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Is ‘K’ a Foreign Agent? Orthography and Patriotism in the Late 19th-Century Philippines1

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Megan Thomas


23 January 2005

For the Berkeley Conference on Language Communities and Cultural Empires

Draft—please do not cite or circulate without the author’s permission.
Is ‘K’ a Foreign Agent? Orthography and Patriotism in the Late 19th-Century Philippines1
“A true literature can arise, and this for internal reasons of linguistic culture itself, only with a script that is simultaneously given and comes into use.”
--Wilhelm von Humboldt, On Language (1836)2

When Humboldt wrote his great work of comparative philology, he expanded his view from the explicit subject of his work—the Kawi language—to compare the alphabets, grammars, and vocabularies of languages of what we now call Island Southeast Asia. Humboldt’s assertion that a script is necessary for “a true literature” was simply meant to help to identify the commonalities of scripts as a factor in distinguishing where and when Indic influences could have found their way to different languages, and so peoples, of what he called the “Malayan race.” The quotation also betrays, however, the common presumption that written literature (“true literature”) is somehow superior to oral literature, and that peoples with written literature are more advanced than those without. This preoccupation with written literature, and the status that comes with it, is a common theme among eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Orientalist philosophers and philologists, whose writings often combined both admiration and disdain for “the Orient.” Typically, admiration was reserved for what they believed to be the true ancient cultures, philosophies, literatures, and religions of the Orient (particularly of India), and disdain, or at the very least scepticism, was reserved for the “Oriental” contemporaries of these European Orientalists, the then-present-day natives of “the Orient” who were taken to be decayed, corrupted, inferior versions of their great ancient ancestors.3 It is no coincidence that German Romanticism is virtually inseperable from the German Orientalist philosophy of the early and mid-nineteenth century; both shared the premise that the language and literature of a nation contained its particular genius.

Humboldt noted that a script—a system of writing—was a necessary part of what he called “true literature,” but when he referred in this work to words of Asian languages that did have their own scripts (whether or not these were still in use) he rendered them in the Roman alphabet, presumeably for the ease of his audience of educated Europeans unfamiliar with some or all of the scripts in question. In a preferatory note, he explains the method of his transliteration, which varies according to language, because despite “numerous attempts in this connection, [he considers] it impracticable to employ the same method of transcription everywhere, and believe[s] it will serve the reader’s convenience if [he follows] on the whole the best of what has already become accepted in these matters,” with some exceptions. 4 For some languages—Sanskrit, Javanese, what he calls “Malayan proper,” and Burmese—he specifies the rules or the system he has adopted for transliteration. For all other languages, he simply indicates that he will “employ the orthography adopted by the main writers on each of them, which normally follow that of their mother-tongue; so that in the North American, some Asiatic, and most South Sea languages, we must have regard to the English sound-system; in Chinese and Madecassian, to that of French; while in Tagalic and the languages of New Spain and South America, it is that of Spanish.”5 Here, then, the linguist, in a note of methodology, acknowledged that he saw a practical advantage to adopting conventional Romanizations—themselves based for on the spelling conventions of what were for the most part the colonizing power.

Though Humboldt here was faithful to colonial orthographies, his methodological note calls attention to the fact that many languages native to places either on the periphery or outside of Europe became rendered in Roman script according to a political-linguistic logic which has been, since at least the late nineteenth-century, politically contentious. To put it simply: orthography followed the flag. If one changes—orthography or the flag—should the other change as well? Did it mean that the other would change as well? Or, more relevant for my discussion here: was using a new orthography the equivalent of flying a new flag?

Here, languages can be taken as signs, markers, or “flags” of nations: the work of distinguishing one language from another often has a shadow in which the work of differentiation is carried on between actual or potential nations, and because of contestations between those nations.6 As Kathryn Woolard has written, “In countries where identity and nationhood are under negotiation, every aspect of language, including its. . . forms of graphic representation, can be contested. . . . This means that orthographic systems cannot be conceptuaized as reduciing speech to writing but rather are symbols that themselves carry historical, cultural, and political meanings.”7

In post-colonial contexts, discussions of orthography tend to focus on the relationship between the (newly) national language and the language of the former colonizer. For instance, in the nineteenth-century Spanish American states, intellectuals argued over whether there were distinct American Spanish languages (or an American Spanish language) which had rules of pronunciation and spelling different than those of the peninsular (Castilian) tongue.8 For these new American republics, defining the uniqueness of an “American” language (or languages) was part of a project of defining and codifying difference between the nation (or nations) of Spain and those of the Americas; differences which were made both more difficult and more pressing to define because of the creole nature of the nations and nationalism. In part because these American nationalisms were creole nationalisms, in which Americans defined themselves as something different from Spaniards, rather than as an inferior or bastardized version of them, the discussions addressed both the nature of the language (was the American language Spanish, or its own distinct language?) and its representation (did it look like Spanish, or should it be spelled differently?).

More recently, discussions about the orthography of Haitian Creole (or, importantly: kreyòl) concern whether the language “looks” like the old colonial language of French.9 Despite obvious differences between them, in both of these cases discussions of orthography explicitly address whether a particular orthography makes a language look too much like the language of a competing nation. This concern, clearly important in post-colonial settings where the competing nation is the old colonizer, is also salient in areas where neighboring countries’ languages might be too closely related for comfort. Take, for instance, the simplification of Bulgarian orthography in the 1890s, which in some patriots’ minds threatened to make the language look more like Serbian; at issue was the contested region of Macedonia, whose dialects were cited by both states as evidence for the natural-ness of their competing territorial claims to the region.10

But there is another feature of the science of orthography that becomes the object of debate for nationalists, and a reason that nationalists often concern themselves with this linguistic nuance: the “correct” orthography is seen to be an aid in popular education and literacy campaigns. If an orthography transparently represents the spoken language, the argument goes, it will be easier for people to learn to write their language. This provides another nationalist basis for judging an orthography’s worth—one based on practical considerations, rather than political-aesthetic ones—in which the standard is the utility, or, strictly speaking, the “accuracy” of the orthography. The politics of this kind of discussion tend to be caught up in the politics of education, standardization, and literacy, politics particularly but not exclusively relevant to nineteenth-century nationalist movements and those that have come since.11

This paper will explore the question of how orthography can indicate patriotism, as it was asked in the late 1880s and early 1890s by a group of young men born in the Spanish colonial Philippines. More specifically, this paper traces how the letters w and especially k were accorded competing historical, cultural, and especially political meanings by the two sides of the controversy that erupted when they were adopted by a Manila paper in the spelling of its Tagalog text. As Anderson and Rafael have both shown us, the place of language in the nationalism of the late nineteenth-century Philippines was complicated by the linguistic diversity of the islands. Here, the rising local elite did not share a native tongue, but they did share an education at Spanish institutions (in the Philippines, and sometimes in the Peninsula as well), giving them access to Castilian as a lingua franca.12 Several of the members of this elite became embroiled in a controversy about spelling standards for Tagalog (one of the indigenous languages of the Philippines), and its relationship to the Spanish language. This controversy illustrates the complicated relationship between the formal qualities of orthographies and the historical-political context in which they are used, particularly in colonial or post-colonial settings.

The debate over the new spellings was conducted primarily among natives of the Philippines—though not always among native Tagalog speakers—each of whom claimed authority to judge the worth of the proposed changes. These young men were in practise colonial subjects, though many of them were part of a group working to promote propaganda in the Spanish Peninsula seeking full Spanish citizenship rights for the Catholic peoples of the Philippines. All of these young men—save one, who was executed by the Spanish colonial state in 1896—would later become citizens of the (short-lived) independent Republic of the Philippines in 1898. Those who proposed the changes judged them on the basis of their scientific accuracy and practical utility, but when those who rejected the changes charged them with being “traitorous” both to the Tagalog language and to Spain, the debate quickly shifted its terms and became an argument about whether orthographies or science “belonged” to any one nation. I argue that in this case, the formal qualities of the new orthography did, in fact, have subversive political implications, despite the protestations to the contrary of those who proposed it, but that those subversive implications were different from the ones identified by those who criticized the orthography. The subversive qualities of the new orthography are located not in the national associations of the orthographic science by which it was derived, but in the emblematic nature of the orthography and its ability to visually transform the relationship between Spanish and Tagalog.

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