POP GOES THE WORLD By Jenny Ortuoste for Manila Standard-Today, 29 July 2010, Thursday
Not About the SONA
This is not about President Noynoy Aquino’s recent State of the Nation address. That’s been analyzed and deconstructed from Batanes to Jolo and back by other pundits. This column is about the theory of linguistic relativity – that language shapes the way we think and acquire knowledge, and thereby forms our culture as well.
LR is also known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, and states that the structure of a culture’s language determines the behavior and habits of thinking in that culture. In her recent Wall Street Journal article, Stanford University psychology professor Lera Boroditsky gives examples. “Russian speakers, who have more words for light and dark blues, are better able to visually discriminate shades of blue. Some indigenous tribes say north, south, east, and west rather than left and right, and as a consequence have great spatial orientation. The Piraha, whose language eschews number words in favor of terms like ‘few’ and ‘many’, are not able to keep track of exact quantities.”
The Piraha of Brazil have no numbers, colors, fiction, and art. Image here.
Boroditsky says about the new research in the field, “It turns out that if you change how people talk, that changes how they think. If people learn another language, they inadvertently also learn a new way of looking at the world. When bilingual people switch from one language to another, they start thinking differently, too.”
How is this significant for Filipinos? Let’s look at the word dilihensiya. It’s been said that much is lost in translation – there nuances of meaning are often untranslatable. What’s English for makulit, and other words like pitik and pasma? Dilihensiya has connotations of being savvy and street-smart; it is what is done to gain something, usually for survival. Yet these English terms inadequately convey the full meaning of the word; instead, more Tagalog words come to mind – maabilidad, magulang, matinik. These words in turn are also difficult to translate.
It’s also been said that you can put a Filipino anywhere on the planet, under any conditions, and he or she will find a way to survive. Does the fact that these words exist in our language make us Filipinos more resilient and able to withstand hardships to eke out a living where others cannot?
Take the words siya, kapatid, asawa. In English, siya is ‘he’ or ‘she’; kapatid, ‘brother’ or ‘sister’; asawa, ‘wife’ or ‘husband’. Tagalog and other Philippine languages are non-gendered, implying that there was time of sexual equality among the inhabitants of these islands before Spaniards and Americans came with their gendered languages and patriarchal religions (that includes Islam). In William Henry Scott’s Barangay: Sixteenth Century Philippine Culture and Society, it is shown that either sex could inherit; property, including inheritance, was not conjugal; “divorce was easy”, and there were no stigmas attached to premarital sex.
“A Tagalog couple of the Maharlika nobility caste depicted in the Boxer Codex of the 16th c. By the 9th c., a highly developed society had already established several castes with set professions, as well as trading links with China, India, Arabia and Japan.” Image here.
Which reminds me of P-Noy’s SONA of Monday. He gave the speech in Tagalog, which touched the hearts of an audience used to hearing past presidents deliver theirs in English. Yet the language of law and governance is primarily English; will there be contradictions? Missteps in policy formulation?
P-Noy said on the water crisis: “…kinilusan agad ni Secretary Rogelio Singson at ng DPWH. Hindi na siya naghintay ng utos, kaya nabawasan ang perwisyo.” An English translation on Manuel Quezon III’s tumblr site goes: “Secretary Singson did it without prodding, which alleviated the suffering of those affected.” Kinilusan is more of ‘moved on it’, while naghintay ng utos is ‘wait for a command’, not the same as ‘prodding’; nabawasan ang perwisyo simply means that bother was reduced – it is not the same as ‘alleviating suffering’. Yo, P-Noy, I’m really happy for you, and Imma let you finish, but being without water is not just perwisyo, it is pagdurusa.
Does the difference in language matter? It can. When the mindset of a people, as influenced by and manifested in their language, is that responsibilities need to be utos and suffering is mere perwisyo, how can you expect them to do their jobs properly out of concern for their fellows? Government fails to deliver service to the people in so many ways. That is why Filipinos are forced to make dilihensiya and to be maabilidad.
“After power, water shortage: Residents of San Dionisio, Parañaque, line up their pails to receive free water from the city government.” Image here.
A friend said in an email about the Boroditsky article, “After the initial description, what sort of ancillary artifact (culture) might form around that self-same description, that also delineates its function within a certain construct? Perhaps, in that sense, the language that arises reinforces culture accordingly in a cyclical fashion. I think of language and culture as both integral parts of the natural DNA of sentience.”
After I read his remark and wiped the blood streaming from my nose, I saw that he had a point. Language can reinforce habits, whether good or bad. Being sentient creatures, now that we possess the knowledge that this can be so, we can now be more vigilant and self-aware of our actions and behavior, not only on the national scale but as individuals, striving to make this country a better place to live in, to reduce the need for dilihensiya and to alleviate pagdurusa.
Well, what do you know – this column is about the SONA after all. ***