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Love and Language

How inextricably linked our words are to our memories and identities


By Trixie Cruz Angeles

You know how it is with families living so far apart. One must visit them. No excuses. And I had none for all these years. So here, I was with my sister’s family and we are talking about going swimming when one of my nieces says, “Ay. I don’t have a bah-ting-sweet” (bathing suit), saying it as though it was part of the daily conversation.

I was jarred (not in a bad way). I have studied family conversation, the specific speech patterns and terms used exclusively by families or close groups. Gangs do the same thing. It is part of the human psychology to emphasize belonging to a particular group. It is tribalism, clannishness. It is the speech equivalent of having a coat of arms.

And in our family, a term initiated by my father as a joke, “bathing suit” has morphed into bah-ting-sweet.

Our parents raised us to speak English, in the belief that we would easily pick up the vernacular in school and knowing that learning in a second language would set us back. In fact, years later, Linguistics studies tells me that Mother Tongue learning is far more efficient than teaching a child a language, then teaching more complex ideas in the same language he or she is still learning.

When we were all proficient in English, Papa would then introduce, through conversation, deeper words in Tagalog. And we learned that the term “utol” popularized in the’70s was not a slang term, but Tagalog whose root is the word “kaputol.” Thus “utol” meaning brother or sister means that siblings are pieces of a whole.

A favorite part of our idle conversations would have my father mispronouncing English words suppressing a smile until we caught on and would correct him. But the one thing he seemed to be unable to correct was “bah-ting sweet.”

Through the years, instead of my father changing his mispronunciation, we kids would instead adopt his term, gleefully saying it until even family friends and extended family understood that we just simply said it that way.

Linguistic patterns give us clues to cultural groupings, such as families. And extended families are really what pre-historic clans are. Dr. Lawrence Reid, (professor emeritus, University of Hawaii) in studying Linguistic evidence supporting the Out of Taiwan theory of Austronesian Migration, says that some extant words in the Agta/Aeta/Ata language/s have remained unchanged through the centuries, resisting the influences of the other major language groups.

Cohesion among cultural groups are reinforced by language, a fact any proud provinciano knows.

Prof. Ela Atienza (University of the Philippines, Political Science) says in her paper “Drafting the 1987 Constitution: The Politics of Language” says that the 1987 Constitution states an established fact, that Filipino is the national language (Art XIV, Secs 6-9) and “is the lingua franca understood by Filipinos.” The commissioners envisioned a national language prepared to accept contributions from the various Philippine languages, and constantly evolving.

Earlier experiments with Tagalog where neologisms (new words) were made up to allegedly address the deficiencies of the language with terms like “salipawpaw” (helicopter) and the by now infamous “salumpwet” (chair) proved that one cannot force such an evolution nor force contributions to language. We are, after all still hearing truly tasteless jokes about those unaccepted (and possibly unacceptable) words, to this day.

Yet language does evolve, as the framers of the constitution correctly provided. But it limps along, adds here and there usually because experience provides the hook for its acceptance. Neologisms, lacking the appropriate experiential background would gain very little foothold.

During the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo, everyone seems to have shared in this common experience considering that the ashes fell for hundreds of kilometers during the eruption, and its deposits into the atmosphere helped set back global warming. Lahar became incorporated into the language due to the commonality of this experience. To this day, anyone who says that word understands that it is pregnant with the weight of the fear and uncertainty of the early days and the burying of large areas of people’s lives.

Long after this experience has been forgotten, the word lahar will be comfortably ensconced in Filipino.

My father, a military officer, often took us to beaches that were rarely seen by the average Manileño. It seemed to us to be de rigueur for any visits to the places where he was stationed, to go swimming and to do so in the necessary swim wear. My mother would insist on that. None of us would go to the beach in T-shirts and shorts, it was just unheard of. So the cries of, “Do you have your “bah-ting sweet” was a necessary part of my childhood language.

And so, years later, I had nearly forgotten it. Times are different after all. My bah-ting sweets are more dowdy (long sleeved, haha) and I haven’t taken the kids to the beach in a while (we’re more indoor games now), the term did push me into a sea of memories, of laughing years with my siblings, years that will be carried into the memories of our children and maybe theirs, too.

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