...because you thought Sweden was Switzerland!

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Världens dåligaste språk (The world's baddest [sic] language)

I just read a book on the Swedish language by Fredrik Lindström, a Swedish comedian and director turned linguist and author. The book, translated as "The world's baddest [sic] language" ("Världens dåligaste språk") debunks some myths that Swedes believe about their own language: that it is inferior to English because it has fewer words (thus limiting possibilities for nuanced expression); that people of past generations spoke more correct Swedish than young people do now; and that young people have become more and more careless with the use of the language. (Thus the title: the proper superlative form of dålig, "bad", is actually sämst, "worst" and not dåligast, "baddest").

Even though Lindström was talking about Swedish, what kept me reading the book was that it resonated with my ideas of what Filipinos think about Filipino (a.k.a. Tagalog). Actually, the thought that youngsters barbarize language is not an alien idea even for English-speaking countries. Think about how expressions like "ain't" in "you ain't heard nothing yet" must have irritated grammar-police in their sleep!

Världens dåligaste språk is engaging and attacks the myths about language from several angles: language ownership, the independence of spoken language from written language, how children learn languages, the purpose of language, the origin of words, borrowed words, etc. One of the central themes of the book also seems to be language as use, or communication. As long as people use a word and mutually understand what it means (despite this word not being in the dictionary), this word "exists", but with a proviso: If it fills a vacuum in the language, some invented words will catch on and become incorporated in the dictionary, while some words may die in favor of another more appropriate or already existing (commonly used) word.

Below is an excerpt from Lewis Caroll's Through the Looking Glass, where Alice and Humpty Dumpty talk about "un-birthdays". Here, Humpty Dumpty uses the word "glory" to mean "a nice knock-down argument," and Alice asks if he's allowed to do this. Caroll himself coined the expression "portmanteau word," which is recognized in the Oxford English Dictionary. (This is not an example out of Lindström's book):

Lindström's point is that the creation of new words and expressions is a creative task, the responsibility of which falls on the speakers themselves. Thus, people shouldn't be too quick to judge the use of pop-words as butchering language, since people have always throughout time made changes to the language in the need to be efficient and understood. Instead, correct language use should be judged on the basis of whether the message comes across, and if the message received is indeed the one the messenger wanted to express.

Furthermore, Lindström claims that spoken language or communication comes first and is the standard for written rules, not the other way around. In my own example above on the term "portmanteau word" that describes the blending of syllables from two distinct words (as in "mimsy" from "flimsy" and "miserable." "Swinglish" and "Taglish" are also portmanteau words), the word had already been in use before it appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary and became the standard linguistic term. (Indeed, this is what OED does, i.e. trace how words have come into being and how people have been using it over the years). In OED as in Lindström, a word has to be in use in spoken language in order to establish itself "officially." You can't say that a word or expression had not "existed" before its existence in the dictionary. Language formation is bottom-up and not top-down.

If what I just said is all Greek (or Swedish!) to you, try to think about how, in Filipino, "erpat" and "ermat" were hit words invented by the younger generation in the 70's, while today people would rather use "mama" and "papa." Further back in time to our parents' generation, none of these words were in common use to refer to one's parents. "Inay", "itay" or "nanay" or "tatay" were used instead – words that they no doubt saw as "proper Filipino" in contrast to the "erpat" slang and the more "in" "mama and papa" of today's generation. We create words all the time, the youth being more creative when it comes to expressing themselves.

Talk about language barbarization by Filipino youth is also an issue for so-called nationalists who shake their heads on the increasing use of Taglish (Tagalog plus English) in everyday speak. The young know neither correct Tagalog nor correct English, they lament. Filipino teachers and academicians therefore take it upon themselves to invent new words to fill the holes in the language, but these words never really take off: "Salipadpad" for "airplane" and "salumpuwit" (literally "butt catcher") for "chair" had never really made it out of the academe. The truth is, the borrowed Spanish words "eroplano" and "silya" work perfectly well in spoken communication, which goes to show that use really is the judge for words' and expressions' continued existence. When the Ms. Universe staff decided to translate "Welcome!" (a word that doesn't exist in Filipino) as "Mabuhay!" (which actually means "long live"), and when a shampoo company reintroduced a long-dead Filipino word "hiyang" (rougly translated as "compatible") in their advertisements, just to give two examples, initial resistance about weather or not these words "existed" or not later dissolved when these words slithered into common use simply because people needed words to express a thought we had no words for. Pretty soon, even Manila's Welcome Rotunda got re-christened into Mabuhay Rotunda.

Speaking of borrowed words, Lindström takes a very sane position and claims that they are okay as long as they work, but that one shouldn't be so careless and lax as to adopt foreign words without first looking if the thought can be expressed in the native language. Indeed, many words in Swedish are borrowed from German and French, many English words borrowed from both Latin and Greek, Filipino words from Spanish, English, and Chinese: We simply cannot realistically get rid of all borrowed language, whatever the language in question is. But more often than not, the native language (in Lindström's case, Swedish), hides great potential for nuanced expression, if the users continue to be creative in their communication. In short, we can't blame the language itself for being limiting before we as language users try to stretch the limits of how we can express ourselves in the language. In other words, before you say that there are no Filipino translations (or Swedish, or whatever language it may be) for things you want to express and before you pound on about how inferior the language is, think and try again. Again, language is bottom-up and not top-down.

In my case, learning philosophy in Filipino (a small number of the philosophy classes are offered in the native language in the English-speaking Ateneo university) was a challenge for me in more ways than one. I learned that language use needed creativity as well as rigor, echoing Lindström's point about how much of a spoken language's borrowed words really are necessary. In my philosophy class, we weren't allowed to use borrowed English words just for the sake of it, and I had to relearn how to express myself in Filipino without sounding artificial and grand. (This is the risk when one speaks straight Filipino. Hardly anybody does this, so sentences often sound contrived and labored when people try to speak "pure" Filipino. Some articles in Tagalog Wikipedia are so hard to read even for a native speaker that they are ludicrous at best and the worst articles are examples of how language can, oddly enough, obstruct communication). Speaking and writing in relaxed Tagalog become easier with practice though, and sometimes you may even find that Filipino words can be more exact than the English ones. Ferriols, our teacher and the author of our textbook, found that there was no Filipino word for "existence" and dubbed it "meron" ("there is") – a word that implies both the immediateness and the obviousness of existence. Interestingly, Lindström points out that cultures seldom have words for the obvious. Hunter-gatherers, whose lives revolved on work but at the same time had no set occupation to speak of, had no word for "work" but instead had a collection of words that described their everyday activities. And before establishing cities that set them apart from nature, people had no word for "nature" as a whole. Perhaps it's hard for Filipinos to think of non-existence? The opposite of "meron" ("there is") is "wala" ("there isn't"). So apparently, in the Filipino mindset, there is either something or there isn't something. You don't talk about the "existence" of something that doesn't exist, and if it does exist – well, that's the most obvious thing, isn't it?

I highly recommend Lindström's lucid and accessible book for learners of Swedish like myself (I would recommend it to anyone, but I think it's only in Swedish anyway). Lindström himself, through the book's subtitle, describes it as "thoughts on language and the human person today", which is why I think that even though Lindström takes the Swedish language as his starting point, I related to him both as a Swedish-learner and as a Filipino- and English speaker. Anyhow, I think this book will give you something if you're the type who's interested about how language works – which I guess one should be if one is learning to speak it.


Anonymous Lara said...

joy, you really write so intelligently.

you know, my grandmother wrote a hiligaynon-english-hiligaynon dictionary and she had to research on some new words that were not used in her generation. she said that language is alive, constantly changing, so you cannot just "bale-wala" these words, thinking theyre not "proper" words at all.

i didnt know it was the bb pilipinas who popularized "mabuhay". kewl info! :-)

8:03 AM


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