I am drinking!

I am drinking!  Umiinom!

He will drink!  Iinom siya!

He will drink! Iinom siya!

            After nearly three months in the Philippines, I can understand 25% – 50% of most conversations, and I can put in a comment here and there in Tagalog, the language spoken in this part of Luzon.  But there are still times when I’m listening to rapid fire talk and getting very little meaning from it.  Even if I know some of the words, the context may elude me.

I have a deeper appreciation for what Lina experienced when she came to the US three years ago.   Americans talk fast sometimes, and if the topic is unfamiliar, it’s really difficult to follow, even for someone with English as good as Lina’s.

On this trip I have spoken both Vietnamese and Tagalog.  What a contrast in languages!   Vietnamese has a phonetic and tonal system that are challenging (to say the least).    Six tones can impart six different meanings to one syllable.   The vowel sounds abound in the nasals that many of us struggled with learning French – except that the variety and subtlety of these nasal vowels goes far beyond French.

Vietnamese syntax is fairly simple, though.  A verb is not conjugated.  The verb “go” can be qualified to show past, present, future – but the word itself does not change.

Tagalog has no tones and a very simple phonetic system.   20 letters, 5 pure vowels, and they are always pronounced the same way, so a word sounds just like it looks – unlike English!  Long consonant clusters do not exist.  Simple.

However, languages give and they take away.  Tagalog makes up for the phonetic clarity by creating strings of short syllables.   For instance,  “pakikikikuha”:  I will ask (someone) to get me (something).  Or  “maaalala”:  It will be remembered.  The three “a”s in a row are separated by a glottal stop or catch, like the sound we make when we say “uh-oh”.

I know three words in Hawaiian:  “aloha”, “mahalo” and (my favorite) “humuhumunukunukuapua’a”.   The word is longer than the little fish is describes.  Hawaiian has an alphabet of only 13 letters, so it takes the Tagalog tendency to multiply syllables to an extreme.

Tagalog also compensates for phonetic simplicity by using stress and the glottal stop to give different meanings to the same letters.  Any two syllable word ending in a vowel can theoretically be written in four ways to indicate four different intonations (not tones though).  For instance, túbo (pipe), tubò (profit), tubó (sugar cane).   (The fourth possibility, tubô, has no meaning.)   The marks above the vowel do not change the phonetics, rather the stress and length of the vowel.  If I can figure out how to attach an audio file, perhaps one day you will hear these words being spoken!

One other wrinkle in Tagalog is the system of verb conjugation.  You are familiar with prefixes and suffixes, but have you ever heard of an infix?!  The syntax of Tagalog verbs is very complex.  The verb root “inóm”, to drink, can morph into “uminom” (to drink), “mainom” (to be able to drink), “makainom” (to be able to drink), “pakiinom” (to request a drink), “magpainom” (to give a drink), “iinom” (to drink for someone), “inumin” (to be drunk), “inuman” (to be drunk from”.

The fun begins when you start to add tense to these infinitives.  “uminom” means “to drink” or “drink!” or “drank”; “umiinom” (notice the extra “i” that has slipped into the middle?  that is the infix!) means “am/are drinking”; “iinom” means “will drink”.

This is probably more than you want to know about Tagalog verbs.  I’ll end on a happy note.   There is only one form of the verb for “I / you / he / she / we / they”!