Monday, August 28, 2006

Language and the Filipino World View

I owe this photo to a short lecture I attended last Friday. As part of Silliman's balik-talent program, Dr. Leoncio Deriada, gave a talk on language and world view.

So what's the relevance of the sign pictured here? It's the product of a direct translation from a Filipino syntax to English. Presumably the writer was thinking: "Ang kapilyang ito at ang kanyang paligid ay hindi para paglibangan at pagtitindahan." Or: "This chapel and its premises are not for playing or for vendors to sell."

Of course, reading that makes you want to do a double-take. Not the epitome of a good sentence, it actually hangs on both sides of Silliman's Chapel of the Evangel, all the more ironic because Silliman is the cradle of English language instruction in the country. Dr. Deriada remembers this sign from his student days. I just had to check to make sure. Yep, it hangs there still.

Simple grammar, though, wasn't the focus of the lecture, it was how language reflects and affects world view. Not entirely new concepts, at least to me, but all the same, I managed to find a few gems here and there.

  • On the gender specificity of some Romantic languages. Alright, Dr. Deriada focused on Spanish only, but I made some connections to French, and am extending it to Romantic languages, in general. These languages have a gender bias, associating strong concepts with the masculine and soft concepts with the feminine. This is placed in contrast with the Filipino world view, where gender divisions play less important roles, e.g., no gender specific term for 'sibling.'

  • Superstition as indicative of intelligence. It seems counter-intuitive, but the root of it is the ability of a person to create analogies. Superstitions are indicative of analogic thinking. On the other hand, I would also say that superstition is analogy taken a bit too far, without regard for intermediate cause-and-effect.

  • The sign of the cross merely supplanted an old Filipino superstition, the "tabi-tabi." "Tabi-tabi" is like a mild hex to warn invisible spirits that a person was passing through its territory. Religion did not really supplant the old superstitions; rather, some of its aspects were simply used to replace old symbols and gestures.

  • "Kapatid", "utol", and all the other terms in various dialects referring to siblings all have a common concept behind them: that siblings are part of a greater whole. I particularly liked this idea, and I think it goes some way into explaining how we view family ties.

    On the other hand, there were a number of things I was not too happy with about the lecture. I don't know if it was a product of Dr. Deriada's philosophy, the style of delivery, or accommodation for the limited schedule.

    Dr. Deriada opened the session with an anecdote with the punchline being: "The greatest evil in Philippine education is the use of English as a medium of instruction in the classroom." That's an old and pointless argument, made more ironic by the fact that his delivery of his lecture was in English. I'll give him a little leeway and assume that he was just using that for its shock value.

    I don't quite know what to make of the philosophy behind some of Dr. Deriada's conclusions. For one thing, the lack of gender-specificity in our terms is, according to him, supposed to indicate a greater sense of equality between men and women in the pre-Hispanic period. Well, I don't know....

    There's more, but a bit too much to take in one go. Anyway, fodder for future posts.

    In the meantime: "This chapel and its premises are not for playing or for vendors to sell."