Some Notes on the Modernization of Ilokano (Seventh part)

There is a certain resurgence of interest on things Ilokano in the Philippines and in the diaspora.

(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)

There is a certain resurgence of interest on things Ilokano in the Philippines and in the diaspora.

In the many gatherings that I have had the privilege to be part of and participate in the discussions, some as a speaker on the many topics of interest to these participants, the issue of standardization of the Ilokano language has always been of special import.

It was at the University of the Philippines, College of Arts and Letters that I had the first chance to look at the Ilokano language with a certain self-reflexivity.

As is the case of every person born of the language, you get the feeling, high and intoxicating but as empty as an empty boast when you know full well that you have been, by the force of the historical accidents of your birth, to the language born.

You get the feeling that you have the privilege, the perk, the pelf, and you can wag your tail and do not care about the world, not a whit. Like a lion, you roar, but the roar, you realize can suggest some bluff.

When I got to teach a doctoral course on Ilokano literature, yes, Virginia, the literature of the Ilokanos is being taught at the university, in the undergraduate program on a cycle, on a rotating basis; in the master’s program; and in the doctoral, I felt panic as if I have not known what panic was all about. It was, in a tongue-in-cheek way, panic on panic.

What to do? The teachers and scholars and writers would be in my class, some of them my colleagues in the department, some of them from the other topnotch colleges or universities. They all came to UP Diliman for the fact that UP Diliman, of all the many universities of the country, has the best of the intellectual resources of the nation, the republic, the country all rolled into one. The social and intellectual expectation was too much to bear. That gave me the jitters. I did not want to make a fool of myself.

So I had to scour the UP Main Library. I had to look in every corner and when I could not satisfy my curiosity, I went to the Rizal Library of the Ateneo and to the National Library on Kalaw.

In these libraries, I realized many things. At the National Library, I saw a bundle of “Revolutionary Papers” (was it RPI that they called then?) obviously a Katipunan set of documents attesting to membership to the nationalist movement. One of the membership documents I saw was one signed by an Agcaoili, in an elaborate handwriting, and saying that it was signed, as with the rest of them, with their own blood.

At the UP Main, I saw that famous debate on the Ilokano language by the “Ilokanistas” of old, in the 30s, 40s, and onward. I saw the Ilokano version of the “Silaw” series of novelettes, the same kind that we would revive at the Lailo Romances of the ICRI Writers Cooperative, Juan SP Hidalgo’s literary projects, and another by the Milan Enterprises. At the Rizal Library, I saw Santiago Fonacier’s unreadable (read: unreadable, and unreadable because the Ilokano rendering is too darn bad and incomprehensible) translation of the Noli and the Fili.

This knowledge of the Katipunan documents from the National Archives of the National Library would forever haunt me, and in my writings, in poetry as in the short stories and my ambitious novels, this would inform and shape my aesthetic life-work forever.

In all these old documents, I have come across the Ilokano language written in the way people in those times would look at the grammar and semantics of their own knowledge of who they were and what they wanted to pursue.

In short, I saw all those “qs” and “cs” and all those hispanicized expressions that, even if they contained some sense of clarity, were also inviting confusion. There was some elegance in the nostalgia of a “beautiful Hispanic past” if this were romanticized and idealized as some kind of a period of Ilokano history where only the good and beautiful and the true things happened.

But the social reality was not so.

The Spaniards betrayed us by conniving with then imperialist upstart United States and we know what the deal was: $20 M dollars for our liberty, for that one fat chance to declare our independence from Spain.

No, the Catholic Spaniards had more sinister notions about empire and religious mis/evangelization and setting us free would make a mockery of their “superior status” as a colonizer, this status the very reason for some of us unenlightened Ilokano scholars and writers to keep on holding to our “qs” in the “ket” and the “ken” and the “cs” in the “caramba” and “carajo”.

But who says “caramba” and “carajo” still? I have not heard this in Vigan in a long while and neither in Laoag. Let those who have so much love for the useless remnants of the language cry foul and say, “You, you arrogant young people who never respect the past.”

I imagine I would answer back to the accusation to that charge of linguistic betrayal: We are easing out the “qs” in the “ket” and the “ken” and in other words because we know more of the social and linguistic history of the Ilokano language than those who insist on the relevance of irrelevant fossils. “We want to think, and we want to think clearly so we want to simplify our Ilokano language the best way we know how. As it is, the language is already difficult to learn even if you speak it. Why add another cross to the already heavy cross of learning your own language because in reality you do not know enough about it?”

That answer, of course, is also addressed to me. I do not know much about the Ilokano language. Perhaps I know enough to have that empty boast and that empty stance. But I am willing to listen and learn if somebody can pinpoint to me a clear logic for doing so, with proofs and persuasive argument.

So do we need nostalgia as a principle in the accounting of what ought to prevail in standardizing the Ilokano language?

Come on, Ciriaco, you are funny and you are kidding. Come on, Miss Virginia , shake off the dust on your skirt and go where the sun rises. As they say in Los Angeles, “No way, Jose!” No way, Ciriaco and Virginia!

What do I tell the people who ask about standardizing our Ilokano language? Do I see a problem here? What can I say as a writer? What can I say as a teacher of the language?

I have only one answer: We have a tacit standard Ilokano. Discover it, use it, and listen to it so you can help out in the evolving of a richer and more dynamic repertoire of the language.

And I tell them as well: What we need to do is reaffirm its power and its legitimacy, and we go from there. I admit there is no explicit standard at this time, hence, these varying voices.

Then again, have we arrived at a point where we have sufficient repertoire so we can now move on to standardizing our language in an academic sense?

(To be continued)