Writing on Air

Writing on Air by Jim Paredes

Archive for January 9th, 2010

What’s in a name? Plenty! 4

Posted on January 09, 2010 by jimparedes

HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE By Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) Updated January 10, 2010 12:00 AM

I have always had a fascination with linguistics. I believe that one mark of an educated person is the ability to read, write and speak in more than one language. Why? Because it gives him the ability to look at reality from at least two points of view. The mere facility of knowing another language can naturally open you to insights about your own native tongue. As Goethe put it, “He who does not know foreign languages does not know anything about his own.”

Language is probably one of man’s earliest technologies. Writer Mark Amidon once remarked that “language is the means of getting an idea from my brain into yours without surgery.” The fact that we can exchange our takes on reality with words and sentences is mind-boggling.

A Time magazine issue on Japan years ago described that Nipponggo is structured in such a way so that the subject and object are mentioned first before the verb. This is to  give the speaker time to assess the “harmony” (or lack of) between the two elements and thus allowing a  face-saving maneuver in case he has to switch  verbs.

Linguists say that the Chinese language does not have the verb “to be.” Whereas Western languages assume that anything that can be talked about must first “exist,” or “be,” the Chinese look at the world in terms of what it “has” or “lacks.” Thus, to express the sentence, “There are no unicorns” in Chinese, one would have to say — translated to English — “Everything under the sun lacks unicorns.”

When I listen to Brazilian music, I am mesmerized by the sound and strangeness of the lyrics. It is languidly mysterious to my ears. Actually, most accents are kind of sexy to me even if I am totally oblivious of the content.. They could be conversing about laundry or any mundane thing and it still would still attract me.

Tagalog can sound exotic and beautiful to foreigners as well. I once sang Batang-bata Ka Pa before an international crowd in Japan, and after the performance, an Estonian artist excitedly commented how many letter A’s we use in our language and how he thought that was so unique and wonderful.

There is this joke about two Filipinos riding in an elevator with a foreigner. One Filipino asked the other, “Bababa ba?”, and the other Filipino answered, “Bababa,” much to the total bewilderment and puzzlement of the foreigner.

Cultures borrow from each other, to be sure. As Filipinos, we use so many English words that we have invented Taglish. Americans have also borrowed words from us. “Boondocks” is American for bundok, a word they adopted to describe where the rebels  were hiding during the Philippine-American war

The way we use the word “salvage” to mean “kill” is supposed to have come from the fact that the American military destroyed not a few villages in Vietnam supposedly to salvage or save them.

I would not be surprised if some of the most easily learned words in any language are cuss words. It’s because there is an “in your face” quality to them that can cut through the curtain of foreignness and get people connected immediately, for better or worse. Cuss words are powerful and have their own other uses. Mark Twain wrote, “In certain… circumstances, profanity furnishes a relief denied even to prayer.”

A few years back, a niece of mine from the US got married here in Manila to an American of Mexican heritage. Jose came to the Philippines with family and best man in tow. And let me just say that the occasion was quite an eye-opener for them and for us, language-wise. For starters, we both  learned that the words palengke and tiangge have their roots in Mexican culture. There are after all, many things we have in common due to our common Spanish colonial experience.

Their brief visit and exposure to Philippine life opened us both to some funny and shocking aspects of our colonization under Spain.

We were eager to give our visitors a good time and so we feted them with the usual Filipino hospitality — lunches, merienda, dinners. We brought them to see the breathtaking sites like Taal Volcano from the Tagaytay ridge. We wanted them to have good memories of their visit.

But the “cultural moment” happened during a stop at a little store in Tagaytay where one of our Mexican guests asked the tindera about the breads and pastries she was selling. He pointed to some small round white-colored kakanin and asked what they were. The lady said they were “puto.” Immediately, I heard a chuckle from him and when I asked why, he explained that “puto” meant “male prostitute” in Mexico.

He proceeded to ask about some other stuff.  The woman responded and told him that the sweets he was pointing to was called “panutsa” which sounded alarm bells among the Mexican group. Politely, they tried to suppress their laughter but to no avail. Soon they were laughing openly. When we asked what was funny, they had to explain with great embarrassment that “panocha” was a crude word for vagina in Mexican.

But what pulled out all the stops was when they pointed to a type of bread which  the tindera called ‘mamon.’ This got them laughing to tears for a few minutes. Apparently, mamon is a slang word in Mexican which, politely put, pertains to someone who engages in oral sex with males. They were in an uncontrollable fit especially after I mentioned that we have a term called “pusong mamon” to describe someone who wears his heart on his sleeve.

I was stunned at the cultural confusion as much as they were, even as we were both amused at the situation. My curious mind couldn’t help but suspect a conspiracy theory that left me chuckling more than feeling angry. Could it be that the colonizers had really been having great laughs at our expense, ridiculing us by introducing all these crude and vulgar words to our culture and pretending that they meant something else? They must have had quite a time laughing at the ‘stupid indios’. But then, it could also have been the colonized Mexicans which were part of the crews of the galleons who brought their own vulgarities with them which eventually found their way into our language.

It is no different from the fun we derive when we teach cuss words in Tagalog to our foreign guests and tell them they are benign greetings of endearment. That’s what some of my relatives do in jest to our Fil-Am nephews and nieces when they visit. I remember  my brother-in-law Marty telling a  nephew to say, “Lola, nagkalat ang tae ko” to mean that he was having so much fun.

When you survey Filipino surnames with Spanish origins, you will discover that some of them are quite funny, or even downright derogatory in Spanish. The surname “Cagado” actually is a past-participle verb meaning “to take a sh*t.” Some other names will have you scratching your head when you look up their meaning. The surname “Achacoso,” for example, means “someone who coughs a lot.” There are many names that the frailes of old imposed upon us, much to their wicked delight.

I have been entertaining the idea (jokingly) about how we can get even. Feigning all the fake  outrage we can muster, what if  we file a diplomatic protest against Spain? We would surely put ourselves and our ex-colonizers in an awkward situation that would be the talk of the diplomatic world. What a historically hysterical predicament! Spain would have to admit  malice and apologize. We would of course, graciously accept the apology. We could even be awarded damages. Who knows?

Considering the political incorrectness of the words involved, this case would surely test the linguistic mettle of diplomats on both sides.

It would be quite a laugh to see them sit down and break “mamon” to settle this.

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There lies in you so much more than you know. Meet the bigger parts of yourself and set them free. Demolish what stops you from living your dream, or what prevents you from living a happy, productive, meaningful life. Experience your most empowered, creative and joyful year, and the rest of your lifetime.

The 50th run of “Tapping the Creative Universe Workshop” is on this Jan. 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, and Feb. 1, 2010. The workshop will be held from 7 to 9 p.m. at 113 B. Gonzales, Loyola Heights, QC. The cost is P5,000 for all six sessions. Write to emailjimp@gmail.com, or call 427-5375 or 0916-8554393 for inquiries and for reservations.

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