Rizal's legacy: Multiplied by languages
In the words of the Czech ethnographer Ferdinand Blumenttrit, Dr Jose Rizal was like a “rare comet, whose brilliance appears only every other century.” Fine words indeed for the Philippines’ preeminent Renaissance man, internationally renowned as a political scientist, historian, novelist, poet, sculptor, journalist, linguist and eye surgeon.
Of course, it was Rizal’s legendary defense of civil and democratic rights that defined his legacy, but his fascination for language would also influence the national narrative in subtle ways.
It is easy to forget that the "nation" – a sovereign geographical entity whose citizens have a shared history and destiny – is a relatively new idea that only began to achieve widespread popularity in the second half of the 19th century.
The ideology of nationhood has been widely theorized but one of its signature innovations is the concept of a monocultural national identity, or as a slogan of the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco put it: "One flag, one nation, one language."
For this formula to make sense national languages needed to be codified, standardized and elevated above competing varieties, allowing the multi-dialectal populations of Europe to be recast as the French-speaking French or the German-speaking Germans, and so on.
Within Rizal’s lifetime, for example, there was no such thing as the "Italian" language – this linguistic fiction would first need to be constructed from a minority dialect of Tuscany.
From this perspective, Rizal’s celebrated multilingualism and cosmopolitanism make him an unlikely figure of national unity. In fact, Rizal was never an advocate of Philippine independence from Spain, demanding only autonomy and fair representation in the Spanish court. What he desired most for his people was recognition.
Rizal took the prevailing European narrative that Spain had brought enlightenment to a benighted and barbaric population and turned it on its head. In his scholarship on Philippine pre-history – based largely on the chronicles of early Spanish visitors – he argued that Spain had, on the contrary, interrupted the development of a thriving network of trade and cultural exchange. And while the Spanish friars considered linguistic diversity and multilingualism to be evidence of political disunity – and one among many justifications for Spanish rule – Rizal was inclined to see it as a blessing.
“Man is multiplied by the number of languages he possesses and speaks,” he wrote in 1888 and he himself was a fine exemplar of this ideal. It is typically claimed that he was conversant in as many as 22 languages, namely: Spanish, French, Latin, Greek, German, Portuguese, Italian, English, Dutch, Japanese, Arabic, Swedish, Russian, Chinese, Greek, Hebrew and Sanskrit; and the local languages Malay, Chavacano, Visayan, Ilocano and Subanun.
In his home town of Calamba a monument in his honor was constructed to stand 22-feet tall, symbolizing each of these languages, but like much of the mythology surrounding Rizal, the true extent of his linguistic mastery is debatable and subject to a certain amount of inflation over time.
Although he was an undeniably skilled translator of German into Tagalog, and his letters and diaries are replete with switches between European languages, he himself was quick to acknowledge the limits of his own linguistic expertise.
Historical value of language
In his political writings Rizal used linguistic analysis to support hypotheses about the past migrations of Malay peoples and to advance revisionist historical arguments. For example, in order to challenge a recurrent Spanish claim that gambling was an indigenous vice that early Christian missions took pains to eradicate, he noted that the many Tagalog terms within the semantic domain of gambling were all Spanish borrowings and were unlikely to have replaced native equivalents, suggesting that gambling was a direct Spanish import.
Though his inductive approach might demand more rigor from linguists today, Rizal’s treatment of borrowed vocabulary as a source of historical evidence was innovative in the Philippines at the turn of the 19th century.
Biding his time as an exile in Dapitan, on the southern island of Mindanao, Rizal wrote a sketch-grammar of Tagalog, becoming perhaps the first Filipino to produce a grammatical description of a native Philippine language.
Like earlier grammars of Tagalog published by missionary priests, Rizal relied on the grammatical categories of European languages to explain Tagalog structures, and his text includes multiple comparisons to Spanish, English, Latin and German. As a work of grammatical description it is unremarkable, and his cross-linguistic comparisons sometimes demonstrate a shaky analysis of European languages.
However, Rizal’s accurate analysis of the Tagalog sound system and his use of a logical spelling system was both groundbreaking and controversial. A few years earlier, in 1890, Rizal was already advocating the abandonment of the irregular Hispanic spelling conventions for Tagalog in which certain consistent sounds were represented with a variety of different letters depending on their adjacent vowels.
To demonstrate just how ill-suited Spanish orthography was for writing Tagalog words, Rizal took the word katay (‘to butcher’) as an example. Using the Spanish system this would need to be spelled catai, but in its past-tense form the word was wholly recomposed as quinatai (‘butchered’).
In effect, Spanish spelling rules had "butchered" the morphology of Tagalog. Rizal proposed the introduction of the letters "k" and "w" into the Tagalog alphabet, and outlined a more consistent representation of Tagalog sounds. Thus the verb catai would be spelled katay while its past form would become kinatay, faithfully revealing the morphological structure of the word.
Rizal was not the first to recommend reforms to Tagalog spelling. By his own admission he had taken inspiration from the prominent Filipino intellectuals Trinidad Pardo de Tavera and Pedro Serrano Laktaw who were already using elements of this new system.
Indeed, the latter had gone so far as to revise the spelling of his own family name from "Lactao" to "Laktaw." But it was Rizal’s scientific formalization of the new rules, and his existing fame as a novelist, that helped advance the reformist agenda.
Tagalog spelling system
He was not without his opponents. While his new orthography had the effect of clarifying the sound system of Tagalog, it also disguised and indigenized Spanish loanwords. Critics writing for the Catholic Review considered the foreign letter "k" to be an unpatriotically "German" imposition and an affront to mother Spain.
One went so far as to sign an article with the provocative pseudonym hindí aleman (Tagalog: "not German"). Ironically perhaps, the so-called "foreign" letter "k" was soon to become a powerful symbol of a national and distinctly Filipino identity. The letter was emphasized in the full name of the Katipunan – the Kataas-taasan, Kagalang-galangang Katipunan ng mga Anak ng Bayan (‘Highest and Most Honorable Society of the Children of the Nation’), or KKK.
Among the various flags flown by the revolutionaries some displayed the letter K; others bore the symbol for the sound <ka> resurrected from the indigenous baybayin writing system widely used in the north of the Philippines until the 18th century.
Recently, the Filipino communist insurgent group known as the New People’s Army, celebrated its 45th anniversary with a lightning demonstration in Quezon City, wearing bandana masks with this symbol. The distinctive letter "k" also found favor with a staunch nativist community of Bohol that developed its own unique writing system for recording local folklore in the early 20th century.
In the "Eskaya script," as it is now known, many syllable characters ending in a /-k/ sound, bear a resemblance to that infamous "German" letter. Had he lived, Rizal may well have been ambivalent about the nation-building project of creating the Tagalog-based "Pilipino" language, developed and redeveloped between 1937 and 1973.
As a non-nationalist cosmopolitan sympathetic to Spain, who wrote almost all of his work in Spanish, there is every reason to believe that Rizal would have preferred Spanish to live on in the Philippines and to fulfill its expected destiny as an islands-wide lingua franca.
But for all his fame as a linguist, it was Rizal’s reformulation of writing, as opposed to language, that had the most lasting influence. His new spelling-system of Tagalog gradually took hold in the two decades following his execution, and its basic principals have been extended to all other major languages of the Philippines.
Efforts have occasionally been made to improve it further, by, for example, eliminating "e" and "o," but these changes have not found wide acceptance. Another curious venture has been creation of the Rizalian Alphabet or "Abakadang Rizaleo," by Marius V Diaz in 1994, inspired by the outward form of the indigenous baybayin script.
Catholic Church dominance
It is something of a cliché to affirm that Dr José Rizal’s thought is as relevant as ever to the Philippine nation but it can hardly be denied. His brilliant essay "On the indolence of the Filipino" can be read as a devastatingly witty rebuke to every foreign tourist who complains about poor service or a lack of initiative amongst locals, unaware of the long shadow of colonialism they are projecting.
But it was his unflinching critique of the friar orders and their oppressive governance of the Philippines that continues to resonate with such force, despite the freedoms won by the Rizal-inspired independence movement.
Today, outsiders may have difficulty making sense of the extraordinary dominance of the Catholic Church in contemporary Philippine politics, especially if they are unfamiliar with the long history of friar rule in the islands. Although the powerful landholding monastic orders, or "friarocracy" as they became known, were officially divested of their authority by the Revolution and US occupation, the Catholic Church has continued to be a strong presence in civil political life.
In 1956, the Church even attempted to block the teaching of Rizal’s life and works in the Philippine national curriculum, going so far as to argue against the reading, owning, selling, translation or republication of his novels.
More recent tensions arose on Sept 30, 2010 when the activist Carlos Celdran dressed himself in Rizal’s signature overcoat and hat and raised a sign with single word "Damaso" during Mass in Manila Cathedral. The protest, calculated to invite a comparison between the autocratic priest Fr Damaso from Noli Me Tángere with the present obstructionism of the Church – particularly in matters of reproductive health reform – led to his arrest on charges of “offending religious feelings,” something that Rizal was notorious for.
As a non-violent moderate, Rizal is a complex figure lending himself to multiple and contradictory interpretations. It is ironic that his very moderation was to be exploited by both the US authorities and the dictator Ferdinand Marcos who appealed to Rizal’s peaceful example to warn against armed resistance to their own tyranny.
A confirmed secularist and advocate of science over faith, he has been reinvented as secret Catholic by eager Filipino historians disappointed with Rizal’s apparent lack of deference to religious authority.
It is the fate of all great historical actors to yield to the popular imagination and to live on in alternative histories. Perhaps the greatest paradox of Rizal’s legacy is his elevation as a mystical folk hero and the agent of countless miraculous events.
There are those who maintain that he is an immortal who survived his execution and is still alive and among us today. Numerous religious sects, collectively known as Rizalistas or Rizalians, claim him as the incarnation of Christ. One can only imagine what Rizal – whose most famous sculpture is titled "The Triumph of Science over Death" – would have made of his mystical mythologization.
For Rizal, the friarocracy was to be destroyed not by force of arms, but with knowledge. Access to literacy and the languages of power was a weapon against Church obscurantism and ignorance. But mystery has many applications, whether it is used as a veil to protect the interests of the powerful, or a talisman to embolden the downtrodden.
Among the Filipino peasantry, who could not easily conceive of the broad-based social empowerment of universal education, Rizal’s literacy and multilingualism had other meanings.
One folk story tells of how Rizal rescued a gigantic bird who rewarded him by placing a small white stone in his mouth. The stone made him instantly conversant in 22 languages and also granted him the ability to understand animals, the songs of birds and the hum of bees.
Rizal’s magical literacy is memorialized in another tale of a miraculous book that could guide anyone in the role of a doctor: upon opening this book the written words transformed into a moving image of Dr Rizal who issued medical advice to the reader.
Dr Jose Rizal still speaks to us from the page, but the content of his message will resonate in different ways depending on the spirit of the times and the needs of the reader. After all, to be “multiplied by languages” means to resist the oppressive orthodoxy of a single view, and to enjoy the blessing of human diversity. – Rappler.com
This is an edited version of an article published simultaneously in History and Philosophy of the Language Sciences. With thanks to the baybayinista Kristian ‘Special K’ Kabuay for access to a rare copy of the Aklat Sanayan ng Abakadang Rizaleo.
Dr Piers Kelly is a linguistic anthropologist at the Australian National University. He has previously worked as an author and editor for Lonely Planet, a linguist at the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (Bohol), a researcher at the Australian National Dictionary Centre, and a teacher of sociolinguistics. He is currently writing a book on the history of the Eskayan language of southeast Bohol.