The Linguist’s Dilemma

As companies increasingly communicate with stakeholders around the globe, the idiosyncrasies of our languages become an everyday concern. Tagalog, spoken by 2% of the California population and with 100 million speakers worldwide, is an interesting case. Native to the Philippines, the Tagalog language has been heavily influenced by both Spanish and English as a result of colonial occupation by Spain and the United States from the 16th to the 20th centuries.

A guest post from one of Idem’s Tagalog translators illustrates some of the language’s quirks:

A few years ago, a translation agency invited me to participate in the Tagalog translation of a survey. Tagalog was to be one of twelve different languages for the final survey and the completed translations were sent to a Tagalog focus group for review. The comments from the focus group were sent back to me and I updated the translation accordingly. This version was sent to a second focus group…and I received a second round of suggested changes. Each time I made cosmetic changes, the translation was sent on to yet another focus group who, without fail, would return a new set of comments for further editing. Finally, long after the other eleven languages were complete, the translation agency called to say that they were putting a stop to the Tagalog edits, which had become far too costly and time-consuming for the end client. We never got to a version that all Tagalog speakers could agree upon.

There are always issues like this with any Tagalog translation because Tagalog doesn’t quite have codified rules of grammar that Tagalog speakers can agree on. The language is spoken in so many different provinces, each one with its own distinct regionalisms, making it virtually impossible to standardize a single set of grammatical norms. Language elasticity is a uniquely cultural phenomenon in the Philippines.

Ever since the US Census Bureau added “language spoken at home” as a checkbox item on its census reports, there has been an increasing trend to translate words and concepts into Tagalog. The truth is that 99.9% of the Tagalog-speaking population does not speak or read pure Tagalog, rather a mixture of Tagalog and English. Taglish, a mix of Tagalog and English, better reflects the everyday language that we speak and write.

It is by no means unusual to see English words liberally used in a Tagalog text. Case in point: below is an excerpt from an article that appeared in an online Tagalog newspaper:

Kung totoo ito, lumilitaw na binabastos ang Republic Act 10643 na nag-uutos lagyan ng graphic health warnings ang mga kaha ng sigarilyo. Pinirmahan ang RA 10643 noong nakaraang taon ni President Noynoy Aquino. Kabilang sa mga ipi-print sa mga kaha ay ang mga retrato ng sakit na nakukuha sa paninigarilyo gaya ng cancer sa baga, lalamunan, bibig, pisngi, dila at ang sakit na emphysema, katarata at sakit sa puso. Bukod sa mga retrato ng sakit, obligado rin ang mga cigarette companies na ilagay ang mga mensahe na nagpapaalala na masama sa kalusugan ang paninigarilyo. Sa kasalukuyan, maliit na mensahe lamang ang nakalagay sa bawat kaha ng sigarilyo na halos hindi mabasa. Layunin ng paglalagay ng mga retrato ng sakit sa mga kaha na mapigilan ang mga naninigarilyo at mga nagbabalak pa lamang. Inaasahang marami ang magdadalawang-isip na manigarilyo kapag nakita ang mga retrato ng sakit.

Other curiosities exist in our language. Colors like green and blue are left untranslated, which is deliberate, as Filipinos would normally say those in English. The Spanish language has given us many loan words such as retrato for “photo,” whereas the direct Tagalog word is spelled as litrato. Words like mesa, kandila, puerta, puede, and others exist in everyday use, because the Spaniards were in the Philippines for 400 years and left their mark on the language.

The world is getting smaller. In Tagalog, a mere sentence bears witness to the movement of peoples over the past 500 years, from the base Filipino language through Spanish rule and American control.