Wednesday, December 08, 2004

"Filipino English" from an Englishman's point of view

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!

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.


francis christian lubag said...

I know MAtthew Sutherland for I have read some of his "anti-filipino" articles like those articles that talk about filipino dishes, how filipinos name their children and many others. Needless to say, Mr. Sutherland has been one of those writers that I hate the most..

Anyway, I think just because the phrase "watch your steps" sounds funny, it doesnt mean its wrong, right? Actually, we shoudn't be criticized for that... we have to be praised. One more thing, though we have created our own type of the english language and there are many Matthew Sutherlands out there who always think that it's unacceptable, i think that we should continue it.. Just like what the author said (which I think it was his way of saving himself from filipinos who would stone him to death for his endless criticisms against the Philippines), we're just enriching the language and showing the entire globe how creative we really are.

I think there are typographical errors but unfortunately,i don't have time to correct them.. Sorry and thanks!
"Life is all about risks. When you stop taking them, you lose what keeps you human."

Betchai said...

Small nuances in the English language don’t surprise me much. The language as a whole is strange and versatile with slang, jargon, accents, local dialects and personal preferences. Cockney is an excellent example of how English is used and manipulated and that is from a country that claims reign over proper use of the language. Do you spell cancelled with one ‘l’ or two? How about enrolment? What about judgment? Is there and ‘e’ or not? I feel these phrases and slight differences flavor the language as a fine spice would. So what if Filipinos are a bit peculiar with their use of the language? He should have also mentioned how Filipinos butcher the language by consistently mixing it with their own language, or speaking it with the local intonation.

There is no real rhyme or reason to English anymore. Some people feel it is being tainted but I think changing and testing and mutating (or mutilating?) is what the language is all about. Constantly expanding and reshaping, it is truly a wonderful way to test the boundaries connotation and understanding of communication.

You don't understand my words
How can you understand my silence?

mda said...

All languages change. Latin didn't; that's why it became a dead language. Filipino (or Pilipino, as the adherent may be) is rich because it adopts and adapts so many words from other languages. So do all Philippine native languages, from Cebuano, Ilonggo, Waray, Ilocano to Bicolano.

Francis is right about Matthew Sutherland. He started by attacking Filipinos and the Philippines, thereby receiving a lot of flak. Now he has toned down a bit. You can't remove his superciliousness, however, because, after all, he is British, and the British think they invented the English language--after borrowing from French, Latin, and German.

In the decade or so before the 13 original colonies (that became the seed of the United States) declared its independence from Britain, the British were making potshots at the way the Americans were mangling the English language. Now, the Americans, after borrowing from all other languages in the world including Tagalog, think they own it.

Weather-weather lang yan, as we Filipinos would say. :)

Anonymous said...


I think he has no right to say those nasty things to us. It's not like English is our native language that we have to strive so hard in perfecting it. What I think he should write about is our proficiency in English compared to other Asian countries. I believe that we are the only people in the world that speaks in English without funny accents and without obviously incorrect grammar.

Anonymous said...

thruth hurts, right?
sometimes, we use those fancy phrase because we don't know that they sound different.
As a Filipino, let's be challenged with this article. once i crossed a street somewhere in M.Manila. The light was red... i still dare not to cross. coz' jeepneys still run. suddenly, one vehicle stopped. a foreigner was driving the vehicle, so i thanked him. then suddenly he opened the side window to ask me, "hey, know why i did that?" "well, why?" i answered back. "coz' i'm not a Filipino." he shouted. that made me really mad.
maybe, just like this case, we should just face that we're different. Maybe, only if we knw how Englishmen answer their phones, we too will do the same way. anyway, i study formal English for me to effectively communicate with other people. so now i know that those wqere quite different, why should i use them? why settle for something unussual? We are communicating not to Filipinos alone. Filipinos are competent, we know. the term now is "global."
make sense?

mda said...

Tell you what, Anonymous: If you promise to write what you just wrote in really correct English, the kind you're supposed to be learning formally, I'll believe you.

clarice said...

Matthew Sutherland isn't anti-Filipino at all. Far from it. I can understand why some may find his articles offensive but I don't think that was his intention. His articles merely state his observations and fascination about Filipino culture. I actually loved reading his articles as it gave an outsider's perspective to practices of what we think is the norm. It then makes you dissect your culture in a way you never have before, and perhaps look back at your cultural history...

Anonymous said...

I am Filipina expatriate Australian citizen. I just wished there was a way of reading articles like Matthew Sutherland's way back in early 1990's when I first started studying in Australia to upgrade my Filipino university education. My English lecturer then commented on my essays as "convoluted English". Now I understand. Being a TESOL student this year gives me opportunity to discover the many pitfalls of the Filipino English with standard English. Thank you Mr. Sutherland, and please keep on observing. I could have been a teacher in the Australian vocation education system, but the comment I gathered is that there is something "wrong about her English", and they were correct!

Anonymous said...

thanks for that article. :)

Anonymous said...

M Sutherland's articles never fail to entertain me. It must've been 15 yrs since I first read one of his articles. Been living in the UK for almost 10 years now and I can truly say I now understand where he's coming from. And no, he is not being anti Filipino. He just has a great sense of humour!

Mitch said...

Who wrote this does not matter at all,,That's what I think. I am a Japanese national and have been trying to learn "standard" English which would work out in some sort of international aspects. And during my stay here in the Philippines more than 10 years, I have found a lot of issues like what this author is pointing out. My opinion is that it is totally no problem if Filipino people insist on their own favorite and familiar usage of English language between Philippine nationals, but when it comes to facing people who speak English as a first language, they have to consider proper usage as a World standard English respectfully. It is not necessary to be eager to find a good excuse for wrong usage or mistakes. It is better humbly to accept their own mistakes and do some efforts to correct them in need. But this is not only for Filipino people, but for all us who use English as a second language. What do you think? (If any incorrect parts of my English here, sorry about that,,^^)

Anonymous said...

There's nothing wrong with the article. I'm Filipino but I didn't get offended by what Mr. Sutherland wrote. Neither do I consider the article to be anti-Filipino or worth an execution by stoning of the author.

We Filipinos should stop being so sensitive about our flaws and defending every single thing that is "wrong" with us.

You guys are mad about articles like this and some of you even defend our flaws by saying that it is a form of creativity or an enrichment to English, but I'm sure all of you have at least laughed at an "ordinary" Filipino who accidentally mispronounced an English word or did not use the correct tense or the like.

So what's the deal, do we actually defend our Filipinoisms or only when a "foreigner" makes a comment about them? When a European person says our roads are dirty, we get mad. But in fact, we look at our streets aeveryday AND find them dirty. That is NOT nationalism or patriotism!

Defending every single thing that is Filipino doesn't mean you are a proud & better Filipino. That is why we don't progress, we are too arrogant.

Anonymous said...

Blogger clarice said...
"Matthew Sutherland isn't anti-Filipino at all. Far from it. I can understand why some may find his articles offensive but I don't think that was his intention. His articles merely state his observations and fascination about Filipino culture. I actually loved reading his articles as it gave an outsider's perspective to practices of what we think is the norm. It then makes you dissect your culture in a way you never have before, and perhaps look back at your cultural history..."

I totally agree with the above comment. I find Matthew Sutherland's articles on the Filipino culture hilarious and entertaining at the very least. I've been to UK a few times and like I always do when I travel, I compare cultures. It's refreshing to have a perspective in the reverse.

Anonymous said...

I am (American) married to a filipina and have traveled throughout Luzon and Visayas for over 20 years. I am always amazed at how Filipinos constantly tease each other mercilessly, and complain about foreigners. Yet filipinos will get SO sensitive when anyone teases them or complains or God forbid, corrects them in any way. Just reading these comments, it confirms that fact. As I keep telling my wife, be proud of who you are! (She is) don't be so thin skinned when someone says something to you. Be strong like Manny!!!!!