All Philippine languages are actually under attack, but Ilokano has become most vulnerable and is now at the center of a raging battle, no thanks to the treachery of one man and the fascist ways of a national artist.
The controversy has been raging since January, and the plot thickens day after day. It started when Dr. Joel Lopez, assistant division superintendent and MTB-MLE (Mother Tongue Based Multilingual Education) coordinator of DepEd Ilocos Norte, singlehandedly introduced changes to Ilokano orthography or spelling system that will be taught in schools. He never conducted consultations with language stakeholders.
Professional Ilokano writers and Ilokano language experts in the academe were quick to object. Under the MTB-MLE Implementing Rules and Regulations, stakeholder participation is necessary in drawing up a working orthography for any and all Philippine languages. Various groups—including GUMIL and Nakem Conferences—wrote position papers and letters addressed to various levels of the Department of Education (from division superintendent to the DepEd secretary himself) and also to the Komisyon sa Wikang Filipino (KWF). Everyone opposed the JLo (abbreviation for Joel Lopez; with profuse apologies to Jennifer Lopez) orthography.
The effect of this conflict? Confusion. The Ilokano orthography taught in schools will be different from the orthography used in widely-read publications. The Ilokano spelling learned by pupils in elementary schools will later be declared erroneous by their college professors. The Ilokano as taught in Ilocos Norte will be different from other provinces in the Amianan, including Ilocos Sur, Abra, La Union, Pangasinan, and Benguet.
Who is Joel Lopez anyway?
Aside from his expertise in sowing language confusion, Lopez has no credentials in Ilokano literature. He has not received any literary award from any respectable body. Worse, there is no proof that he has written anything of decent literary value.
In an interview with local reporters, Lopez acknowledges that he is not a writer, but that he is an educator who is concerned about the learning process of students. The problem is, even professors at the Mariano Marcos State University, where Lopez obtained his PhD, oppose the JLo orthography. Dr. Aurelio Agcaoili, who chairs the world’s only Ilokano language degree program, that of University of Hawaii, also strongly condemns Almario’s machinations and Lopez’s complicity.
Apparently, the only Ilokano supporters of Lopez are his wife and DepEd Ilocos Norte Superintendent Cecilia Aribuabo.
The new Ilocano hero
Given the breadth of resistance against the JLo orthography, he would have backtracked if not for his major ally: Dr. Virgilio Almario, national artist and current KWF chair. Almario is mandating the application of an Ortograpiyang Pambansa to all Philippine languages. To put it simply, he wants to apply the orthography of the Wikang Filipino (which is basically Tagalog) to all other Philippine languages, including Ilokano. This is ridiculous because even Almario himself acknowledges that Ilokano and Tagalog evolved separately and distinctly from each other, thus bearing their own qualities and eccentricities.
Almario posits that the formation of a national language follows an inductive path: the best features of all Philippine languages will be gathered in order to come up with a national lingua franca. But that is only in principle. KWF actually does the opposite: a top-down approach which is, in effect, the Tagalogalization of Ilocano and other Philippine languages.
Everybody agrees that each language must evolve, lest it becomes unresponsive and irrelevant to the people and the times, but that such evolution must result from dialogue and consensus among the language owners, and not only by one man, or two. And so the Cebuanos have rejected Almario’s moves, and so have the Warays, Chavacanos, and other linguistic groups. But why did he succeed in Ilocos Norte?
NCCA Writers Prize winner Ariel Tabag, who is with the editorial staff of Bannawag Magazine, offers this explanation:
“Awan problema dagiti sabsabali a lengguahe ta awan ti Joel Lopez-da.” (Other languages don’t have a problem because they do not have a Joel Lopez.)
“It is treachery of the highest order,” says Tabag, who criticizes Lopez for taking it upon himself to change a finely-working orthography of a language used by 12 million people. That view is a strong and general sentiment among those who are aware of the issue.
If Judas received 30 pieces of silver, what is in the bag for Lopez?
First is recognition. On various occasions, Almario, who once tampered a Malacañang document, has heaped praises on Lopez as genius and progressive, and even compared him to Jose Rizal who also met opposition when he introduced changes in Tagalog orthography. This might explain why despite strong opposition, Lopez remains unturned: he mistakes callousness for heroism. At one point, he boasted, “Gumil does not own the language.” But hudas, er, who does? Definitely not one person.
Secondly, there is big money in textbook production. Tabag believes that it is in Lopez’s best interests to change the orthography and impose it to schools under him. If the standard orthography is used, Tabag explains, publishers can tap many writers. But if Lopez can impose orthographic changes that he alone can follow and accept, he will have a lion’s share.
Still, Tabag does not discount the possibility that Lopez indeed loves the Ilokano language, but that love may have been blinded by ambition and/or greed.
In justifying his actions, Lopez cites and arbitrarily interprets DepEd Orders and KWF directives. But the DepEd Central Office has not approved the JLo Orthography (It will reportedly hand down a decision on June 19) and Almario himself urges that Ilokano stakeholders themselves resolve the issue. “Hindi ako Ilokano, kayo ang nararapat mag-usap usap tungkol diyan,” the national artist said on record in at least two conferences. To date, Lopez has not initiated any dialogue. A multisectoral group—including Dr. Alegria Visaya, chief of the MMSU Center for Ilokano and Amianan Studies, and June Arvin Gudoy, head of the Ilocos Norte Provincial Government Communication and Media Office—sent Supt. Aribuabo a Feb. 24 letter requesting for a consultation process. Aribuabo decided not to act on the letter. She has since been transferred to the Laoag City division. In an interview on June 14, Ms. Araceli Pastor, the new DepEd Ilocos Norte superintendent asked for more time before she can comment as she is still in the dark regarding the controversy.
As it is, Lopez chooses to hide behind imagined laws. “But language cannot be legislated,” says Eugene Carmelo Pedro, chair of Plurilingual Philippines. He asserts, for instance, that RA 7104, which creates the KWF, recognizes this fact, for even as it gives the Commission vast powers for the development, enrichment, propagation, and preservation of Filipino and other Philippine languages, it provides in Section 14(d) that the Commission has the power not to impose but only to “propose guidelines and standards for linguistic forms and expressions.” The Ortograpiyang Pambansa, says Pedro, carries no prescriptive value. The same goes for the JLo orthography.
Where to go from here?
A letter to President Noynoy Aquino has been drafted by Gumil Filipinas. A coalition is also writing a report for UNESCO. Legal cases are being carefully prepared. And the growing number of Philippine linguistic groups expressing solidarity to Ilokanos are properly forewarned to nip their Joel Lopezes in the bud.
Meanwhile, it is the third week of classes, and elementary pupils in Ilocos Norte remain helpless victims of this language miseducation caused by one man who has been made to believe he is Jose Rizal but who, in reality, is just a nasty fly proudly sitting on the basket-covered head of a national makapili.