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Evolving languages: Diverse codes of a multilingual community

Some languages dominate the face of the earth, as alive as the dozens of nations speaking in that tongue. Some rest six feet under, as silent as the people who used them long ago. Others tread somewhere in between—they teeter on the brink of death as less and less individuals use them, or they clamor for revival as more people attempt to use the codes to convey meaning.

A rich history and culture

The development of the Filipino language has been shaped by various influences from both within and outside the nation, like the spread of Spanish and American culture during our country’s colonial period, not to mention the different ethnicities who have settled in the country and brought with them their own distinct languages. This brings about the question of collective identity. Does the Philippines have an organic form of language that we can truly claim is ours?

Baybayin is the purest form of ancient script used by the earliest Filipino people. “It is the indigenous writing system of our archipelago before Spanish colonization,” describes Associate Professor David San Juan from the University’s Filipino Department. Baybayin is an untouched and integral aspect of local culture that created order within the early developing indigenous Philippine communities.

However, through the years, Baybayin slowly started to lose its original form. Changes in pronunciation were adapted in order to distinguish vowel sounds—a concern raised by the Spanish colonizers. Similarly, the introduction of English led to further transformation, degrading Baybayin’s relevance due to the difference in diction and structure.

Despite Baybayin being the ancient foundation of the national language we know today, its impact on Philippine culture is currently more idealistic rather than realistic.

“[Baybayin] is their (Filipinos) own way of expressing an affinity to this distant past—this glorious past—that we had,” San Juan discusses the patriotic relevance of continuing to uphold Baybayin with due respect and appreciation. “If people start to really love their culture, traditions, [and] collective identity, hopefully it will translate to caring for one’s fellow citizens, but we are still on the superficial part.”

However, in terms of creating a cultural impact in society through social reform or pushing education forward, Babayin does not hold such capabilities. Furthermore, applying Baybayin in everyday communication is not practical because of the constant need to use words from other languages, which defies the purpose of selecting it and makes it difficult to smoothly get one’s message across.

Lost and found in translation

In a multilingual context, however, some vocabulary-generating “borrowings” are inevitable—a defining characteristic of a living language “[coming] into contact” with other languages. As explained by Dr. Isabel Martin from Ateneo de Manila University’s Department of English, “Languages evolve because at some point, they mixed with another language, leading to borrowings.”

Translation is one such lexicon-expanding process; for the Filipino language, it is especially common nowadays to adopt English words by retaining how the word sounds and revising the spelling to suit the Filipino alphabet. For instance, “research” can be translated as riserts, even though the Filipino language already possesses an equivalent word, pananaliksik.

However, sometimes there is no direct translation that embodies the exact essence of a word or expression. The prevalent response then is to code-switch or swap to a different language within the same communication activity.

Code-switching gets a bad reputation as a sign of poor fluency, but among more proficient multilinguals, strategic switching is a prominent adaptation to bridge language gaps. It can be used intentionally to preserve an expression’s specific cultural meaning, staying true to the original form and the deep connotation it carries.

San Juan explains that Filipinos often borrow words from the English language because “we lack the proper terms”. These insertions are evident in day-to-day conversations among most—if not all—Filipinos; we also seek the aid of Filipino words within English contexts to fully capture what we intend to say. Alternatively, there may be a mix of local languages, like using a Cebuano or Kampapangan term to express a particular sentiment—small details that can alter a message’s impact.

Calling code-switching a “natural” and free-flowing part of multilingual communication, Martin emphasizes, “Sometimes, that message is best delivered using a mix of whatever languages you [know].”

Improvise and adapt

In other cases, words from one language are incorporated as is into a different language’s vocabulary. Recently, several Filipino words including kilig, trapo, and bongga were reported to be added to the Oxford English Dictionary’s forthcoming third edition.

But what does this mean for how we communicate? Do we still need to italicize or put quotation marks around them, like a red flag to tag the words as foreign, the same way we do now?

San Juan asserts that including and italicizing foreign words in written works, like articles or essays, would still be a “stylistic decision that the author will have to take…for as long as [the] audience would understand it”.

If these Filipino words are indeed used in English conversations, the question of carrying over the contextual meaning from its origin language still remains. Likely what will happen is that these words will morph into new forms, taking on slightly modified connotations that differ from how we know and use them in our Filipino context—and this is not necessarily a bad thing.

Not only does this provide further proof of languages constantly evolving, it also acknowledges variants from the long-established American or British English system. There is an increasing sense of representation and recognition of our own identity and culture in the global context; Asian English and Philippine English evolved and deviated from the standard form, but they are not wrong or inferior versions by any means.

Perhaps, at times, communication is less about standardized forms and rigid structures, and more about accommodating to the needs of a mixed-language context. An effective communicator must know how to use words—borrowed or not—in order to appropriately convey their desired message.

By learning to adjust, we not only train our linguistic competencies, but we also open up avenues for languages to continue evolving, bringing dynamic changes to the cultures, identities, and deeper meanings behind the words. In acknowledging our encounters with the foreign as well as our native roots, a system of hybridity is birthed that is not just about borrowing, but reformulating forms into something global yet local, distinctly our own.

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