Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan’s funny and fascinating novel, “Sarong Party Girls,” is written in Singlish — Singaporean English, a dialect of English which draws from English, Malay, Hokkien, and other languages spoken in Singapore. Focusing on Jazzy, a 20-something woman in Singapore laser-focused on finding the perfect, wealthy foreigner husband, the novel immediately announces that it’s written in a manner distinct from the standardized English we’re accustomed to reading, in education and literature. “Aiyoh, I tell you. If we do nothing, we are confirm getting into bang balls territory,” Jazzy says in the novel’s opening. Bemoaning an encounter with a man at a club, she says, “The kissing actually wasn’t that shiok.” She brags about how “chio” she looks and how her “backside was super power.” When she meets one of the more eligible and less unpleasant bachelors, she exclaims, “Aiseh. Guiniang here was damn happy!” The entire book is rooted in the melodies of a rapidly thrumming and changing Singapore, host to a multiplicity of languages and cultures that results in wonderful hybridities like Jazzy’s irresistible narrative voice.
“Sarong Party Girls” was one more reminder for me to unlearn outdated notions about the “purity” of languages. Growing up, I had learned the proper way of speaking and writing involved a clear separation of languages. Mixing English and Tagalog was unacceptable. It was fine for informal situations like conversations with friends or dinners with family. But in an academic setting, it appeared like the habit of a lazy mind that wasn’t proficient in either language. English-only policies in grade school and high school only worsened these ideas. The glittery language of globalization couldn’t be sullied by any non-English words, and the biggest roadblock to international competitiveness was the occasional “ano” or “diba” dropped in an arduously constructed English sentence.
In a recent interview, former Miss Philippines Venus Raj confessed that she experienced some dismay at the online reactions to her “major, major” answer in the Miss Universe Q&A. She felt she “fumbled” her answer. And some believed that she fumbled it because “major, major” wasn’t grammatically acceptable, that the repetition of the adjective did not fulfill the standards for formal English. But instead, I saw it as an example of how there isn’t one English, but multiple Englishes. It was an example of how non-English speakers, those whose mother tongue is a Philippine language like Tagalog or Bisaya, encounter English and use it to creatively engage with the language. The repetition of adjectives is often used for emphasis in Philippine languages. “Ang ganda ganda mo,” for example, is a phrase we encounter and one we treat as grammatically acceptable. The intermixing of English and Tagalog or of Philippine languages with other Philippine languages, is not something which should be avoided or frowned upon. It reflects life in a country with more than a hundred languages, where most inhabitants are bilingual or multilingual, where language is a living entity that changes to accommodate the distinct realities of its distinct speakers.
Nicola Galloway and Heath Rose used the term “global Englishes” to describe the development of English as a world language, and how its interactions with other languages lead to different forms of English. Global Englishes lists around 140 examples of world Englishes spanning twelve geographic regions. The work of Rose and Galloway is guided by the principle that, “Meaning is achieved through communication and negotiation, and not through adherence to a native English speaking norm.” English is still frequently treated in the Philippines as a means for career advancement. Filipinos learn English to become more attractive to potential foreign employers and to access a larger global labor market. So, adherence to more formal standards of English is strictly enforced. However, to treat this kind of professional English as the only valid English ignores how Filipinos use English in a variety of settings, and play with it like any active speaker plays with the languages they speak.
"We should adopt a descriptive, rather than a prescriptive or essentialist approach to understanding language... A descriptive perspective seeks to understand how different people and groups use languages in their own particular ways."
We should adopt a descriptive, rather than a prescriptive or essentialist approach to understanding language. The latter perspective insists that there is only one, correct version of a language. It treats language as stagnant. Languages are separate entities, closed-off from each other. Language is a constricting entity which excludes those who do not use it perfectly. A descriptive perspective seeks to understand how different people and groups use languages in their own particular ways. It recognizes that languages are affected by a variety of factors: place, gender, class, religion, media, social groups, popular culture, the travel of people and products across borders, personal and cultural changes. And because the world changes, languages change as well.
The cross-pollination of languages also leads to wonderful experiments in speech and texts. “Valediction sa Hillcrest” by the late National Artist Rolando Tinio is written in a mix of English and Tagalog. The persona describes the dormitory corridor at his American university as a “[t]unnel yatang aabot hanggang Tundo.” Languages mingle as memories mingle. He is returning home after two and a half years in the United States. “‘Di man nagkatiyempong mag-ugat, ika nga / Siyempre’y naging attached, parang morning glory’ng,” he says as he’s saying goodbye, and the reader palpably feels the sense of attachment and negotiation between the States and the Philippines in his irreverent voice. Another noteworthy poem is Paolo Manalo’s “bowl limn yeah.” Manalo, one of the most exciting and inventive Filipino poets today, constructs a poem using English words. The poem appears nonsensical until the reader focuses on the sounds and reads it in Tagalog. It opens with “see cell yeah who bought / who bad” which doesn’t make sense until one reads it as “cecilia hubo’t / hubad.” The title itself seems meaningless until one realizes it’s saying “Bulimia,” with the rest of the poem focusing on the eating disorder.
Another noteworthy poet is Gerald Castillo Galindez, who wrote “Klaro na Masyado,” a collection of poems written in Tacurong and Kabacan Tagalog, forms of Tagalog spoken in North Cotabato and Sultan Kudarat. Galindez’s poetry utilizes Tagalog, Bisaya, and Hiligaynon to convey a distinctly contemporary and energetic consciousness that draws from a rich panoply of influences. He says of Tacurong, “Maalikabok ka lang pero kaganda mo, / lalo na sa mga hapon / ginatamaan ka ng ilaw ng araw na nagalubog sa Daguma / — ang korona mo ay nagabaga.” In “Cthulhu Rising,” he imagines a flippant and witty conversation with Lovecraft’s creation: “Gikausap niya daw dati si Van Gogh at Poe, hindi nagwork, xet! / Gikausap niya din si Cobain at Bourdain, wala din nagwork, xet! / Pero ako? - Ako daw? / Perfect – sabi niya.” Such bold and lively literary creations would be impossible without the playing and weaving together of different languages.
An old professor once told us that Latin was a fossilized language because, while one may become knowledgeable in it, no one grows up in an environment where one can naturally learn it. It’s fossilized because it can’t change. The mingling and shifting of languages is not just present in literary texts, but in ordinary life. One only needs to walk around a city like Manila or Davao to notice the different lives of languages in everyday communication and meaning-making. English, Tagalog, Bisaya, and other Philippine languages are alive because they can change, because their speakers use them to make sense of the thrumming and changing world around them. To deny the fluidity of language is to deny the fluidity of life.