Nagsampalan, nag-text-an, nag-I love you-han: Reciprocity and code-switching in Tagalog

Full disclosure: I am a big fan of Be Careful with My Heart. I started watching the show when I was in Manila in January, and I brought the habit back with me to Oxford. The television shows I watch usually involve terrorists, drug dealers and serial killers, so this show is a welcome break from all of that darkness and violence. There is something about it that is just so Filipino, so innocent and so fun; I find it really engaging.

The show dropped a bombshell this Friday when the preview for Monday showed the lead characters finally saying those three magic words to each other.

As can be expected, this set off a huge fan reaction. My mother weighed in with a rant:

Ano ba yan! Nagulat ako kanina biglang nagsigawan ang mga kapitbahay! Akala ko kung ano na nangyari, yun pala nag-I love you-han lang sina Maya at Ser Chief!

The excitement wasn’t limited to my neighborhood; Twitter and Facebook were abuzz with anticipation. Here’s a Facebook commenter’s take:

Naku! Nakakakilig talaga ang I love you-han nila!

Quite apart from what they are about (which is awesome, I’m counting the minutes until Monday), these comments are fascinating in that they feature these constructions:

nag-I love you-han

I love you-han

These words perfectly show just how code-switching to English works in Tagalog, and how English words (in this case, a whole English phrase) are accommodated within the morphosyntactic framework of Tagalog.

In Tagalog, the mag/nag-…-han morphemes serve as markers of reciprocity, meaning that the participants in an action have the dual role of patient and agent with respect to each other:

Nagsampalan at nagsabunutan sina Celine at Margaux.

Many languages have special grammatical markers to indicate reciprocity. Spanish, for example, uses the reflexive pronoun se to signal a reciprocal action:

Celine y Margaux se pegaron y se tiraron del pelo.

English does not have a special marker of reciprocity, and thus makes use of phrases such as each other and one another to express this meaning:

Celine and Margaux slapped each other in the face and pulled one another’s hair.

Tagalog, in contrast, has not one but multiple ways of morphologically conveying reciprocity, as shown by the following sentences:

Hindi ko siya papansinin kahit magsalubong kami sa daan.
I won’t pay attention to him even if we bump into each other on the street.

Halos magkatulakan kami sa hagdan sa sobrang pagmamadali.
We almost pushed each other down the stairs in our haste.

Pinaglalapit yata tayo ng tadhana.
Destiny may be bringing us closer to each other.

Itay, hindi ninyo kami mapaglalayo! Nagmamahalan kami!
Father, you cannot keep us apart! We love each other!

This particular characteristic of Tagalog results in an economy of expression that is difficult to achieve in English:

Nagdemandahan ang dalawang artista.
The two actors each filed a court case against the other.

Some linguists believe that code-switching is only possible with free morphemes, but Tagalog-English code-switching proves this false with the frequent affixation of English words with Tagalog bound morphemes, including the mag/nag-…-han reciprocity markers:

Anong oras ka ba darating mamaya?
Di pa ko sure, mag-text-an na lang tayo.
What time are you arriving later?
I’m not yet sure, let’s just text each other.

Nood tayo ng sine mamaya, ang tagal na nating hindi nakakapagbondingan.
Let’s go to the movies later, it’s been a while since we last spent time with each other.

And as can be seen from our first examples, even whole English sentences can be transformed into Tagalog verbs through morphological affixation. They can also be nominalized, reduplicated, and basically be made to do what any other Tagalog verb can do.

Narinig mo ba ang tsismis? Nag-I love you-han na daw sina Ser Chief at Maya!

Mag-I-I-love you-han na ba talaga sila o baka panaginip lang?

Excited na akong mapanood ang i love you-han nila!

Sasabihin mo saking hindi mo boyfriend yan eh I love you-han na kayo nang I love you-han sa text! (I actually heard somebody say this a few years back)

Magsitigil nga kayo. May I love you-han I love you-han pa kayong nalalaman!

As creatively delightful as these constructions are, they also bring up a big spelling issue, which is, to put it simply: how on earth do you spell them? Do you use hyphens? Do you just squash all constituents together? Do you keep the English spelling? Do you transform everything to Tagalog? I chose to write nag-I love you-han for the purposes of this post, to make each element distinguishable, but I could easily have written it any of the following ways:

nag-i love you-han
nag-iloveyou-han
nag-iloveyouhan
nagiloveyouhan
nagaylabyuhan

It’s quite confusing now, but I’m sure we’ll figure out, the same way we figured out similar constructions from a much older colonial language:

nagtrabaho
umasenso
inechapwera
naglamyerda

In the meantime, let’s enjoy tomorrow’s I love you-han. I don’t know about you, but I’m setting my alarm at 7 am.

Video source: ABS-CBN News YouTube Channel

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