Sunday, January 29, 2006

English Vocabulary in the Philippines—A Private Peeve

Iknow, on an intellectual level, that English, like any language anywhere in the world, will evolve somehow depending on the local situation. Elizabethan English is different from modern English in that regard. It is with that acceptance that I hope that Tagalog can also evolve someday into something more useful and convenient for communication and instruction.

Still, I find that there are certain idiosyncrasies in the Pinoy dialect of English that I find very annoying. It is not to say that I don't approve of local modifications, because I do. Locally coined words (the word "Tambayan" for instance) enrich the vocabulary. But there are times when words are added to the vocabulary based on mistakes. Some of these mistakes are unintentional, but in others they are not only intentional but deliberate. Over the years I have come across a lot of these, but I will only mention two right now.


Iam quite sure the local meaning for the word "salvage" did not exist until at the very earliest the 70's. I am sure because I still remember when the word "salvage" was still used in its original meaning of either "to save" or "to redeem" when I was in early grade school. I still remember when teachers and visiting nuns would talk about salvaging an unruly student. Things, of course, changed because of People's Journal.

Well, People's Journal didn't use the word "salvage" to mean brutally murdered initially. But during the early to mid 80's brutal murders happened frequently enough that it made the news. These bodies were often disposed of in garbage dumps or in the river Pasig. So, whenever these bodies were recovered, the headlines will, of course, say "Dead man/woman/etc. was salvaged last night from Pasig/Smoky Mountain/etc."—"salvaged" here meaning that it was fished out and recovered by authorities. People say the same things when they "salvage" useable junk.

Now, it seems natural that Pinoys would make the association between the word "salvage" with "brutal murder". . . it is natural (even considering the fact that English teachers nationwide should have nipped this one at the bud). What annoys me most is that, by and large, Pinoys have forgotten how and why this happened and insists on silly explanations.

A few years back a major daily attempted to explain why we have a different meaning for "salvage." I read it with eagerness. At last, I said to myself, somebody can set it straight. Instead, I had several different implausible theories, the most plausible of which is that "salvage" is just our corruption of the word "savage." I can still remember the approximate wording of the explanation: "In America, when somebody wants to murder someone, they usually say 'Savage him!' and Pinoys [supposedly] merely added the 'l'." There are a number of problems with this explanation, the most obvious of which is that I have never heard of any American expression like that. Savage him indeed; "savage" means something else entirely in the USA, if I am not mistaken.

In the meantime, Pinoys continue to use the word with the local meaning. And we sound idiotic as a result. Nowhere else in the world does the phrase "salvage victim" mean victim of brutal murder. Even though Pinoys have since been briefed on its true meaning, we still use it. So what? some ask. How would we feel if some other culture used the word "iniibig kita" to mean "I want to rape you"? Normal word coinage (even gay lingo) does not bother me because I see that as legitimate word evolution. If we all gave private local meanings to foreign words, why even learn the words in the first place?


This other instance is a constant, almost weekly annoyance. For years, the proper term for somebody celebrating one's birthday was birthday celebrant, and it still is. However, in the last decade, Pinoys have decided that the proper term now is birthday celebrator, and every time I hear it mentioned, I gnash my teeth.

Of course, the word "celebrator" does exist in the English Language. It means "one who celebrates" so it should make sense that that is the right term, but it isn't. The celebrant is the person who is the reason for the celebration, and the celebrators are those who celebrate with that person. For instance, in a birthday party, there is the celebrant (celebrants in the case of multiple births or those with the same birthday) and the rest of those who actually sing "Happy Birthday to You" (and take the pictures, eat the food, the cake and the ice cream) are the celebrators—the people who celebrate with the celebrant.

Let me use another example which Pinoys, thankfully, never made any mistake on. In any school contest, those actually competing in the contest are called participants. Of course, those students who are not competing but should still "participate" in the school activity by watching the school contest are called participators. See? Makes sense here in this sense, why not in the sense of "celebration."

Yet almost nobody I met who has heard this explanation would rather still call the celebrant a celebrator instead. One person once remarked to me "Well, the TV personalities use it. So do reporters. So, it must be the right usage." This annoys me the most.


This is just two of many instances. But what connects all these instances is one very Pinoy trait which fuels all of this: the anong-paki-'mo attitude. I know that there are lots of exceptions in our country, but the usual impression I get when Pinoys justify errors, mistakes, cheating and any other objectionable or annoying stuff, they would also snap something like "mind your own business." Because of that, too many Pinoys would rather be mediocre than take the steps to "salvage" themselves in the eyes of many.