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‘kain tayo!’, ‘BABABA BA?’: Promoting Filipino language and culture overseas

04:00 AM November 15, 2019

I am a foreign service officer, and one of our major roles whenever we are assigned to missions overseas is promoting the Filipino language and culture in our host countries.

Whenever I see myself performing such role, I would ask my audience composed usually of students: “Aside from saying ‘How are you?’ what is another common form of greeting friends among many Asian cultures?” The answer never fails to surprise them: “Have you eaten?”

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It is natural for Filipinos to greet their friends with “Kumain ka na ba?” or “Kain tayo!” Similarly, the Chinese would ask, “Ni chi le ma?” or “Ni chi le meiyou?” and the Indonesians, “Sudah makan?” Aside from highlighting the pride of place food occupies in Asian cultures as a catalyst for social interaction—hence the contrasting images of bustling and noisy Asian restaurant scenes and hushed conversations in Western dining places—I would use this example to highlight the unique characteristics of Philippine languages.

There is a concept in linguistics called agglutination, where a prefix, infix or suffix is added to a root word to change its tense. Mandarin is considered as an analytic rather than agglutinative language because it requires “helper words” to convey relationships between words in sentences. In order to denote a change in tense, the Chinese would add qualifying words. Thus, “I have eaten” is “Wo chi guo” or “Wo chi le,” while “I am eating” is “Wo zai chi,” and “I will eat” is “Wo hui chi.”

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Bahasa Indonesia makes use of agglutination in tense construction, but not to the same extent as Filipino. “Sudah makan” means “I have eaten.” “I am eating” is “Saya sedang makan,” and “I will eat” is “Saya akan makan.” In contrast, the Filipino word “kain” takes on varying forms to connote tense: kumain, kumakain, kakain, kakainin, kinakain, kinain.

This characteristic makes learning Filipino as a second language more challenging than Mandarin or Bahasa Indonesia. I would compare it to the conjugation of Spanish verbs, which adds a certain level of difficulty to learning Spanish, even to Filipinos who are familiar with thousands of Spanish words that remain in our local languages. On the other hand, the agglutinative nature of our language provides rhyme and rhythm to our poems and songs, and enables us to churn out an impressive variety of Original Pilipino Music that is gaining a substantial following overseas.

One of my favorite examples is the popular ditty, “Sinisinta Kita”: Sinisinta kita, di ka kumikibo, akala mo yata ako’y nagbibiro, saksi ko ang langit, sampu ng kanduro, kung ’di kita mahal, puputok ang puso. Pardon my rough translation, but the Bahasa version does not measure up to the witty nature of the original, due mainly to the absence of repetitive syllables: Saya cinta kamu, kamu tetap diam, mungkin kamu pikir, saya bercanda. Langitnya saksiku, termasuk bangaunya, kalau saya tidak mencintaimu, jantungku meledak.

I usually end with the classic story of two Filipinos in an elevator in order to sustain audience interest about the Filipino language. By the time the address is over, back-and-forth banter of “Bababa ba?” and “Bababa” would echo as members of the audience make their way out.

The Ilonggo version goes this way. A guest visits a workshop and asks the sculptor about his latest creation: “Id-id id-id?” “Id-id” is the Ilonggo word for “thorough” or “intricate.” To confirm that the artwork did require long hours of tedious work, the sculptor would reply with pride: “Id-id id-id!”

JIM B. SAN AGUSTIN, director, Asean economic community division, Department of Foreign Affairs

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TAGS: Filipino folk songs, Filipino language
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