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


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Accusations of Foreign-ness of the Revista Católica de Filipinas


We do not know how much of Pardo de Tavera’s work was familiar to Tecson, Poblete, and whoever else from the staff of the Revista Católica de Filipinas might have been contributing to the orthography debate; but the fact that so much of their attack focused on the foreign and especially the allegedly German influence of the orthography and its advocates suggests that they knew something of the scholarship and scholarly connections of Pardo de Tavera and Rizal. Their criticism included both the repeated claim that the letters “k” and “w” were particularly German and definitely not Spanish (and therefore not Tagalog), but also included gratuitous and petty reminders of the supposed German origins of the new orthography. For instance, one article was signed, in the Tagalog column, with the pseudonym “hindí aleman” (“not German”)60, and in another article, Tecson used as an example of a root, the word “aleman” (German), adding Tagalog components to make it into verbs “umale-aleman” and “inaleman” and “alemanin,” words which apparently would mean something along the lines of “to do German,” “was made German,” and “to be made German.”61 Of course “aleman” itself is a Spanish word, not Tagalog, a problem to which we will later return. The point here is that the critics of the Revista Católica de Filipinas never missed an opportunity to make the new orthography seem as foreign and especially as German as possible, rather than admitting it to be “natural” to Tagalog (which would be the view of its advocates).

Merger of La España Oriental and the Revista Católica de Filipinas


The heated exchanges between La España Oriental and the Revista Católica de Filipinas continued for several months. Nevertheless, in January of the following year (1890), the bilingual editions of La España Oriental and the Revista Católica de Filipinas merged, because both recognized that neither could afford to continue publishing in competition with the other. The merger represented not only the failure of the bilingual publications, as they found the reading public was not willing or able to consume as much as they could produce, but it also indicated, despite the fierce debate in the pages of these publications about Tagalog orthography, that the goals of the two papers were similar. Both papers considered themselves advocates of Tagalog education and vehicles for uplifting the Tagalog people; the argument about orthography underscored a deep rift in how they believed these goals could best be achieved, but the fact that they could merge into one bilingual paper is testament to the urgency that both camps felt for the project of having a bilingual paper, no matter what the orthography employed.

The new bilingual publication was called La Lectura Popular [The Popular Reader or Popular Reading] and unlike its two predecessors it was not connected to a Castilian-only edition of a periodical of the same name. It was its own operation, run by de los Reyes, the same editor who had run the bilingual edition of La España Oriental, but the major figures from the bilingual edition of the Revista Católica de Filipinas were contributors and editors as well. The pages of La Lectura Popular contained a continuation of the series of articles that the Revista Católica de Filipinas had begun during the orthography debate. The continuation of “Ortografía Tagala,” a letter from D. Villanueva that P. Tecson had been publishing in the Revista Católica de Filipinas, appeared in the third number of La Lectura Popular. Curiously, although the article was meant to be continued, no further installments appeared. Whether this was a result of strife between the different camps or an indication that the moment of the debate had passed and interest had died down, we do not know. Nevertheless, this magazine did not further pursue the orthography issue in its pages. In practice, however, some of the Tagalog articles used the new orthography (or certain aspects of it), and some used the old. The inconsistency in its own pages seemed not to trouble the editorial board.


Rizal’s Letter to his Countrymen


But the orthography issue had not died down completely. In April of the same year, 1890, an article appeared in the Madrid-based periodical La Solidaridad (“Solidarity”), authored by José Rizal. He published “Sobre la Nueva Ortografia de la Lengua Tagalog: Carta á Mis Paisanos [On the New Orthography of the Tagalog Language: A Letter to my Countrymen]” in which he outlined the history of the new orthography, its logic, and his answers to the criticisms that had been lodged against it. Rizal’s piece was a response to Tecson and especially to Poblete, not only because he addressed their criticisms, but also in that he explicitly addressed the issues of patriotism and language, and encouraged his readers to think of the question of orthography as a political question. The responses of La España Oriental to the criticisms of Tecson and Poblete had focused on the logic of the new orthography and its utility; whether due to the censorship of the Manila press or not, La España Oriental did not overtly push the political implications of their position. Rizal had more room to advocate a political program, however, in La Solidaridad. The fortnightly newspaper had clearly allied itself with the Republican factions of Spanish politics, it was consistently hostile to the Catholic Church and the friar orders in particular, and was also critical of any administration in Madrid or Manila that it saw as a puppet of the Church. Though the politics of the paper were generally more reformist than the more radical political leanings of some of its contributors, it was nevertheless clearly allied with the Republicans (and so a bit more radical than the Liberals, with whom it had some sympathy), and did not shirk from possible controversy. It was in this venue, then, that Rizal outlined his position on the new orthography and gave voice to its political meaning.

Rizal opened the article with a picture of a classroom in the Philippines, painted to accentuate the problems that he believed were holding back the country:

When you were attending the town’s school to learn your first letters, or when you had to teach them to the littler ones, your attention must have been drawn, as mine was, to the great difficulty that boys encountered when they got to the syllables ca, ce, ci, co, ga, ge, gua, gue, gui, etc., because they didn’t understand the cause of these irregularities or the reason that the sounds of some consonants change. Whips rained down, punishments were repeated and repeated. . . . And finally I considered that those syllables, that caused the boys such tears, would be of no use to them at all, since in our spoken language and in the ancient orthography, we had neither ci, nor ge, nor gi, etc., syllables that belonged to Castilian, which only three in a thousand of the boys were going to learn in Manila by dint of hearing it and memorizing volumes upon volumes. And however much I inwardly questioned the reason that they studied it, if ultimately they were not going to speak anything but Tagalog . . . . I kept quiet about it, because I had the presentiment that in those parts to attempt to reform something is to embark on a difficult journey. 62

He opened with this image of pain, punishment, and frustration for Tagalog boys, to heighten the sense of urgency and also of waste; this was all unnecessary, because it was the result of the improper, old orthography, to which he and others were offering a solution. He also opened with this image in a way that invited his readers, “countrymen [mis paisanos]”63 to identify both with the suffering boys and with him. He reminded the readers that he was himself a native Tagalog speaker, he had been a Tagalog student in the classroom; this established the same kind of authority for Rizal that Poblete denied to Pardo de Tavera and the other Orientalists. He was a Tagalog who admired the Germans, but he believed that this made him no less of a Tagalog.

The facility of the new orthography for teaching purposes would not only benefit Tagalog children; Rizal noted that one goal of the new orthography as “to make its [Tagalog’s] study easy and attainable, even for foreigners.”64 Again, for Rizal, Pardo de Tavera, and in general for the editors of La España Oriental, making the Philippines easier for foreigners to study could only have positive consequences. Rizal was optimistic about the potential contributions of foreigners because he believed that modern science and scientific method held the key for the advancement of knowledge and of mankind in general. Rizal emphasizes that both he and Pardo de Tavera were simultaneously working on a new orthography, without knowledge of each other’s work, arriving at more or less the same conclusions. When Rizal found out about the new orthography proposed by Pardo de Tavera, an orthography very similar to but “more perfect than” the one he had developed,65 he

rejoiced because I saw that I was not the only one with that idea, that it had appeared almost simultaneously in our minds . . . and because the authority of Dr. Pardo de Tavera made my aspirations considerably stronger. The great proof that both attempts occurred independently and almost simultaneously in our minds, without any consultations or explanations passing between us, is the practice by Dr. Pardo de Tavera of using the “w,” which hadn’t occurred to me in my work, a practice that I immediately adopted when I saw it, because I understood its perfect utility. 66

Scientific method had confirmed the accuracy of the findings: they were duplicated by someone else. This was important for Rizal because it served as proof of the new orthography’s legitimacy, and countered the claims of its detractors that there was nothing logical about the new system. Likewise, the fact that the two arrived at the same conclusions simultaneously served as an example of the benefits of scientific investigation. Two men independently used their knowledge of languages (Tagalog and foreign) to construct a system that held great promise for future Tagalog-speakers.

After a long section where he detailed the technical features of the old and the new orthography, he then addressed the important question of patriotism, and what spelling had (and had not) to do with it. Again, he invoked the reader’s sympathy for their former selves, as Tagalog boys struggling in the classroom, and for their own sons, actual or imaginary, who would toil continually up this mountain unless a new orthography was adopted:

Why torture the boys into learning [Spanish syllables] when they have to speak nothing other than Tagalog, because Castilian is completely forbidden to them? If later they have occasion to learn this latter language, then they will study these combinations, as we all do when we begin to study French, English, German, Dutch, etc. No one in Spain learns as a child the French or English syllabary: Why, then do the children of the towns have to kill themselves in learning the syllabary of a language that they will never have to speak? The only thing that they can gain is a hatred of their studies, seeing that they are difficult and useless.67

Rizal made it clear that it was not for the sake of the privileged few who studied Spanish and who went on to study other languages that the reforms were introduced: it was not merely for the “Orientalists,” but also for the children of the towns in the countryside (pueblos), who would likely never become literate in Spanish. What he proposed, he stressed, was for the learning of Tagalog in the Philippines to be more like the learning of Spanish in Spain: in other words, that Tagalog should become more “like” Spanish by becoming less Spanish, that it should become its own language rather than a strange local version of another language.

Rizal rebuked the provincialism of Tecson and Poblete, objecting to the supposed “foreign-ness” of the letters “k” and “w,” by making analogies that pointed out how ridiculous it was to base patriotism for a country on the supposed origin of a letter:

It is, then, exceedingly childish . . . to reject the use [of the letter “k”] saying that it is of German origin and taking up the issue in order to make boasts of patriotism, as if patriotism consisted of characters of the alphabet. ‘We are Spaniards above all!’ say its opponents, and with this they think that they have performed an act of heroism; ‘We are Spanish above all! And we reject the “k” of German origin!’ I am sure that nine tenths of these patriots of my country’s alphabet wear hats that are genuinely German and perhaps genuinely German boots, too! What? Then where is their patriotism? Do Germany’s exports rise when we use the “k,” more than when we import and wear German things? Why not wear a chambergo [Spanish slouch hat], a salakot [native Philippine hat], or a hat made of buntal [palm fibers], if they are such protectionists? Does the “k” impoverish us? Is the “c” a product of our country? It is very easy to be a patriot thus.”68

With the comparison to headgear and footwear, Rizal expressed his frustration with what he perceived as narrow-minded chauvinism, and contrasted it with what he saw as an enlightened patriotism. He closed his piece with an invitation to “those who do not adopt [the system] from the very beginning, without first a prudent consideration,”69 that is, with an invitation to the detractors of the new orthography, to join the men who are interested in “the free sphere of scientific facts,”70 and he wrote that “we don’t doubt, therefore, that in the end [the reform] will come to be generalized . . . we are sure that, convinced of its advantages, [the skeptics will] have to consider it to be nothing but the national script, rational and easy, of our harmonious language.”71

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