The Ilokano Language:
History, Culture, and Structure
Series 5, Lessons Learned from 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.)
The story of the 2006 Nakem Conference, initially as what it name implies, is that of putting up a centennial conference to honor the plantation workers, many of them Ilokanos, who came to Hawai’i since 1906 to eke out a life here on the premise that life in this land would be a bit better than the one our Ilokano people had got, our people who formed part of what we could call, in broad anthropological terms, the Ilokano nation. Nakem, of course, has since grown as a kind of an intellectual, aesthetic, cultural, and educational movement, with advocates coming from the ranks of the best brains the Ilokano nation can offer, with these advocates not only coming from the Philippines but in other places including those who have migrated to the United States, to Hawai’i in particular.
But the story of Nakem is replete with historical, cultural, and linguistic lessons which I wish to document here as it concerns with the lessons that we can draw from our act to claim and re-claim the Ilokano syllabary as our contribution to the cultural and intellectual history of the Philippines. The brainwashing that continues to occur in the Philippine education system that teaches only a ‘victor’s’ perspective of Philippine culture and society—and the hyper-valuation that this brainwashing does, for instance, of the culture, language and history of the center which is fundamentally a Manila-centric/Tagalog-centric view of things Philippine—has (a) substantially erased the basic multicultural and multilingual character of the Philippine nation and (b) permitted the systematic forgetting of the liberation agendum for the evolution of a pluralist society. In the erasures that happened in history and which erasures that continue to happen, other cultural and linguistic expressions have relegated to footnotes, if lucky, with only the Tagalog-Manila world view being recognized as the legitimate one, this world view having been accorded a ‘national’ and ‘nationalist’ status while the rest of those other cultures and languages are only ‘regional’ and worse, ‘regionalistic.’ The 2008 Conference on the Filipino as a Global Language put together by the Tagalog Program of the University of Hawai’i and participated in by many Tagalog scholars and researchers and advocates of the unexamined ‘national language’ carried with it, as part of its goal, the idea that a conference that talks about the ‘global Filipino language’ will avoid ‘regionalism.’ Such presumptuous claims are not new. It has been around for almost eighty years.
The ruckus on the linguistic and cultural superiority claims of the 2007 film of Jose Javier Reyes, “Sakal, Sakali, Saklolo” is another example of the ‘massification’—the mass production—of the Filipino mind, with its penchant for racist remarks that downplays the contribution of other ethnolinguistic groups and valorizes only the Tagalog view of things, not to mention the continued valorization of English at the expense of the indigenous languages of the Philippines. As written by Dr. Joey Dacudao for the “Western Visayas Informer,” the film, one of the entries of the Manila Film Festival, with the festival drawing a crowd of multilingual peoples of the country, there are these uncalled-for remarks of the mother of a child, to wit: (a) “Ay, naku, Ma, nakuha niya ‘yon sa yaya natin. Sinabihan na naming si Susan na huwag niyang Binibisaya si Rafa. Dapat Tagalog” (Oh, my, Ma, she got it from her maid. We have always been telling Susan not to speak with Rafa in Bisaya. It should be in Tagalog.” and (b) “Hayaan niyo na sa eskwelahan matutunan ‘yon, Ma. Dapat Tagalog kasi Pinoy ang anak namin eh (We will just let her learn that in school, Ma. It should be Tagalog because our child is Pinoy).”
These seemingly disparate statements are not by reason of accidents of history nor of historical lapses of national heroes. Nor are they lapses in judgment of those who are supposed know of the redeeming truths of pluralism, as has always been the goal of the various ethnolinguistic groups of the country even prior to the naming of these islands as the Philippines by the colonizers. To illustrate this point, at the time that we were in the throes of executing the 2006 Nakem Conference, I had the good fortune of (a) naming the conference and (b) conceptualizing its visual representation—a kind of a logo—by including boldly asking an artist to use the Ilokano syllabary to spell out the word ‘Nakem’ but not to totally follow the way it was supposed to be written in either the 1620 or 1621 version of the Doctrina Christiana. I told the artist to spell out all the letters of the word, and at the terminal letter, put in that mark, a plus sign on the ‘M’ so it would not admit any vowel sound following the behavior of the syllabary. The logo has been retained in the many documents of the conference, including its website.
This approach to the syllabary created a commentary from at least three people who had been themselves students of the Tagalog alibata, with one Tagalog teacher even telling me outrightly that ‘Nakem’ as written following the Tagalog syllabary is read as ‘Naakeem’ and not ‘Nakem.’ The commentary was correct, following the Tagalog rule, and following as well a fossilized view of that syllabary but it did not take into consideration the experience of the Ilokanos insofar as their own syllabary was concerned, even if the similarities between these two syllabaries are strikingly close. It did not take into consideration as well our need to ‘renew’ the syllabary and make it work in accord with our new purpose linked up with our own contribution to the struggle for cultural and linguistic democracy in the Philippines. My decision to tinker with the Ilokano syllabary was for a purpose: (a) to make it known to Ilokano scholars, researchers, teachers, and writers that we had our own syllabary, a knowledge that is not popular and thus requiring a strategy for popularization and (b) to make a symbol of this indigenous experience of the Ilokano form of writing in order to resist forgetting—to resist the massification of the minds of the peoples of the Philippines by putting a premium on the unique contributions of the other ethnolinguistic groups.
The old form of explaining the syllabary was that the contoids were already automatically sounded off with the ‘a’ to them, such as the contoid ‘N’ admitting already an ‘a’ phone, with a dot on top of the ‘N’ to account an ‘e-i’ phone, and a dot below that ‘n’ contoid to account the ‘o-u’ phone. Such an approach, however, was understood when the Ilokano language had not had much of the contact and change as it has prior to the Spanish colonization. The addition of a ‘plus’ sign at the end of a contoid, for instance, is an arbitrary mark—an invention of a Spanish grammarian—to account that a contoid is a terminal contoid and thus, does not admit any more phone after it, especially a vocoid.
Two other scholars came back to me to ask about my tinkering with the ‘sacred’ Ilokano syllabary. I came back to them to them to remind them that their notion of the syllabary adopts a fossilized view while my own opens up to the possibility that language—any language for that matter—must open up to the possibility of change and to the difficult challenges that attend to that change. This simply means that we need to recognize where the Ilokano language comes from—from its Indic, Southeast Asian form—but must also recognize that this same language cannot close itself to the changes occurring in the history of a people owning it.