The Ilokano Language:
History, Culture, and Structure
Series 7, Modernizing the Ilokano Alphabet
By Aurelio S. Agcaoili, Ph.D.
Program Coordinator, Ilokano and Philippine Drama and Film
University of Hawai’i at Manoa
(This is a series of essays on the Ilokano language. The series—to number 54—hopes to explore, together with the creative writers, the readers, and the Ilokano language and culture teachers, some of the productive ways by which we can explain the structure of the Ilokano language, and the history and culture of the Ilokano people that are embedded in that language. In this age of renewed calls for a Philippine discourse on diversity and multiculturalism as framework for nation building and development, a critical reflection on the Ilokano language is not only urgent but also necessary. This version does away with the scientific format but uses instead the popular version, but with references included within the text so that those who would like to verify the data may have a clue where to look for them. A parallel series in Ilokano is being prepared and will be made available for dissemination by the end of 2008.)
There is one thing that the Ilokano must remember in the attempt to modernize his language, and by ‘modernization’, I refer to that act, willful and committed, to make his language speak him, speak about him, and open a whole new world for him even if at the same time, the same language preserves and promotes those elements and concepts that have been there for so long and yet are still productive in his pursuit of the good life. I have tried to articulate this political purpose of Ilokano modernization in a 2006 work, ‘Some Notes on the Modernization of Ilokano,’ and a 2007 version, ‘Preliminary Notes on the Modernization of Ilokano.’ In both essays included as part of the Nakem Centennial Conference proceedings, “Saritaan ken Sukisok: Discourse and Research in Ilokano Language, Culture, and Politics,” and “Essays on Ilokano and Amianan Life, Language, and Literature,” I have argued for “the need to adapt the language to the changing needs of the times in order to account the experiences that are currently not ‘sayable’ both in oral and written form—within the context of the linguistic system of the Ilokano.”
Having seen cursorily that the attempt to fossilize the Ilokano language by romanticizing and idealizing its imagined glorious and glorified Hispanicized form is counter-productive as it presents a stagnant view of the language, with its misconceptions and orthographic errors, we need to go beyond the post-Hispanic form of Ilokano and account from the some kind of a genesis for a more productive perspective of this language. In discussing the historical development of the Ilokano language based on the experience of Bannawag, the long-lasting Ilokano magazine that first saw print in August 1934 and has since continued a weekly run except for a brief interlude during the Japanese regime, Gregorio Laconsay, in the ‘Introduction to Iluko Grammar’ of his 1993 dictionary “Iluko-English-Tagalog Dictionary,” writes that Bannawag “has made some innovations in its orthography and has done away with the archaic way of writing Iluko which old Ilocanos used.” The reasons for such innovations, he says, are three-fold: the innovations provide (a) economy, (b) fluency, and (c) uniformity.
These reasons for innovations of a language are not unique to the Ilokano language. One area of philosophy called ‘philosophy of language’ meditates on the very nature of language and suggests that language refuses to be simply a tool or an instrument but instead, according to the hermeneutists, an abode of being. In short, it is a home of a ‘who-ness’ or quiddity that is both prefiguring a sense of being and becoming at the same juncture, with being opening itself to becoming, and with becoming opening itself as well to becoming.
In 1971, Ernesto Constantino came up with “Ilokano Reference Grammar” as part of the Pacific and Asian Linguistics Institute of the University of Hawai’i. In that book, he lists 17 consonants—the contoids—for the ‘modern’ Ilokano, to wit: b, d, f, g, h, k, l, m, n, ng, p, q, r, s, t, w, w; on the other hand, he lists the five vowels—the vocoids, to wit: a, e, i, o, u.
The old syllabary, as was discussed in the previous part of this work, originally recognized only three vowels, with a kind of switching mechanism for the ‘e-i’ and the ‘o-u’ while ‘a’ remains its own sound. In his 1955 “Iloko Grammar,” Morice Vanoverbergh acknowledged the character of the old Ilokano vocoids but went further to recognize a more modern way of looking at them so that in that grammar book mentioned, he listed the five vowels instead of three. Some other observers of the Ilokano language, based on the reality of the dialects particularly from places that are heavily Ilokanized and moving outside the two acknowledged language and culture centers such as Laoag and Vigan, say that there is a sixth vowel, the hard ‘e,’ a sound that is commonly heard in the Ilokanized part of Pangasinan and in the rural areas of the Ilokos. But many language scholars now understand this hard ‘e’ sound as a dialect, a variant, rather than a new vocoid since what it means is not different from what the ‘e’ (as sounded off in the English word ‘met’, for instance) in the five-vowel modern Ilokano alphabet.
Laconsay mentions a group of Ilokano linguists who proposed an Ilokano grammar and proposed twenty letters of the Ilokano alphabet: a, c, d, e, g, i, k, l, ll, m, n, ng, o, p, r, s, t, u, w, and y. The group, he says, called their proposal “Kurditan ti Samtoy,” with the term ‘kurditan’ already explained to mean the Ilokano writing system and its result, that is, its literature, and the term ‘samtoy,’ a term introduced in the discussion on the Doctrina Christiana. ‘Samtoy’ has a long history and is a contraction of the phrase ‘saomi ditoy’—our language here—and refers, according to the Belarmino account, to the Ilokano language.
For many years, Laconsay served as editor of Bannawag, and later on editorial director of the weeklies and tabloids published by the Liwayway Publishing Incorporated. Certainly, before he became editor, he already inherited the innovations done by a number of the editors who were aware and adept at the issues of economy, fluency, and uniformity. We must note here that these three provide some requisites to the drawing up of a framework for the modernization of the any language, and the English language went through a lot of innovations that are in accord with these requirements. Many language scholars say that one of the markers for knowing that a language is old is when its words are long. The tendency for modern languages is to be shorter and more to the point. With a circulation that runs in the thousands and the copies distributed in Northwestern Philippines and Metro Manila and abroad, particularly Hawai’i, Bannawag thus exerts a huge influence on the cultural life of the Ilokano people.
Bannawag, Laconsay notes, accounts the five vowels listed by Vanoverbergh; the magazine also recognizes the ‘regular’ consonants that were not borrowed but is found in the old Ilokano language such as b, d, g, h, k, l, m, n, ng, p, r, s, t, w, and y and the letters for proper nouns that are most of the time borrowed words: c, ch, f, j, n, q, v, x, and z.
There have been other proposals for an approach to the revitalization, renewal, and modernization of the Ilokano language and it is at this juncture that I wish to point out some of the principles I laid down in my essay, “Preliminary Notes.” I reiterate the claims in that essay to argue for the adoption of the Laconsay-Bannawag (the L-B form) rule of thumb, with a number of qualifications, one of which is the refusal to leave the use of the borrowed letters to account the borrowed proper nouns. For example, I would now propose to adopt the letter ‘z’ to account the word ‘zoo’ which has not translation in Ilokano and which makes its rendering as ‘su’ or other derivative impossible, obscure, and ambiguous. I also argue that I now wish to use ‘x’ in its real ‘x’ phone/phonemic form rather than using the two-letter, phonetic equivalent, ‘ks’, for words, such ‘taxi’, ‘examen’, ‘extraordinario.’ How do we write ‘chico’ the fruit except to account it with the ‘ch’? And yet ‘chico,’ obviously, is not a proper noun. I note here that the L-B form is the same that is being followed by a number of popular and literary forms of the language including the 1996 “Ti Baro a Naimbag a Damag: Biblia, Ilokano Popular Version,” of the Philippine Bible Society. With the writers Lorenzo Tabin and Sinamar Tabin at the helm of the Ilokano translation project of the Church of the Latter Day Saints, and with both translators schooled in this modern L-B form of the Ilokano language, at least as far as the alphabets are concerned, we expect a continuing popularization and standardization of this form over the long haul. The literary form of the language follows the same as well, except for those who continue to write in the old school but whose printed form would eventually be edited to conform to this tacit standard. The key concept here is tacit because of the absence of a body tasked to standardize the language, the literary form prevails, as is the case of many of the world’s languages, however artificial this form is. With the literary form more enduring than the oral, the convention laid down in the L-B form will stay. The lexicographer and Ilokano linguist Rubino whose avant-garde work, the 2000 “Ilokano Dictionary and Grammar,” helped pushed for the consolidation of the many disparate efforts at ‘standardizing’ the Ilokano language, has followed the L-B form. His other work, the 1998/2005 “Ilocano-English/English-Ilocano Dictionary and Phrasebook” follows the same approach to writing the language.
From the ranks of the younger creative writers of the Ilokano language comes the proposals for modernization, to mention Roy Aragon, Jaime Agpalo, Joel Manuel, and translation scholar specializing in Spanish, Raymund Addun. All of them have come up with their own position on the need to modernize the language and have all shown us how in their various essays and creative works, in the case of the fictionists and poets Aragon, Agpalo, and Manuel. All told, there has been a dissatisfaction and disappointment in the ‘L-B’ form as currently practiced and for which reason these proposals have been drawn up.
My view of the issue is this: work on the 29 letters of the L-B form and around it, navigate the rules to account a more contemporary portrayal of the life and linguistic experiences of the Ilokanos, in the Ilokos, in the Philippines, and abroad. In short, it is an approach that does not any longer follow the old Tagalog with which the whole framework was initially based. I understand the resistance of some scholars about losing the Ilokano language, losing its Hispanic form, for instance, with the penchant for the ‘c’ and the ‘q’ and the ‘v’. But I understand as well the need to negotiate for what has been there, and what is existing and “accepted in most modern publications,” to borrow Rubino’s position on the Ilokano spelling system. To illustrate, I have since refused to write the name of the country in that bastardized word, “Pilipinas” that uses a Tagalog approach to its spelling. I always write it as ‘Filipinas.’ Taking a cue from the proposal of the Addun-Agpalo-Aragon-Manuel tandem, I have since written ‘Universidad ti Filipinas’, the University of the Philippines, with the ‘v’. But ‘baka’, ‘cow’, has gone on too deep in its Ilokano literary form; this is the reason why I resist its rendering into the Spanish etymology, ‘vaca’ as some would propose.
The clue here is this: once the word borrowed has gained currency in that form, it assumes as legitimacy as it now behaves as if it were a native lexicon. This sense of borrowing and not returning but totally owning it up is the clue to enriching as language. And one way to own it up, as is the case of ‘baka’ is that we have made it behave like the two syllables of the Ilokano kur-itan/kurditan ‘ba’ and ‘ka’.
(To be continued)