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Talk rules

/ 12:05 AM April 23, 2014

“Let’s talk.” Depending on how it’s said, those two words can have great differences in meaning. Said with a tone that suggests a question—“Let’s talk?” (or even “Talk?”)—the phrase can be a very tentative way of offering an apology. Or it can mean you need something, and want to explore possibilities. Said with a bit more urgency, it becomes imploring.

Said with authority, “Let’s talk” becomes almost an order, as in the Filipino “Usap tayo,” which can even mean “I set the terms on what we’ll talk about, when and where.”

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I’ve been lecturing on linguistic competence to different audiences, from medical students to business people, and I explain that when we try to pick up a language, learning the grammar and vocabulary of a language is actually the easy part. Linguistic competence is much more, a matter of learning the rules, not of language, but of talk.

In anthropology, we talk of, well, talk as “social events,” with often complicated rules about who can say what to whom, and on what occasions. Children pick up language at amazing speed before the age of five, but learning those rules around talk as a social event takes much more effort.

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I love it when I hear kids go, as adults are speaking, “Excuse me, excuse me, can I say something?”

Now in many cultures, even in these modern times, it is unthinkable for a child to even ask to be allowed into a conversation. There is just no polite way to do that—children are to be seen, and not to be heard.

I’d like to think many of us now think differently, and encourage our children to speak their minds, to dare to want to get into an adult conversation. In that way, they pick up other talking rules, as they watch conversations unfold and listen to what adults say.

Which is why we adults learn as well to differentiate “grownup talk” and talk for both adults and children. We watch our language when children are around, because when they hear us say things, they imitate us.

Complicated rules

My son got into trouble last weekend when his lolo (grandfather) asked what he was playing with and he replied, “None of your business.”

“Usap tayo,” I said, calling him in, and he knew right away this was going to be a serious conversation. And when I got to explaining that it was rude to say “None of your business,” he protested: “But adults say that all the time.”

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I argued, “But a young person doesn’t say that to an older person…”  And then added, “In fact, even an older person shouldn’t say that to a young person, except as a joke. Or, if the young person is being makulit, asking too many questions.”

“Like me?” he retorted, and we laughed, knowing he had picked up another talk rule.

Kids can find it difficult deciphering all the social rules. We tell them we’ll usually allow them to do something if they’d just ask for permission. So they learn to be proper, but we still end up with complicated situations, like when I had a car full of visiting professors and one of my kids asked, very properly, “May I fart?”

Or when they ask, “May I play with the computer for another hour?” At a very early age, you see that personality traits come into the picture as the kids learn, and modify the talk rules, with a daughter possibly becoming a Miriam Coronel-Ferrer, or a Miriam Defensor-Santiago.

Boy talk, girl talk

Gender figures prominently in the talking rules, and again, at a very young age children will imitate what they see in their adult gender role models. I was shocked, and amused, a few weeks ago when I heard my son, who is eight, saying “adre,” the abbreviation for “padre.”  He now alternates that with “pare” and sometimes “re,” said with a swagger.

I can tell you he didn’t pick all that up from me.

The girls haven’t learned yet to use “mare,” but I’ve heard them tell their brother to leave them alone because they’re doing “girl talk.” And indeed, they do have girl talk complete with whispers and giggling, sometimes almost with an air of conspiracy.

The gender distinctions expand as we grow older. Family reunions are notoriously gender-segregated, often stereotypically: the men congregate to talk about politics, the women about domestic matters and the kids. I tend to cross, or transgress, borders, playing the single father needing women’s advice about kids (and sometimes offering tips, but rarely, because I know they don’t like men giving advice).  Sometimes I get pulled out by a male cousin wanting to talk politics, which I don’t actually enjoy, but people presume that when you do a newspaper column, you must be political.

And yes, sometimes, a female relative will pull me aside, “Usap tayo,” and I know she has a serious question to ask, usually concerning school work.

But the lines are drawn on what you can talk about across genders. I realized this in a graduate class when I asked the students to name local speech genres—for example, kuwento-kuwento, or sermon.

Or tsismis.  Note how a woman can invite another woman—“Tsismis tayo,” let’s gossip—but it sounds strange if a man extends that invitation to another man. Mind you, men can be more vicious in their gossip than women, but will not admit that they’re engaging in tsismis.

There are more taboos for men talk.  A man can’t invite another man thus: “Adre, heart to heart talk tayo.”

Or: “Pare, tsikahan tayo.”  Apologies to my foreign readers, tsika is very difficult to translate. Just remember, if you’re male, you have a more limited speech repertoire. Filipino men tend to use nonspeech activities to invite other people to talk: “Kain tayo” (Let’s eat) or “Inuman tayo” (Let’s drink…alcohol). In not too ancient times, there was even “Yosi tayo” (Let’s smoke, which meant let’s smoke, and talk.)

The safest generic and gender-neutral way to invite people to talk is to say “Kuwentuhan tayo” (Let’s tell stories), a quaint way of lightening up what might be a heavy topic.

No, you don’t invite corporate people for kuwentuhan.

Actually, an invitation to talk can sometimes end up in nonspeech events. Blessed are the peacemakers of the world.

So there. All this is just a small sampling of speech events, and the rules around the events.

Linguistic competence also means knowing when to end a conversation… or a column.

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E-mail: [email protected]

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