Waiting for a VerdictApril 22, 2008
Curious about the proceedings of an actual court hearing, I stepped inside a room where a trial was taking place. I don’t think I would have been allowed inside had I not been somewhat connected to one of the lawyers. I had hitched a ride from the airport in Cagayan de Oro to Iligan in my high school classmate’s car. It turned out her father was a lawyer and that he was also scheduled to represent or was it to prosecute a defendant. I could no longer remember the details of that case except for the moment when the defendant gave his testimony.
The defendant sat relaxed as the court interrogated him.
He was well built bordering on obesity and the hint of a beer belly. He had dark brown skin that hinted of a life of toil under the sun. He wore a plain white shirt and jeans. There was nothing remarkable about him. He was at the center of attention simply because someone brought a complaint against him.
Then he spoke. I could not recall his words, but I remember he had a deep baritone voice. That voice had a certain quality that is sought after in documentaries. Yet it was not just the tone that brought my attention, it was the language. He was speaking in perfect, fluent Cebuano!
I speak Cebuano. I grew up in that language. I even spoke it to the point of impoliteness in Manila, where the dominant language is Tagalog. Yet I must admit that my Cebuano was like a maya* compared to the eagle** that was his Cebuano.
Western influence has transformed Cebuano, or at least the Cebuano that I grew up in. Spanish words have seamlessly integrated into it to the point that some of us get surprised that a certain word has Spanish origins. English has also done its share, and has even replaced the use of Spanish in some cases. An example would be in counting. Traditionally, we use Cebuano words for the number of things until the number 10. Beyond 10, we switch to Spanish i.e. onse, dose, trese, etc. Money talk, however, is traditionally done using Spanish***. Nowadays, it is now common to see members of the newer generations to count only in English be it for money or for the number of things.
Hearing the man talk in perfect Cebuano somehow opened my eyes to that language. I didn’t realize that Cebuano could actually become beautiful. My generation, or at least those who belong to the upper social classes, do not think much about the classical use of our language. We cannot write in it in the same degree we write in English. We cannot even understand it when we read it!
Truth be told, I haven’t even seen Cebuano literature aside from Cebuano Bibles. These, btw, are disposed of to “those who cannot understand English”. We don’t listen to sermons in Cebuano, because we wouldn’t be able to understand it! We prefer to listen to our ministers and priests in English. Yet we have not stopped ourselves from speaking it, but in relegating it to conversation we have somehow reduced it.
IMO, there is nothing colorful about contemporary Cebuano. Our words are direct. Our vocabulary is small. Our conversations lack idioms. When asked for synonyms of our common words, we give English words. When asked to explain topics, some of us even answer in straight English. What’s worse is that every other sentence that comes from our mouths have at least a word of English mixed with the Cebuano words. How we use our language is a far cry from how the man under trial used it.
Then an ironic thing happened at the trial. The stenographer interrupted the proceeding asking for a proper English translation of the man’s statement. The court agreed upon a grammatically incorrect, bad sounding, and simple translation. I wanted to tell them to keep the man’s statement, but I was only a spectator and had no right to interrupt a legal proceeding. Yet I couldn’t help but think that future generations would never know about the true words the man spoke. The records would show them a man who could not speak perfect English when in reality he was a man who spoke perfect Cebuano.
I did not stay long at the trial. I left with a nagging thought:
The Cebuano language is under trial. Its judge and jury are its speakers, and they will pronounce sentence upon its fate. Only time will tell whether they let it die a slow death, or let it rise again with new life.
*Formerly the national bird, the maya is a small bird with brown and black feathers.
**I am referring here to the Philippine Eagle. It took the title of “National Bird” from the maya on 1995. It stands at about 3.3 ft with a wingspan of about 6.7 ft.
***Many a Cebuano has gotten culture-shocked after asking for the price of something in Manila. Where they would get “diyes” or “singko” in their respective provinces, they would get a “sampu” or “lima” in Manila. They do expect that Tagalogs use the same words for money and the number of things.