To read, write
I’ve been working on a paper to present in Dipolog, where the Reading Association of the Philippines is holding a convention to share insights on how reading can be taught and promoted. Because it’s the sesquicentennial of Jose Rizal’s birth, the organizers wanted papers linked to Rizal, so I chose to look at one of Rizal’s essays, “On the New Orthography of the Tagalog Language,” published in La Solidaridad in 1890.
Orthography is often defined simply as “spelling,” but a more precise explanation of the word is a study of the way languages represent their sounds. The alphabet, which we use for English, Filipino and many other languages, is only one system. The Chinese use a logography, where each word represents both sounds and a graphic representation of the word’s meaning. In the Philippines, there were several abugidas or baybayin systems, with symbols that combine a consonant with a vowel, thus, ba, be (or bi) and bu (or bo).
Orthographies are important because they hold the key to written language. It is the system of writing that is so important for keeping a language alive and dynamic. We often forget that many of our Philippine languages are endangered because they are still unwritten, or are underdeveloped when it comes to written literature. I never forgot how a graduate student of mine described how excited he was when he first read Kapampangan folktales in written form. He grew up hearing the stories, but it was not until he became an adult that he found books with the folktales, and reading them gave new meaning to the stories. I can imagine that maybe now he has a family, and can read those folktales, with a lot of side remarks and actions, to his children, nephews and nieces.
Let’s get back to Rizal’s essay. Rizal was writing mainly to react to the Spaniards’ imposition of their orthography, which he felt was not conducive to learning, especially when it comes to reading. “X” for example used to represent “h,” thus Roxas pronounced Rohas. The Spanish “j” is what should sound as “h,” thus Rojas. And “h”? That’s silent, which is why Honasan should more properly be read “Onasan,” much to the delight of our Kapampangan compatriots.
Rizal was captivated by a Tagalog orthography proposed by Trinidad Pardo de Tavera many years earlier. Rizal himself tried using this spelling system in a Tagalog translation he did of William Tell, as well as Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales for children.
In his La Solidaridad essay, Rizal pushed hard for the letter “k,” which was absent in the Spanish orthography, and yet is so important in Tagalog. Because “c” and “q” were used instead, the poor children had to learn to differentiate the sounds of ca, ce, ci, co, cu, qua, que, qui, quo, quu. It wasn’t just a matter of facilitating reading and writing but of learning grammar as well. His famous example was the past tense of katay or to kill. In the Spanish system this had to be spelled quinatay, with possible confusion in the way it should be pronounced. Having a “k,” he pointed out, would simplify the spelling to “kinatay.”
Rizal started out his essay describing classrooms with miserable children being punished and crying for not learning to read, with the confusing Spanish alphabet. To some extent, if you visit our classrooms today, in both public and private schools, reading classes continue to be an ordeal for the children (and for teachers who think the children are slow learners).
The problem is that there is little love of reading in the first place and—something reading advocates often forget—writing is not something Filipinos like to do either. Texting yes, but not writing as in sitting and composing even a letter.
Deciphering the world
The three R’s in basic education are reading, ’riting and ’rithmetic and it’s the second one our schools neglect. Writing allows young children to connect those abstract letters and words to the real world: to things they can see, as well as the abstract. Writing allows them to express themselves. Writing their name out is an important step in the formation of identity. “Where did I get my name from?” my eldest daughter asked once as she wrote out her name, and I told her the whole folktale from where her name was derived, and how feisty and brave that woman was, including standing up to her husband.
And I’m sure many of my readers have been touched when they first get a note from their toddler, made all the more meaningful in the way it was scrawled, awkwardly but with great effort: “I love you.” When I told my son how touched I was with his note, which he had written in my notebook while I was asleep, he went on an “I love you” written rampage for all the people (and animals) he loved.
Writing is deciphering the world, especially around the special interests a child will have. Little boys, like mine, learn early to read the car brands, from the simple “Kia” to “Toyota” and… oh my goodness, “Peugeot” (whew!). The kids have a love-hate relationship with reading and writing, dreading the repetitions, yet breaking out laughing when they discover the links between letters and sounds, and, later, how much power they have being able to string the sounds together, through writing, to generate words, and more words.
Writing allows the child to become public, to declare what he or she grasps through the senses, and through emotions. But even more important are the private moments that writing allows us, especially when we do letters and diaries. We retreat to reflect, and put those thoughts down in writing. But we write with the intention of letting someone read, often people closest to us.
Part then of the literacy in schools is getting students to do diaries and letters. . . and short stories and essays. My eldest daughter’s school even gets them to do a bit of journalism, interviewing people very early in elementary school, highlighting the connection between good writing and good listening.
Rizal was so wise in zeroing in on the need for an orthography that relates to what the Tagalogs were actually using. It wasn’t just a matter of standardizing the representations of sounds but also of capturing what Rizal felt was “the spirit of a language.” Not surprisingly, he wanted to promote the pre-colonial baybayin as well.
Doing and teaching “spelling” has been a challenge in the Philippines. We’ve had the abakada (1940-1976), the abeseche (1977 to 1986) and now a Filipino alphabet. The latter two systems included English and Spanish letters, so we can spell out loan words. But a truly Filipino orthography must look, too, into how it might represent the wonderful cacophony of sounds to be found in our local languages so we might all read more and write more, about Filipinos and becoming Filipino.
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.