Struggling with English
This afternoon I was fixing myself a little merienda. I was carrying some toasted bread on a plate when the knife slipped off the plate and fell right smack onto my big toe. After a long string of unprintable expletives and other expressions, my daughter hears the commotion and comes to my rescue. It was a fairly heavy stainless steel knife, and fortunately for me, it did not fall blade tip first but butt-end first, so there was no cut, just a possible black-and-blue – or, as we used to call it back in Manila, “patay na kuko.” (literal translation: dead toenail)
The incident got me thinking… and it’s just what I needed, because some weeks ago my daughter and I had started this joint blog project called “Tagarito” and I have yet to write a single piece. So this is it.
As you might have imagined, the string of expletives were not all in English. My first language is Tagalog, and as my former linguistics professor had told us, when people speak multiple languages, you will know which one is their true native tongue when they curse or are uttering something of a primal nature, such as expressing pain: “Aray!”
Which leads us to the single most common problem that immigrants deal with when they first arrive in America – struggling with English. I had a co-worker who was so happy to learn that her new boss was a fellow Pinoy because, as she explained it, dealing with her previous American supervisor made her nose bleed. Most of us get by, of course, and go on living here quite comfortably for many years in spite of our (usually) inadequate command of the English language. It’s not just the accent. Native English speakers also notice our mispronunciations, fractured grammar, and the inevitable switching of the consonants “p” and “f”, along with the interchanging of the vowels “i” and “e”, as well as “o” and “u”. The errors are so common we mostly just ignore them, even though they can be quite embarrassing sometimes. Names like “Gina” and “Jenna” are routinely interchanged, without anyone taking notice. But wait till somebody exclaims, “You have a nice, big deck!” when they step outside for your barbecue.
Why is that? Why does this happen? Why can’t we properly distinguish between two simple vowels? Well I’ve done a bit of research, and I believe the fault lies in our genes. Centuries ago, long before Magellan “discovered” the Philippines, Filipinos had our own native language, and we even had our own alphabet, called the Alibata. It wasn’t a fully developed alphabet because it did not have vowels. Instead, dots were placed over or under the consonants that indicated how they were to be pronounced. This effectively gave it only three pronouncement guides to replace real vowels: “a”, “e-i”, and “o-u”. Thus an “e” and an “i” were interchangeable, just as an “o” and a “u” were interchangeable. For instance, the words “lalaki” and “lalake” (male) were actually one and the same. “Hindi” and “hinde” (no) were also both right either way you pronounced it.
The difficulties with “p” and “f” or its counterpart in “v” and “b” are harder to explain. Although I suppose this could also be traced to our old native tongue, which simply did not have the letters “f” and “v”. These two letters were introduced by the Spaniards, and were forced onto us when they made us adopt Hispanic names. Even after more than 300 years, we still say “Biktor” instead of “Victor”. Or worse, we say “Farting is such sweet sorrow…” when we are reciting Shakespeare.