Blog Post

The Russian Dolls of Language

It irks me that I was not more sensitive to Tagalog’s status as a dominant and dominating language until I’ve now returned to the Philippines as a literary scholar.

This is in part because I didn’t spend much time in non-Tagalog speaking regions of the Philippines growing up, but also because I’m so used to thinking of Tagalog as a “minor” language in an American context. But a number of recent events have forced me to undergo a reevaluation of the language I first learned to speak.

The first was watching Patikul at the Cinemalaya Philippine Independent Film Festival, a movie about a group of parents protecting teachers under threat from Muslim terrorists in the Southern region of the Philippines. The movie is primarily in Tagalog, with English as a secondary language for instructional contexts. But the characters also occasionally speak in a language I wasn’t familiar with, which I was informed is Kamayo by a friend from the region. But the language is only used for local color, as the characters only speak occasional phrases in Kamayo while the rest of their dialogue is in Tagalog, in an area where the latter language is hardly spoken.

More fascinatingly, many of the scenes involve Muslim characters talking to other Muslims, contexts where it’s unlikely that people from the region would speak in Kamayo, as this is a langauge mainly used for Muslim to non-Muslim interaction. Rather, the characters would be much more likely to use Tausug, the vernacular of many Muslims in the province of Sulu where Patikul is set.

The movie thus suppresses Kamayo and Tausug in favor of the more metropolitan Tagalog, the language of the Philippine capital and the actors appearing in the movie. But even more interestingly, Patikul neatly demonstrates a multiplicity of metropoles and a hierarchy of metropolitan languages. As Tagalog is suppressed by English in an international context, Kamayo is suppressed by Tagalog in Manila and Tausug by Kamayo in metropolitan contexts in Sulu.

Reviews of Patikul have been overwhelmingly positive, and no one to my knowledge has presented the movie’s unrealistic depiction of language use as a problem, which I suppose is also the case for any number of films set in non-English speaking countries where the characters speak English. Aside from any number of arguments that can be made about the gap between the “real” and representational as a result of these linguistic discrepancies, I find myself thinking a lot more of their material consequences, perhaps because I am currently in regular contact with people who speak languages that rank even lower in the metropolitan hierarchy than Tagalog.

I am currently in the northern Ifuago region of the Philippines where rice terraces were carved into mountains two thousand years ago. This is the view outside my window:


There’s no Internet here so I will alas be down the mountain by the time this post is published, but aside from the breathtaking rice terraces, this region is also home to a linguistic condition similar to that in Patikul, but with two other languages—Ifuagao and Ilocano—representing Tausug and Kamayo as the least and second least widely-spoken languages that are prevalent in the area.

One of workers in the inn where I’m staying is a woman who, aside from English and Tagalog, speaks Ilocano, Ifugao, Kapampangan, and Pangasinan. These are all related languages except for English, but I think about how much better her economic prospects would be if she spoke English, French, Spanish, Portugese, and Italian. This contrast demonstrates the anciliary benefits of living in areas where the language one learns to speak is known by many people and thus economically advantageous. Just think of how much money is spent learning and paying people to teach widely-spoken and economically beneficial langauges compared to ones that few people speak. It’s no wonder that as beautiful as the Ifugao and Sulu regions are, and as strong family and community ties may be, droves of people leave these and other places for the crowded, alien, and often polluted conditions of the metropole.

Graduate Student, Cornell University
Meredith Ramirez Talusan is a graduate student in the comparative literature program at Cornell University and Managing Editor of Arcade Conversations. She is also a writer, visual artist, and occasional designer.