Monday, August 5, 2013

Learning Cebuano

When Jackie & I returned from our South East Asia jaunt, we were surprised to hear that her adorable niece was now capable of forming complete sentences. Sadly, this inevitable development of rudimentary speech means the gulf between me and Eshen will only get progressively worse the more she learns - I was evenly matched when we only had to communicate in monosyllables and happy or angry facial expressions, but soon she's going to start wondering why Tito Bid doesn't reply to her questions ('Tito Bid' is as close as she gets to 'Tito Dave' right now, but it's still a huge step forward from 'Da Da Da' a couple of months ago. And people have done worse).

The only solution to preserving our friendship is for me to put this extensive free time to use, now I'm spared travel and blogging commitments, learning to speak Cebuano at the same rate as a two-year-old. It's not going to happen, but I can give it a try.

And as I seem to be desperate for blog filler before this thing wraps up in September (you should have seen some of the barrel-scraping projects I got half-way through before abandoning, fortunately you never have to), there's no better solution than a tedious educational post that actually encourages me to learn something useful for my life. The guilt hits me about once a week when I remember English isn't my girlfriend's native language and that all I know of hers is a few onomatopoeic animal names.

Cebuano numbers 1 to 10

Luckily for laziness, they use English numbers most of the time here, but I'm not off the hook as there are two further systems relegated to certain types of counting, such as numbers of objects and age. Luckily for laziness again, one of these is basically just Spanish, and I know those already. Not that many people around here seem to know the connection though, or have any real knowledge of their country's history. Hey Joe, keep the noise down with your facts, I'm trying to watch the singing show!

But there is a native Cebuano counting system for ordinal and cardinal numbers that I've committed to memory thusly:

1 usà
2 duhà
3 tulò

One USA (same spelling) flag stands proud, a second one has fallen too low. The duhà part comes in the fact that there are two of them, because two is obviously duhà. I just know that one. Come on, like you're not going to know that one. One, two, three, those should just slide off the tongue. Yes, I'm not doing this properly. These aren't made for you.

4 upàt
5 limà

A lemur has done a pat. The USA flag fell into it because it was too low. And duhà means two.

6 unòm
7 pitò
8 walò

Unòm sounds similar to inom (drink), at least that's what I'm guessing. To be perfectly honest, I got inom mixed up with kaon when I was preparing this, I thought it meant eat. So instead of the lemur eating Peter Weller of Robocop fame - pitò walò - he is drinking him instead. It's supposed to be a straw. We can assume the lemur's eaten already based on the size of that upàt.

9 siyàm
10 napulo

Peter Weller has a Siamese twin (it's 'conjoined twin' these days, granddad). It is Naboo of The Mighty Boosh fame, who is, like the second flag, low.

The linguistic branches get more tangled after that and I don't know what's going on. That's okay, kids don't know how to count higher than ten probably.

Onomatopoeic animals

My hopes were raised by the friendly neighbourhood geckos and house lizards being christened 'toko' and 'butiki' respectively, which are the exact sounds they make and don't leave any room for ambiguity, but there don't seem to be many other animals conveniently named after the sound some humans have decided they make. That would be so much easier to learn.

Or maybe there are and I just don't agree with their interpretations, like how English dogs are supposed to say "woof" and Chinese dogs "wan," though they're obviously really saying "orh." The only ones that stand out as maybe being onomatopoeic, and as such the only ones I'm going to bother learning, are the cockroach ('ok-ok' - they do sort of sound like that, I've had experience) and chicken ('manok').

That'll do, won't it? Kids don't know about other animals.


These are the bread and butter (pan and mantikilya) of all social interaction, so it would be embarrassing not to know this. The first Cebuano/Filipino word I knew was 'salamat' for thank you, because that's a common word around these parts originating in Arabic that spread to the Malaysian and Indonesian languages too. Those languages have quite a lot in common, almost like the southern parts of the Philippines used to belong to Malaysia before the Spanish decided they'd have the lot.

Like many other languages, Cebuano doesn't have a universal 'hello' but one that changes as the day drags on, though kumusta ka works a rhetorical 'how are you?' for people you couldn't care less about.

I remember maayong buntag (good morning), maayong hapon (good afternoon) and maayong gabii (good evening) thusly:

It only really works if you know who John Myung is. And it helps if you're insane.

There are apparently loads of ways to say goodbye, led by the off-puttingly long-winded formal magkita ra kita usab. I hope I can look back at this post a year from now shocked at my younger self's inability to grasp the basic language structure, but for now I'll stick with the informal babay. God knows how I'll remember that.


There are a few other words I've picked up or asked about over the past six months that are now firmly mixed up in my vocabulary along with the other ten ways I know how to say these phrases in different parts of the world. I don't have mental tricks for learning all of these - I can just remember that 'o o' is 'yes' because it sounds funny, that 'dili' is 'no' by imagining a delete key and that 'ayaw' is a more forceful 'no' or 'don't' because people usually say it to Eshen at louder volume.

My language acquisition also faces the barrier of Eshen's cute failures at pronouncing words correctly, which tend to be adopted ironically by her family, and which I sometimes confuse with the actual terms. To much hilarity, you may imagine. Like the time I mean to ask my potential future mother-in-law if she would like milk in her tea but accidentally used the infantile term for 'I want to drink milk from your breast' ('di di?')

I have the time and incentive to finally get down to business and learn a language properly this time - annoyingly, the only one that isn't covered by a Pimsleur MP3 language course. Let's see if I can be smarter than a two year old, and if it turns out I can't, I can just mock the childish idiot for still living with her parents and not having an overdraft yet.

She's going to win.

1 comment:

  1. In August 2013, Dave said:

    "I hope I can look back at this post a year from now shocked at my younger self's inability to grasp the basic language structure."

    More than a year later, Dave looks back at this post to remind himself of a few basic phrases he'd semi-forgotten and has little to add. Meanwhile, his niece asks him long, involved questions and they both turn to auntie for interpretive services. Now she's started to learn English too, and in another year she'll probably even beat me at that.