The bible begins with the creation of everything that exists (Genesis, chapter 1). How is this creating done? Does God overcome some primordial, recalcitrant demonic force? No, although such accounts are found in the book of Psalms. In the book of Genesis, God creates simply by speaking: “God said ‘let there be light’, and there was light.” And so it proceeds for the first six days, with the creation of the humans on day six. The creation of everything is accomplished simply through words.
And the intriguing fact is that, among all that has been created, we humans are unique in having the same power of speech. I take this to mean that, among other things, in having the ability to communicate with one another with words, we are enjoying a divine-like power. Of course, such power can be used both for good and ill, hence the teaching of St Paul, “do not use harmful words in speaking, only the kind that will build up” (Ephesians, 4:29). Also in the New Testament, from James 3, 8-9: “with our tongue we bless the Lord and Father, and curse our neighbours, who are made in the likeness of God”. So clearly, our power of speech is an ambiguous one, able to produce words of beauty or abuse, words of encouragement or dismissal.
When I arrived in the Philippines in 1986, I studied at a language school run by the Maryknoll missionaries (New York), staffed entirely by locals. The five-month course gave us a fine grounding in one of the major languages in the country (spoken by about 30 million). It was like being back at school: we had lessons from 8-12 noon, then lunch and siesta (a break from the tropical heat), followed by classes again from 2-4pm.
Actually, the languages, two of which I speak with some fluency, are quite simple grammatically: just a past, present, and future tense; you read the words exactly as they are written on the page (no silent letters, like the letter “b” in lamb). The challenge in the Filipino languages is the vastness of their vocabularies: every day, in the hinterlands, I learn new words. For instance, for our verb to “carry”, they have multiple words: to carry in the hand, under the oxter, on the shoulder, on top of the head, across the shoulders (a pole, with buckets on either end, bringing water from the well), two or more people carrying an object (as in the gospel story of the paralytic being lowered through the roof, having been carried on a stretcher by his companions). To be sure, the generic verb for to carry (“dala“) could be used for all of these cases, but what a shame, to neglect the richness of the language. The various languages have lovely touches. For example, they abound in onomatopoeia: the verb to knock is “tuktuk“; the verb to complain is “yawyaw“. Even if you don’t speak the language, you can probably hear the resonances.
There are certain pitfalls which most non-native speakers have encountered, often with hilarious results. Presumably this can happen in most languages. Think of a non-English speaker writing home describing his latest adventures. He writes: “I went to the fish shop to buy some soul, then later I had a new soul put on my shoe”. This should not lead us to imagine that either the fishmonger or the cobbler were people of an exceptionally spiritual nature. Or he may write: “There was a great sail at the mall today. Then I went to sea and brought a sale with me”. The first sentence may lead the reader to imagine a store covered in rigging, while the later may conjure up images of the man selling things cheaply in the harbour. But these slips only occur in writing; spoken, each of the above sentences makes perfect sense.
Languages in the Philippines are predominantly spoken, not written – hence the abundant opportunities for blunders. Some words are spelt exactly the same, but where the accent is put, determines which word is meant, and the words are entirely different: so the word “baga” can mean either “lungs”, “cinders” or “thick” (bulky, solid), depending on the stress. By using the wrong stress, you may say “I have an infection in my cinders” or “I will gather up the lungs and put them into the bin”. The word “puso” also has multiple meanings: depending on the accent, it can mean “a well”, “corn on the cob”, “the heart of the banana plant” (not the fruit). So an innocent foreigner may say “I’m going to the banana plant to get water”, or “I’m going to boil the well for lunch”. Then there are words with many of the same letters, but in a different order, and it is easy to confuse these. An example is the word “kalinaw” which means “peace”. The word for a variety of marinated raw fish is “kinilaw”. By confusing the two words, the priest, during the Mass, may say to the people just before the Lamb of God, “The sushi of the Lord be with you all”. By far the most egregious error one can commit is at the “prayers of the faithful”. The response “Lord hear us” translates word for word as “Ginoo pamatia kami”, the middle word being the verb “to hear”. If however what is stressed is not the letter “i”, but the preceding “mat”, the result is “Lord kill us”. Ouch!
Then there are words which mean one thing in one dialect, something entirely different in another. The word “sili” means “pepper” in one language; however, in another, it refers to a delicate private part of the male anatomy. As I was describing the somewhat extreme penances inflicted by St. Rose of Lima on herself, I meant to say that she disfigured her lovely face using peppers, to ward off any possible suitors, such was her devotion to the Lord. Unfortunately, in speaking a different dialect, I attributed to the saint, practices which surely would have called into question, not her extreme and unhealthy austerity and self-discipline, but her being a person of any decent virtue at all. According to my misuse of a word, she used to engage in acts more at home in a bordello than a Catholic household in Peru. But Filipinos are a forgiving people and, instead of guffawing at my faux pa, a few merely smiled discreetly.
Filipinos speaking English can also be occasions of unintended mirth. Some years ago, while conducting a mission in an area of sugar plantations, one of the overseers came to me with a request. Speaking in the local dialect he asked if I would bless his “jundir“. Now I speak that dialect with some fluency, but I had never heard the word “jundir” before. Was it some article of devotion perhaps? Or a new machete to use harvesting the sugar? Sugar plantations can be quite extensive, so I finally understood that he wanted me to bless his new tractor, a John Deere.
In the larger Christian scheme of things, it is almost a mark of respect if occasionally we get ridiculed or scoffed at, because of our words. Think of the gospel of Mark, 5: 22-42. Jesus was called to help a girl who was “at the point of death” (v.23); as he was approaching the house, messengers announced that she had already died (v. 35). But Jesus ignored the message and reassured the girl’s father, saying “Do not be afraid, only believe” (v. 36). When he arrived at the house, the crowd was mourning loudly, but Jesus said, “Why do you make a tumult and weep? The girl is not dead but sleeping” (v. 39). Verse 40 gives the crowd’s response: “And they laughed at him”. Of course, Jesus wasn’t mispronouncing anything, but engaging in his relentless battle against the forces of darkness.
Think also of St. Paul, who was openly laughed at in Athens when, in front of the philosophers gathered in the Acropolis, he had the temerity to declare that Jesus had indeed been raised from the dead (Acts. 17:32). Again however, to be fair, Paul wasn’t making any slips of the tongue, but engaging in an altogether more revolutionary activity: announcing the completion of the unheard-of; that what had been an inchoately hoped for next-world or after-life possibility or promise, had already in fact happened, in a garden on the outskirts of Jerusalem.