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English challenges

/ 12:32 AM March 11, 2016

I recently attended an international meeting where most of the participants were from the business world. Although the participants came from different countries, I noted a “World English” in use, albeit spoken with varying accents.

Some of this World English was jargon specific to the corporate world, “C-suite” being the most striking and referring to top decision-makers in a corporation. The “C” refers to titles in vogue, like chief executive officer (CEO), chief financial officer (CFO), etc.

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Because they are becoming global, these English words pose challenges to Filipinos. Are we going to adopt them? And, given previous experiences with Spanish and English, are the words going to mutate with local use, deviating from the original meanings?

I had several word challenges in mind but with space limitations, I’ll just discuss “conversations,” “narratives,” “person of interest” and other police terms, and “challenge” itself.

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Meetings, versions, suspects

“Conversation” is a generic term that usually means a meeting or consultation. I suspect “conversations” came about because people find “meetings” boring and tedious. “Consultation” has more positive meanings, but people sometimes associate the term with seeing a physician, or of still large groups of people talking.

“Let’s have a conversation” suggests something more personal, even if it might involve a hundred people. In Filipino, we do have something close in “Pag-usapan natin,” or “Let’s talk about it.”

“Narratives” also crop up now all the time in the “conversations,” reflecting an acceptance that for every incident, there will be varying accounts or versions. The martial law period and the 1986 Edsa revolt are good examples, with many different narratives depending on who is talking.

When someone says we should look into the narratives around an incident or event, it suggests an openness: “I want to hear your side, and the side of others.” Social scientists working with health professionals have emphasized the need to hear the “patient’s narratives,” to better understand what therapies might be the most appropriate.

“Person of interest” is a more politically correct term for “suspect,” as when a crime has been committed. “Suspect” is loaded, suggesting guilt; “person of interest” is somewhat broader, meaning you might be invited for an interview not necessarily because you are suspected of having committed a crime but because you might have information that can help the authorities. In the Philippine context, where law enforcers are sometimes the very ones behind crimes, I worry about in whose interest an invitation to a person of interest might be.

I have seen “person of interest” used in the Inquirer and have wondered if, with time, we will translate it into Filipino, and how it will be translated. Filipino verbs are notoriously tricky, and, if they are improperly translated, we might end up with “interested person” or “interesting person” instead. If you’re interested in the term, do send your suggestions on how it would best be translated. Remember how, with “suspect,” we simply chose “suspek.”

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Note how terms from the police world have been easily integrated into Filipino, albeit with modifications. “Modus operandi” (method of operation), referring to criminals’ strategies, has been shortened in Filipino English to “modus,” which is still grammatically correct because it means “method.”

Positive/negative

I love it, too, when radio and TV commentators use “positive” to mean “yes” and “negative” to mean “no,” adopted, I believe, from military and police usage. My favorite example of this usage was a reporter waiting for a politician’s remains to arrive at a funeral home. His periodic reports were that it was taking a while for the corpse to arrive, like so: “Negative pa po ang bangkay, over.”  (Even if they’re not using a walkie-talkie, reporters tend to overuse “over.”)  Finally, much to my relief, he exclaimed: “Dito na, dito na, positive na ang bangkay.”

By way of an anecdote, I should warn readers about a difference in police and medical uses of “positive/negative.”  Many years ago, then Sen. Orly Mercado told a story about a newly hired cook who kept coughing. Alarmed perhaps by the coughing happening during the cooking process, Mercado asked the cook how her health was. She replied without hesitating that she was OK, and, to reassure her employer, she said she just had a checkup where the doctor declared her “positive.”

I hope it was just positive for tuberculosis, and not for something even more serious. The medical use of “positive” has become most closely associated with a diagnosis of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, as when you say that one has tested “HIV positive.”

To reduce the stigma associated with the term, all kinds of new terms have been proposed, and I think the current one is “people living with HIV,” some of whom have been more courageous, appropriating “positive” to mean something more positive. There is a group of people living with HIV that calls themselves “Pinoy Plus,” the “plus” being the positive sign.

One time, too, at a conference on HIV/AIDS, I heard several references to “pusit,” the Filipino term for “squid.” I quickly learned that it was an adapted contraction of “positive,” which became “posit” and then “pusit.”  So the term is now a way to conceal “HIV positive” (why am I thinking of squid ink now?). But it can also be a term of endearment, as when Filipinos living with HIV call each other “fellow pusit.”

‘Dare! Dare!’

It is challenging to keep track of evolving words, so I’ll end with “challenge” itself.  That word originally had a rather confrontational meaning, as in “I challenge you to a duel” or “I challenge your story.” I like the way “challenge” has become more positive, carrying nuances of encouragement.  There are now funding agencies that announce “challenge proposals”—they give you a list of problems they’re interested in and ask you to submit a proposal that might lead to a solution of those problems.

“Challenge” has definitely come to the Philippines. In my time, which was in the last century, we would shout “Dare! Dare!” to persuade our playmates to do something. Now I hear the kids go: “Challenge! Challenge!”

Last week, as I was preparing to go with my son to a big event, I told him he had to tie his long hair into a bun—what the Japanese call chonmage  or a samurai bun. I also said he had to do it himself because he was no longer a baby samurai. I left him on his own and after a few minutes he came to me all excited to show off his DIY (do it yourself) chonmage.

He then offered to do my hair and, rather absentmindedly, I let him. All done, I looked into the mirror and said, “Good job!”

Then, with a mischievous look, he said: “Challenge you to go to the event with the bun.”

I did accept the challenge, which I had to explain later that night in a conversation with some 2,000 people in the audience. My narrative, of course.

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TAGS: evolution, grammar, Language, Words
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