Monday, September 25, 2006

Excuse me, your English is showing

NEARLY everyone I know is leaving for abroad. A few days ago, while walking downtown for my favorite bowl of makimi, a sidewalk sign reminded me why I like staying put.

Amid clashing amulets, the small sign promised a small fortune for the down-and-out: “we buy dead cellphone.”

I like being where things are rarely thrown out, where even scrap has nine lives, and where someone always has a fresh take on English.

During one particular back-to-school rush, I was waiting to hand over to a sales clerk my list of stationery needs. A small slip lying on the glass top caught my attention.

It listed, among other things, “assorted filth paper.”

Before I had time to silence the bells clanging in my head, a clerk snatched the list and handed it back to a woman guarding reams of paper, boxes of crayons, bottles of glue, a bristling mini-forest of scissors and—no one needed to tell me— rolls of felt paper.

No one can surely boast of taking a wilder rollercoaster ride of emotions in so short a time: reading the list dizzied me; recognizing the woman’s uniform depressed me; but seeing the felt paper comforted me somewhat (apparently the sales clerk understood what the list-maker meant, a clear case proving that grammatical slips don’t necessarily sabotage the economy).

However, after piercing the grim scenario—what if the list had been drawn by that customer, and the customer turned out to be indeed a teacher, and one charged with the molding of a couple of hundreds of young minds—I plummeted to the deepest despair, a condition not helped by the sales clerks bypassing my list (perhaps because of the wild-eyed woman clutching it).

But this country somehow runs despite our English.

The worst lapses are not committed always by those who lack a familiarity with or sensitivity to the language. Education hardly provides the King’s language blanket immunity.

Last week, the Philippine Daily Inquirer quoted Lipa City Archbishop Ramon Arguelles as saying that President Gloria Arroyo “cheated but won the 2004 polls.”

The prelate came up with this curious view by pointing out that the president might have cheated (“talaga namang nandaya”) but she did it on a minor scale: “hindi siguro one million (votes) pero siguro mga ilang hundred thousand.”

English is redefined by our politics, or our math, if you will. One million votes can transform a housewife into a moral symbol. At less than a million “stolen” votes, it is not a cheat leading the country but an immovable force, untouched by shame, impeachment surroundings, or pastoral euphemisms.

A creature of habit, I like picking up newspapers to slog through what our leaders try to say without saying so.

For instance, Malacanang’s victory dinner for sympathetic prelates showed that the much vaunted separation of the Church and state is mythical. In their choice of English at least, the apologists of both sides sound alike.

For “malicious insinuations” that impugn the state, substitute “devil’s handiwork” if you are quoting a prelate detecting a conspiracy to stain the Church’s neutrality on the issue whether we are ruled by a president or a cheat.

The gifts, favors and treats the president is reportedly showering on the Church falls under the catch-all term of “political underpinnings.”

The newspeak is unequivocally equivocal, a term suiting the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, whose spokesperson, Msgr. Pedro Quitorio, used the euphemism to defend the browbeaten bishops that went to dinner with the president.

When I have had my fill of the “excessive politicking” bloating the nation’s affairs, I go for the requisite makimi foodtrip downtown. Come to think of it, dead cellphones and filth papers are just friendly Caspers to the real phantoms haunting our English.

(mayette.tabada@gmail,com or 09173226131)

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