¿Bakwit ba?

As one of our city‘s consultants for historical and cultural matters, yours truly was invited last month to a meeting of top city hall officials who were preparing various activities for the month-long Buwan ng Wika (language month) which is celebrated every whole month of August. This year’s theme is “Filipino: Wikang Mapagbago” or Filipino: a language that changes (or causes change).

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Image: DepEd LP’s.

One of the activities that was being prepared was an essay writing contest for city hall employees. Me and my partner Tita Linda Sietereales (the Tagálog translator for my first book “Captain Remo: The Young Hero“) concocted several possible topics related to the language month’s theme as well as formulated the criteria for judging. We then passed it on to the department concerned for review and approval. I came up with three to four topics which Tita Linda then polished, she being an expert writer in Tagálog (she and her famous novelist friend Lualhati Bautista were colleagues in Liwayway magazine many years ago).

While I was conjuring up possible topics for the essay writing contest, the theme for the language month kept playing on my mind. Wikang Mapagbago. A language that causes change. Suddenly, the first word that popped into my head was a novel one which I heard only recently from TV reporters and broadcasters who have been reporting about the Battle of Marawi for the past three months.

I am talking about “bakwit“, a Tagalized form for an evacuee.

Since the terrorist attack on Marawi (or should I say Dansalán) in Lanáo del Sur Province, thousands of residents have evacuated to various parts of Mindanáo and beyond. Reporters speaking in Tagálog keep on referring to them as bakwit instead of evacuees. Perhaps these reporters refuse to use Taglish and found it appropriate to just Tagalize an English word that is often used in times of crisis. Much like the word “suspek” which was derived from “suspect” or a person who is suspected to be guilty of a crime or offense.

However, journalist Asunción David Maramba insisted that bakwit is not new. It is actually an old word that has been used since the end of World War II. In fact, he even used the word in a column that he wrote way back in 1991. This simply shows that the word has been with us all along for years, thus its usage as a Tagálog word should no longer be frowned upon. Besides, words like bakwit, suspek, and the like do not sound English anymore; apologists for Taglish (yes, there are such people) will say that they have become as Filipino as adobo.

Nevertheless, is the usage of such words correct? Are these neologisms even allowed by the Komisyon sa Wikang Filipino (KWF) or the Commission on the Filipino Language? It seems like it as this official regulating body of the Filipino language (based on Tagálog, if I may add) hailed last year a new Tagálog word called “fotobam” which is but a new English word form derived from photobomb. However, it can also be argued that while such neologisms can be deemed correct, they are not readily embraced by many who are still conscious and sensitive about deliberate language changes, evolution, and degradation. Many years ago, former Senator Francisco “Kit” Tátad found time to comment about this language phenomenon, nay, problem in his political book “A Nation on Fire: The Unmaking of Joseph Ejército Estrada and the Remaking of Democracy in the Philippines“. In it, he wrote that:

Filipino itself has not grown. On the contrary, it has been bastardized. The result is Taglish — an awkward and artless combination of street Filipino (which is Tagálog-based) and street English, unworthy to sit in the company of other national languages.

The good senator, himself a litterateur during his younger years before he dabbled in politics, had good reason for saying this as such (although consciously he may not have had it in mind). It is because Tagálog is a phonetic language, while English isn’t. For starters, a simple explanation would be this: Tagálog is written as it is pronounced, and vice versa. Cung anó ang sulat ay siyá rin ang bigcás, at cung anó ang bigcás ay siyá rin ang sulat. The same cannot be said for English.

So, mix them up together —a phonetic and unphonetic language— and what do you get? A linguistic abomination called Taglish.

As mentioned, Taglish apologists would be quick to defend this by saying that such a linguistic phenomenon is natural. They have a term for it: code-switching. But there is a flaw. Code-switching occurs when a speaker alternates between two or more languages, or language varieties. But one has to note why a speaker has to do so. In our case, we were colonized by the United States for almost half a century, and have been neocolonized by them afterwards. This only goes to show that this code-switching called Taglish is a by-product of colonialism and/or neocolonialism. I might not have any problems with code-switching had the U.S. WASP neocolonialist invaders themselves also speak Taglish (or Engalog for that matter) in their own turf. But they don’t. And they won’t.

One might question Tagálog’s purity (or impurity) even without having been invaded by the U.S. After all, there are more than five thousand Spanish root words in Tagálog. And we haven’t even tackled all the other indigenous languages —all of which are phonetic like Tagálog— that were also influenced by the Spanish tongue. In this regard, isn’t this Spanish-influenced Tagálog that we have been using for centuries also a form of code-switching? Not at all. First of all, Tagálog, which is phonetic, is a perfect match for Spanish for the simple reason that the latter is also phonetic. Both, therefore, are like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that reveals a beautiful picture upon completion. This is one of the reasons why in the introduction to my defunct Spanish-language blog, I wrote that the meeting between España and Filipinas in 1521 (then later on in 1565) was “una fuerza mayor increíble, una obra milagrosa de Dios.” It seems both nations, at least linguistically, were really destined to meet to fulfill some quirk of history that is beyond human understanding.* Secondly, Spanish words have been entrenched into our linguistic psyche more than English words ever did. That is why Spanish words such as aparador, barrio, Dios, pantalón, and thousands more sound very native to us compared to Taglish or English words. Finally, there is this sub-branch of linguistics called phonaesthetics which deal with the aspects of art and beauty in a language. Chabacano, said to be derided during its early years, cannot be considered as a mere pidgin or another form of code-switching. It is a Spanish-based creole language, another product of our country’s “phonetic identity” which has the blessings of phonaesthetics. Chabacano has produced its own body of literature that is respected and valued through the years. Taglish doesn’t (with the very rare exception of some of Bautista’s socio-political novels). What passes off today as Taglish literature is derided as gayspeak, if not salitáng canto (street language). And it will remain so for good.

Humorously, one should find it odd how some English nouns become Tagálog verbs in Marawi (“ina-armalite“, “sina-sniper“, etc.).

So what now with bakwit? If it is so phonaesthetically inappropriate for a Filipino to use it as a substitute for evacuee, then what should be the linguistically acceptable alternative? This is the rule: if no Tagálog equivalent is readily available, do not invent new ones (remember those awful words “hatinig” and “salipawpaw” of the 1940s?) nor Tagalize unphonetic words. Simply use that word’s Spanish counterpart. For bakwit, see below:

evacuado if the evacuee is male (evacuados for plural)
evacuada if the evacuee is female (evacuadas for plural)

If we aspire for a language that changes, we have to make sure that it changes for the better. And it changes not just for its own sake but for the betterment of the people that uses it. After all, a language is used not merely as a tool for communication but also as a means to elevate a people’s intellect. Language should evolve naturally, not deliberately. We are a phonetic-speaking people. As such, words derived from an unphonetic language (bakwit, suspek, most especially last year’s fotobam, etc.) will never effect any positive change that will augment our intellect.

*It should be noted that before 1521, our country was not yet formed as a state. It was only during the so-called Spanish colonization period beginning on 24 June 1571 that our country began to exist as a political entity. I simply wrote the above in such a way so as to prevent further confusion.