Habla 'Taglish'? Philippine trial a polyglot affair

'Can you tell us," begins defense lawyer Sigfrid Fortun, "maari mo ba salihin sa amin kung nasaan ka noong Augusti 28, 1998, nang ang account na ito ay binuksan?"

Welcome to the impeachment trial of President Joseph Estrada, which was in limbo Tuesday night when prosecutors resigned en masse after key evidence was ruled inadmissible.

As though the twists in the impeachment process were not enough, outsiders viewing Asia's first US-modeled presidential trial must also weave their way through the mix of languages that lawyers and politicians here use to shape their arguments and target certain audiences.

Foreigners and locals alike call it "Taglish" - a polyglot of Tagalog, declared the national language in 1936, and English, the dominant foreign language since the Philippines came under US colonial influence more than 100 years ago.

Spanish, following four centuries of European occupation, was once the preferred language of the upper classes.

Mr. Fortun's question - "Can you tell us where you were on Aug. 28, 1998, when this account was opened?" - contains an opening phrase in English, a date in Spanish, and the rest in Filipino, a Tagalog derivative that purists say is a lowest-common-denominator lingo that most across the nation can understand.

In a society that still suffers from large gaps between the haves and have-nots, class consciousness permeates communications in this nation of eight languages and 80 dialects. Even if most people here can speak both English and Filipino - about 80 percent of it from Tagalog - the educated classes tend to look down on the vernacular as the language of the masa, or masses. As in many other multilingual countries, the language of universities, business, and government is English.

So, while English is the chief language of the trial's legal proceedings - senators, lawyers, and a chief justice with impeccable, Latino-accented English use it to bicker over points of protocol - at crucial moments the dialogue turns Tagalog.

Defense lawyers for President Estrada have tended to favor Tagalog when questioning witnesses, observers say, to shore up support with working class and poorer Filipinos. But when cross-examining witnesses, senators known to be Estrada opponents seemed to switch from English to Tagalog in a way that belittles the witness before middle and upper-class viewers, and casts doubt on the interviewee's credibility.

"These are the linguistic politics of the impeachment trial. It is a game that is very subtly played and not noticed by many people," says Randy David, a professor of sociology at the University of the Philippines.

Mr. David points out that the president's lead defense lawyer, Estelito Mendoza, gave his opening statement entirely in Filipino even though it is not his native language, because Estrada's support comes mainly from the underclasses who knew him as a film star. But Joker Arroyo, the lead prosecutor in the Senate trial, delivered his opening arguments in English.

Whether these flip-flops between tongues are manipulative or simply pragmatic is a matter of opinion.

"The switch to Filipino now and then is a way of addressing the larger public, and thus acknowledging the public character of the trial," says David. "As a televised event, it is being viewed by a large number of Filipinos, "who "are more comfortable with Filipino than English."

Language-rooted class differences constantly play themselves out here in everyday life. Upper-class people often speak to each other in English, but break into Tagalog to address drivers and domestic servants - who are often equally fluent in the world vernacular. Manila's more serious newspapers come in English; its racy tabloids, in Tagalog.

Yet more than class politics are at work in the impeachment patois. Regional rivalries figure into the word play. For example, Chief Justice Hilario Davide comes from Cebu, in the central Philippines, where the lingua franca is Cebuano. He can easily understand the national Filipino, based on the Tagalog language of the Manila area's largest ethnic group, but people in Cebu "think that for them to use Filipino is to bow to Tagalog domination," notes David, the sociologist.

Some Estrada supporters say that it is precisely because of the president's lack of sophisticated English - which is necessary to study at any university here - that the educated classes didn't like him in the first place. "That's why they didn't want Estrada, because he's not one of them," says Sen. Anna Dominique Coseteng, referring to Filipinos who speak English almost as a native language.

Others say that the era of such snobbery is coming to an end. The president of the University of the Philippines, Francisco Nemenzo, recently allowed instructors to teach in the language of their choice, opening the way for more instruction in Tagalog. For that, he says, he came under fire from the educated elite who said it would damage the already slipping level of English here.

"Our experience is that students can more easily grasp abstract subjects if they are taught in Tagalog," he says. "We have created a terrible gap between the university graduates and the common people, and lately there has been a conscious effort to intellectualize Tagalog. Some will accuse me of nationalism, but for me, it's for purely practical reasons. There are also certain subjects that are better discussed in Tagalog."

Whether Estrada's charges of corruption, fraud, and violation of the public trust and Constitution are among them is still up for debate. So is the question of whether or not the prosecutors - who resigned after senators voted to prevent crucial evidence from being admitted in the trial - will return to the courtroom. Protests broke out across Manila yesterday at the breakdown in the trial, and many Filipinos fear violence may erupt. No one here seems sure to whom they should be listening now: The language of Constitution is in English, much of the civil code is in Spanish, and the politics, local as always, are in Tagalog.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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