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The great English language shift » Culture » ThePinoy

The great English language shift

By Leslie Lofranco Berbano – You have to hand it to the man. Manny Pacquiao’s English may be far from impeccable but his punches are immensely articulate. In the ring he neither beats the air nor beats around the bush; every jab is a sure shot and every wallop deadly. Despite being linguistically challenged in English, Pacquiao has no trouble communicating his lethal intentions to a global audience. Indeed, by being clear-minded about his goals, he has risen from his origins as a two-bit boxer slugging along in provincial backwaters to become an international celebrity whose athletic prowess ranks among the very best in boxing history.

As a congressman, he’s pitting himself in an arena where the silver tongue wields as much might as the strong arm (of politicians, that is) a prospect I find intriguing in relation to its repercussions on the English language. Pacquiao chose to deliver his first privilege speech in English, which, in his inimitable style, happens to be heavily accented Bisayâ English. He can, of course, opt to speak in Filipino or Cebuano and thus be freer to express his (many substantial) plans for his constituents, but that might turn him into a serious lawmaker quite inappropriate for Congress (as critics are wont to wisecrack). For now, the novelty of Pacquiao the champion-boxer-turned-Inglisero-congressman runs high as shown by the resounding applause he received from his fellow legislators they being avid Pacman fans themselves when he invited them to get “rridi to rrambol!”

Pacquiao has appropriated Michael Buffer’s famous catchphrase and stamped on it a uniquely Filipino trademark with his accent. Will such Pacquiaoisms eventually slide over into Philippine English? Language being sensitive to pomp and circumstance, the influence of prominent personalities who have enough social and cultural capital, or power and status to dictate trends can certainly shape the direction of a language. Of course, some expressions are so obviously blunderous (now, is there such a word?) as to be outrageously hilarious. Janina San Miguel, the erstwhile Bb. Pilipinas-Universe of 2008, claimed to be overjoyed at being included among the “Tough Ten” candidates. Well! In that case, she’d be all beauty and brawn, wouldn’t she?

Obviously not everything that gains popularity or notoriety becomes a legitimate part of a language which raises the question of standards, to which we shall return shortly. World Englishes (or WE in linguistspeak) are by nature accommodating and resilient. As discussed earlier, the term refers to varieties of English that have developed in former colonies of England or the United States through the assimilation of local idioms and conventions. Philippine English, a variety of World Englishes, is chockfull of Filipinized expressions influenced by the vocabulary or syntax of native languages, chief of which is Tagalog. A common example is the use of the Tagalog word “na” oftentimes appended to an English sentence in place of the present perfect tense to mean an action already performed, as in: “I did the work na” meaning “I’ve done the job.” Add “eh” and you may inject a bit of impatience into your tone, as in: “I did the work na, eh” meaning “I’ve done the job, what more do you want? Kulit!” The word is sometimes substituted with “already,” as in: “I did the work already!” Come to think of it, it’s a much-abused word already, but what the heck, this is Philippine English, folks!

In the Access conference mentioned previously, Dr. Judy Ick, UP professor of English and expert on Shakespeare and feminist literature, recounted the history of English in the Philippines and, in view of our native appropriation of English, asked whether it was not more accurate to refer to Philippine literature in English as “literature in Philippine English.” According to her, English on our shores first started as a language of conflict, after which it quickly developed into a language of civilization (or colonization) as the Americans implemented their program of “benevolent assimilation,” until finally it evolved into its current nativized form as Philippine English which is English that’s neither purely American nor British but resplendently Filipino.

In that same conference, professor Butch Dalisay related his personal experience of what it was like to learn, then love, and eventually own English so that his imagination works better in English than in Filipino. Jessica Zafra batted for English as a Philippine language, seeing the Filipinization of English as our survival mechanism to help us cope with the foreign powers that wanted to own us. In the end, we little colonized Filipinos (sly look while stroking hands), now ownsss their preciousss Englishesss!

If the concept of WE, with its infinite variety, becomes the norm, how then do we establish standards? Within each national variety are subcultures creating their own vocabulary and grammar to reflect their particular experiences. Rap English, a colorful, in-your-face use of language, evolved from African-American Vernacular English, which shares many characteristics of creole and Southern American English. Other ethnic groups develop their own English dialects as well. Won’t the splintering of English eventually result in a situation where we all indeed speak English but in forms unintelligible to each other? Aren’t we in danger of ghettoizing English?

Dr. Suzanne Romaine, Merton professor of the English Language at Oxford University, remains unfazed. “English splintering?” she remarked when I popped her the question privately. “It’s happening now and there’s nothing we can do about it.” Instead of suppressing it, she strongly advised learning to manage change, as suppression won’t work in a democratic society, or even in a totalitarian society, where change goes underground. “It’s not that we shouldn’t have standards, but that we shouldn’t be intolerant,” she added.

The question of standards remains problematic, though, and is further complicated by whether you’re primarily a user, or a teacher, of English. Language users would be freer to adapt and innovate. This is how writers, for example, discover new ways with language. All they do is turn the language on its head every which way! But language teachers are bedeviled by rules and conventions and must master these before they can presume to teach. Perhaps Aristotle’s Golden Mean would be good advice: When it comes to language, be neither lax nor rigid. In other words, teach the standards and registers of English seriously, while rejoicing in its inventions and creative uses. So how do we react to Venus Raj’s “major, major”? Do we welcome it into the hallowed halls of educated English, or do we drive it out like a mangy cur? Personally I wouldn’t lose sleep over it. Didn’t Jesus Himself double His words for emphasis? Truly, truly! As Ick remarked, the problem was not the phrase itself but the major, major lack of substance in the response.

Dr. Romaine lamented the unenlightened language policies of countries like the United States that impose a monolingual system of education despite their culturally diverse populations. This reminds me of the news about the 52 Filipino nurses and medical staff who sued an American hospital for discrimination. 56-year-old Elnora Cayme, who worked for 28 years as a nurse at a rural hospital in California’s San Joaquin Valley, related how she and other Filipino medical staff were banned by hospital authorities from speaking Tagalog and other Filipino languages even during their break times. They were warned that surveillance cameras would be installed to monitor them. What makes this discriminatory is that the ban applies only to Filipinos; other workers are allowed to speak Spanish or Hindi.

Issues about language are oftentimes not simply about the language itself but more importantly about questions of identity and selfhood the heart of the controversy on language policies in the US today. Often at stake is a people’s ethnic identity in the face of English language supremacy. Cayme and her fellow medical workers realized that being rooted in their native language gave them a sense of wholeness to counteract the bifurcated selves they had to assume as workers transplanted into alien soil. A balikscientist university professor who decided to come home for good once told me that there were times when, after a week and sometimes a whole month of speaking straight English to students and colleagues, he simply itched to speak Tagalog or Ilocano, his mother tongue, and would hunt a Filipino friend to converse with or he’d go nuts.

While America shows ambivalence about bilingualism, ironically the rest of the world is turning multilingual, as nations realize the advantages of linguistic diversity in an increasingly multicultural world. WE expert Dr. Andy Kirkpatrick observes that this has resulted in a growing perception of the need for English as a Lingua Franca (ELF), an international form of English intended to facilitate communication among multilingual nations of diverse cultures. To illustrate, he cites a provision in the ASEAN charter that mandates English as the sole “working language” of the organization, “in the spirit of unity in diversity.” Apparently, among ASEAN countries, English is considered the common denominator. Whereas the primary function of WE is to establish identity within a linguistic community, the goal of ELF is to foster communication outside of one’s community. WE are free to use culturally specific terms such as idiomatic language and allusions that lend color to language, while ELF must use a stripped-down, neutral form of English that leaves out culturally loaded items that may become a source of misunderstanding.

However, according to Dr. Kirkpatrick, the right ELF curriculum respects other literatures and varieties of English. A sound language-teaching policy would introduce English only in secondary school. The primary level would focus on the local dialect or mother tongue in order to build “linguistic confidence” and a local sense of identity, to be then followed by teaching in the national language, and finally by English. In light of these findings, how do our current bipolar language policies fare?

Extreme advocates of ELF, however, are pushing for a “simplified” version of a bloodless English that condescendingly conforms to English language patterns of non-native speakers. For example, non-native speakers tend to drop the final -s in the third person simple present (she like it; he cook it; she call you; heaven help your grammar). Extremists expect native-born speakers or speakers who approach native-born proficiency to speak in this prescribed manner. If this isn’t dumbing down the language, I don’t know what is. It’s one thing to endure mangled English, it’s quite another to be made to speak it in order to conform to some addled affirmative action rule. I’d rather plant kamoteng kahoy and eat it, too. If ever that time darkens my future, I’ll go looking for that adventitious time machine in my backyard for a ride back to our gloriously messy Manny-Janina era. Oh yeah, but that English look good ha, isn’t it? – via philstar.com

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