Mind your language
FROM A DISTANCE - Veronica Pedrosa (The Philippine Star) - February 15, 2020 - 12:00am

I always thought the Tagalog word “ang” was the same as “the” in English. Wrong. My textbook in Tagalog class is very clear: ‘The definite article “the” has no translation in Tagalog. Its closest equivalent is the subject markers “ang” and “ang mga.”’ At the very outset the difference between a Tagalog and an English worldview is apparent with the non-existence of the definite article; you could even argue that Tagalog speakers don’t do definite. (Tagalog is not alone in this, Russian for example doesn’t have a definite article either.)

In the early 1930s, two linguists, Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf proposed a theory about language and its effects on our perception of reality. “The fact of the matter is that the 'real world' is to a large extent unconsciously built upon the language habits of the group,” they wrote. “No two languages are ever sufficiently similar to be considered as representing the same social reality. The worlds in which different societies live are distinct worlds, not merely the same world with different labels attached... We see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation.” In other words, language shapes the way that a person thinks, acts, and perceives the world around them. Not that language is ever static, but Tagalog or Pilipino is particularly, and I think pleasingly, agile and playful, but there is a dark side to its unwillingness to express exactness.

The Tagalog textbook we’re using in my class at the School of Oriental and African Studies carries a gently phrased warning for students entering Tagalog from English: “As a word of caution, the Tagalog language cannot be fully explained or understood using English grammar and terminology, as Tagalog and English belong to two different distinct language families born out of specific geopolitical, economic, religious, cultural, and environmental conditions… These two languages offer two different views into the world.”

My classmates and I often ask questions that try to pin down in our minds how the language works and to try to get things straight in our minds but on English-speaking terms. We learn how Filipinos don’t necessarily speak “deep” or “straight” Tagalog and that spoken Tagalog uses a lot of English or Spanish words, hence “Pilipino” so you can pretty much get away with saying things any which way and people will understand. We’ve even got into slang and how it gets updated through the generations: Tom Jones has been replaced by Tommy Hilfiger if you’re hungry. This language is as fluid as the water surrounding the Philippine Islands and as our own human experience needs it to be; generally speaking non-confrontational, allowing people to duck and dive around difficult issues with a sometimes comic delicacy. At 18 without any Pilipino, I kept asking a friend to repeat what they’d said; eventually they replied “Sabi ko, bukas may parada ng bingi, ikaw reina.” Back in the analogue days in the ABS-CBN newsroom, if someone dropped a tape, unlike confrontational English-speakers (who might say: “Oy! Watch out for those tapes, you moron!”), instead you’d hear something like: “Galit ka ata!”

There’s a kind of roominess about communication in Pilipino that allows for human error, a customary vagueness born out of a tropical politesse, a desire not to be seen as pushy and indiscreet, instead providing a respectful distance or comedy in a moment that could get nasty or painful. I’ve experienced a profound reluctance to talk about difficult things, the flip side of which is that it supports, permits and possibly even contributes to the cultural conditions for impunity.

So while charming in some circumstances, I’ve found it a bit of a nightmare as a journalist trying to interview eye-witnesses or to bring those in power to account. I know I’ve driven some interviewees to exasperation after I’ve questioned them repeatedly on the same topic, trying to pin down as exactly as possible the who, what, where, when, how and why of a story. These are moments when I’ve discovered how Pilipino (and perhaps other languages I don’t know as well) reveals what those who speak it would rather not say.

I remember in particular a key witness in the trial of members of the Ampatuan family, charged with the killing of more than 50 people in the 2009 massacre in Maguindanao. He was a former helper who was in hiding and under the protection of the rival Mangududatu clan that I was interviewing for the film “Imelda and Me.” Perhaps a minute of the interview was used in the final cut, chosen from about 20 minutes of footage. I remember this one in particular because there was an emotional arc to the story he told, beginning with rather general questions about his life and work before the massacre happened. At the heart of the story was a family dinner during which the witness overheard Andal Ampatuan Senior planning the massacre with his sons, apparently the ghouls’ appetites were not affected. The interview took so long because I wanted to get the facts straight in his head and mine before we got to the appalling massacre itself and the nightmare he had lived since deciding to testify against his former employers. There was a lot of going back and forth as I clarified ambiguous turns of phrase about where something took place, who said it, when exactly something was said, a telephone call made, a threat delivered. He was not particularly evasive though he was clearly terrified and shaken by the events that he realised in hindsight were crucial moments in one of the worst mass killings in modern Philippine history. I think it was this that drove him to tears in the course of the interview.

A few days later I met the witness’s protector, for another pre-arranged interview, who asked (directly in English) if I would like to sit on his lap to do the interview. Imagine my dilemma, do I get the interview for the film or let him know exactly what I thought of his lap (in English)? Reader, I gritted my teeth, smiled nicely (in unspoken communication that I now identify as Pilipino), and ignored him. Later, I told another woman journalist about the incident, and I was angry enough to wonder aloud whether I ought to mention it in the film itself to make the point that there are no angels in that dreadful tale. She advised against it: “Huwag naman, it’s a cultural thing.”

To this day I’m not sure what that really means, and it’s the English part of my mind that asks this question. Is it cultural for men to treat women with such disrespect? Is it cultural not to mention it? And why? Out of delicadeza, in the Pilipino worldview or in the

BENJAMIN WHORF EDWARD SAPIR
Philstar
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