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‘Distancia, amigo!’ Language in the time of a pandemic

Translating scientific words in Filipino will make us more equipped to provide better information in various fields of knowledge for learners, professionals and the general public.

Francine M. Marquez

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Illustration by Karen M. Nequinto

Quick, what is the Filipino translation of social distancing? Wouldn’t it be the omnipresent sign on jeeps, trucks and tricycles that says, “Distancia, amigo?”

Language is influenced by culture — the way we use words, the context we assign to words are affected by our customs, traditions, our social norms. But language, in turn, strengthens our culture and unites us as a people. According to University of the Philippines (UP) Professor Jem Javier, this is why there are certain words in English that may not have any direct translation at all in our local language.

One of these words is “social distancing,” a term used by public health officials to slow down the spread of the coronavirus or the rate of the infection (also known as “flattening the curve”). This means avoiding mass gatherings and keeping a distance of approximately six feet away from another person. In strict terms, even family members are asked to minimize their proximity especially in common areas at home like the living room, kitchen or dining area.

Prof. Javier explained: “Actually that word, ‘social distancing’ is a new concept in Philippine society because it’s not in our culture to do it. What is it? Pagkawatak-watak or paglalayo sa isa’t isa? (Break up or walking away from each other)?”

“We’re not used to the Western concept of leaving the house when we reach 18 years-old or we don’t send our elderly parents to nursing homes. We have extended families that not only include our relatives staying in our homes but we also treat our household staff like our own. Kahit in our own communities, we tend to know each family or resident. So it’s really difficult to grasp the meaning of social distancing and as evidenced by our lack of an indigenous term for it.

He said that the Filipino language borrows a lot of technology terms from the English language — words like Facebook, Twitter, surfing, internet, to name a few. The linguist noted, “We still use English when we refer to these technology and digital terms.”

Still, language can be richer when it is translated to the local language. For instance, “In Bahasa, they have a term for surfing, which is malayar. In Filipino, malayar means maglayag. It literally means to surf but it is metaphorically used to mean to surf the internet as well.”

Pauso’ phrases or lexical diffusion

Language is very dynamic just like our culture, Prof. Javier continued, “New words are coined quickly in our country. Vice Ganda, for example, has made the phrase ‘i-Dawn Zulueta mo ako’ a trending term. My senior professor calls it ‘pauso’ or, in academic terms, lexical diffusion. The vocabulary becomes part of the language as the phrase became viral and assigned a meaning in the consciousness of the Filipinos.”

The reference to Dawn Zulueta came from the movie Hihintayin Kita sa Langit where the actress is swept up by Richard Gomez with his brawny arms and he twirls her around.

On the other hand, Javier also noted that for extreme words — those that are related to phenomena for instance — are challenging organizations like the World Health Organization, NASA, including local agencies like PAGASA to choose terms like pandemic, storm surge, seismic eruption to make sure they are readily understood by the public.

Prof. Javier commented Maria Antonia Bornas, chief of the Phivolcs Volcano Monitoring and Eruption Prediction Division, for being able to explain in Filipino (during many press briefings) the Taal seismic eruption last January and the safety measures the public has to take. “Bornas made the concepts of the phenomenon understandable and accessible to the ordinary Filipino,” Prof. Javier said.

Translating the phenomenon
Prof. Javier explained that many times, however, figuring out local meanings for scientific phrases are overtaken by the phenomenon. Agencies then choose to keep the English term instead. He said, “So we retained the usage of ‘storm surge,’ ‘magmatic eruption,’ to name a few to keep the communication and message quick to the public.

And because such terms are not in our lingua franca yet, coining the apt terms usually follows after a time.”

And now, he observed, current terms like social distancing and behavioral etiquette have not been translated yet because of the urgency to explain pandemic and its impact to individuals, the community, and the world. “It is not a bad thing to borrow from other languages. In fact, the word ‘oxygen’ and ‘photosynthesis’ are both borrowed from the Greek language and are accepted as English.”

But the linguist added that there are comments about Filipino as lacking in scientific terms. On the contrary, Prof. Javier said that if such words could be explained in Filipino then it will not only be a service to the pubic but it will also further enrich our language. “If we can come up with translations for scientific words then we can further intellectualize our language. We will be more equipped to provide better information in various fields of knowledge.

In a time like this pandemic, Prof. Javier urged agencies such as the Commission on the Filipino Language, the Presidential Communications Operations Office or involved offices like the Department of Health to come up with public advisories and other information in Filipino and other dialects. He suggested to continue doing field researches and making actual engagements with locals to further dig into their language.

“Let’s take the word ‘storm surge’ that was mentioned when typhoon “Yolanda” hit the Philippines — in the Visayas. ‘surok’ means to overflow, to be agitated. It describes a bottleneck where there is a force waiting to come out. The term was never used during the time but it could have been utilized to relay what a storm surge is really like,” he explained.

In Taal, Batangas, Prof. Javier cited the word burog as a term used by the elderly to describe the movement of earth from underneath. He shared, “If it’s burog, the elderly know that something is happening to the volcano. A few hours after they felt the burog many times, that was the only time they got concerned.”

“This is called sociolect, which pertains to the variety of language used by particular social group. We often say doctors seem to speak Latin because they have their own lingo. The same thing goes for bekimon groups that have their own way of speaking to assert their identity.”

Language is a product of a group’s social experiences, Prof. Javier noted, “In the end, language experts can only prescribe terms but it will be the people who will select which words they will be naturally adopting according to their world view. After typhoon “Yolanda,” however, agencies like Phivolcs, Pagasa, and DoST are realizing that and have been reaching out to communities to learn their terms and deeply understand their way of life.”

You can bet, that Filipinos being creative and having a good sense of humor, will always shine with their resourcefulness and positive spirit. Just scroll on social media and you’ll have a collection of all the inventive words that netizens have already in these coronavirus times.

 

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