The Battle Over Orthography

The battle over orthography is not going away soon.

Orthography is the art and practice of spelling words correctly. Formulating an official spelling standard is an evolutionary process, even for a monolingual country. It is formidable for a multilingual nation like the Philippines, as the Komisyon ng Wikang Filipino (KWF) is finding. Its dissemination of the Ortograpiyang Pambansa (OP), specifically the harmonized editions for Filipino languages, has been controversial. 

The KWF statement (10/23/18) argues that harmonization will “prove and clarify definitively that all languages in the Philippines belong to one family.” Harmönization also aims “to modernize the native languages by discarding the old and inefficient orthographic system propagated during the Spanish period.”

When the OP was launched, many Ilocano writers resisted it. On October 28, 2018, the Ilocano writers, meeting in Laoag City, issued a statement opposing the OP because “it is not scientific and educationally sound; it is not respectful of the diachronic form of the language; and it is not the result of proper consultation among all stakeholders.”

In the meeting, Mr. Joel Manuel (representing the organization of Ilocano writers) explained that historically, one can’t change the spelling because of long established use. Moreover, linguistically, every language has its own “emblematic” (unique features that define its identity) as well as “supra-segmental” patterns and conventions. Ilocano dictionaries, such as those published by UP Diliman and the University of Hawaii, already exist, and they seem well accepted by Ilocano writers, and even by the clergy in writing their sermons.

An orthography should simplify writing, but I observed (as a native Ilocano speaker) that the OP tends to make spelling longer, more complicated. For instance, compare the IIocano niog (using the original Spanish orthography) versus the Tagalog and OP-mandated spelling, niyog (coconut). Like German, Ilocano also tends to cluster words together efficiently to make them more compact, and to follow their usual pronunciation. The OP seems to do the opposite, which makes it more challenging to use for teaching.

The battle over orthography is not going away soon. What needs to be done is to reevaluate the OP and for KWF to conduct wider-scale consultations.

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About the Author
Mr. Oscar F. Picazo is a retired specialist in health systems, health economics, and social policy. He has worked in 24 countries for the World Bank, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), and as an independent consultant. He returned to the Philippines in 2009 and became a senior research consultant for the Philippine Institute of Development Studies.
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