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Da Ep, Da Fi, Da Bi and Da Vi

When I was a young student still going through basic education, if I was in an English class, I thought of myself as “Filipino.” On the other hand, if I was in a Pilipino class, naturally I thought of myself as “Pilipino.”

It was pretty straightforward, actually. The Pilipino language, we were taught in Pilipino classes, did not have the letters c, f, q, v and z. Of course, we were also taught that Pilipino was an artificial language based on Tagalog. Not that I could really see the point to that because, being a native Tagalog-speaker, it was a simple case for me and my classmates of speaking Tagalog a bit more formally in Pilipino classes.

There were certain advantages – for me – to squatting as a preschooler in front of the TV set all day long watching Popeye the Sailorman, Bugs Bunny, Heckle & Jeckle and the Roadrunner over and over again. I got used at an early age – as did many other kids of my generation – to hearing the phonetic nuances of the English language. Naturally, when I went out to play with the neighborhood kids, I spoke Tagalog as everyone else did.

When it was time to go to school, it was also time to learn both languages formally. We learned English during English classes; and Pilipino during Pilipino classes. It was effortless to switch from one to the other; albeit, learning English was always a tad more exciting because there hardly seemed to be much difference between Tagalog – which we all spoke – and Pilipino, anyway.

The nuns and the lay teachers of the school I first went to were thorough, particularly in teaching us to pronounce sounds not native to us Tagalog-speakers. To pronounce the f-sound, one was taught to half-bite the lower lip, draw in some air and the blow it straight out through the front teeth. To do the v-sound, we were taught to bite on the lower lip just a tad harder and then do more or less the same.

We were taught never to confuse the f with the p, or the v with the b, as native Tagalog-speakers rather tended to do. In time, most of us learned not to; albeit, when unconscious and among peers, the f still got substituted with the p and the v with the b.

I think it was in the eighties when a national language commission proposed – to reflect Pilipino’s technical dynamism as a language – the inclusion of what were essentially foreign sounds to the Pilipino alphabet. The proposal was accepted. Hence, Pilipino teachers advised students that it was alright to say Filipino instead of Pilipino, since the letter f had been added to the alphabet, anyway.

I had no issues with that. There were obvious benefits to it, particularly when writing in Pilipino. If one could not immediately think of a translation for – say – an English word, we were told that using the English word even in formal Pilipino had become acceptable, since the formerly foreign sounds had been incorporated into the abakada.

It was in the teaching of Phonetics that I had issues with; and regrettably, it had become not as thorough as it used to be. The language commission meant well; but, in hindsight, it appears as though the infusion of foreign sounds into the Pilipino alphabet only served to increase the confusion in the use of certain consonants that were – erstwhile – unacceptable to Pilipino.

It must be pointed out that the problem was not in the teaching of Pilipino. It was always in the teaching of English.

To this day – in these parts, where even archaic Tagalog continues to persist – there are still those even among the young who, if they do not watch what they say, will still say portipayb instead of forty-five and pipty instead of fifty. That was also the case when I was growing up, and the confusion was always between the f and the p when the consonant was at the beginning of a syllable. The nuns worked hard to eradicate the confusion.

Was it coincidental that, after foreign sounds were included in the Pilipino alphabet, I started hearing the f sound instead of the p at the end of syllables in the use of English words? I had a colleague, for instance, who used to say Seftember. And I would give him a gentle slap on the lips to correct him…

This is shameless hypothesizing; yet, when I was growing up, the frequent confusion was in substituting the f in English words with the p. Not the other way around…

Teachers – by default – are in the position to correct as well as aggravate the situation. Teachers are only humans and can only teach what they themselves learned in school in what is – essentially – a cruel cycle. First, they need to be made to teach Phonetics more thoroughly. Second, that is assuming they can. If they cannot, they have to be stopped from saying Seftember and Decemver. Else everyone assumes this is how these words are really pronounced…

The liberal interchangeability in the use of consonants can be a source of endless anecdotes told over and over again in moments of idle banter. I myself used to have a teacher who would say fipty; and another who said pifty. We used to laugh about that to the death!

Although I myself was not witness to this, my own students used to tell till nosebleed this story of one of their teachers who went to a classroom, and spoke to the students, “What’s your next feriod? Fi-E? Ok! Fack your things.”

That story is still told and retold to this day by alumni when they hold their reunions. It is a fun anecdote; but it just is not right. The interchangeability, that is… Language is a means to communicate, and communication – to my mind – must be done correctly.

Let me just end with another anecdote. I cannot recall exactly where this happened, but there was this one time when I was buying soap in a sari-sari store. The transvestite who was manning the store was preoccupied with another customer and admonished a young girl with him inside, “Hoy! Vumangon ka at may vumivili ng zavon!!!”

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