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erlinda b. sialongo
erlinda b sialongo "Everything that we have so far seen to be true of language points to the fact that it is the most significant and colossal work that the human spirit has evolved" —Charles C. Fries (1993)

INDEED, SINCE the days of the Tower of Babel the human tongue has evolved thousands of languages; never mind that a number are either dead or dying, and of these thousands of languages, it is English that holds the distinction of being at present the world's de facto international language. But at a quick glance this unique gift to man has shown that it divides, rather than unites, people. Here in Central Luzon, Philippines, is an interesting example. Pampanga and Bulacan on one end share only a thread of boundary as do Pampanga and Tarlac on the other end, yet these three provinces, though only by a thread, are divided by language. The same is approximately true of the rest of the world. England, the mother country of English, is likewise demarcated by variations of English, and these variations apply all throughout Great Britain and former colonies of the British Empire such as the United States and Africa, and, by the same token, English demarcates where the United States had once been a colonial master such as in the Philippines. Spanish, a legacy of Spain to 20 countries is no less divisive. The same is true of French which is spoken in 26 countries, and Arabic which is spoken in 20 countries. Well, division was the purpose at Babel so these thousands of languages are its progeny.

Linguistic divisions are evident in many ways. About English, there are people who are not above arguing about which English is more English, British or American. There are endless questions too: Should it be "The committee are ..." or "The committee is ...?" Which sentence is questionable, "I have never seen a taller man than John" or "I have never seen a taller man than Mary?" Here in Pampanga, there is a variety of English that's uniquely Kapampangan. It is not unusual to hear "ouse" instead of "house" or "trif" instead of "trip," for instance. In Cebuano-speaking provinces one can hear "iggs" instead of "eggs" or "Culgit" instead of "Colgate." Of course, most Filipinos know—and are amused—about Leo Martinez and his "Ala eh." This expression is supposed to be Tagalog but only in Batangas is this used. Who has not read of the language riots in India? Some Indians still say "kilyer" instead of "clear." In Thailand it is not surprising to hear "upstay" instead of "upstairs." Though educated in London, some Singaporeans would rather speak Singlish than the Queen's English. Of course, talking of "-ish," how many educators and non-educators in the Philippines have lamented the use of Taglish. The Japanese pronounce "l" as "r" and insert vowels into foreign words with clusters, thus "milk" becomes "iruku." Talking of words, there are as many words to name one thing as there are languages in the world. It's no wonder that Shakespeare's Juliet lamented "What's in a name? ... that which we call a rose/ By any other name would smell as sweet."

About language in general, some scholars say it has been around for 100,000 years while others say 1,000,000 years. Comparative linguists note that languages have universals, that, for instance, regardless of word order, sentences usually have a subject and a verb, or a subject, a verb, and an object. They may also note that Turkish as less complicated grammar than English, that Chinese depends a lot on tone, or that French is more mellifluous than Spanish. The way language is spoken by Prince Charles is different from the way a language is spoken by an Eskimo fisherman. The British are known for not pronouncing terminal the "r" just as Americans are known for using "d" to pronounce middle the "t." (Try saying "car" the British way and "water" the American way.) Certainly, Shakespeare, who coined 1,600 words, cannot be put in the same class as a street cleaner, with no offense meant to the street cleaner. The word "viand" may be found in the dictionary, but chances are only a Filipino will make this word part of his English in use. There are still people today who fondly recall how Jack Kennedy would say "Ohior" or "bananer" instead of "Ohio" or "banana." A linguist made a study once and the results of his study showed that a person who says "gonna" and a person who says "going to" come from different social strata. These results have been corroborated in similar studies. Here, language proves that we are not only what we eat, we are also what we speak.

Safire (1980) showed how language experts are themselves divided. He said people (those who ought to know better but don't) who use the following are guilty of redundancy though some of these expressions have been accepted over time:
"free gifts" (Are there other kinds of gifts?)
"past history" (Excuse me?)
"false pretenses" (Aren't pretenses already false?)
"joined together" (Say that again, please.)
"pizza pie" (Pizza is a pie!)
"the greater majority" (The what?)
"smile on your face" (Where else can you find a smile?)
"end result," "close proximity," "sum total," "bouquet of flowers," "never before" (I give up!)
As for the expression "lion's share," wait a minute. Who would dare share with a lion?

Things have changed in the US since that time. But the great Muhammad Ali once took the American public to task on national television when he belligerently asked why "chocolate cake" was called "devil's cake" and "white cake" "angel cake."

Really, there is no question that language is so divisive.

However, it is this same divisiveness that ironically makes language a unifying factor. Whatever the topic of any discourse may be, the fact remains that the nexus of such a discourse is language. Despite human differences and instances of misunderstanding, great or small, the world is still held together by language. It is language, among other things, that makes the world thrive on unity in diversity. While it is easy to imagine what this world would be like were it to speak in one tongue, it is also easy to imagine what it would be like for the world to speak in the thousands of languages that have evolved since the tower of Babel.

To date, studies on language have yet to be exhausted.

The unity effected by language is best illustrated through English. English is perhaps the most evolved language in the world, just as it is perhaps the richest language through borrowing and assimilation. Words in English come from all the continents. More than 45 countries use English as an official or semi-official language. In this sense, it is only English that has so far succeeded in uniting the world to a certain degree.

Here are some examples of words that are now in English but did not come from England, the mother country of English:
yoyo, boondocks (Philippines)
shampoo, bungalow (India)
tempura, sukiyaki (Japan)
barbecue, cannibal (West Indies)
llama, quinine (Peru)
banana, banjo (Africa)
sputnik, perestroika (Russia)
kangaroo, boomerang (Australia)
waltz, blitzkrieg (Germany)
arroyo, mosquito (Spain)
church, angel (Latin)
law, window (Norse)
noble, royal (France)
boss, yacht (Dutch)
studio, umbrella (Italy)
algebra, sherbet (Arabic)
ketchup, typhoon (Chinese)
panic, tantalize (Greek)
checkmate, caravan (Persian)
kosher, cinnamon (Hebrew)
And "ok," this most universally used expression in English? Scholars are still debating, though many believe this word comes from West Africa. Other scholars, however, think this word originated from Boston, USA.

The enormous number of words that are now in English has not indicated that it is about to decrease. In fact, every day new words are added to the language—"blog," "byte," "inbox," to name a few. No other language today approximates the stature English has reached, not even Mandarin, which is the world's #1 language simply because there are more Chinese people on earth than any other nationality.

Cohen (2000) quoted Richard Reeves: "In this smaller world you have to know English 'to keep up' with modern developments—something like 80% of the world's technical papers are first published in English. If you want to know—now!—what is happening in computers, aviation, in accounting, or rock music, you have to know English."

"A house divided against itself cannot stand," Abraham Lincoln had said. Paradoxically, this house that is English, despite its many divisions, has not only been able to stand, it has also withstood babels of voices.

Of course, it is altogether very easy to focus on differences and there is a tremendous number of them besetting the world at present. Linguistic differences are not an exception. But, in the words of Lado (1993): "Certainly, I believe that we are all one flock, that we are the same fundamentally, but because human personality has evolved a variety of ways to live, ways that we call culture, we constantly misinterpret each other across cultures ... If, on the other hand, we know that an item or behavior has a meaning in the other culture, we will not misunderstand." Also, being a gift unique to humans, language can only further unite despite the many factors that divide because of culture.

Well, some whales can sing, can't they? Parrots can talk, and dogs can understand and obey verbal signals. True, but there's no record in history of a whale Einstein, Mozart, Hemingway, Elvis Presley, or Dr. Jose Rizal. Nor is there a record of any parrot that can talk or a dog that can understand and obey verbal signal without human tutelage or, at least, human prompting. Humans are still the only creatures on earth that can process language. This processing, called "significant and colossal" by Fries, has been acknowledged as man's domain, no matter in what sphere he may move. In the words of the poet O'Shaughnessey (1980):
"We are the music makers,
And we are the dreamers of dreams
Yet we are the movers and shakers of the world, it seems."
Indeed, man has been moving and shaking the world with language. It is no coincidence that when man had gotten out of the Dark Ages, the first thing he did was invent the printing press. His awesome and most recent invention, the electronic highway, is language-based. Thus, it remains that language is a special tool for man—special because God gave it to him and to no other creature on earth.

McKenna, Michael C. and Robinson, Richard D. 2002. Teaching Through Text, Reading and Writing in the Content Areas. Boston: Allyn & Bacon/Cohen, Sarabel Kass. 2000. Building Reading Fluency. Singapore: Thomson Learning/Parker, Frank and Riley, Kathryn. 2002. Linguistics for Non-Linguists. Boston: Allyn & Bacon/Poole, Stuart C. 1999. Introduction to Linguistics. London: McMillan Press, Ltd/Tubs, Steward L. 1999. Human Communication. New York: McGraw-Hill/Tartter, Vivien C. 1998. Language and Its Normal Processing. London: Sage Publications/Trask, R.L. 1995. Language: The Basics. London: Routledge/Safire, Willima. 1980. On Language.

[About the author. Erlinda "Linny" B. Sialongo has been teaching English and literature subjects for 33 years. She has a BSE in English from the Ateneo de Davao, an M.A.Ed degree, major in English, and a Ph.D in Educational Management from the Angeles University Foundation, Angeles City, and a certificate of special training (Family Planning and Responsible Parenthood, Public Administration, Production of Instructional Materials) from Xavier University, Cagayan de Oro City. She also has special training on journalism. She taught English as a Foreign Language in Severobaikalsk, Russia, for seven years and authored a book, 'Personally Yours,' about her life in Russia. She is author of various articles and researches, and has co-authored and edited four textbooks. She has traveled to Mongolia, China, South Korea, Kazahkstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgistan, India, Vietnam, and has been to Hong Kong, Dubai, Kuala Lumpur, and Amsterdam.]

-Posted: 2:12 PM 1/12/07 | More of this author on eK!