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Looking Back

History in language

/ 12:08 AM September 12, 2014

Bibingka is sometimes used as a vulgar slang word to describe a part of the female anatomy, but for many Pinoys it means a rice cake that we associate with Christmas and the dawn Masses that precede it. When I presented a paper on rice in the Philippines at a conference in New York University, the actress and food writer Madhur Jaffrey reacted to my photo of  bibingka  and said it was from India!

I was in awe of Ms Jaffrey, not so much because I had seen her in some films and on British television as because she was a best-selling food writer. Journalist Sheila Coronel, when she was studying at the London School of Economics in the early 1990s, cooked a tasty meal for me that I presumed she had ordered from the famous Kadiri Indian Restaurant. I was surprised to discover that Sheila could cook, and that she had all of Madhur Jaffrey’s books. A decade later, through Google Scholar, I found out that the layered pudding called  bebinca  is from Goa. But the only thing similar is the name. The Pinoy  bibingka  is distinct from the Goan  bebinca.

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I remembered Ms Jaffrey’s  bebinca  recently when I downloaded T.H. Pardo de Tavera’s “El sanscrito en la lengua tagalog” that he published in Paris in 1887. In school we are often taught about Spanish loan words in Filipino, like the names of the days of the week: Lunes, Martes, Miercoles, Hueves, Biyernes, Sabado; months of the year: Enero, Febrero, Marso, Abril, Mayo, Junio, Julio, Agosto, Septiembre, Octubre, Novembre, Disiembre (this even comes with a rhyme); and utensils: cuchara, tenedor, cuchillo, plato, baso; and some mini-versions: cucharita, platito, etc. How come I don’t remember being told about loan words in our language from other languages like Sanskrit, Hindi, or even Japanese?

A Google search generated a few Sanskrit words in our language: alak  (Sanskrit:  arak) for wine; bahala  (Sanskrit: bahala) for fate; Bathala (Sanskrit: Bathala) for Almighty;  bahagi  (Sanskrit: bhag) for part or portion; diwa  (Sanskrit: jiwa) for spirit, consciousness;  diwata  (Sanskrit:  devanta) for fairy;  dukha  (Sanskrit:  dukkha) for destitute; guro (Sanskrit, Hindi:  guru) for teacher, mentor; katha  (Sanskrit: katha) for creation;  maharlika  (Sanskrit: mahardhikka)  for nobility; and  mukha  (Sanskrit: mukha) for face.  This last one has even been made into a joke: What is the Japanese word for beautiful?  Kamukha  ko. What is the Japanese word for ugly?  Kamukha  mo.

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Language is linked to history, and one wonders: How long have we had these Sanskrit words in our language? Does it go back to pre-Spanish or prehistoric times? Or were these loan words brought to our shores by the Sepoy who came with the British invaders, who took over Manila in 1762-1764? The Sepoy stayed behind when the British sailed away; they settled in Cainta, producing Pinoys with distinct Indian features.

From Hindi we have the following loan words in our language:  achara (Hindi: achar), pickled or pickles;  chaa  (Hindi:  chai), tea;  beranda  (Hindi via Sp.:  veranda), roofed open gallery or porch; mahal  (Hindi: mahal), beloved, sweetheart;  sabón  (Hindi:  saboon), soap; and even  syampu, that I thought came from the English shampoo but is from the Hindi  champo.

When I was teaching in Japan, I learned that  tansan, our word for bottle cap, actually means carbonated or aerated water. If you look at prewar advertisements in Philippine periodicals, you will find that Tansan water was sold in bottles with the metal caps we now call  tansan. We share a childhood game by forming our fingers into rock-paper-scissors which in the Philippines we call   jak-en-poy, complete with a nursery rhyme that says the loser is a monkey (jak-en-poy/hale hale hoy/sinong matalo/syang unggoy). In Japan the same game is Janken Pon. Then we call mosquito coils  katol, which actually comes from the Japanese  katorisenko  or  kator.

What did surprise me is that our warning to go slow,  dahan-dahan, can be traced to the Japanese  dandan. The same for  kaban  (Nihongo: Kaban, or bag,  satchel), which to us means sack of rice.

One way to engage students studying history is to make them realize that history is not confined to textbooks. History is not always about events commemorated by monuments. History is not always about great men and women who have been fossilized in bronze and marble. History can often be seen in everyday life and everyday things if we take the time to notice. Sometimes our languages are markers of history, too.

We know that the Spanish period covers the years 1565-1898, but what we forget is that for centuries the Philippines was not ruled from Spain or Madrid but, rather, was ruled indirectly from “New Spain” or the vice-royalty of Mexico, which gave us many plants and vegetables we grew up with and presume are native to the Philippines:  achuete  (Nahuatl:  achiotl  via Mex. Sp.:  achiote), camachile/kamatsile/kamatsili  (Nahuatl: cuanhmochitl via Mex. Sp.:  guamáchili),  kamote  (Nahuatl:  camotli  via Sp. Mex.:  camote),  sayote  (Nahuatl:  chayotli  via Mex. Sp.: chayote), singkamas (Nahuatl:  xicamatl  via Mex. Sp.:  jicama),  tsokolate  (Nahuatl: xocolatl  or  chocolatl via Mex. Sp.: chocolate).

I always knew that  tiangge  (seasonal market) came from Mexico, but I was surprised that tsonggo  (monkey) and  tatay  (father) are Mexican, too. Instead of the boring catalogue of dates, names and places that pass for history lessons, perhaps teachers can enliven their classes by

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illustrating history through loan words.

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Comments are welcome at aocampo@ateneo.edu

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