27 August 2009

Literature in a colonial language

Today, we call it multilingual or mixed-language literature, but during the European Renaissance, it was “the language question,” that is, the ideological struggle of the vernaculars against the international languages of that time.

The study by David Holton of the dialectal literature in Crete at that time is typical of scholarly work on that period. This is part of what he says:

“Between the fourteenth and the seventeenth centuries we can therefore observe an upward movement in the status of the vernacular [in Crete]; we might compare the rise of English in the period from the Norman Conquest to the age of Chaucer. The parallels are quite striking: in both cases we have to do with a colonial situation in which the conquerors speak a different language (Norman French or Italian), while the native population has both a vernacular and a formal or learned language. Of course the extent to which English was influenced by contact with French is much greater than the influence of Italian on Cretan dialect, which is mainly restricted to vocabulary. It is, however, noteworthy that the common language of Crete was Greek, that is Cretan dialect, and by the end of our period the use of Italian was more or less restricted to the realms of administration and culture. Educated men would of course be bilingual, but it is clear from documents of the sixteenth century that women, even from noble Venetian families, would usually know only Greek. Greek was written in both the Greek and Latin alphabets, and a number of manuscripts of literary works survives in Latin script.” (p. 14 of Literature and Society in Renaissance Crete, 1991)

We are privileged to watch a similar phenomenon unfolding in our time. The use of Filipino as a literary language is growing as an ideological protest against the continued dominance of English (the language of 20th century American colonizers) in literature classes in schools and in government in the Philippines. The Filipino language itself has a huge number of words borrowed from English, analogous to the situation of Chaucer with French and the Cretan writers with Italian. The Philippines is undergoing what Europe underwent five or six centuries earlier! Five or six centuries from now, if we will follow the logic of the European model, Philippine literary texts written in English will be, if I may borrow Holton's words (used in another context), "of much smaller literary significance."


  1. Itaga mo ito sa bato, Ani. Mukhang nangyayari na, pero ayaw yata ng mga "elite" National Artists ang lingua franca na lumilitaw sa Filipinas -- multilingual Manila jargon. The late Rolando Tinio seemed to like it. Is Pepito Lacaba working on the language for the Filipino script? (I read his Ka Pete blog -- and he writes his memoirs in Filipino more often than not these days.) Cirilo's "Asoge" novel uses the "enhanced" Filipino.

    Inquirer's De Quiros has written some recent columns in this lingua franca. Bien and Rio still seem to write in the idiom of Balagtas. Balde does a good job in Bikol, and Hidalgo in Ilocano. The
    late Amado Yuson in Pampango. The late Bayardo Estrada in Pangasinense.

    Even at this point, cher ami, Philippine Literature in English has lost the tao.
    With musical plays like yours, we might yet rekindle the fervour in those zarzuelas (which I abandoned rather weak-kneedly in favour of English one-acters when Jess Peralta, Joe "Papen Tuason" Flores, and Nolledo were still writing them). Temps perdu, indeed.

    The Philippine literature awaiting my grandchildren will be something they would no longer understand. But the "language of the blood" must overcome. It will have become by then the language of the tao who may have finally arrived at his cultural renaissance by dint of courage or even ignorance of disparate global imperatives. Come to think of it, isn't that what Caparas and the komiks writers aspire for? (Did you know that I also wrote for the komiks when the adventure was good -- I remember imitating the Classics comics, but my stories gave way later on to the same Darna and Valentina that have found their way back to the movies.)

    Lead us to the light, Dr. Cruz. It's getting dimmer for dinosaurs like me on this end.

    The people will decide on what language they will feel most comfortable with. The Department of education is realizing that now (or once again). Camilo Osias always thought that Ilocano could best educate the Ilocanos, but wrote most of his books in English. The inchoateness remains.

    Am still perplexed, Maestro.



  2. Cheer up, Albert. There are also those dinosaurs only whose eyes are dimming but not their passion to write in English for as long as they can.