02 April 2009

Nick Joaquin's Spanish-English

That Nick Joaquin is a major Philippine writer writing in English cannot be doubted. He was even named a Philippine National Artist for his writings in English. Even if many Filipinos and Filipino-Americans have been published in the US or UK, however, Joaquin has never been published in those countries, except in anthologies edited by fellow Filipinos, who held him and still hold him after his death in very high regard.

What is his English like? Many readers have already remarked that his English sounds very Spanish. In one of his most famous short stories, May Day Eve, he deliberately tried to sound Spanish even when writing in English. The story happens during the time that Spanish was spoken by the upper-classes in Manila (the characters are upper-class, with some characters even having studied in Spain) and when English was still unknown in the islands. In fact, Joaquin cleverly clues in the reader by ending the story with a Spanish sentence.

Take the second sentence from the story (the first one is kilometric and defies quick analysis): "And it was May again, said the old Anastasia." The name Anastasia, for one, cannot be pronounced the American or British way, because it makes sense only if pronounced the Spanish or Tagalog way (with a short second a). It is not just the name, however. There is the beginning of the sentence (most native English writers would not begin with the conjunction, but it is normal in Spanish, as in Y tu mamá también. The article "the" before "old" is also problematic if "native" English were used ("old Anastasia" would have been enough). In such a short sentence, Joaquin deliberately (skeptics would say carelessly) writes English to sound like Spanish; in multilingual criticism, it would be just as accurate to say that Joaquin's English is heavily influenced by his Spanish (he spoke Spanish at home).

We, of course, would not have time to do each sentence of the story (we would not even get through the first one!), but the language is not isolatable from the story itself. The story has to do with the new replacing the old, or with the inevitability of change. At the time Joaquin was composing the story, English, which entered the Philippines only towards the end of the 19th century, was quickly replacing Spanish, which had been the language of government for 300 years. In his essays, Joaquin did not hide his contempt for the language of the new American imperialists, for like most Spanish-speaking upper-class persons, he regarded Spanish as God's language and English as the language of the marketplace. The irony, which exists for many second-language writers, is that he said all of that in English!


  1. That's a very interesting point and perhaps accounts for Joaquin's most lyrical passages, such as Bitoy’s final speech from Portrait of the Artist as Filipino. I can't resist it quoting it in full because I think it is such a wonderful piece of writing that never fails to move me:

    Well, that was the last October the old city was ever to celebrate. And that was my last time to see it still alive – the old Manila, my last time to see the Naval procession advancing down this street, and to salute the Virgin from the balconies of the old Marasigan house.
    It is gone now – that house – the house of Don Lorenzo el Magnifico. This piece of wall, this heap of stones, are all that’s left of it. It finally took a global war to destroy this house and the three people who fought for it. Though they were destroyed, they were never conquered. They were still fighting right to the very end – fighting against the jungle.

    They are dead now – Don Lorenzo, Candida, Paula – a horrible death, by sword and fire … they died with their house and they died with their city – and maybe it is just as well that they did. They could never have survived the death of old Manila.

    And yet – listen! – it is not dead; it has not perished! Listen Paula! Listen Candida! Your city – my city – the city of our fathers – still lives! Something of it survives, and will survive, as long as I live and remember – I who have known and loved and cherished these things!
    (Nick Joaquin, A portrait of the artist as Filipino, 1966)

    I wrote a tribute to Nick after he died. Funnily enough, I mentioned meeting him at a dinner we both attended at Solidaridad back in


  2. Nick Joaquin once said something that may be regarded as self-description: "These young boys today--they are making it their English. It may not be the English of America, or the English of the English. It's some sort of terrifying English."