Buwan ng (mga) Wika: Localization, Hybridization, and Popularization of the National Language

Buwan ng Wika is an odious thing.

Throughout the country, it is the month when elementary and high school students are  made to memorize drab speeches by Manuel Quezon, quote Jose Rizal in their essays ad nauseam, and weed their sections’ Makabayan gardens while wearing barong and terno so the onions would not be choked by sampinit.

That last scene in particular I got from the 2013 Cebuano indie film Iskalawags, directed by Keith Deligero and based on a short story by Erik Tuban (a thoroughbred Bisdak). The film, set in the Bantayan islands of Cebu, offers many glimpses of the Buwan ng Wika experience for those outside the Tagalog world: one character, a student, struggles to memorize and pronounce a Tagalog talumpati in spite of his hard Cebuano tongue, only to deliver it on a stage with nobody watching.

In the regions the celebration of the Filipino language is arduous, it is tedious, and it is pointless.

Because you see, behind the festive facade of National language pedagogy, there is a longstanding debate, one that is currently at a stalemate: are Filipino and Tagalog the same thing?

What many inside the Tagalog world and the bubble of conventional education don’t understand is that eighty years since Manuel Quezon proclaimed Tagalog as the National Language, there is still strong resistance against it.

The fact is that the Philippines is a very  linguistically diverse country: the 170 odd tongues being spoken in the archipelago which teachers like to call ‘the vernacular dialect’ are, linguistically speaking, distinct and full fledged languages, and the majority of them have proud literary traditions. Giving Tagalog national status created a homogeneous myth, and worse ended up dismissing the value of these other languages – nothing short of cultural discrimination.

This imposition of Tagalog to non-Tagalogs is at the core of what we from the regions call Manila Imperialism. Speakers of other languages are systematically forced to learn Tagalog, while Tagalogs themselves are not compelled to learn other languages.

To distance the so-called National language from the Tagalog ethnicity, it was later called ‘Filipino,’ but when that cosmetic solution didn’t work the Marcos government redefined Filipino from a fixed language to a ‘language under construction,’ one whose dynamism is made a national concern rather than merely a strictly Tagalog one.

The mechanism, successive officials of the Komisyon sa Wikang Filipino have said, is to have the Tagalog language as basis, then influences from the other regional languages be allowed in.

The majority of intellectuals championing their regional languages called this attempt at nationalization a homogenization in disguise. With the ‘nationalization’ occurring from Metro Manila (a Tagalog heartland), regional influences merely trickle down academically, usually obscure regional words  that nobody is bound to use.

‘There is no such thing as Wikang Filipino,’ many regionalists have concluded, and they continue to champion their regional languages.

But on the other hand, decades of institutional imposition and the dominance of a Manila-centered media have made Tagalog the de facto national lingua franca, and but for the continued ascendancy of English over Tagalog in official contexts, refusing to learn to speak Tagalog has more disadvantages than it has merits (a Cebuano may well find it awkward to speak English to a jeepney barker in Tondo).

Either the Regional speakers learn Tagalog and lose their regional identities, or they keep their regional identities, lose out on opportunities, and we remain divided as a country.

I belong to a small group of writers who see a third way: that of localization, of hybridization, and of popularization.

Because Tagalog has taken for itself the role of  National Language, it has opened itself up for regional alteration  – ‘bastardization,’ as some Manila Imperialists would call it. As such, there ought to be no standard that should be considered more correct than others. And speakers of the Regional languages ought to take advantage of this.

To use a very crude metaphor, Tagalog is the name of the woman, Filipino is her name as a whore. And it is incumbent upon the Regions to make bastards out of her.

Instead of shunning it, Regional language speakers must steal the agenc of the National language from Imperial Manila, to own this imposed Tagalog language (which has opened its legs up as Filipino), mangle it to suit their own linguistic realities, and produce for themselves their own version of Filipino, one which is tailored to fit their regional identities. Nationalization will – and must – entail localization, suppressing that is tantamount to cultural imposition. This is the best way by which Regional language speakers can adapt to Tagalog’s dominance without losing their identity.

Practically this will mean lots of Regional language influences will come in, on a regular basis, until the interlanguage becomes naturalized: vocabulary, pronunciation peculiarities, and specially idioms. In Davao when a friend  is too lazy to take a bath yet we tease him in Tagalog with an idiom transliterated from Cebuano, ‘kambingon ka na masyado!’ ‘You are so goat-like!’

Basically it will mean when the Tagalog corrects the Davaoeno for his Filipino, the Davaoeno will correct the Tagalog for not knowing Davao Filipino.

To some extent this is already happening, but it needs to happen more, and it needs to happen in the classrooms and formal venues. Filipino teachers should actively encourage the localization of Filipino, calling out the oddity of speaking Manila Tagalog in Iloilo while encouraging the distinct lilt of Hiligaynon into the students’ Filipino utterances, or requiring Ilocano students to look up idioms in Iluko and translate it literally into Tagalog for everyday use.

It sounds ridiculous now,until one realizes this is precisely what Pierre de Ronsard enjoins the Parisian poet to do with his French, to enrich it with the stuff of the other tongues in France. The French even have a term for transliterated idioms: calques. The absurdity of this idea only shows how underprivileged the regional languages in the Philippines are.

Current moves to shift to a Federal form of government may make this localization easier: as cultural and education governance are devolved, concerns will invariably be more localized. It will not be surprising if the Federal system ultimately results in the creation of standard regional varieties of Filipino.

Of course as we are talking about language contact here – Tagalog adjusting to Tausug or Manobo realities – what is produced is not merely a dialect of Tagalog, but a creolized dialect. Hybrid tongues. Tagalog as Filipino without being a hybrid is just Tagalog, with nothing truly National about it. Balagtas is merely a regional poet because his Tagalog did not have enough influences from other regions. Because the Philippines is a multilingual country, the true Filipino is a polyglot, and his language must necessarily reflect that.

What would this do to intelligibility though? Wouldn’t it only double the number of tongues to make us even more of a Babel?

As a matter of fact it leads us closer to understanding one another. We can already see signs of this thanks to President Duterte. Multilingual Davao and the Cebuano-Tagalog hybrid widely spoken in it demonstrates best what I mean by the localization and hybridization of Tagalog, and while as a native Cebuano speaker he speaks the crudest form of it (the unstable codeswitched TagBis), the former Davao mayor nevertheless takes the hybridity of his tongue wherever he goes.

And that has included the national spotlight: thanks to his frequent (and often profane) use of them in his Tagalog, Duterte has made many Cebuano words and pronunciation nuances more popular among Tagalog speakers – ‘bahala’ with a glottal end, pisting yawa, buang, bayot, pataka.

He has done more in his one year of cursing in public to make Filipino more National than the KWF has in all its years of existence.

Ultimately this tells us that far from the classroom or the linguistic conferences in Manila that nobody really pays attention to, Filipino will be nationalized in the streets, by the Waray speaking his Waray Tagalog as he shares some tuba with his Kapampangan neighbour in Kidapawan, or the old Karay-a lady in Pasay asking the Tagalog traffic aid where the nearest baraka is, or the volunteer teacher from Naga teaching T’boli children in Lake Sebu how to sing a song in Bikol.

The creation of an authentic national language is popular, not institutional. It is the dynamic bartering of regional influences, naturally reflective of our ever increasing cohabitation with and appreciation of cultures not our own.

And when we master one another’s tongues we are made stronger as peoples, because as Jose Rizal himself put it (and this time I do not make those two now trite quotes about the youth and rancid fish), ‘Man is multiplied by the number of languages he possesses and speaks.’ In Cebuano there is a less lofty but more pragmatic way of putting it: dili na ka mabaligya, it will be harder to sell you off in the market. You’d be able to understand the transaction already.

I think it is when we recognize our rich diversity as peoples – when the stuff of our  yearly celebrations every August is the many cultures of our archipelago rather than this mothballed homogeneous lie of a Filipino identity we require our students to celebrate – that we can truly say our love for the country is genuine. We are a country of many tongues – Bayan ng Mga Wika – and I think that is very much worth celebrating.