Some Notes on the Modernization of Ilokano (Part 17)

In a tongue-in-cheek way, we have a running joke about the Tagalog language trying to be faithful to the words afforded by Tagalog, but as always, one cannot always succeed, as is the case of the following foreign words: chair, men’s brief, and ladies’ underwear.

(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: 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).

In a tongue-in-cheek way, we have a running joke about the Tagalog language trying to be faithful to the words afforded by Tagalog, but as always, one cannot always succeed, as is the case of the following foreign words: chair, men’s brief, and ladies’ underwear.

Your guess is as good as mine in terms of what impossible terms could come out: salumpuwit for chair because we do not want the Spanish cilla/silya. But what about the translation issue about “men’s brief” and “ladies’ underwear”? People have laughed at this cheap form of clowning that is based on a fallacy of accent and amphibology, in a sense, and one can be irreverent here, but this whole exercise is for a not-so-good fun about translation and its horrific incommensurability problems.

The “Pilipino” method of “kung anong bigkas, siyang baybay—the manner it is spoken is the manner it is written”—is not a franchise of Pilipino or its genesis, as claimed by the uninformed advocates of what Tagalog is in terms of the r/evolution necessary to account a national language for the Filipino people.

That procedure has been used by many other languages long before, and is easily documented by going back to the history of a word or a concept for that matter, and as the whole thing is seen in the context of a bigger dynamic we could call “a study of the history of ideas.”

The idea for adopting the spelling and pronunciation of a foreign word in the manner and form a term/concept a word is spelled and pronounced in the borrowing language is the way to go.

Why so?

One, the word/term borrowed gets to assume a more ‘naturalized’ position/entry in the lexicon of the language and thus, would not any longer looking strange, foreign, and ‘unnatural/unnaturalized’. This will pave the way for it to become totally ‘natural’ in the borrowing language.

Two, this approach would make the borrowing one of ownership, which is a condition for the term/word to get to become a ‘natural’ lexicon of the language.

Three, the appropriation becomes complete as the borrowed word/concept/term cannot be returned as it has been spelled by the borrowing language such that, the language from which the original word came about cannot any longer claim as its own even if, conceptually and linguistically, it came from it.

When a foreign language/term/concept is retained, you will encounter many problems such as:

a) Can the phonetic system allow it to be pronounced in the original way it is pronounced? It is likely that the borrowed word is pronounced differently, as is the case, of “computer.” Check the English dictionary and you will see that the way it is pronounced in its roots/etymology is not the same way the resulting word is pronounced, and this resulting word ‘computer’, for instance, could not be pronounced in the same way in Ilokano. Our Ilokano “r” is not the same as the English “r,” whether American or British.

b) Can the spelling system allow it? It is unlikely that the spelling system allows it and that is the reason why the borrowed word must be spelled as well in the same spelling system of the borrowing language.

The ‘reintellectualization position’ of some philosophers of the Ilokano language does not hold water in toto: in some ways, that position can hold but in more ways than one, that simply cannot be sustained.

The gains are less than the losses. And if they do insist on this—on retaining the original spelling of the borrowed word because of (a) nostalgia for things American and Spanish and what not, including perhaps Arabic now where many Ilokanos go and return to the Ilokos with their Arabicized concepts and/or (b) respect for the language from which the word is coming from—then they must account a new phonetic, lexical, and spelling system; and then they must account as well how to go about appropriating in a true fashion a new concept to account our new experience without importing extra-linguistic variables.

7. A take on “reintellectualization”

One issue at stake in all these debates, argumentation, and never-ending proposition-espousal relative to the ‘standardization’ issue of the Ilokano language is what Joel Manuel calls ‘reintellectualization.’

Of all the many younger thinkers and tinkers of the Ilokano language, and we thank this present generation of writers, educators, and cultural critics of Ilokano language and literature for taking on the cudgels of showing care and commitment for and in the name of our people, Manuel stands out.

I would come out with a random naming now of who is in his own class, veritably some of our best, with a portfolio of work/s to show that can even shame the older generation, well, some of them, who never read any other works anymore apart from their own and the manuscripts that they are asked to judge, believing that Ilokano literature is in accord with their own and only own image of what literature and art and aesthetics should be, their fossilized view of literature really fossilized. These new thinkers and tinkers, critical and creative, include: Roy Aragon, John Buhay, Arnold Jose, Pete Duldulao, Daniel Nesperos, Aileen Rambaud, Jim Raras, Dan Antalan, Ariel Tabag, and now this Jake Ilac. The fingers are sufficient—you can forget the toes or the Meralco posts in Manila’s crowded streets where Ilokano is spoken side by side with Tagalog, Cebuano, and English, as in the crowded streets of Los Angeles, San Diego, Honolulu, London, New York, and San Francisco.

What do they have in common? They love the language, they play with its possibilities, and they have no love lost in the foreign language and they can even write in it including that Tagalog being passed off as Filipino.

At one point, and as a result of such act of loving and caring for the language, Manuel proposed a method and methodology to the ‘reintellectualization’ of Ilokano, an intellectual position picked up in some way, in the way I would reckon the blogs and the exchange of ideas in them, by Aragon, Raras, Agpalo, and Joe Padre from Los Angeles.

(To be continued)