Like it or not, Tagalog forms the basis of our national language Filipino. To make things more complicated, Tagalog, like most other languages of the world, has been in flux, and attempts to keep the written system in line with the spoken language have not always been easy.
I thought of using some examples to show these difficulties, but I chose texts with the intent of informing and entertaining, giving readers glimpses into our culture as it relates to health and politics. It will not be easy reading the older texts but I hope readers will better appreciate the system we have today, the product of years of work by our linguists and educators.
From the Vocabulario Tagalo compiled by Fr. Francisco de San Antonio in 1624 we have Tagalog words accompanied by Spanish translations and examples of the words being used in a sentence. Very striking is the absence of the consonant “k” in the alphabet imposed by the Spaniards, who in San Antonio’s time insisted that a “k” sound followed by the vowel “a” would be written as “ca” and by the vowel “o” as “co,” but if “k” was followed by “i,” it had to be written as “cq,” as in “cqilala” (to know), “cqipot” (narrow, as in macquipot na isip or narrow-minded), “cqiti cqiti” (mosquito larvae but translated as unos pescaditos or small fish), and “cqita” (to see). This spelling system produced such tongue-twisting gems as “nagcacacqinicqitaan,” also listed in the dictionary.
The unwieldy “cq” was to give way to a simpler “q” but this was still awkward, as we will see in a passage from Fr. Manuel Blanco’s “Ang Mahusay na Paraan nang Pag-Gamot sa Manga Maysaquit ni Samuel Tissot,” first published in 1848 and reprinted many times into the 20th century. Here’s a passage that explains why Filipinos are so fearful of rain:
“Cun minsan ang tauo, i, inaabot nang ulan sa daan, at ang mabuting gauin niya pagdating sa bahay, ay magbihis siya at maligo agad sa malacocong tubig nang houag siyang magcasaquit; at cun lag-yan nang caonting sabón ang tubig, lalo pang mabuti.”
See how that reads in modern Tagalog Filipino: “Kung minsan ang tao, ay, inaabot nang ulan sa daan, at ang mabuting gawiin niya pagdating sa bahay, ay magbihis siya at maligo agad sa malakokong tubig nang huwag siyang magkasakit; at kung lagyan nang kaunting sabon ang tubig, lalo pang mabuti.”
A loosely translated English version would read: “Sometimes, people get sick when they are exposed to rain, and the good thing to do when they get home, is to change their clothes and to bathe immediately in ‘malakokong’ water to avoid getting sick. Putting a bit of soap in the water would be even better.”
That same page in Blanco also blamed the rain for colico or gas pains, and “sintac,” which our medical anthropology class couldn’t figure out. We also weren’t sure what “malakokong tubig” was: Did it mean warm water, or coconut water? Readers are invited to comment.
Let’s move to 1889 and look at an excerpt of Rizal’s famous letter to the women of Malolos, a rather flowery epistle exhorting them to be brave and persistent in their pursuit of their right to an education. Here’s one sentence: “Ang kamangmañgan’y kamangmañgan at dí kabaita’t puri. Di hiling ñg Dios, punó ñg karunungan, na ang taong larawan niya’y paulol at pabulag…”
Notice there’s the use of “k” now but this was only Rizal, who was fighting hard to get Tagalog standardized with its grammar and spelling. He urged his fellow reformists to use “k,” blaming the confusing “ca” and “qi” system for slowing down reading comprehension among schoolchildren, but there was opposition to his proposal of a “k” from the Spaniards, who disliked “k” mainly because it was too “German” a consonant. Talk about language politics!
Let’s get back to Rizal’s letter, which he could have written today to describe our religious conservatives: “Ang kamangmangan ay kamangmangan at di kabaitan at puri. Di hiling ng Dios, puno ng karunungan, na ang taong nalarawan niya’y paulol at pabulag.” A 1932 English translation reads: “Ignorance is ignorance, and not goodness and honor. God, the primal source of all wisdom, does not demand that man, created in his image and likeness, allow himself to be deceived and hoodwinked.” The translation is quite liberal, “paulol” better translated as being driven to lunacy. San Antonio’s 17th-century Vocabulario Tagalo had an entry, “ol-ol,” translated as “loco o lunatico” as in “naool-ol.”
Alas, Rizal’s calls for “k” did not seem to catch on. The first laws and decrees of the Philippine revolutionary government set up in 1898 all used the old Spanish orthography for Tagalog. Thus, Aguinaldo’s first decree establishing a dictatorial government begins with this line: “Tinalaga ng Dios na malagay aco sa isang luclucang naquiquilala cong di matatabanan ng catutubo cong lacas…”
In contemporary Tagalog that would read: “Tinalaga ng Diyos na malagay ako sa isang luklukang nakikilala kong di matatabanan ng katutubo kong lakas.” The English translation from the National Historical Institute of this rather pompous passage, which resonates with so many of our politicians today, reads: “God has willed that I should be placed in the position that I now occupy, although I am cognizant of my unworthiness.”
More than confusing consonants then, we see an evolution in the meanings of words, in grammar, syntax, even punctuation. Today, the biggest challenge for Tagalog-based Filipino is to find ways of spelling out words from our high-tech globalized age: For example, do you write “Mag-i-email ako?” or “Mag-e-email ako?”
Being literate in the old texts remains important for researchers. As I mentioned earlier, I was using the Blanco book with my medical anthropology class to explain how we came to have our current concepts of health and illness. The members of the class, including several physicians, were challenged enough to say they would try to read the old Tagalog books. (The problem now is that my copies of the book are so old and fragile no photocopying shop wants to accept them.)
I think our universities should offer classes in old Tagalog (and, for that matter, old Cebuano or old Kapampangan, the other languages with surviving texts from the Spanish era) for those who want to do historical research. The lack of familiarity with these texts can lead to problems when transcribing and translating the texts. I recently had to read through Rizal’s Tagalog letters and found one instance where transcriptions of his letters resulted in an error: That passage I used earlier, which reads “Dios ng karunungan” became “Dios ng kataru-
ngan” in another version, with “wisdom” transformed into “justice.” Besides the text differences, the translations were generally quite weak and in all the confusion I also mistranslated “karunungan” into “knowledge” rather than “wisdom,” and by the time I realized the mistake, my article had gone to press. The mad chase of texts left me, and the editors, quite drained: “I, i, nacu, caauaaua naman cami.”
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