Pidgin Spanish and Ms. Fee

mary helen fee, thomasites, spanish philippines

“We had picked up the vernacular of the street carromate in Manila. This is simple. It consosts of the sigue, para, derecho, mano, and silla. For the benefit of such readers as do not understand pidgin Spanish, it may be explained that these words signify, respectively, “go on,” “stop,” “straight ahead,” “to the right,” and “to the left.” The words mano and silla mean really “hand” and “saddle”; I have been told that they are linguistic survivals of the days when women, rode in pillions and the fair incubus indicated that she wished to turn either to the side of her right hand or to the skirt side.”

These are the words of Mary Helen Fee, one of the first educator of English in the country. She wrote delightful and insightful books that offers some of the most interesting observations in early 20th century Philippines.

“In my own early days I was once criticized by one of the young ladies in Capiz for my pronunciation of the letter c in the Spanish word ciudad. I replied that my giving the sound th to the letter was correct Spanish, whereupon she advised me to pay no attention to the Spanish pronunciation, as the Filipinos speak better Spanish then do the Spanish themselves.”

Of course, Madame Fee was properly speaking the words. What she encountered was people who had already established a tradition speaking Spanish.

La Maestra Fee did not gave us any estimates on the actual number of Spanish speakers she met but by reading her accounts, almost all Filipinos did—in varying degree of proficiency that is.

The issue of the number of Spanish speakers in the country at the end of 19th century remains an issue of widespread historical debate among Filipino historians. Some scholars have placed it as high as half of the population while others contend that it was only 1%.

While the actual number would most likely remain a contentious issue among scholars, written history points to what appears to be a public that intuitively understands Spanish.

The Diksyunaryo Tesauro Pilipino-Ingles of Jose Villa Panganiban counts around 12,000 Pilipino “borrowed” words of which close to 8,000 are from Spanish. A substantial number considering this dictionary had already been indiginized to filter out Spanish words that have native equivalent.

The Spanish public school, tasked to teach Spanish, was introduced in the lat 19th century. It encountered problems at the get go. First, there was not enough qualified teachers to teach, second, the Philippine revolution was well on its way. But even though the public school (which antedates the American public school) largely failed to meet its goals, it is interesting to note that the period when it started up the the first decades of American rule, is considered by scholars to be the golden epoch of Spanish as a language in the country. Not only did newspapers and publications in Spanish soared in number but the literature that came out during this period was considered among the best in all of the former Spanish colonies.

Our long tradition in Spanish has produced some of the finest literary mind in the Spanish speaking nations. We have yet to produce English writers in the mould of a Rizal,  a Recto or an Abad—and we might not see one in our lifetime…


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