Devouring languages

A few days ago, I posted a story from Al Jazeera on endangered languages in the Philippines and I still can’t get  it off my head. A couple of weeks before that I was in a meeting where during the break, there was a discussion on how the Ilocano or Iloko language was slowly eating up non-Ilocano-speaking areas in some parts of Luzon. One of those present said that areas in Pangasinan which then predominantly spoke Pangasinense, were now speaking Ilocano. While he spoke Ilocano, he regretted that he has lost his knowledge of Pangasinense, which he knew back then as a child.

This phenomenon of widely-used or more popular languages eating up community-based languages is not actually new in the Philippines. But it is only recently that the dangers posed by this phenomenon to local languages are seen and taken into account by the national government. Back then, the emphasis was more on having a single common language called Filipino - which in reality was Tagalog, with supposedly some words from the other major languages.

Reality though was very different. In the enforcement of Filipino, the other major languages were ridiculed by some who come from Manila as German, Greek or Latin. Cebuano was viewed as the language of the house maid or the uncivilized. The singsong tune of the Bacolod Hiligaynon was joked at quite often. And the accents that Filipinos coming from different regions trying to speak “Filipino” had, would be the subject of scrutiny by native Tagalog speakers in the national capital and its neighboring provinces. The idea of a single Filipino language had become a tool of oppression of other Filipino languages.

This derision of the other major tongues affected various Filipinos in a myriad of ways. There are those who try to adapt Tagalog as much as they can when they are in Manila; despite their unusual accent being ridiculed. There are those who would rather speak their own language with their own kind; opting to use English when speaking the people from the national capital. And there are those who have started to view their own ethno-lingual heritage as a source of shame; so much so that they would not even utter a single word of their mother tongue in the capital, even in the company of friends from the same region as he or she is.

A person’s mother tongue is that person’s link to his family, friends and community. It is that person’s bridge to his forebears, his heritage, his culture and his identity. Once a person loses his language for any reason, the invisible string which binds him to all that he was and all that he is, will slowly disappear behind the new “identity” that he has appropriated for himself.

A few months back in Cagayan de Oro, my mother, brother and I were in a mall looking for a television set for my sister. Testing one of the units, Mama asked the sales lady in Cebuano “tudahi daw ang volume ‘day, tudahi daw (please increase the volume miss, raise the volume please).” The sales lady did not understand what my mother was asking her to do. And so I had to tell her that Mama was asking the volume to be raised.

During that visit, I also noticed that there were more and more people in my hometown who were now speaking Tagalog instead of Cebuano. From porters at the airport to taxi drivers, to college students and yes, sales ladies, they were now speaking to other people in Tagalog instead of Cebuano or English - which were the languages widely used when I was younger.

I tried to understand why this happened to the city of my birth. And I thought that maybe Cagay-anons were now into Tagalog due to the massive influx of tourists from Manila. Or it could be due to the shifting use of language in the national broadcast media - which is now more Tagalog than English. And it could also be due to the increasing number of Tagalog migrants from Manila - who fell in love with the City of Golden Friendship. These are three of the possible reasons which came to mind.

Of course, it would be difficult for me to come up with the scientific reasons behind the phenomena of devouring languages in Philippines, particularly those in Pangasinan and in Cagayan de Oro. And I can only write based on what I have seen, heard and experienced. But I am concerned that with the appropriation of a different identity for a people, brought about by the use of different language from that of their forebears, these Filipinos with their distinct ethno-lingual traditions, might lose the rich culture and heritage they have for reasons of convenience, popular use and even false nationalism.

A few years back then, I used to listen to concerns like this from members of the indigenous communities in Mindanao who felt that their heritage was endangered by the Manila-centric culture and policies of the national government. And they have often said that if nothing is done, the same threat will be experienced even by us Christianized Filipinos. It would seem that time has proven them right.

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