“Kung ano ang bigkas, siyang baybay.”

When activists and progressive writers started to seriously and consistently write in Tagalog-Pilipino in the late 1960s and early 1970s, they were quickly confronted with the issue of how to spell Spanish or English words rendered in Tagalog. For example, should it be sitwasyon, situwasiyon, or situweysyon? Rebolusyon or ribulusiyon? Even how to spell native Tagalog words often became problematic: Lalake or lalaki? Babae or babai? Ibaksak or ibagsak?

IRAIA thoughts
IRAIA thoughts

As a rule-of-thumb solution, many of us adopted the rule, “Kung ano ang bigkas, siyang baybay.” How you say it is how you spell it. The premise was that there was only one correct way of pronouncing words in Tagalog-Pilipino. Thus, if we were faithful in spelling a written word the way it is spoken, then the assumption was that we should quickly agree on standard spelling.

But anyone who’s been around the Tagalog provinces or with friends from those provinces will easily realize that there are quite a number of dialect and accent variations in how words are pronounced.  Following the bigkas-baybay rule, we should accept “Isuksok mo ang sanrok sa ringring” of Eastern Rizal and “Eka ko e tama, pero eka niya e mali” of Nueva Ecija as normative for written Tagalog. We often see roughly painted notices (“Bawal omehi ditu”) on walls, and make fun of them as examples of low literacy among street-educated Filipinos. But how do we know, really? Maybe those who wrote them are as educated as we are, but are merely following the bigkas-baybay rule.

In short, this rule leads us back to Square 1, groping for the right basis for choosing among variant spellings. Do we agree on a conventional orthography–just one–that transcends local variations? Or do we allow these local variations to proliferate?

For now, I will tend to give more space to local and generational spelling variations, if only to remove arbitrary obstacles to a freer writing environment. We should encourage more people to write in their native language in the way they are most familiar with and not shackle them down with too many rules. There is a need for conventional orthography, yes, but it should be mainly descriptive and mildly prescriptive. It should never be normative except in highly technical fields of specialization and expertise.

In any case, I won’t go so far as to surrender my Tagalog-Pilipino orthography to the false authority of a Komisyon ng Wikang Filipino (KWF), which is basically founded on the notion that orthography (and language rules in general) can be legislated or dictated by a legally constituted authority. Educators, teachers, authors, publishers, editors and journalists in Tagalog-Pilipino should be encouraged to seriously study the language and to adopt easy-to-follow spelling conventions, but the process should be incremental and purely voluntary, and the rules flexible enough to allow for local variations.

As a writer-editor who sometimes handles Tagalog-Pilipino pieces, I adopt some basic orthographic rules and try to follow them with some consistency. For example, I will always choose the shorter form (-syon, not -siyon), and in certain cases prefer the Ilokano form (-sion), in rendering the English -tion and Spanish -cion. Similarly, I will prefer the shorter diphthong -hia over -hiya, as in “enerhia,” “liturhia” and “sikolohia.” But so long as there’s no big risk of ambiguity, I will accept other spelling conventions. I for one will not lose sleep or go ballistic if one writer renders “psychology” as “saykoloji”, while another experiments with “sykology”, and still another simply adopts the original English spelling as is, without any modification. Taxi or taksi? Chinoy or Tsinoy? Teks or text? Filipino or Pilipino? Jeep or jip or dyip? Take your pick. I’ll understand. Try to be consistent in your choice, but even that shouldn’t be mandatory.

The point is to keep our native languages alive and healthy by infusing new content, by allowing it to evolve through innovation, borrowing, flexibility, diversity and common usage, instead of fossilizing it through arbitrary and unenforceable rules.

I’ve been known to make fun of the P-versus-F controversy. I will certainly abhor spelling tests and contests in Tagalog-Pilipino. I will not judge students and their Tagalog-Pilipino submissions based on perceived spelling errors—except when they misspell proper nouns, which is unacceptable. The lack of standardization (and especially mandatory standardization imposed from above) is not our biggest problem right now. The lack of popularization is.

Especially in the case of coined words or loan words from other languages, the point is to use them in whichever recognizable form, until they become common enough and become useful additions to our native languages (not just Tagalog). I don’t see anything wrong, for example, in a math teacher explaining to her students, this Tagalog lecture: “Kung ang degree ng n(x) ay katumbas ng degree ng d(x), kung gayon, ang limit ay quotient ng mga leading coefficient.” I will insist that we can teach math in this Tagalog-based way. Some will say, “No, that’s not Tagalog. That’s Taglish.” But I will answer them, “Well, English is really ye olde English plus much French and Latin and Greek, which the English people adopted as part of the common tongue.”

Once highly technical words like coefficient and aneurysm and quantum entanglement become common enough in our daily speech and routine native writing, word evolution and orthography will take care of themselves. Like water flowing to seek its own level, the vocabulary and orthographic shape of our native languages will self-evolve, and will require of linguistic engineers only a few well-placed nudges, tweaking rules here and there, to further simplify and gradually standardize amid continuing diversity.

In short, come to think of it, our old 1970s rule of thumb should still apply: Kung ano ang bigkas, siya ang baybay. Long live dialectal accents and spelling diversity! #


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