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

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Pardo de Tavera’s Contribucion para el Estudio de los Antiguos Alfabetos Filipinos

In a sense, the Tecsons and Pobletes were correct about the foreign origins of the new orthography. Their efforts were directed against the “foreign” origin of the letters “k” and “w” that the new orthography employed, but the origin of the new orthography itself was in Orientalist scholarship and research, an enterprise which was variously French, English, and German, but never before Spanish. Let us retrace the origins of the orthography advocated by La España Oriental. In 1884, T. H. Pardo de Tavera, born in the Philippines of mixed Spanish and Tagalog descent, published a study called Contribution to the Study of Ancient Philippine Alphabets [Contribucion para el Estudio de los Antiguos Alfabetos Filipinos]. The work was the result of his applying the training he had received from the School of Oriental Languages in Paris to the subject (much under-studied, in his opinion) of Philippine languages. In this work, he faulted the Spanish for the lack of any systematic scholarly study of the old Philippine alphabets, indeed of any ethnographic study of the Philippines at all, and accused them of being less interested in this far-off part of their own country than the Germans were: “Philippine ethnography, which owes so much today to Germans and Austrians, has received so little contribution from Spanish pens that it seems to be a question of more interest to the former than to the latter. Even in the huge collection of [Spanish] histories of the Philippines, generally long, generally filled with miraculous events and stories of divine punishments, the ethnographic question is barely touched on by authors whose favored occupation has been to relate politico-religious events.”34 Pardo de Tavera criticized Spanish writing on the Philippines as religious and pre-modern. The events of history, for the Spaniards, were those of the government and of the Church; he would have preferred histories that told more about the people of the Philippines, in this case, particularly of their languages. He complained that “the question of the alphabets has been treated by almost all of the historians of the archipelago, but in such a light way, and with such contradiction between them, that in our opinion it was necessary to contribute these notes in order to clarify this interesting subject.”35 The scholarship of Spain had failed the Philippines; he was arriving, with the help of the Germans and the Austrians, to fill that void. His study was not dedicated to any Spaniard or even to a fellow native of the Philippines: it was dedicated to Ferdinand Blumentritt, a German-speaking subject of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and “Philippinologist” with whom Pardo de Tavera was to have a long-lasting scholarly exchange and friendship. For Pardo de Tavera, loyalty to the Philippines did not mean blind praise for all things having to do with the Philippines, including its Spanish scholarship; neither did criticism of things Spanish, or praise for things German or Austrian, mean that one was a traitor of Spain. Pardo de Tavera’s patriotism was rooted in a concern for the Philippines and for Spain, a concern that resulted in harsh criticism of Spanish authors of histories of the Philippines. Though Pardo de Tavera would deny that such criticism was unpatriotic, unpatriotic is how Poblete was later to characterize his critique.

After Pardo de Tavera’s Alfabetos

Studying the ancient alphabets of the Philippines gave Pardo de Tavera ideas about how to improve the system of spelling of Tagalog that was used during his time. In comparison with the old syllabic alphabets, the Hispanic Romanization of Tagalog seemed needlessly illogical; it “disfigure[d] the physiognomy of many words,” as he later noted.36 Pardo de Tavera saw in the old syllabic alphabets a way of spelling that more naturally fitted the languages of the Philippines than the hispanized Roman orthography. But to revert to the pre-hispanic script would make no sense given the Tagalog language as it was used in the late-nineteenth century and as it needed to be used in the future. Tagalog was a dynamic language; what had been appropriate for the past was not necessarily so for the present or for the future. He could come to this conclusion because his Orientalist training, which required him to study languages comparatively and as things that evolved, helped him to think of the languages of the Philippines not as static entities, but as living things, things that had origins, dynamic histories, and, importantly, futures.

Using Roman characters to spell the Tagalog language made sense for any number of reasons. The characters were already familiar to those who could read and write (and the old characters were familiar to no one but a few scholars). Furthermore, Roman characters held the key to the present and future communication between Tagalog speakers and the rest of the world—Tagalog spelled with them could be typeset using the same character sets used to print the Spanish language,37 making it possible to mass-produce Tagalog texts. Finally, using Roman letters made it easier for Tagalog speakers to learn to read and write Spanish (and any other language that used Roman letters); likewise it made Tagalog more accessible for those who read and wrote other European languages that used Roman letters. The obvious solution, then, for Pardo de Tavera, was to devise a better way of representing the Tagalog language using Roman characters.

Rizal’s Guillermo Tell

The same question and solution occurred to José Rizal, a young, highly educated doctor by trade, who was among a group of ambitious, politically-oriented young men from the Philippines who were living, working, socializing, studying, and writing in various cities of Europe. Many of these young men, like Rizal, identified as a “native” of the Philippines despite a mixed (native and Chinese) ancestry. Rizal would later would become immortalized as “father of the Filipino nation” when he was put to death at the hands of Spanish after being charged as a “subversive.” When Rizal first read Pardo de Tavera’s Contribución, he was inspired to think about working out and promoting a new orthography. In the years that followed, he developed, independently of Pardo de Tavera, some of the same spelling reforms. Indeed, the first work to be written in Tagalog using a new orthography was a translation that Rizal made of Schiller’s Wilhelm Tell, and the German connection is not accidental.38 The attacks in the Revista Católica de Filipinas against German influence might largely have been attacks against Rizal, without mentioning his name or anything that might specifically identify him. Rizal had spent much of 1886 and the first part of 1887 in Germany, a country whose people and progress he openly admired, and where he wrote much of his first novel, Noli me Tangere.39 Rizal’s admiration of Germany had already been a point of political accusations; Vicente Barrantes, a Spanish official of the Civil Administration of the Philippines, and a conservative occasional contributor to Manila’s press, had already accused Rizal of having a soul that had been “twisted” by the Germans, in reply to which Rizal said that if his soul was “twisted” it had happened in the atmosphere of Manila, not Germany.40 Rizal’s translation of Wilhelm Tell into Tagalog was testament to his admiration for the German writer and for the advances of the German nation and its sense of self-worth. The example of progress and pride was what Rizal hoped to convey when he translated the play.

By using a new orthography in translating the German play into Tagalog, Rizal was responding to two needs that he believed that Tagalog people had. The first was for an example that it might provide, because of “the relatively few works in Tagalog.”41 Apparently Rizal also shared that belief with his brother, who had himself tried to translate into Tagalog another of Schiller’s works, Maria Stuart, from a Spanish translation.42 For Rizal it was important that Tagalog have its own literature, even if at first this meant translating great works of other languages into Tagalog. This literature, again, was oriented to the young. Rizal wanted children to have a literature in their own language to learn from, to be fascinated by, and to be inspired by. To this end, he also translated the children’s stories of Hans Christian Andersen into Tagalog during the same time that he was working on Schiller’s work.43

But the need of the Filipino youth was not only to have works written in Tagalog; they also needed a new way of spelling the language that was, as he characterized it and as we have seen before, “more rational and logical, that would be, at the same time, in harmony with the spirit of the language and of its siblings [related languages].”44 The reform was inspired in part by “the study that I was making at that time of the primary schools in Saxony where I saw the great efforts of the teachers to simplify and facilitate the education of the children.”45 Rizal strongly emphasized the utility of the reform for teaching purposes, “to alleviate the work and facilitate the first steps of the children” 46 by simplifying the orthography, because he, like the publishers of Manila’s bilingual newspapers, believed that the future of the country lay in education—a future which he had witnessed during his time in Germany, and one which he believed could be duplicated with proper effort in the Philippines.

Rizal introduced his friends and family to his new orthography and encouraged them to adopt it. When he sent his brother Paciano the manuscript of the Tagalog Guillermo Tell, which was apparently the first time that his brother had seen the new orthography, Paciano remained skeptical, though he echoed his brother’s feelings about the need for the orthography and for translation work. Responding to the new orthography, Paciano wrote: “I don’t dare do it. Will one’s name be enough to establish it, like the authority of an Academy does? Will it be accepted universally? I doubt it, but if one can introduce this change, it is time to do so, because Tagalog still lacks good books.”47 Rizal later wrote that by 1887, he had urged his friends to adopt the new orthography and apparently at least some of them had already done so.48 In 1888, he wrote to one of his friends that “[t]he new Tagalog orthography that we are using is perfectly in harmony with the ancient writing according to what I find out from some books that I find in the British Museum, and according to the Sanskrit origin of many Tagalog words. Adopt it; Pedro Serrano has already published a pamphlet in this new orthography and a dictionary will be published.”49 This friend replied to reassure Rizal that he and his family had already adopted the new orthography, that they were writing in it, and that his friends were adopting it as well.50 Notably, however, these letters were written in the Spanish language, the language in which he and his friends almost always corresponded.

Rizal’s first published work using the new orthography was his Noli me Tangere, which came out in 1887. In it, he captured the interruptions of Tagalog into the often mediocre Castilian spoken by native Tagalog speakers. That Rizal used a new orthography in this novel is often lost among today’s students of the novel; the novel’s other innovations and consequences were vast enough that the orthography does not stand out among them. This is no surprise especially because what was new at the time has since become standard (more on this later), so the newness of the orthography disappears before the eyes of the modern Tagalog reader. But in introducing this new orthography, he was hoping that the general public would see its advantages and come to accept it, as he later wrote.51 The novel was forward-looking in more than its use of the new orthography, but the new orthography was for Rizal part of the forward-looking project of the novel, part of the project to make visible the problems of the Philippines so that its people would be motivated and able to fix them.

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