The Ilokano Language:
History, Culture, and Structure
Series 4, Revisiting the Ilokano Syllabary
By Aurelio S. Agcaoili, Ph.D.
Program Coordinator, Ilokano and Philippine Drama and Film
University of Hawai’i at Manoa
(This is a series of essays on the Ilokano language. The series—to number 54—hopes to explore, together with the creative writers, the readers, and the Ilokano language and culture teachers, some of the productive ways by which we can explain the structure of the Ilokano language, and the history and culture of the Ilokano people that are embedded in that language. In this age of renewed calls for a Philippine discourse on diversity and multiculturalism as framework for nation building and development, a critical reflection on the Ilokano language is not only urgent but also necessary. This version does away with the scientific format but uses instead the popular version, but with references included within the text so that those who would like to verify the data may have a clue where to look for them. A parallel series in Ilokano is being prepared and will be made available for dissemination by the end of 2008.)
There has been some confusion on Ilokano orthography in the recent years, with proposals to revisit the kind of ‘popularized’ way of writing of the language that started with Bannawag and other printed media, but veritably initiated by creative writers who had access to the means for popular literary expressions, including the drama form, the ‘komedia’ and the zarzuela. From a diachronic perspective, we can trace these attempts towards the ‘modernization’ of the orthography with the 60’s that somehow traces its roots in the 50’s, with the initial movement for a new orthographic form of the language in the 40’s. One of the small acts to such an attempt is the initiative to gradually phase out of the cumbersome ‘quet’ and ‘quen’ that both saw their abbreviation into ‘qt’ and ‘qn’, respectively, in some of the writings of the creative writers and the letters of people that invariably began with that formulaic first sentence greeting, to wit, “Yaman quen ragsac ti adda kenca no dumanon ti napnuan iliw a suratco cadacayo amin a sangapada. Sapay ta pia quen caradcad ti adda coma amin cadacayo quet babaen ti bendision ti Apo a Namarsua quet taginayonenna coma ti pia quen caradcadyo. Quet no dacami met ti incayo damagen, pagyamanmi met iti Apo ta salun-at quen kired met ti adda kadakami a siiliw amin cadakayo—Thanks and joy be yours upon receipt of my letter to you, a letter filled with the feeling of missing you all. I hope that health and strength are with you and through the blessing of God the Creator may He continue to give you health and strength. And if you wish to ask how we are, we thank the Lord for the health and strength that we have, all of us who miss you all.” This formulaic salutation was common in Laoag in the 60s and 70s when the more popular forms of communication were the letter and the radio, and for serious matters, the telegram that was as economic as today’s text messaging except that it was only one way unlike the capability of the short messaging system for a continuing, almost endless to-and-fro of messages that border on the inane to the zany.
A rare book authored by Conchita Valdez, was published in Honolulu, Hawai'i presumably right after the Second World War. The book, “Combined Love Letters in English and Ilocano,” does not bear any year of printing but the letters bear the years spanning 1929 to 1946. Dedicating it to General Gregorio del Pilar, “the most romantic as well as the most heroic of all the officers of the Philippine Revolution” according to the author, the book contains the use of the ‘ken’ in its ‘k’ form and has dropped the references to the ‘q’ for the ‘k’ sound altogether, as was the custom of the previous period. We must understand that based on the dates of the sample letters, the printing of the third edition which is in my possession, is probably after the Second World War. The book’s reference to S.S. Maunawili, the last ship that would bring the last batch of workers from the Philippines to the plantations of Hawai’i, suggests that the “Letters” could have been printed in 1946 or a bit later. But we must understand that this book that I have is the third edition, which explains the earlier letters bearing the year 1929. Says the foreword in Ilokano, “Pakauna iti baro a pannakaideppelna”: “Nainayon iti daytoy a baro a pannakideppelna, dagiti sumagmamano a naaramid kalpasan ti gubat, gubat a kadangkukan pay laeng a napasamak ditoy a lubong. Dagiti binalayan ni ayat ditoy Hawai’i, isuda a naipusing, iti saan laeng a lasag no di pay gapu iti saandan a pannakapagsursurat kas bunga ti gubat, a nanguram itoy lubong manipud idi Diciembre 1941 agingga iti pannakaluk-at ti Filipinas idi 1946, adda a masarakan ti katulad sursuratda kadagiti binulong daytoy a pagbasaan…. (Included in this new edition are several letters made after the war, the most atrocious war that happened in this world. For those who have fallen in love here in Hawai’i, those who were weaned away, not only in the flesh but also because they had not been able to write as a result of the war that set the world on fire from December 1941 until the liberation of the Philippines in 1946, here they find a template of their letters on the pages of this reading material….” The English preface, not an exact translation of the Ilokano version, says: “The book was written to meet the peculiar situations in which young Filipino lovers find themselves in Hawai’i, Amerika and Guam. Often the girl friends are thousands of miles away across the sea, in their barrios or neighboring towns in the Philippines. To write them is a problem, and to get them to consent to come to Hawai’i or America, once they succeed in their pursuit to love and be loved is another problem….”
The first letter of March 10, 1929 says: “Miss Maria Bumanglag, Ipakpakaunak met ken ka iti disso a napatak, a nanipod pay idi damo a pannakayammo-ammom kaniak ken apaman a ginuyogymo toy conciensiak a tulongan ka iti tarigagayam, babaen ti panangkitak kadagiti gagayyemko timmauden toy nasam-it a kalikagum a sika koma ti mapagasatan ken mabalangatan a tumugaw iti trono ni dayaw.” The author’s translation runs: “But to be frank with you, in the beginning when you first asked me to help you see my friends in behalf of your candidacy I had only a disinterested desire for you to sit on the throne amidst the applause and admiration of the multitude and this was the reason of my help and sacrifice.” The point of the matter here is that if it were true that the year 1929 was the time the letter as a template for the lover letter-writing pursuits of love-starved Ilokano lovers in the plantations, then we can go back to that year as the beginning of the getting away from the Hispanicized rendition of the ‘ken’ and ‘ket’, two of the most easily spotted ‘indigenous’ words of the Ilokano language that admitted representation in writing using the ‘q’.
These issues reflect the kind of a syllabary the Ilokanos had prior to the coming of the Spanish colonizers. That long book, as copied out in full by Marcelino Foronda in his book “Dallang: An Introduction to Philippine Literature in Ilokano and Other Essays,” bears the “Libro a Naisuratan amin ti bagas/ti Doctrina Christiana/nga naisurat iti Libro ti Cardinal a agnagan Belarmino, ket inacu ti P. Fr. Francisco Lopez/padre a Agustin iti Siansamtoy/Ad dandam Scientiam Salu/ti plebes ejus/Cant. Bach.” Foronda says in his note that this book is a translation by Francisco Lopez of the catechetical work of Cardinal Bellarmino, which saw its first printing in 1620, an extant copy of which is found at the Lopez Memorial Museum in Pasay City. Foronda also says that a latter version bearing the 1621, as the year of publication was the first known version before the 1620 version was discovered. We note here that the title of the 1620 version as copied out by Foronda in his note uses the ‘ket’ in the ‘k’ form and not in the ‘q’ as was the custom found in many documents during the longer period of colonization. However, the 1621 version referred to by Rubino in his discussion of the Ilokano syllabary, “an Indic syllabary similar to that used by Tagalog speakers,” has this title with the ‘q’ in the ‘quet’: “Doctrina Cristiana (Libro a naisuratan amin ti bagas ti Doctrina Cristiana nga naisurat iti libro ti cardenal agnagan Belarmino quet inaon ti Fr. Francisco Lopes, padre a San Agustin iti sinasantoy).” We note here the orthographic changes in the following words: Christiana-Cristiana, ket-quet, and Siansamtoy-sinasantoy.
Using these are samples to get into the bottom of that difficult task of writing the Ilokano language today—a real problem, indeed—with the lack of an honest-to-goodness body to propose a standardized form of the language’s orthography—and now, its grammar, we can deduce this clearly: that while there was—there is—the Ilokano syllabary, it has not presented itself as capable of reflecting critically the changes of the Ilokano language as a result of its continuing contacts with other languages including the duty to reflect the various opportunities for language development as needed by the speech community of Ilokanos. This is not to invite a cynical, even pessimistic and dismissive view, as some of the uninformed scholars and researchers tend to do, that holds that there is not yet a ‘correct’ form of writing the language and that there is not yet ‘a legitimate rendering’ of its grammatical structure. This is certainly not true, as I pointed out in our workshop at the Mariano Marcos State University in July 2007 when, in that workshop, someone remarked that there is not yet a standard Ilokano grammar. Such a reckless remark from people who should be in the know ought not be taken for granted but must be used as a battleground for reminding people that the Ilokano language has since have its various forms of writing and that it does have its ‘standard’ grammar, however inchoate this is. A review of the literature of those who had worked on the Ilokano language tells us that there has been serious researches since the beginning of the 19th century, not to mention the work of preservation, however fragmented and flawed, by the friars and other members of the religious institutions across the Ilokano colonial history.
To understand how we decide on the orthography, it is important that we understand the history of the sounds of the Ilokano language in the beginning, how these sounds were represented in writing through the Ilokano syllabary, how the language got into contact with other languages, hence the borrowing, and how the old form of pronunciation and writing resulting from this contact and borrowing created a deficit, and thus, the need to open up the phonetic and orthographic system to these challenges.
Rubino, in “Ilocano: Ilokano-English/English-Ilocano Dictionary and Phrasebook,” reproduced the Ilokano syllabary based on the Doctrina Christiana and from there we see the three vocoids (a, e-i, o-u) and the 14 contoids (ba, ka, da, ga, nga, la, ma, na, pa, ha, sa, ta, va, ya). A return to these representations of these native sounds reveals to us the kind of mind operative in the early form of Ilokano. We see that from this fundamental form of the syllabary, it would soon grow to include other words, and other sounds, including the need to adjust the syllabary to reflect the changes due to the linguistic and cultural contact with the colonizers and other socio-economic forces. (To be continued.)