Soyez Realistes (Be Realistic)

Having lots of friends that are avid book lovers and great writers (shout out!), my newsfeed is often full of discussions about language use (mostly about English and Filipino/Tagalog, but also Bikol and Bisaya and other Philippine languages) – from the novel to the interesting to the eye-brow raising.

One such post came up recently, a Twitter re-post that said: “Kung magta-Taglish ka, please still observe proper tenses. ‘Wag double past like “na-threatened” at ‘wag din present-past combo like “nakaka-disappointed.” Say “na-threaten” and “nakaka-disappoint.” After affixes, always use the base form of the verb. Ktnx.”

I was about to chuckle it away when I took another look at the source of the post. I saw that it wasn’t just some random re-post, but came from the official Facebook page of Inquirer POP!, the branch of the Inquirer news organization that creates “cultural content” for young Filipinos. It was accompanied by the caption “Preach!” with the matching emoticon, an expression of enthusiastic endorsement for this particular opinion. This quite changed the game for me.

Before continuing I would just like to clarify that I am all for clearly crafted (verbal or written) statements and well-thought-of use of the elements of whichever language we use to communicate. This is especially necessary in the academic sphere that I choose to work in. But it is that same academic sphere that tells me to take such things with a big ole’ heap of reflexivity, which is why I think that it may be useful to unpack the facets of this little case.

The first, a criticism of the use of the doubled past tense, reminded me of the erstwhile criticism against the use of double negatives that is common in what is now known as African-American English Vernacular (or commonly shortened as Black English Vernacular or BEV). Double negatives in BEV can be seen in sentences that use two negations that still retain its negative sense. A quick example: the sentence “I don’t disagree with you,” contains two negatives – the “don’t” and the “dis-” in “disagree,” which, in Standard English, cancel each other out so that the sentence actually affirms agreement. On the other hand take a sentence like “I ain’t (am not) having none of this,” which contains two negatives but is readily understood by a wide variety of English speakers in the negative sense (the speaker definitely does not want to have anything to do with this) and not in the positive sense as the previous example.

The second criticism is aimed at what the author of the post called a combination of present and past tenses in “nakaka-disappointed.” But what if “disappointed” here is an adjective, as in “I am disappointed,” with the verb “am” (be) in the present tense? Besides, there are numerous contexts in Standard English wherein different tenses occur together, as in perfect tenses and progressive tenses.

Sounds like splitting hairs? Indeed it does because to a certain extent it is. And that was why I was ready to laugh about it and then move on until I saw that it was being preached by the official youth culture section of a national broadsheet.

Why? As handy, everything-anthropological, go-to source Conrad Kottak wrote, we often “evaluate speech in the context of extralinguistic forces – social, political, and economic” that have nothing directly to do with linguistic efficacy. As an example let us return quickly to BEV. For a long time BEV was denigrated as “ungrammatical hodgepodge.” This was because not only did it not adhere to the established rules of Standard English, it was associated with a marginalized sector of society, i.e., African-Americans who were stereotypically regarded as poor, of low education, and of low social status as a whole. It was this unfair judgement that obscured the fact that (later uncovered by linguistic studies) BEV is a coherent linguistic system that has its own definite set of rules while constantly innovating to add to the linguistic diversity of the US. Think about it: part of what makes contemporary African-American music so enjoyable is that its unique identity is confidently expressed in their unique use of language.

The well-known French anthropologist Pierre Bourdieu considers the way we speak and our linguistic habits as part of our symbolic capital, a sort of “strategic resource” that can translate into actual economic gain and increased social standing, for example by being accepted into higher paying jobs or better educational institutions. Institutions like schools and the media play a great role in legitimizing what are “proper” (and thus more prestigious) uses of language, but often simply echoing previously drawn lines of asymmetrical power relations between haves and have-nots.

This is what concerns me when InquirerPOP! climbs onto the so-called “grammar nazi” bandwagon. As part of our mass media, they have a certain standing when it comes to propagating ways of speaking and writing. I recognize their need for a certain degree of formality in language, but when it comes to impressionistic valuations of what is “correct” grammar (or other elements of language), it can possibly be a slippery slope. In this time of “You’re road” (which I will write about next time), institutions should be more deliberating about the “norms” they promote. More importantly, they should be more deliberating if those norms serve more to exclude (and whom) than to foster organically emerging ways of expressing ourselves, retaining what is useful and letting those that are not just wither away. (davaotoday.com)

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