Lingual misunderstanding to blame for refusal to apologize?

Updated: 2013-11-12 07:08

By Isagani R. Cruz (HK Edition)

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The refusal so far of Philippine President Benigno Aquino III to issue a formal apology for the hostage-taking incident in Manila in August, 2010, in which eight Hong Kong tourists were killed, may be blamed partly on a lingual misunderstanding.

Aquino's mother tongue is Tagalog, once the national language of the Philippines, now replaced by Filipino, which is based on it. Tagalog is the native or first language of roughly 20 percent of the country's population. Filipino is widely spoken, with Ethnologue putting its second-language speakers at more than 90 percent of the population. (In contrast, only 40 per cent of Filipinos speak English as a second or foreign language.)

When he speaks publicly in the Philippines, Aquino prefers Filipino and hardly ever uses English. While most observers assume that he does this to communicate with the majority of Filipinos, it is also possible that he feels most comfortable in his native tongue and most likely also thinks in it.

There is something peculiar about the Tagalog and even the Filipino language. There is no word for "sorry" or "apology." When Filipinos are at fault, they say in Tagalog or Filipino, "Pasensiya na." That literally translates into, "Please forget your anger" or "Please let it go". It's important to note that the personal pronoun used is in second person, not the first. The addressee is being requested to act. The addressee is urged to calm down (in case of anger) or to back off (in case there is a desire to seek revenge).

Nothing is said about what action the speaker - who is actually at fault - is taking or is proposing to take. In fact, no conciliatory action is required of the speaker. The speaker need not have any regrets about what has happened. The lingual implication forces the addressee, not the speaker, to deal with the situation.

A British or a Hong Kong English speaker might say, "I'm sorry", or just, "Sorry." Such an expression makes use of the first-person pronoun. The burden of being sorry is borne by the speaker. The speaker admits to being in the wrong and attempts to make amends.

Like the British, the Americans, too, think nothing of uttering, "I'm sorry", when a situation demands it.

An American might say, "I apologize," which is a more formal way of saying "I'm sorry". Again, a first-person pronoun is used in the sentence. It is the speaker who conveys the emotion of regret. Nothing is said about how the apology will be received. Nothing is demanded of the addressee, except perhaps a conciliatory frame of mind.

This is not the case with a speaker of Tagalog or Filipino.

A Filipino will say to whoever has been offended, "You have to deal with the feeling of being offended. You have to move on. You have to forget about this entire incident or affront." The burden of dealing with the situation is placed on the person offended, not on the person who may have come across as offensive.

Even a more formal way of apologizing in the Filipino language may not really sound apologetic. When a Filipino says, "Paumanhin po", the first-person pronoun is not involved. "Paumanhin" (pardon) is a noun, not a verb. "Po" is a word used to indicate that the sentence is addressed to a second person.

Needless to say, there may be political or lingual reasons for Aquino's reticence when it comes to apologizing to Hong Kong. But it is important for the people in Hong Kong to understand that it is lingually impossible for a Filipino to apologize in the British or American sense, because the words for admitting fault do not exist in Tagalog or Filipino.

The author has a PhD in English from the University of Maryland. He is president of the Manila Times College and a former under-secretary (deputy minister) of education in the Philippines.

(HK Edition 11/12/2013 page1)