norms when mixing tongues: taglish grammar

during a lively discussion over copious amounts of alcohol a few weeks ago, i found myself discussing the subtle rules of grammar inherent even in mixed or informal languages. the impromptu lecture was triggered by a question. i was asked: “paano ka na-injured?” instead of a vivid retelling of the details that resulted in a fractured lateral malleolus, i shot back by saying that the proper inquiry should have been “paano ka na-injure.” i explained that the use of an informal language, which in this case was taglish, is not a blanket authority to abandon all rules of grammar.

this phraseology reminds me of an interview with ara mina where she was asked about a rumored affair, and she wondered: “ewan ko ba kung bakit nabo-brought up pa yan.” when i told someone i knew about ara mina’s hilarious mistake and not getting the response i expected (which should have been laughter), i had to explain first why the sentence construction was wrong, and second, it being wrong, was naturally funny.

although it might come across as surprising to most, even informal languages have rules of grammar. all languages are governed by rules of structure that help us convey a message with clarity -- they are tools to help make our thoughts understood. most people might balk at the idea of having to conform to a rigid set of norms even in everyday conversations, but these guidelines facilitate communication. we do not vacate rules merely because an informal language appears to be a departure, and in some instances, a protest, of well-established languages.

the advantage of flipino over other asian languages is that it translates very easily to english, since there are not too many syntactical complexities involved. the structure of tagalog is so similar to english that bilingual filipinos mixing their tongues may employ either english grammar rules or filipino balarila in order to construct a proper sentence in taglish. in the case of the question that was propounded to me, the mistake was rooted in the misunderstanding of the effect of the tense element ‘na’. although tricky to non-native tagalog speakers and learners, conjugating verbs in filipino merely involves the attachment of sometimes single-syllable tense elements or modifiers.

although the rule is not as easily applied to all verbs, the insertion of ‘na’ in a verb has the effect of changing its tense. let’s take for example the verb “saktan” (to hurt). here are its possible permutations:

present tense: nasasaktan
past tense: nasaktan
future tense: masasaktan
again, it should be pointed out that the tense elements or modifiers do not always have the same result, unlike in many romance languages where the rules for conjugation are the same across all regular verbs, with some strange and specific rules for a few irregular verbs. filipino is a bit more fluid, and the rules are learned through usage rather than memorization. i could pluck any verb in the filipino language to illustrate the difference. in the case of “tira” (to reside), here are the possible permutations:
present tense: nakatira/tumitira
past tense: tumira
future tense: titira
nevertheless, when used in informal speech, ‘na’ operates as a tense element. so saying “na-injured” or “na-bo-brought up” is in fact redundant. ‘na’ is not the same as ‘was’, such as in the sentence “he was injured.” in this case, injured is being used as an adjective to describe a person’s state of being. it was not a verb conjugated in the past tense, such as in “he injured himself.” so in fact, “na-injured” does not mean “was injured”.

another oft-abused rule in taglish is the proper use of filipino and english comparatives and superlatives. in english, we normally employ adverbs or adjectives to illustrate the comparative superiority of something, i.e., “he is the fastest runner i know” or “he is faster than him”. the superlative suffix -est literally translates to the superlative prefix pinaka- in filipino. so it is also redundant to say: “sya na yata ang pinaka-fastest na runner na kilala ko”. the comparative is just as bad: “he’s mas-faster kaysa sa kanya.” correct taglish usage requires us to phrase our sentences this way: “sya na yata ang pinaka-fast na runner na kilala ko” or “he’s mas-fast sa kanya”.

i make no judgment at this time about how grating to the ears some of these sentence constructions might sound -- i am merely espousing the application of rules to make them just sound awful, rather than awful and ungrammatical. apart perhaps from my communications II professor in UP, no one else would know this, but i actually wrote a research paper on the emergence of new slang 20 years ago. in my freshman paper, i discussed how new informal languages are formed and the reasons why they are created. i focused my attention on swardspeak and coñospeak -- two ‘slanguages’ (a term i coined in my research paper) which were widely spoken at the time that i was a student in UP diliman.

i can think of many other ways by which the limits of slang are stretched beyond comprehension. but i’ll save those lectures for another blog entry.