I was lecturing recently in a class on linguistic anthropology and using “Ilonggo” and “Hiligaynon” to refer to one of our languages in the Visayas when a student raised his hand to clarify that “Hiligaynon” should refer to the language and “Ilonggo” to the people whose native language is Hiligaynon.
That was a useful reminder about how important language is for many people, a sentiment that includes how one’s native language should be called.
August is “Buwan ng Wikang Filipino” or National Language Month, when schools, in a burst of nationalism, have their students wear a barong or baro’t saya to render a folk dance or play musical instruments.
I hope schools will remember that the original intention of a month for language was to get people to link language to nationhood. That means talking about the power of languages in our national life, including English, and why, like it or not, it plays such an important role in our public and private lives.
For starters, we could teach students (and fellow faculty) to stop using “national costume” to refer to the barong and baro’t saya because, quite simply, they are not theater clothes. You don’t hear Americans referring to a coat and tie as “American costume,” do you? “Costume” was, consciously or not, part of making non-Americans exotic, almost suggesting a “play time” culture.
Even the American description of our language situation was demeaning, with Tagalog, Ilokano, Hiligaynon and all our other languages referred to as “dialects.” Dialects are variations on a language, as in Metro Manila Tagalog, Batangas Tagalog, Marinduque Tagalog, and so forth.
Calling a language a “dialect” is a demotion. Note the tone in people’s voice when they ask, in English, “Do you speak the dialect?” (“the dialect” suddenly a generic term that could mean any of the local—uttered, low-kal—languages). It’s even worse when people say “the native dialect” as a way of referring to the languages spoken by indigenous peoples.
Let’s be proud of our many languages. I think of August as a “Buwan ng mga Wikang Filipino,” the use of the plural “mga” a way to celebrate our many languages. The Department of Education’s requiring the use of a mother language as the medium of instruction up to Grade 3 is a recognition of the realities of multilingualism in the country.
In case there are readers not yet updated on this policy, the mother language refers to the most frequently used language in a place. It can be, for example, Hiligaynon, which means classes in places like Iloilo and Bacolod would have to use that language.
The mother language policy will, undoubtedly, strengthen pride in mother languages, but I’d like to see the “wikang Filipino” aspect strengthened in the sense that we are referring to “Philippine languages”—languages spoken by Filipinos.
Our identity as Filipino must include a respect for all Philippine languages, including their potential for contributing to Filipino, the national language. Note how people still tend to refer to Filipino as Tagalog, which is not accurate because there is a still-emerging national language that has incorporated words from different Philippine languages, albeit Tagalog being the main source.
Let’s return to the preference of many Ilonggo folk to use “Hiligaynon” to refer to their language, and “Ilonggo” to a kind of cultural identity based on a common use of Hiligaynon.
It can be tricky here because I have heard many Ilonggos referring to their language as Ilonggo, and sometimes even as “Bisaya,” a term that further complicates matters. I’ve had repeated inquiries from readers whenever I use the term “Cebuano.” Why, they ask, don’t I just use “Bisaya” or “Binisaya?”
My reply is that “Bisaya” should not be reserved just for Cebuano because there are many Visayan languages, the three most widely spoken ones being Cebuano, Hiligaynon and Waray (spoken in Samar and Leyte). Using the specific language name is important to declare its uniqueness, and its use as a marker of one’s identity, something to the effect of “I am proudly Waray.”
We should also work harder to counter ethnic prejudice that is tied to language. Non-Bisayans, Tagalogs especially, are notorious for putting down Cebuano and other Visayan languages, with snide jokes about the pronunciation and intonation. The prejudice is often class-based. Note how people will put down Cebuano and then praise Hiligaynon for being malambing (affectionate). I tease people, arguing that when you hear Hiligaynon and appreciate its lilt, you’re thinking of some rich hacendero from Ilonggo areas.
‘Pangalatok,’ ‘Intsik’ and other insults
Linguistic sensitivity is part of something broader called cultural competence, which is understanding and appreciating cultural differences. This goes beyond political correctness. Words are labels or tags, reflecting and shaping the way we look at the world, and the people around us.
As an anthropologist, I teach students how to be linguistically competent, the words to use and to avoid, starting with language names. Use “Pangasinense” and never “Pangalatok,” a term that the Pangasinense detest.
Your use of language names say something about you as well. Referring to “salitang Muslim” will reflect your ignorance because there is no such thing as a “Muslim language.” Even Arabic is not a “Muslim language.” “Arabic” and “Arabs” refer to people who are not necessarily Muslim.
Similarly, there is no language called “Intsik,” which unfortunately is the name of courses taught at the University of the Philippines Diliman. Many years back, when I became dean of the College of Social Sciences and Philosophy, I received letters from Chinese-Filipinos protesting “Intsik 10” and “Intsik 11.”
“Intsik” started out as a term of respect—in chiek, or his/her uncle—but, through the decades, took on anti-Chinese meanings.
I used an academic argument in seeking a change of the “Intsik” course names because “Intsik” in one’s transcript of grades confuses universities in other countries, where language experts have never heard of a language called Intsik. The proper course name should be Mandarin or Chinese, even Putonghua, which is the Chinese way of referring to the language.
There was strong resistance to changing “Intsik.” I choose my battles and didn’t pursue the matter so the course name stays, a painful affront to many Intsik.
Let me end on a lighter note. I referred to language names as tags or labels, and sometimes they are used with ambivalence, neither in praise nor in contempt.
“Inglisero” is an extended—and loaded—tag. When used to refer to an adult, it’s a gentle way of chiding the person for not being proficient in Filipino. (Ouch, oops, I meant aray.) Used to refer to a child, though, it can still be a way of praising, or criticizing, the parents, but with some amazement at the child’s ability to use English.
I’m proud to say that with my kids, people will say, “Ay, inglisero” (or “inglisera”) and then express more awe when they switch to flawless Filipino. It’s good for the kids to feel the “wow” factor as they switch from one language to another. Languages fascinate children, and we owe it to them to help them discover what it means to be Filipino, through the wealth of our many languages.
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