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Some Notes on the Modernization of Ilokano (Twelfth part)

A quick glance at the intersection of at least three languages such as Hebrew, Greek, and Arabic would make us realize the play of concepts somewhere. We see that aleph and beta, the first two letters in Hebrew and Greek, with Hebrew Romanized and sounded off as “alef” and “bet” and Greek Romanized as “alpha” and “beta”, could have been fused somewhere to account a latter rendition of the Arabic alphabet, with the first three letters alif, ba, and ta, which, if we believe Verzosa, could have been the basis of the Maguindanao alphabet.

(Aurelio S. Agcaoili, PhD, teaches at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa and coordinates the Ilokano and Philippine Drama and Film Program of the Department of Hawaiian and Indo-Pacific Languages and Literatures. You can email him at: [email protected] or log on to his website: asagcaoili.blogspot.com for other articles on Ilokano life, culture, and society.  – Ed)

(This work is part of a larger work on Ilokano language, literature, and culture. The Tawid Magazine serialized a popular version of the work in its magazine and in its e-zine; another electric form is found in the author’s website).

A quick glance at the intersection of at least three languages such as Hebrew, Greek, and Arabic would make us realize the play of concepts somewhere. We see that aleph and beta, the first two letters in Hebrew and Greek, with Hebrew Romanized and sounded off as “alef” and “bet” and Greek Romanized as “alpha” and “beta”, could have been fused somewhere to account a latter rendition of the Arabic alphabet, with the first three letters alif, ba, and ta, which, if we believe Verzosa, could have been the basis of the Maguindanao alphabet. Granting that this route to the “alibata-ization” of the purported “national language” at that time, which was, by force of linguistic hegemony, clearly Tagalog, we see that in one instance, the fusing of the sounds allowed the process and power of neologism to come in to account a new linguistic and cultural human experience, for the benefit of the Tagalog language and, without perhaps intending to, at the expense of the other Philippine languages. The sounds, when combined, were made to behave in a Tagalog and/or Ilokano way, hence the word ‘alibata’, clearly, aleph-beta/alif-ba-ta, mispronounced and miswritten as it were, but now clearly appropriated. The notion of abecederia is the same thing: the a-be-ce of the Spanish language.

Every language is a sound, or more linguistically and anthropologically appropriate, a system of sounds. And the way to account the sound/s in a written form is arbitrary, convention-bound, historical, and cultural. In short, written accounting calls for a system, hence, some sense of constancy. And yet, to be democratic and just and fair, it must be an open system to admit change, some kind of a change that adds quality to human life.

 We note here that the aleph-beta are the first two letters in the way the letters of the Greek-Hebrew alphabet have been ordered; the Arabic language appropriated this, in some sense, which is the reason why we caught it as well by force of trade and commerce, possibly by way of the Arab and Indian traders, which accounts for the Sanskrit influence of our language, such as the Ilokano word ‘arak’. A documentation of this linguistic and cultural route would be an interesting area of research.

Every ‘alphabet’ is a linguistic, cultural, and historical convention. And it is also a political act and fact. This means that at some time in the past, some people have tacitly agreed to work things out this way and their way of ‘working things out’ this way became the convention. In acknowledging the “conventional” in every language, we learn to accept that the way to “modernizing” Ilokano is not through linguistic dictatorship or cultural authoritarianism. There is some kind of a political unconscious in every language and we must, at all times, be wary and ever ready to unmask those aspects of that political unconscious that are meant to deceive us. For language, as it were, is already a lie. We are to create another one and we are done in.

 Any attitude that points to a generous and genuine idea of what democracy is, in concept as well as in practice to account an orthopraxis of what we are and what we want to be, ought to be the guiding light, our guiding light to modernize the Ilokano language. When we dream and pursue democracy, we extend that, in toto and thus without exception, to all that which concerns ‘life’: social, political, economic, cultural, and linguistic.

b) On the letters of the alphabet

There is today a very strong exchange of ideas on the new letters being recognized, for instance, by the Filipino language being passed off as “the national language” even if it continues to also pass itself off as “the Tagalog-based national language of the Philippines” and the incursions the various media, the internet included, into the consciousness of Ilokanos. This “globalization” of sounds, and by extension, segments and elements of languages from all over the world, has created some kind of a linguistic, cultural, and more specifically “phonetic” need to recognizing these new experiences, thus, the need to accept, or reject as the case maybe, these new sounds representing, in a micro-scale, new letters.

 My take on this issue is simple: we take all of the sounds. And we have to be bold and daring to do so. In some ways, writers and cultural workers like Aragon, Manuel, Agpalo, and Padre have joined the fray to re-visiting and re-thinking about the letters of the kur-itan/kurditan and their position of accounting new sounds is the right way to go.

In a shrinking world, we cannot deny the drone and dreariness of the “globalized” sounds of the present, this Present as Presence suggesting sounds from Czech Republic to Hezbollah in Beirut, thanks to the far-reaching arm of CNN on our cable. So what is the way to go? Admit Z in zero; X in X-ray, J in Jesus and Jerusalem, Ch in China, C in pancit Canton and Castila, and all the others. In this way, you enrich the language. Our ethical act should be one that enriches us all and not one that renders us impotent, inutile, and impoverished.

c) On Ilokano being pure

This is an impossible position, and the facts of linguistic and cultural exchange and diffusion do not warrant such a position from some quarters suggesting that we have to guarantee the purity of the Ilokano, the same kind of purity that it had in the past. That idea about Ilokano as a completely fenced off, completely insular, fully isolated linguistic phenomenon, clinically deodorized and Lysol-ed/Gladed is untenable. The facts of the case about Ilokano having had an encounter with various cultures and languages show otherwise.

 We need to admit that this position contains some form of ignorance; we need to unmask this ignorance and unravel what a mangled faux meditation on what a “pure” language and “pure” culture ought to look like. To look at one’s own language as having some kind of “pristine” quality is laudable but when the facts of the case say otherwise, we cannot hold on to this illusion for long unless we want to go through the motions of ‘compensation’, one way of self-defense in order to hide what we lack. A language is not made richer because it is pure; a language is richer because it is able to meaningfully mediate the world for us to see and see with clarity of vision.

(To be continued)

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