Friday, August 14, 2009


It's only words,
And words are all I have
To take your heart away.
-- Bee Gees


In the last two weeks I've been fascinated by a channel in cable TV showing some Chinese telenovelas, of which some use the dialect of Fookien -- now Fujian or Fukien -- the province of my forebears. Then I received an email concerning the extinction of some indigenous dialects in Taiwan, claiming that the result may enervate its people and culture. People can sometimes push specialization to absurd proportions.

The main language in Taiwan, a politically detached province of China, is Mandarin, the most widely written and spoken language in the world, through sheer weight of population, not choice. Anyway, why lament over the loss of little known dialects in Taiwan or elsewhere? I don't see the impact on us of the loss of Incan language or Mayan dialects, of sanskrit, or even the dying gasps of Latin. Our ignorance of Itawis or Ibanag here does not faze us.

I am pure Chinese by birth, Filipino by naturalization and inclination. My elementary and high school education consisted of English from 7 a.m. to noon and Chinese from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Filipino teachers taught us in the morning, Chinese old maids, mostly, grumbled and yakked at us all afternoon. I still remember the admonition of one Chinese teacher in Math class: "A language which cannot express itself completely in Math, Science, Arts or Medicine is not fit for survival in the international community."

Obviously he was referring to Tagalog or, in a wider aspect, what we call Filipino. It was a dialect promoted to language status because a nation must have one. Spanish-speaking oldsters were dying then, and the postwar generation was rebelling against the other colonial tongue, English.

Will Tagalog or Filipino fill the requisites? Let us see. Tatsulok, in love affairs or in Trigonometry, is acceptable, but what about the triangle's component sides -- opposite, adjacent, hypotenuse? Baligtad (alternate spelling: baliktad), katabi (kasiping? for adulterers), dayagonal (the UP method of dealing with words not found in vernacular dictionaries)? 

Radyo and robot are easily absorbed now; we can only joke about such words in the '70s. We came up with bahag-ari = briefs, salungguhit = panties, so on. I will rush by the words aneurysm, thrombosis, spleen and other medical terms. Filipino, with a mixture of Taglish and Englog, is a language, so far as international opinion is concerned; however, I don't foresee foreigners learning Tagalog like we take the initiative to speak and write Nippongo, Arabic, Chinese, or even Korean -- mainly for the sake of earning yens, dinars, yuan and won.

Latin died after the Roman Empire declined and eventually shrunk to boot-shaped Italy; the ancient language is being resuscitated a la Lazarus by tiny Vatican within its boundary. 

Latin nowadays is considered a mark of esoteric learning. Nevertheless, Rome and its residents are still convivial companies.

The language of Greece remains Greek to me -- a pun -- and in modern times its financial troubles are as vast as their erstwhile culture. The British lost control where their sun should set and rise after World War II, but English thrives -- because the Americans replaced them. American English, which I use, reigns over English English. Through these upheavals, dialects among conquered and liberated territories were bred, mixed, and died.

Take capampangan, which I use with cabalens. A Pampango from urban Angeles may find the intonation of a provincemate from, say, Macabebe or Sexmoan (love that name!) a bit harsh to the ear. Residents in some parts of Pampanga aspirate their "h" while some of us are teased for losing the letter when we talk -- the 'Enry 'Iggins syndrome, I call it. However, I cannot shake off the belief that capampangan is not a dialect that flows mellifluously: The Pampango poetry I read so far grates on the ears and senses. Maybe it's the writers, not the dialect; for I believe that every means of communication have the innate potential for verbal artistry.

The Fookien dialect of the Chinese in Manila is a cultivated
singsong compared to the heavy accents of those living in distant provinces -- here and in China. Characters on the TV shows I mentioned also stress their words differently; their sppeches sound harsh to me. Chinese in different parts of the world adopt the characteristics convivial to the culture where they are immersed. This applies to all nationalities, languages, dialects, slangs, idioms, even pictographs and spelling. I need not go further than the difference in the English spelling of, say, "theater" in England and "theater" in the United States; in the usage of "elevator" and "trunk" in the US vis-a-vis "lift" and "boot" in UK. 

Languages have subspecies, variants and mutations too, words within words. I admire the Tagalog usage of those who reside in Batangas, Bulacan, Quezon ang Lucena provinces for enriching our vocabulary, though I cannot swallow the shallow ideas behind the work of Balagtas. Only teachers can appreciate him. We do not lose anything if we don't read his Florante at Laura or Jose dela Cruz's Ibong Adarna. I think I learned more and had fun with Pugad Baboy and Kiko Machine.

Thousands and thousands of dialects are born to die, like millions of animal, horticultural, ornithological, ichthyological and other sort of species exist and die, most unknown, unseen, and unlamented. Language is a living and constantly evolving organism, and, as with the creations of this world, there is a time to live and a time to die. In the long run, I will not lose sleep over dialects.

No comments: