What can the first Filipino novel tell us about Tagalog, Spanish and English vocabulary?

Ninay Book Cover

Nine years ago I wrote my undergraduate thesis on Nínay: Costumbres filipinas, the novel considered to be the first to ever be written by a Filipino. I looked at certain characteristics of the novel and argued that it owed a lot to a Spanish literary trend called costumbrismo, which flourished in Spain in the 19th century. Costumbrista literature, which counts such authors as Serafín Estébanez Calderón, Ramón de Mesonero Romanos and Mariano José de Larra among its leading figures, is characterized by satiric, moralizing works full of folkloric detail.

Reading Nínay was not an altogether pleasant experience. Many critics consider the novel a failure as a literary work, and I am inclined to agree with them. This is no Noli Me Tangere or El Filibusterismo: the plot is so convoluted and preposterous it can rival any of our current primetime teleseryes, and its author gave more attention to painting local color than to fleshing out its characters, which were reduced to stereotypes.

In many ways, Nínay can be seen as a European novel. Not only does it follow Spanish costumbrista models, it was written and published in Madrid, in the Spanish language. But Nínay can also be viewed as a quintessentially Filipino novel. It was written by a Filipino (the writer, politician and notorious balimbing Pedro Alejandro Paterno); it has Filipino characters in Filipino settings; it has extensive, minutely detailed, loving descriptions of Filipino places, plants, animals, dress, food, art, language and customs. It has several long footnotes on various aspects of local life, and quotes from 16th to 18th century works on the Philippines, in Spanish and French. It even includes, as an appendix, a lengthy essay on Philippine pre-Hispanic civilization.

Nínay‘s weak, soap-operatic story merely serves as framework for the description of Philippine life and culture of the period. The novel is an exaltation of indigenous traditions, and has the dual objective of documenting native customs threatened by great social change, and of correcting distorted perceptions of the Philippines as an uncivilized, culturally backward colony in the tropics. These objectives are shared by Spanish costumbrista writers, who also lived during a time of social upheaval in Spain, and who saw their country viewed by the rest of the world principally through existing Spanish stereotypes.

I enjoyed writing the thesis more than reading the novel, and for my efforts I got my first journal publication (which is available here), and a shiny medal on graduation day that made me think for the first time that this research thing was something I could actually do.

Years later, I did get into research, but in language and not literature. My main working language shifted back to English from Spanish. It really seemed that I had closed the book on the study of Filhispanic literature, both literally and figuratively. That was what I thought, until I got an invitation to give a paper at the inaugural colloquium of a new research network in Oxford, Translations in Transnational Contexts, which involved scholars working in different aspects of translation that crossed national, geographical, linguistic and cultural boundaries. I saw this as the perfect opportunity to revisit my old friend Nínay, whose namesake novel is a prime example of transnational literature. This time, I was going to look at the novel from a lexical perspective, and see how translating concepts from one culture to another culture’s language aids processes of word formation.

Searching the novel for lexical riches proved to be more rewarding than looking for its literary value. From the very first chapter, Nínay gave me valuable insight on three different kinds of vocabulary. First, there are Spanish words that have made it into the Tagalog lexicon. We all know that a large percentage of Tagalog words (some even say up to 75%) are of Spanish origin, and several of them crop up in the first Filipino novel.

And then there are the Tagalog words that have made it into Spanish vocabulary. We get very excited when we see words of Filipino origin in famous English dictionaries such as the OED and Websters, but what we are less aware of is the fact that the Philippines had made its mark on another language and another dictionary long before any of these English dictionaries even existed: the Diccionario de la lengua española de la Real Academia Española (DRAE). Nínay has a number of words of Tagalog origin that are documented in the DRAE, several of which Paterno himself checked against the 12th edition of 1884 (the first edition came out in 1780).

Dicc RAE 1780

As can be expected, there are the usual borrowings of flora and fauna terms (jusi, nipa, sampaguita, santol, etc.), but there are also some very surprising entries:

baguio
1. m. Filip. huracán (‖ viento a modo de torbellino).

bata
(De or. tagalo).
1. adj. Filip. niño (‖ que está en la niñez).
2. m. Filip. Criado joven.

pancit
1. m. Filip. Fideo hecho de harina de arroz.

salacot
(Del tagalo salakót).
1. m. Sombrero usado en Filipinas y otros países cálidos, en forma de medio elipsoide o de casquete esférico, a veces ceñido a la cabeza con un aro distante de los bordes para dejar circular el aire, y hecho de un tejido de tiras de caña, o de otras materias.

Diccionario de la Real Academia Española, 22nd ed.

And my favorite:
tabo
1. m. Vasija filipina hecha con la cáscara interior y durísima del coco.

Diccionario de la Real Academia Española, 22nd ed.

Paterno even uses the verb tabear:

Por varios sitios , á la sombra de los cañaverales, vense grupos juguetones de dalagas de mórbidas formas, sumergiéndose en las ondas, ya levantando espumas con sus pies al nadar, ya formando cascadas al tabearse…

Nínay: Costumbres filipinas, p. 60

This is accompanied by an explanatory footnote on the same page:

Tabear. Verter agua sobre la cabeza con el tabo.
Tabo, m. Vasija filipina hecha con la cáscara interior y durísima del coco. (Dic. de la Acad. Esp., 1884.)

Nínay: Costumbres filipinas, p. 60

And then there is this word, which originated from a Spanish word, was Tagalized, and then made its way back into Spanish:

batalán
(Der. tagalo de batea).
1. m. Filip. Especie de terraza o balcón de madera o bambú, sin techo, situado en la trasera de las casas, donde se guardan los útiles de lavar.

Diccionario de la Real Academia Española, 22nd ed.

I also noticed some Spanish words that have undergone semantic change and taken on a new meaning in the Philippines.

abrazadora
Common Spanish meaning:
1. adj. Que abraza.
Filipino meaning:
3. m. Especie de almohada de forma cilíndrica que se usa en Filipinas para dormir con mayor comodidad, y que protege tanto del calor como del frío según la postura que el cuerpo adopte al abrazarse a ella.

caída
(Del part. de caer).
Common Spanish meaning:
1. adj. Desfallecido, amilanado.
Filipino meaning:
19. f. Filip. p. us. Galería interior de las casas de Manila.

banca
Common Spanish meanings:
1. f. Asiento de madera, sin respaldo y a modo de mesa baja.
2. f. Conjunto de entidades que tienen por objeto básico facilitar la financiación de las distintas actividades económicas.
Filipino meaning:
7. f. Embarcación pequeña usada en Filipinas.

Diccionario de la Real Academia Española, 22nd ed.

Finally and more fascinatingly, Nínay also includes Tagalog words that have made into English vocabulary through Spanish. The examples I give here are still used in contemporary Philippine English and are in fact included in the OED:

casco, n.
Etymology: < Spanish casco hull, hulk.
b. A kind of boat used at Manila in lading and unlading ships.

jusi, n.
Pronunciation: /ˈhuːsiː/
Forms: Also husi, jussi.
Etymology: < Spanish jusi, < Tagalog husi.
A delicate fibrous fabric woven in the Philippine Islands.
1851 Illustr. Catal. Great Exhib. iv. 1344/1 Piece of ‘jusi’, and a shawl of ‘jusi’.

sampaguita, n.
Pronunciation: /sæmpəˈɡiːtə/
Etymology: < Filipino Spanish sampaguita, diminutive of Tagalog sampaga Arabian jasmine.
A local name in the Philippines for the Arabian jasmine, Jasminum sambac; the flowers of this tree.
1902 Encycl. Brit. XXXI. 667/1 Valuable essential oils are obtained from the flowers of the ilangilang, sampaguita, and champaca.

Oxford English Dictionary, 3rd ed.

Nínay is particularly interesting for lexical research because of the level of detail the author offers about many of the local terms he employs. This wealth of information not only gives a clear indication of the exact meaning of words, but can also help in dating reciprocal borrowings between Spanish, Tagalog and Philippine English.

Most research now on Filhispanic literature is done from a literary perspective, but we see now that it can also be useful for lexical investigations. In the future, it would be interesting to look at the Tagalog and English translations of Nínay (which came out in 1906 and 1907, respectively) to see how the novel’s depictions of local culture and traditions have been rendered in two such disparate languages. And this also makes me wonder: what can Rizal tell us about the evolution of our vocabulary? How about the other Propagandists? And how about the writers of the Golden Age of Filhispanic Literature: Claro M. Recto, Jesús Balmori, Cecilio Apóstol, Evangelina Guerrero?

This experience also made me realize the value of interdisciplinary research networks. By participating in this colloquium, I learned about, among many other things, the translation of Franco-British military medicine in the 18th century, transcultural architecture in Goa, the politics of translation in Napoleonic France, the translation of Spanish Golden Age Drama into English: topics that I would not have known anything about in my little applied linguistics bubble. It also made me consider my own work from a point of view that I had thought irrelevant, and in so doing led me down a promising new research path.

One thought on “What can the first Filipino novel tell us about Tagalog, Spanish and English vocabulary?

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