This is a must-read for all students of English. It's a good study in how deeply rooted our culture is: we haven't adopted English totally; we've adapted it to our own language. We did the same thing with Spanish. In fact, we do the same thing with any other foreign language. We are the ultimate subversives!
FOR A WHILE
By Mathew Sutherland
Two countries divided by a common language -- George Bernard Shaw (on the US and the UK)
The very first thing the arriving tourist sees in Manila after the planedoor opens is a sign in the walkway that reads "watch your steps." This may not sound funny to you, but it sounds funny to me, an English speaker from England. This is because, in the UK, the expression is ,"watch your step," singular, not "steps," plural. There's nothing wrong with "watch your steps"; in fact, it actually makes more sense to watch all your forthcoming steps than to watch just one generic step. It just sounds funny, that's all.
"Watch your steps" is the first reminder for English speakers from outside the Philippines that English usage here is idiosyncratic, even unique.
Of course, every English-speaking nation has its own unique set of English phrases and idioms; English is equally idiosyncratic in, say, India, Jamaica, Zimbabwe, or Singapore. There is no right or wrong way to speak English. The many versions of English spoken around the globe merely serve to make English an even richer tongue. However, the purpose of this column is to shed light on Philippine culture from a foreign perspective, and many Filipinos may be surprised to find out that some of the phrases they use daily are unique to this country, thus sound odd to visitors.
If you ask most English-speakers from abroad to pick just one idiom unique to the Philippines, I reckon 75 percent would select that stalwart phrase, "for a while." This is the English translation of the Tagalog, "sandali lang."
Whilst the component words of the phrase "for a while" are clearly English, this expression as a whole does not exist in the rest of the English-speaking world. In the UK, where I come from, the idiomatic equivalent would be something like "just a second" or "just a moment."
On the telephone, where "for a while" is frequently used in the Philippines, in England we might use "hold on," "hold the line" or, informally "hang on."
My second favorite uniquely Filipino-English phrase is "I'll go ahead." Used when leaving a place before the person addressed, it is a translation of the Tagalog "mauuna na ako." "I'll go ahead" sounds funny to me, because it seems to imply that the listener should follow. If someone's going ahead, then someone must be following behind, right? When I first heard my secretary say "I'll go ahead," I thought she was expecting me to follow her to some secret assignation! Sadly, this turned out not to be the case; she's now suing me for stalking her. ("Just kidding!", as they say in the Philippines).
In the third place for me comes the phrase "I will be the one to do that." This is a translation of the Tagalog "ako na lang ang gagawa." Frequently shortened to just "I will be the one" ("ako na lang"), this is a Filipino-English way of saying "I'll do it" or "let me do it." These shorter versions would be the idioms I would use more commonly in the UK.
I was always taught by my English professors that the shorter the words used, and the simpler the grammatical construction, the better the resultant English. Perhaps that's why the four extra words "be the one to," inserted into the already perfectly adequate phrase "I will do that," sound odd to anyone taught English in England.
Another example of this type of seemingly unnecessarily weighty construction is the marvelous phrase "make an ocular inspection," which I caught my girlfriend Kitty saying in the back of the car last weekend. Ocular inspection?!? Per-lease! What's wrong with "go and have a look," I'd like to know?
From an intellectual point of view, one of the fascinations in all of this is how these phrases evolved. At some point in history it must have been deemed necessary to have an English equivalent for Tagalog phrases such as"sandali lang." At that moment, what you might imagine would happen is that the nation would borrow an existing equivalent idiom from an existing English-speaking nation. The magic is that, instead, the nation invented its own English idioms, and by so doing enriched the world of English.
I was so massively confused for at least my first two years over a couple of time-related phrases. The one that really gave me problems was the phrase "the other day." In the UK, it merely means "recently," i.e. a few days ago, whereas in the Philippines it means, quite specifically, the day before yesterday. I used to get furious when I would read in the paper that the Philippine peso closed at a certain rate against the dollar "the other day." This seemed to me to be a terribly imprecise piece of information, until I realized that the phrase was far more specific here than in England!
More confusion in the language of time arises from different usage of the word "last." Filipinos tend to use the English word "last" wherever they would use the Tagalog word "noon." This results in pharses like "last October 26th" and "last 1994," which we would not use in England. Instead, we would tend to say "on October 26th" and "in 1994," only using "last" in the context of "last week" or "last year."
And lastly, English in the Philippines has spawned some unusual nouns connected with the world of crime that commonly appear in the newspaper headlines, but which are unusual to me. Where I come from, "graft" means hard work; "salvage" means rescuing things that have sunk; and I had to look up "mulcting" in the dictionary. It sounds like it ought to be something to do with fertilizing flowerbeds, but it turns out to be more about enriching policemen than the soil.
Hope you enjoyed your ocular inspection of this article. I'll go ahead.