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From batchmates to siestas: Philippine English

My country, the Philippines, is home to over 90 million other people spread across 7,107 islands in Southeast Asia. Among the more than 100 mostly Austronesian languages spoken in our densely populated archipelago is one that has travelled a long way to get there: English.

Unlike most postcolonial Anglophone nations, we did not inherit English from the British but from the Americans, who, a few years after buying the islands from Spain, established a new system of public education with English as medium of instruction. American efforts to promote the use of English in the Philippines met with great success, and today, more than a century after the first American teachers arrived in Manila aboard the USS Thomas, this once colonial language continues to be a part of our everyday lives. As co-official language of the Philippines (along with Filipino, the Tagalog-based national language), English plays an important role in Philippine science, business, academic discourse, and diplomacy. It is also widely used in government, education, popular music, and literature.

Filipinos may have learned English from the Americans in the early 1900s, but we spent the rest of the century and beyond putting our own stamp on the language and making it ours, as evidenced by our many unique contributions to the English lexicon.

The first Philippine additions to English vocabulary came in the form of plant and animal names borrowed from local languages. Words such as abaca, ylang-ylang, taclobo, and tamarau can be found in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) with quotations dating back to the 18th century, before English came to the Philippines but right when English-speaking authors began writing about the region’s flora and fauna. However, it did not take long for Filipinos to get creative with the vocabulary of their adopted language.

Old words, new meanings

We have also given new meanings to several English words. In the Philippines, a duster is not only an implement for removing dust but also a light dress worn around the house. A gimmick is not only a deceptive trick or an innovative scheme but also a fun night out with friends. To salvage does not only mean to save; it also has the opposite, sinister meaning of summarily executing a suspected criminal.

And just like in other postcolonial varieties of English, Philippine English has preserved some words that have become archaic or obsolete in the parent variety. Many Filipino newspapers still refer to congressional representatives as solons. And it was only upon seeing my American and British friends’ bemused expressions that I realized that thrice is not as current a word in their varieties as it is in Philippine English, where it is as commonly used as twice.

If you ever find yourself in need of the loo in the Philippines, ask for the comfort room. Our term for restroom must find its roots in a US genteelism like comfort station, whose OED entry features quotations from the early 20th century.

Contact-induced borrowings

After more than a century of contact, Filipino and other native languages of the Philippines have added a wealth of borrowings to the Philippine English word store. Our town and cities are divided into smaller communities called barangays, headed by a barangay captain and patrolled by local peacekeepers called tanods. In each barangay there is a sari-sari store where we can buy things tingi (in small retail portions) from our suki (favourite) storeowner.

Spanish, the language of the colonial masters that ruled the Philippines for three hundred years, has likewise made its mark on the vocabulary of Philippine English. Filipinos take siestas in the afternoon right after our merienda. We have fiestas in our barrios, where we feast on adobo, caldereta, paella, and lechon. Our cities have esteros, plazas, and rotondas. Filipino embezzlers are charged with estafa and tried in a sala, which is what we call our courtrooms, as well as our living rooms.

Creative coinages

Lexical innovation in Philippine English is by no means exclusive to borrowings. Filipinos regularly coin new words using a wide range of creative mechanisms: the adding of derivational affixes, such as –able in presidentiable and senatoriable (presidential and senatorial candidates), or by merging two words to make new compounds, as in batchmate (someone who went to school the same year, or batch, as another person). Philippine English also has a number of original blends and clippings, such as Fil-am (Filipino American) and mani-pedi, and initialisms such as CR for comfort room and TY for thank you. Many words have also undergone a change in function in Philippine English, like the noun traffic, which we often use as an adjective, as in the sentence, “It is very traffic in that area today”.

It can be seen from my examples that English in the Philippines, as in many other parts of the world, is a living, constantly changing language whose distinctive vocabulary reflects the colourful culture and history of its speakers.

Photo credit: View Apart / Shutterstock.com

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