On the Multiplicity of Language


Since Friday, I’ve inhabited a linguistic mishmash of sorts with the weekend spent with relatives belonging to at least four different regional groups: Cebuanos, Ilocanos, Tagalogs and Warays. The conversations that ensued, conducted in a kind of Filipino creole—with liberal amounts of English thrown in for the Americanized relations—led me to reflect on the bewildering array of languages into which the majority of Filipinos are born.

The first language I acquired was English—the result of the first four years of my life being spent in the house of my maternal grandparents. My grandmother, a stern educator who, ironically enough, taught Spanish and not English, ensured that my brother and I were spoken to exclusively in the latter during our linguistically formative years. To this day, it remains the language I wield with the greatest agility.

But if English became the language of my mind, Waray was always the language of my heart. It was the dialect my parents used exclusively in speaking with each other—with their children they conversed in English, with their peers Cebuano. On the occasional nights I slept between my parents as a toddler, I would drift to sleep to the whispered sounds of Waray, and those nights were my earliest experiences of the capacity of language to carve private domains. It is the tongue I associate with affection, closeness, fondness and intimacy, and for all that I spent the first half of my life in Cebu, it is Waray and not Cebuano that always makes me think of home.

Cebuano was a language my siblings and I acquired relatively late. My brother and I were particularly challenged due to our grandmother’s legacy. We endured barbs in high school for our elongated vowels—linguistic oddities given Cebuano’s staccato rhythms. My brother eventually outgrew his accent, but mine carried on well into the years I had to learn Tagalog—so even my Tagalog carries an inflection evident to everyone but me. (Strangely enough, it was my years in Singapore and not in Manila where my Tagalog improved the most.)

Later on, I would learn from philosophy that it is language that creates the world, and that different languages create different worlds. My siblings and I lived this insight long before philosophy granted its articulation. Tagalog was melodious and genteel, with honorifics (i.e., po and opo) unheard of and unused in the Cebuano world. Cebuano was blasé and lackadaisical, with dropped syllables and abbreviations that distinguished it from its mellower Boholano variant. Waray was laconic and satirical; English was precise and technical. As we grew up, we learned to transition from one world to the next with lightning speed: a conversation about politics would be carried out in English, a discussion about family in Waray, and a debate about food in Cebuano. (Tagalog was almost always spoken with some degree of effort, and always as a concession to a visitor from Luzon.)

Today, I’m still not very clear what the benefits of such vernacular diversity are. There are the practical advantages, of course, since a familiarity with Cebuano, Tagalog and Waray permits some degree of comprehension of Bicolano and Ilonggo. But linguistic breadth seems to have come at the expense of linguistic depth: my siblings and I can carry a conversation with a vast majority of the Philippine population, but ask any of us to translate a Mass held in the vernacular and we would literally be at a loss for words. Even our facility in Waray is limited to the domain of listening, not speaking; we can read in Cebuano but barely write.

At the end of the day, perhaps it’s not the mastery of a language that provides the greatest value, but the simple appreciation that many languages exist—and that they serve as doors to other worlds. I may never fully explore those worlds, and it’s highly likely that I never will, but my life remains infinitely richer for having access to them all the same.

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