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


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Features of the New Orthography


Quite understandably, the Spanish friars, when learning indigenous languages by ear, recorded the sounds in their own alphabet and with their own spelling conventions. Thus late nineteenth-century written Tagalog was “spelled” like Spanish languages were. For example, a “c” before an “a,” “o,” or “u” would be pronounced as a hard “c” (like “k”), and a “c” before an “i” or “e”) would be pronounced as a soft “c” (like “s”).21 Those spelling changes, common to Castilian, were common to Tagalog as well. But Tagalog, unlike Castilian, relies for much of its grammatical information on attaching pre-, post-, and in-fixes to a root, a practice which resulted in a plethora of spelling changes when Spanish orthography was used. For instance, the common verb root “kain” (to eat, spelled with the new orthography) can take an in-fix “in” to become “kinain” (was eaten)—in the old orthography, the root “cain” became “quinain” (emphasis added). The spelling of the hard “c” or “k” sound was not the only change proposed, but it was the central one.22

The new orthography was presented by the editors of La España Oriental as a reform to rationalize and regularize the spelling of Tagalog words in a way that would make it easier to identify the root and that would preserve the grammatical footprints of the resulting word, after various grammatical pieces had been inserted in or appended to the root. The editors also, however, made the following disclaimer, which acknowledged the fluidity of Tagalog orthography at the time and anticipated the substance, if not the degree, of the objections that the spelling changes would encounter: “However, if our readers think the other orthography more understandable or convenient, we will comply [with their wishes and use the old orthography].”23


The Revista Católica de Filipinas Reacts


If the editor and publisher revealed with this comment that they anticipated that not everyone would accept the new spelling rules immediately, they probably did not anticipate how strong the objections would be nor in what form and in what terms they would be articulated. Soon after this first issue of the bilingual edition of La España Oriental hit the streets of Manila, its sister bilingual publication, the Revista Católica de Filipinas, ran an article attacking the orthography that La España Oriental had introduced. A regular contributor to the newspaper and one of its Tagalog translators, Pablo Tecson, wrote in his article “Orthography of the Tagalog Language,” “To use, then, the k in place of the q or of the strong c, is only a craze for wanting to overturn everything, as has recently been done in Tagalog writings that deserve the adjective of ‘German.’”24 Tecson went on to suggest not only that the new orthography was not precise, but also that in advocating it, La España Oriental was in effect insulting the Tagalog language and so its speakers. Though Tecson claimed to be “not currently concerned with impugning the Orientalists” he in effect dismissed their work by saying that to engage in debate in the terms of the new Orthography would be “useless polemics.”25 He positioned himself as the champion of Tagalog by invoking the authority of the great nineteenth-century Tagalog poet Francisco Baltasar (Balagtas), and told the reader that he would defend Tagalog against the (supposed) charges of the Orientalist scholars.26 What he meant, of course, is that he would defend the old orthography, but he phrased his task in the following way:

[W]e will demonstrate, guided by the intelligent pen of Father Modesto de Castro and the inspired Muse of Mr. Francisco Baltasar, that Tagalog, just like the other languages and dialects of the country, is not a whimsical joke or an intellectual aberration, but that its structure and its mode of being, no less than its writing and mode of being written, obey certain rules, that they have their interconnections and interdependencies, and the collection of which, methodically ordered, is what we call Orthography.27



Here he invented a charge that the Orientalists had never made: that the rules of Tagalog were “a whimsical joke” or “an intellectual aberration.” In accusing the Orientalist scholars of making this charge, he conflated the structure of the Tagalog language and the orthography that was used to represent it. Tecson charged that to tamper with the spelling of the language was to tamper with the language itself; that to find fault with the accepted orthography was to accuse the language itself of being illogical and inferior, an insult which surely would rub off on the speakers of the language. Tecson’s attack succeeded in changing the nature of the discussion. It had been about the structure of the language, and how it was best represented in writing; but it had become, in Tecson’s characterization, a debate about whether Tagalog was a distinguished language. He had become its advocate and so by implication the Orientalist linguists were its detractors. It is only a step away from saying that he was a Tagalog patriot and the Orientalist linguists were traitors.

This step was soon taken by another writer, editor, and translator of the Revista Católica de Filipinas, Pascual H. Poblete.28 Poblete drew the lines more clearly between the defenders of Tagalog (and Spain) and its attackers, whose foreign-ness he emphasized. He wrote, “I am not a philologist, but I am a Tagalog, by which I mean to say that with respect to my native tongue, I can say, without bragging, that I know Tagalog better, simply much better than any Orientalist gentleman (European or, if filipino, not a pure Tagalog).29 Poblete shifted the focus away from the reasoning and the content of the arguments, towards the origin of those who did the arguing; knowledge in this case was not something that could be acquired by force of will, but was something possessed by native speakers. None of the cited “Orientalists” were native Tagalog speakers, and their studies were flawed because “Tagalog is not learned in any book put together by academic authorities of language, because up until now it hasn’t occurred to us to form a nucleus of individuals who would [and here he echoed the motto of the Reál Académia de la Lengua Española (Royal Academy of the Spanish Language)] standardize, purify, and give splendor to our words. Each Tagalog is an academic of his tongue [language].”30 For Poblete, the nature of the language of Tagalog was fixed in practice at the moment: written Tagalog was Tagalog, for Poblete; the spoken language could have no other proper representation than that in which the great work of Baltasar was composed. To suggest a change in the orthography of Tagalog was a presumption of foreign academics, applying their foreign and inappropriate methods to the study of a language that they could never fully appreciate. If the changes proposed by the Orientalists were to be implemented, he wrote, “almost all the Tagalogs, since they aren’t Orientalists by virtue of anything other than having been born in the Orient, nor are they learned philologists”31 would read the new spellings incorrectly. Not knowing the letter “w,” he said, they would think that it was either a double “u” sound, or like a “u” and a “v” together—and since the “v” sound in Spanish sounds like “b,” he ventured that “they would read [karaniwan as] karani-u-ban, [tawo as] ta-u-bo, [kagawian as] caga-u-bian, [giliw as] gili-u-u, [and wika as] u-bica . . . because their first teachers in the reading and writing of the Phoenician alphabet . . . were the Spanish, and not the English or the Germans.”32 Here Poblete launched his strongest attack: he accused the Orientalists of being a pernicious foreign influence—not simply non-Tagalogs, but traitors to Spain because they were in the intellectual bed of the enemy, England and Germany. He drove this point home later in the article when he called on his Tagalog “compatriots” to defend, in effect, the Spanish flag:

Furthermore, Tagalog compatriots: If our religion, our laws, our customs and our entire mode of being are Spanish, why do we have to use some letters that are not genuinely Spanish, and why do we have to pronounce the syllables ge and gi like the Germans do and not like our brothers across the seas? Are the letters that have been taught to us not enough for us to express our ideas and thoughts? Then let us invent those that would be precise: better yet, let us revive our primitive alphabet, before we use a letter of origin foreign to our Mother country.33



Here Poblete addressed his “Tagalog compatriots,” yet these Tagalogs were profoundly Spanish, Spanish in their “entire mode of being.” Tagalog was, in effect, a sub-set of Spanish; Tagalog was a Spanish language, and he believed this was rightly so. If the Spanish alphabet was not sufficient for spelling Tagalog, then it would be preferable to revert to a pre-Spanish Tagalog alphabet, rather than employ letters which were of foreign, particularly of German, origin.
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