The Ilokano Language:
History, Culture, and Structure
Series 6, Transcending 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.)
In accounting the Ilokano language at present, there is the obligation to look back at what happened in the past and understand the challenges it was confronted with across the history of the people of the Ilokos nation and across the history of the political invention that was eventually called the Philippine nation. The 1620 version of the “Doctrina Cristiana” as reproduced by Paul Morrow, one of the foremost researchers on what is generally termed as ‘baybayin’ that includes all the other Philippine writing systems, tells much about the Ilokano language that the Spaniards saw when they came uninvited. The word ‘baybay’ itself, Morrow notes, means “spelling,” the word obviously a cover term that makes use of the Tagalog category. The Ilokano experience, however, does not say the same thing, as the writing system, and eventually the literature, is covered under the term ‘kur-itan,’ a term heard more commonly in the northern part of the Ilokos nation while the southern part uses ‘kurditan’.
The reference to the invention of the ‘alibata’ by Dean Paul Verzosa of the University of Manila in 1914 does not reflect an indigenous expression by the Tagalog of their alphabet. Rather, Morrow adds, it was a summing up of Verzosa of the alif, ba and ta, said to be “the first letters in the Arabic dialect of Maguindanao.”
These lessons from history are instructive as they point to the many errors and miscalculations that need correction at present in keeping with the changed circumstances of the more than 170 languages of the country, with but two—Tagalog and English—getting all the necessary government support for these to flourish. And with the calculated renaming of Tagalog to Pilipino, and eventually Filipino, the other Philippine languages, Ilokano included, will be doomed to go the way of extinction if efforts are not directed with conviction and commitment to their preservation and promotion.
But while we are proud to point out that the Ilokanos have their kur-itan, it is not sufficient to simply put it as an exhibit of the Ilokano people, an exhibit that somehow fossilizes the artifacts of our history and our ability to participate in that history.
We need to acknowledge this kur-itan to remind ourselves of the pride that we need to keep on instilling among us and to the future generation. To realize that we have the kur-itan to articulate the very intimate thoughts and feelings and memories of our people is a blessing indeed, a blessing from the ancestors, a benediction from the anitos of our people, a digest of a mind that is sophisticated enough to be able to devise ways to fix its meditations about many things.
With this kur-itan, we must have written something, perhaps on leaves, bamboos, and barks of trees, as some historians would tell us. But we must also remember that the Ilocos ‘nation’ had by then a long history of trade relationship with other kingdoms and civilizations, including China. By this time, paper has been used, and it is logical to assume that the Ilokano nation must used paper as well.
This is, of course, a conjecture that remains to be seen but the fragment of the Doctrina Cristiana of 1620, with the kur-itan on the left part of the page, and the translation into the Roman form of writing on the right, suggest so much, even the ability of a people to write with a certain degree of sophistication. The movement, however, from the kur-itan form to the Roman form, both in Ilokano, tells us of the need for the kur-itan to accept the necessary changes.
I reproduce the fragment here, as researched by Morrow, with contributions from Wolfgang Kuhl, to illustrate the deficits of the Ilokano syllabary and to argue for the need to make the syllabary up-to-par with the changes occurring in the Ilokano language at present, more than 450 years after.
The fragment of a prayer goes: “Iti insulat di-toy/iti dotlina kiristiana/nga isu ti lualo a kuna ti Samtoy.// Apomi Dios/isalakannakam ka-dagiti kabusolmi/iti tandaan ti Santa Kurus/iti nagan ti Ama ken anak/ken Ispiritu Santo Amen Sesus//.”
The Lord’s Prayer was written this way: “Amami a addaka’t sadi langit/pasantipikalmo ti naganmo/padtengmo kadakami ti paghariam/Paanugummo ti nakemmo/ditoy daga kas sadi langit/Itdem kadaka-m/iti aldao itoy ti kanenmi a patinayon a aldao/Paawane-m mu et ti utangmi a kas mu et pam met ti utangmi…”
The Hail Mary runs like this: “Abe Mariya nga napnokat ti galasiya/Iti Apo a Diyos adda kenka/Sika ti nanglona nga bendita amin kadagiti babbai bendita mu et ti tu ti ammo nga si sisus” while the Holy Mary goes this way: “Santa Madiya nga ina ti diyos ikakaasi na da mi a managbasol itoy ket tu mu et no ipapataymi amen sisus.”
Going through the syllabary is a ritual involving a connection to an ancient, even primal pride. It is, by far a ceremony of recognition where one has come from. At the same time, however, is that reality today that the same syllabary cannot any longer reflect that changed character and behavior of the Ilokano language.
From the structure of the syllabary alone, it can hardly admit a word that is not within contoid-vocoid order. The absence of some of the more contemporary phones including, for instance a contoid-vocoid-contoid-contoid-vocoid word construction would give us a hardly recognizable kur-itan. How do we write, using the syllabary, the word ‘bakka’?
The example of the contemporary word ‘met’, as the fragments would show, was constructed not as a contoid-vocoid-contoid, as it is today, but simply as a contoid-vocoid-vocoid-contoid (mu-et). This is exactly the same reason why the facsimile of the cover of the 1621 version of the Belarmine catechetical work bears the title, “Dotrina Christiana” as the contoid-contoid constructed presented a difficulty in the syllabary even after Lopez radically modified the Tagalog baybayin with the ‘kudlit’, the plus sign to mark off a terminal contoid so it would not admit another phone except itself.
To argue, for instance, that for the sake of the purity of the Ilokano language, we have to either expunge it of ‘foreign’ elements or invent from within its array of lexicon new words, as was the case in the experiments done with Tagalog, is counter-productive. To insist that we have to go back to the syllabary in the attempt to be faithful to the collective memory of our people adds counter-productivity to the gains we have in acknowledging the richness of the Ilokano language’s contact with other languages, cultures, and civilizations.
When we return to the prayers, contemporary Catholics would probably have a hard time recognizing the verbal constructions, with the same difficulty in some of the unfamiliar words used such as ‘paanugummo/paanugutmo ti nakemmo.’ ‘Pasantipikalmo’ takes its cue from a Spanish borrowing, possibly ‘santificar’ (to sanctify) and then made to behave, following the behavior of an Ilokano verbal construction, as if it were an Ilokano word, thereby inaugurating a new form of borrowing.
The pollution of the Ilokano language, however, is a given, as it borrowed a lot from sources, such as Sankrit, Chinese, and Arabic. Some accounts of the Ilokano syllabary involved an ‘h’ phone. This leads us to question why the Ilokanization, as found in this fragment, of the word ‘Jesus’, was incorrectly rendered as ‘Sesus’.
The whole point, therefore, of the Ilokano syllabary is to transcend it.
We need to recognize it as a well of our own knowledge as a people. We need to recognize it as well as a well with limited waters and thus needing other wells to supply it with fresh waters so that it would continue to supply the Ilokano nation and people with the waters they need to sustain themselves by quenching their thirst.
In the 1922 “La Antigua Escritura Filipino” by Dr. Ignacio Villamor, a list was mentioned of the ethnolinguistic groups that had the indigenous form of writing such as Bikol, Bisaya, Kapampangan, Iloko, Pangasinan, and Tagalog. Three indigenous groups have been using their form of writing since pre-Spanish colonial times and continue to do so such as the Buhid of Mindoro, the Hununuo, also of Mindoro, and the Tagbanua of Palawan.
So much of the Philippine syllabaries have been lost. And with this loss, a loss that is seemingly permanent, is that irretrievability of a memory of the various ethnolinguistic groups of the Philippines, a memory that comes earlier than the colonial history of the country. While the reconstruction of such a memory is an ideal, we cannot, however, limit our options to that task of reconstructing a past that now fall short of the demands of the present. The point is not to forget so that we can move on.
This opening up of the Ilokano language, in my view, is the better road to be traversed by it as it confronts itself with the vast possibilities of its very own present and the chasing of the promise of its future.