In defense of English in the Philippines
There is a tale my father would tell me about a wealthy uncle of mine who would visit our home when I was a child with a stack of American-made chocolate bars. Growing up in a world of protectionist trade barriers, foreign chocolates were a major treat.
But before I or my siblings could have those chocolates, my uncle would close his eyes and have us speak to him in English. And then, with great delight he would chuckle and say, “sounds like an American.”
Looking back over the years, I wonder what all that was about. Because when I started visiting the US, the natives there would often play a guessing game about where I was from, based on my accent. They couldn't quite place me. Nowadays, for the sake of convenience, I twist my accent when I am abroad towards what I think sounds like Philippine English accent and intonation. It works apparently, or maybe people in the US are just more aware of Filipinos and the different ways we speak English.
Trying to explain my uncle's behavior, I think he was hearing a mixture of my parent's accents, the accent taught me in school, and the accent picked up watching Popeye the Sailor Man and Casper the Friendly Ghost. He must have been hearing the cartoons.
My uncle is from a very old wealthy family. I can't remember his accent now and he has passed on. But like many families of old wealth in the Philippines his parents spoke Spanish and he spoke Spanish. I suspect his English accent must have been nuanced by Castellano.
I tread very lightly here, knowing how politically loaded and regulated the usages are, but I will refer to it only in terms of how my uncle and local old wealth see the distinction. Philippine wealth is “old” if it traces its beginnings to the Spanish colonial period. In short, citing Victor Hugo, the great crime that started their wealth was committed when we were a colony of Spain – likely necessitating collaboration with the colonizers. This explains why old wealth in Philippines insists on speaking the language of the groups that dominated Spain during the centuries of European colonialism. They certainly did not want to sound like the equally downtrodden Latin Americans speaking Español.
I thought these were matters of the past until I got snubbed by old wealth recently at a Spanish restaurant. I was ordering in Español, and was told that my pronunciation was declasse. Not wanting to get into an argument, I kept my peace. Given my socialist leanings, I chose to speak Español when I was asked by the online Spanish course I took, which option I preferred.
The point I am making is accents are very much an elitist issue in the Philippines, as it is in other parts of the world. I am particularly enamored by the theory put forward by some scholars that in our daily life, the biggest indicator of being part of the Philippine elite is whether you come from one of the top universities. Often enough, one doesn't have to proclaim one's alma mater. It's just that when people speak, others can often tell whether their accents were drilled into them by expensive private school teachers or poorly paid public school teachers.
Recently deejays on radio are all into showing off their “Amurrican” accents, in the hopes, I suppose, that I will mistake them for FilAms. What do I know? Frankly I find the exploding “t” painful to my ears. And they don't sound like my friends from the East Coast. More California, I think, where Filams are most numerous. Or, something more in my experience, they also sound like call center agents.
But what irritates the hell out of me is when deejays and broadcast journalists mispronounce Filipino terms in order to sound American such as when the “Philippine peso” gets mangled to sound like the “Philippine paysow.” It is the height of colonial mentality that those who certainly know how to pronounce a Filipino term the way Filipinos pronounce it, should mispronounce it for the sake of sounding like a non-native. In fact, it is also a misguided form of elitism because real language snobs attempt to pronounce French words like the French, Scottish terms like the Scots, Filipino words like the Filipinos, and so on. It seems to me the height of irony that those who are being snobbish about their English, are actually using English badly.
So when these media people speak this way, I cannot distinguish them from call center agents because they are obviously speaking for a US audience rather than a Filipino one. Talk about looking down on your own public! As for speaking in English in a way understood by the average American consumer, I am reminded of the line in the Broadway play, “My Fair Lady” where the very British Professor Higgins notes that in the US, “they haven't been speaking English for years.”
Stop the nonsense
So let's just stop all the nonsense. As our linguists and language teachers will tell you there is no single group that owns the proper pronunciations. In short, an accent is merely an accent. Your accent is your accent. Take for example the way the Batangueño has a very different accent from the Bulakeño when they speak Tagalog. This is an endless source of delight for me, a Quezon City girl. But I think none of our accents are superior.
The same is true of English. We have various accents when we speak English but all of it is Philippine English and none of it is classier than the other except to those fools who play this undemocratic and pretentious game of verbal class politics.
And that kind of elitism is unacceptable. It leads to students in a not-so-upper-class university teasing another student who is even poorer than they are that her accent is cheap just because most of them spoke with Tagalog lilts instead of her Ilonggo one.
It leads to UP Tacloban students, transferred to Diliman after Typhoon Haiyan, who dared not take the opportunity of improving their conversational English with one of our professors from the English Department because they were afraid their accents were wrong.
So let a thousand English accents flourish. I swear there is not yet a Philippine English accent I have come across that I didn't understand. It matters very little to me that a foreigner may need translation from English to..er.. English. (I once visited the southern US and completely failed to understand that the server was offering me a piece of pie. “Wahnt sum pah?” is what I heard her say.)
All English spoken in the Philippines is merely Philippine English. A different way of speaking English from that in the US, or Great Britain or India or Africa. The point isn't what your accent is, but whether you are saying something substantial and using the language elegantly.
So I say, “Mabuhay, Pinoy English!” – Rappler.com