Kasabot Mi! Of Languages and Dialects Between Thoughts of (Surprise) Audiences

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A language and cyberspace wayfarer responds to the thought-provoking conversation between languages and dialects.

I say “Kasabot mi!” is a classic.  It has a spirit that is universal and a specificity that is personal.  Surely, you have your versions of “We understand” parables and “I know you understand” anecdotes every now and then.  Do they make you smile? Scream? Order the ground to gobble you up?

My “Kasabot mi” story is almost two decades old.  With a grin (I’d like to think, since I only heard him) Manoy Kasakay shouted the statement when Em, my Inglisera friend and I got down from our Talamban-to-Colon ride. Yes, it has been that long but the experience still finds me pausing given my thoughts about identity and heritage along with more of culture’s challenges and charms.  I promised myself to bring Em closer to the language of birthplace and home through sharing stories about streets and nooks in Cebu in Cebuano but there we were, absorbed in our kukabildong Iningles unmindful of the jeepney audience that our rather quiet but lively exchange sustained.

I hope it’s just as simple as that, this language and dialect topic—a fun anecdote or two about using a different or a relatively unusual language and then a sharing of vocabulary and smiles and laughs in between. But it isn’t. Discussions about languages and dialects that are tailored to lead to conclusions (read: judgments) of who speak a language and who speak a dialect bring up issues that go beyond the “Oh, I see, now, I understand.”  Because other than the neutral “kasabot ko, kasabot mi” statement of intelligibility are socio-political issues and implications.

It would have been easier if “language” and “dialect” were definitively just about whether or not there is mutual intelligibility given specific lexicon having in mind that a language “is a collection of dialects, including the standard dialect, that is mutually intelligible” and dialects are “mutually intelligible varieties of the same language.” 

However, there is the socio-political to consider given that classifications may be based on language policies, milieu, and social situation.  But, to simplify, mutual intelligibility is the general guideline.  If, in our conversation, we deliver speeches that vary in terms of certain words or word meanings but still understand each other because of a generally similar syntax and vocabulary, we are speaking dialects of the same language.

On the other hand, if we converse and the vocabulary, grammar, and syntax of our speeches are different to the point that we do not understand each other, we are speaking different languages–well, dialects of two different languages, given that a language is a collection of dialects.  Levels of intelligibility because of differences in phonology or writing systems will be a technical discussion for another day.

There will always be points for discussion (or debate) when it comes to the distinction between a language and a dialect.  In fact, there are linguists who claim that “there is no such thing as a dialect from a linguistic perspective” while there are linguists that acknowledge that there are dialects. As with the acknowledgment of dialects, a point for discussion would then be on the extent of the definitiveness of a certain set of criteria to determine distinctions. 

Mutual intelligibility, lexical similarity, grammar, and socio-political identity are the expected topics that will be brought to the table for the discussion.  As for the experienced and the everyday, the impassioned talking points will be those that touch on socio-political identity.  Because language has been used, and in some instances and environments, continues to be used as a tool for discrimination and othering, what is supposed to be a tool for understanding becomes a source of conflict. Since the standard variety of a language is considered “the language” or “the prestigious tongue” and the dialect or the nonstandard variety is regarded as inferior and commonplace because of a host of reasons history and culture will provide, language and dialect may be deemed as labels that remind of issues, sentiments, and experiences relating to position, value, and esteem. To address this, a comprehensible lexicon, grammar, and syntax can only do as much.  One’s good sense will tell that it is a language of truth, kindness, and respect that will provide the solution.

Is, language then, as Max Weinreich said, a “dialect with an army and a navy?”  Should we stick to all points linguistic since language is the subject of discussion or should the reality of the socio-political having a hand in determining definitions be accommodated into the discourse? It is best to start the discussion with a singular and agreed-upon definition of what a language and a dialect is. But then again, there will always be points for discussion and debate because reality has it that there are definitions not left alone without challenge. 

On a lighter note, going back to my jeepney story, “Kasabot mi” still makes me smile because it prompts me to listen to myself enough to hear what I communicate.  “Kasabot mi” also highlights mindfulness as it says that once upon an afternoon, in my excitement, a friend and I probably spoke in decibels that did not render our conversation exclusive to us though we believed that a seat in a jeepney is not a stage for an audible performance for an outside audience.  And how about this: “Kasabot mi” makes me feel famous because an audience cared enough to listen to my stories that were not hyped to promote a reality show. 🙂

Looking back, after having been asked the difference between a language and a dialect which I cared about only when they are related to identity and discrimination and having heard speeches that forward the succinct  “If we speak and we don’t understand each other, we are speaking different languages but if we speak and we still understand each other despite differences in accent and a number of words, we are speaking dialects of the same language” and “The reality says that classifications of which are languages and which are dialects are social and political,” the “Kasabot mi” experience reminds me of lightheartedness in variety, understanding despite differences, and humor in assumption.  Also, the “Kasabot mi” experience reminds me that my thoughts and sentiments that write my speeches should be mindful of comprehensibility and sensitivity that will help me think enough to understand the meaning of the language of place and the dialect of locus and feel enough to distinguish whether care is synonymous to genuine concern or playful or malicious nosiness 🙂

What is your classic “Kasabot mi” story?

The author likes to draw voices with the keypad of a smartphone as she wonders when she could have a jeepney ride with her friends and write journeys away from the screen once again.

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