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Whether You’re from Batangas or Not, Here are Points to Ponder about the ‘Ala Eh’

Photo captured from video on http://www.iwantv.com.ph/.
The Batangueño Stereotype

So yet again, Kuya Kim Atienza uttered something that gnawed at my being a proud son of the great province of Batangas. In last Thursday’s episode of the noontime variety show “It’s Showtime,” Kuya Kim gave his customary piece of trivia after the performance of a dance troupe from the Municipality of Malvar here in Batangas.

“Madlang people, ang ating pong mga kalahok ay mulâ sa Malvar, Batangas. Ang Batangas pô ay galing sa salitang ‘batangan,’ isang urî ng bangkâ na umiikot doon sa Taal Lake. Saan naman galing ang salitang ‘ala eh’ na kadalasang ginagamit pô ng mga Batangueño? Mga salitang Tagalog na ‘walâ eh.’ Ibig sabihin, wala pong problema, easy-easy lang.”

That bit about the name Batangas coming from ‘batangan’ is, perhaps, something even a snotty elementary kid in this province knows about. Wikipedia says that the batangan was a type of raft, something that I cannot vouch for. In fact, when we were school kids, the general belief was that the batangan was a wooden part of a house.

At any rate, I was more interested in Kuya Kim’s derivation of the phrase ‘ala eh,’ a so-not-true stereotype of the denizens of this province. We do use the word ‘ala’ probably a tad more than Tagalogs from other provinces – or its local variant ‘anla,’ which means the same but is really more Batangas dialect than mainstream Tagalog – but to say that we habitually pair ‘ala’ with ‘eh’ is a total work of fiction.

Funnily enough, there was no consensus at all among the respondents, something that hints at the word’s natural ambiguity. Many suggested that ‘ala’ signifies something negative such as an interjection of annoyance, disagreement, displeasure, uncertainty or disapproval.
The ‘Ala Eh’

I hasten to add that both ‘ala’ and ‘eh’ are Tagalog words; and neither is endemic to Batangas. I think it is safe to say that the interjection ‘eh’ does not really have one particular meaning. Tagalog-dictionary.com says that the word is used partly to signify hesitation in speech; but is just as frequently used ‘to close a sentence or reinforce disagreement, contradiction or protestation.’

If I may add, ‘eh’ may also be used to start a sentence with, such as in ‘Eh ano ngayon?’ All Tagalogs use the word as a matter of course; and probably without even realising that the gist of a sentence or phrase will not really change if the word ‘eh’ is omitted. For instance, the earlier example can just as correctly be said as ‘Ano ngayon?’

Of Kuya Kim’s trivia, it was the claim that the word ‘ala’ is shortened from the word ‘walâ’ that was probably the eyebrow-raiser. I had always thought that the word was as much a meaningless interjection as ‘eh.’ Thus, this iota of information from Kuya Kim was something I had not heard of before.

In my lifetime, I have heard people mostly from the northern Tagalog provinces substitute ‘alâ’ for ‘walâ.’ Note the symbol I placed above the ‘a’ to signify the ‘maragsâ’ sound or the clipping of a vowel if it is used at the end of a syllable. ‘Ala,’ the interjection, is not pronounced with the same clipped vowel sound.

Thus, Kuya Kim’s explanation does sound a tad off the mark.

Pinoydictionary.com defines ‘ala’ as nothing or zero, null or without. I suspect, however, that the definition applies to the variant ‘alâ’ and primarily because the word is listed as a noun rather than as an interjection.

Also, ‘alâ’ is becoming just as common as ‘walâ’ because of contemporary expressions. For instance, young people are just as wont to lazily say ‘alâ lang’ in place of ‘walâ lang,’ an expression that I cannot say we used in my youth.

The Batangueño Connection

Short of ideas, I turned to my connections on social media, the core of whom at one time or the other lived in the province of Batangas and many continue to do so in the present day. While I can categorically state that the stereotype ‘ala eh’ is false, I will however admit that ‘ala’ by itself is liberally used hereabouts.

That is, unless it is substituted with the local dialect ‘anla’ or coupled with ‘pa’ as in ‘ala pa’ or ‘anla pa.’

So I asked my Batangueño connections how they understood the word ‘ala.’ None of the responses, of course, was backed up by scholarly citations. However, many language experts consider Batangas as Tagalog heartland; so the responses were more from personal understanding and practical daily usage of the word.

Funnily enough, there was no consensus at all among the respondents, something that hints at the word’s natural ambiguity. Many suggested that ‘ala’ signifies something negative such as an interjection of annoyance, disagreement, displeasure, uncertainty or disapproval.

For instance, if one gets invited to the lomi house and one has no inclination to go, the response may be, “Ala, busog pa ako!” Similar to the ‘eh,’ the ‘ala’ can be omitted and the gist of the sentence remains. Inserted at the beginning of the sentence, ‘ala’ hints at a bit of displeasure or even annoyance at the invitation.

It can also take the place of ‘ayaw ko’ or its contraction ‘ayoko.’ Thus, ‘ala, busog pa ako’ actually also means ‘ayaw ko, busog pa ako.’

In expressing disagreement with something, one can also say, “Ala naman!” The word may also be used to express doubt, hesitation or uncertainty, such as in, “Ala, bakâ matumba ang punô!”

Strangely enough, the word ‘ala’ may also be used as a standalone interjection coupled with the appropriate facial expression, frequently to convey the negative. So instead of saying ‘ala busog pa ako,’ one can just as lazily say ‘Ala!’ and be understood.

There is no rule of thumb, however, that states that ‘ala’ is used exclusively to connote the negative. One respondent correctly pointed out that it can also be used to signify pleasure. For instance, ‘Ala kasarap ga nare!’

For those not from this province, ‘ga’ is Batangas dialect for the more universal ‘ba’ used in most other Tagalog provinces. ‘Nare,’ on the other hand, is ‘nito.’

It is also possible that in the above example, as other respondents pointed out, ‘ala’ is used as a substitute for another common interjection, ‘aba.’ Thus, ‘ala kasarap ga nare’ can also be stated as ‘aba kasarap ga nare.’ In this case, ‘ala’ loosely translated into English appears to approximate ‘well’ so that the sentence in English is ‘Well this is good!’

Ala’ from Allah?

One interesting hypothesis was put forth by a couple of respondents, who suggested that ‘ala’ as an expression was originally ‘Allah,’ the name Muslims use for God. I cannot find any suitable literature over the Internet to support this as a viable etymology. However, Islam predated the arrival of the Spaniards in Luzon, so this may not entirely be baseless.

Here the plot thickens because one respondent based in Saudi Arabia said that Saudis use this Arabic interjection ‘wallah’ to signify disbelief, surprise or doubt. Wikipedia defines the expression, however, as ‘I swear by God.’ ‘Wallah,’ therefore, is probably used in the interrogative or ‘Do you swear by God?’ to signify disbelief, surprise or doubt.

Because Arab traders prowled Southeast Asia long before European colonisers arrived, the ‘Allah-to-ala’ proposition gains a measure of viability. After all, some of the respondents had stated using ‘ala’ to also signify doubt or uncertainty in Tagalog, specifically Batangas Tagalog.

Let us not completely forget the Spaniards, however, because they ruled in this country for more than three centuries and arguably left the most lasting legacies. They have this expression ‘hala,’ an interjection that Spanishdict.com says can mean ‘wow,’ ‘come off it,’ ‘let’s go,’ ‘come on,’ ‘get on with it,’ ‘hurry up,’ or ‘heave.’

Admittedly, none of these meanings approximates those suggested by the respondents. A point of interest, though, will be something evident to those who took units of Spanish in college.

That is, that in Spanish, the ‘h’ is not pronounced. Thus, ‘hala’ and ‘ala’ sound the same although in ‘hala,’ the accent is on the first syllable. ‘Ala,’ on the other hand, is just as correct pronounced with accent either on the first or second syllable.

Because Medieval Spain was for a while also under the Islamic Moors – or Moros, in Spanish – perhaps ‘ala’ is traceable to both ‘hala’ and ‘wallah’ and therefore to Allah. There are, in fact, suggestions in some Internet etymology boards that ‘hala’ evolved from Allah.

Back to Kuya Kim

In view of all of these, Kuya Kim’s claim that ‘ala’ is derived from ‘walâ’ seems to lose credence. The closest he comes is with the usage of the expression ‘wa-lâ eh!’ – emphatic accent on the first syllable of walâ – to express incredulity, amazement or surprise. I think that this is a strictly Batangueño thing and not something other Tagalogs are bound to utter.

For instance, if a friend does something completely embarrassing in public, one’s scathing utterance may quickly be, “Walâ eh! Hindî kita kilala!”

The use of ‘walâ’ in this instance, however, appears to be as an expletive, a shortened version of ‘walang-hiyâ’ so that the complete expletive is actually ‘walang-hiyâ eh!’ Do not take my word for it and I am not a language expert, but this is how I remember it from my childhood.

In the late sixties and early seventies, young people in particular started substituting the supposed swearword ‘walang-hiyâ’ with the allegedly less offensive ‘walastik’ and the very Batangueño ‘walandyo’ and ‘walanghers.’

‘Walâ eh,’ I believe, is very contemporary and something I only started to hear fairly recently and mostly from younger people. The way it is said comes nowhere near Kuya Kim’s ‘walang problema.’

So there you are! Quite a lengthy discourse to refute a bit of trivia put forth on national television, would you not say? I thank Kuya Kim for his Batangas trivia; but Batangas-born and raised that I am, I feel it almost an obligation to set things right.

If you got this far, I bet you learned a thing or two along the way as well.

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