglect of the people’s needs or blindness to the nation’s true situation is the effect of the English language which, instead of being a bridge, serves as a fence separating the leader from the led.”

The students demonstrating in our streets are perceptive in that they realize their need to bring themselves closer to the masses. We keep worrying that Pilipino will cut us off from the world, but we are not bothered by the thought that English has kept us apart from our own people. The students who have turned their backs on the easy life of the privileged few, to which their education naturally qualifies them, and who have instead opted to, as they put it, “integrate with the masses” and “serve the people,” know that they can achieve their objective only by speaking a language known to the masses of the people.

Those who say that Pilipino is inadequate to meet the needs of the modern world are simply unaware that Pilipino has been making great strides in the past 10 years. Those who say that Pilipino has produced no significant literature are only confessing that they have read nothing of the literature written in Pilipino in the past 10 years. Those who say that Pilipino cannot cope with 20th-century science and technology have not heard Filipino engineers, for instance, talking business in Pilipino: their sentences are in Pilipino but they use English terminology when no terms in the language exist, in the same way that English unashamedly incorporated foreign words, spelling, and pronunciation, unchanged, into its own vocabulary. Those who fear that Pilipino will throw us back to the stone age do not know that Pilipino is already advancing into the space age, the age of revolution.

This is a very exciting period for Pilipino. The language is being bent, battered, hammered into shape, molded, to meet the needs of a rising generation. Read through the convoluted manifestoes of student radicals and you will see what I mean. The Pilipino they use may sound strange and artificial now, but that is because they are trying to make Pilipino bear a burden it has never borne before: they are teaching Pilipino to speak political science. Even now, the bright young men and women of the new generation are giving the language a cram course in philosophy, history, the social sciences, the natural sciences, even space technology. Give Pilipino a few more years and it will be the equal of any modern language in the world.

Note, 2009:
The Sun (I don't recall now if this was a tabloid or a broadsheet) was the first Philippine newspaper written in what we now call Taglish. If I remember correctly, it was still called Enggalog back then.


Tibibord said...

Naku, buhay na pala 'yung terminong "Arrnean" noong 1970.

babe ang said...

helo sir pete, si bebang po ito. bebang siy. naging estudyante po ninyo ako sa scriptwriting. ako po si babe ang. pasensiya na po kayo at pinost ko nang walang paalam ang inyong artikulo. kinapi-peyst ko po iyon sa ating egroup na plaridel. hindi ko po alam na posted din po ito sa inyong blog. ngayon ko lang po nakita itong blog ninyo. pasensiya na po, sir. tatanggalin ko po sa blog ko ngayon din. akala ko lang po, kapag nakapost sa egroup ay puwede nang ipost din sa mga blog. :( sori, sir.

Ka Pete said...

Hi, Bebang! Hindi mo naman kailangang tanggalin sa blog mo. Kung naglagay ka lang ng note o acknowledgment na kinuha mo pala iyon sa Plaridel Papers, o reprinted from Plaridel Papers, hindi sana ako nagtaka o nagtanong.