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Gender-neutral pronouns aside, is the Filipino language all that inclusive?

By SAAB LARIOSA Published Aug 27, 2021 6:07 pm

Time and time again, Filipino has been championed as an inclusive language. With our multi-linguistic roots throwing away the need for gendered pronouns like "he/her" and "she/her" in lieu of "siya," "niya, and "kanya", it's easy to distinguish ourselves from the rest.

We also have mostly gender-neutral terms such as asawa, puliskapatid that, when translated to English, have to indicate a certain gender. The term Filipino itself is also a collective moniker for our countrymen (again, the gendered term men is present but the Filipino kababayan doesn't require the specification.)

On the other hand, there is also the Filipinx/Pinxy debate brought about by the Filipino diaspora (Filipinos living outside the Philippines) that opens the conversation on how other groups of Filipinos choose to be called—and ultimately idenitified.

Is the Filipino language as gender-neutral and progressive as we think? University of the Philippines  Asst. Prof. Dr. Jayson D. Petras attempts to tackle these points, and discusses the country's deep-rooted linguistic sexism.

What is linguistic sexism?

Linguistic sexism refers to speeches that perpetuate gender stereotypes and status differences. We may not be aware of this type of gender bias because it is learned at an early age. Petras also refers to it as a "linguistic habit" that’s hard to crack as it holds traditional value and upholds social status.

Filipino may be generally viewed as a gender-neutral language, however, as Petras points out that it is in our very own dictionaries that reflect the backward ideas that some sectors of society maintain.

The professor offered a series of gender-oriented definitions from two separate Filipino dictionaries: the 1998 Dictionary of Filipino Language (Diksyunaryo ng Wikang Filipino) published by the Commission on the Filipino Language and the 2010 UP Diksyunaryo ng Wikang Filipino, the latest Filipino monolingual dictionary to date.

"While the lexicographers claim that sexism is in the world and we just describe it, the presentation of these definitions with pejorative marking is still problematic," Petras said.

Babae vs. Lalake
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Slide from Dr. Jayson Petras: Linguistic Sexism: Survey of Filipino language in everyday communication

Per the Commission on the Filipino Language's definition of a woman, there is still the patriarchial "prescription" for women to become mothers (pagiging ina) to fulfill the role of their gender.

In a separate passage from the same dictionary, there is also the notion that a women's definition is to belong to a man, whether being his partner or one of many lovers—as the sample sentence suggests.

Meanwhile, the UP definition of man also stems from the gender's ability to produce sperm. Petras states it as having "an implication of viewing the male as the source of life."

Dalaga Vs. Binata
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Slide from Dr. Jayson Petras: Linguistic Sexism: Survey of Filipino language in everyday communication

In a similar vein, the definitions of dalaga (young woman) and binata (young man) also connote the differences in how young women are raised and ultimately perceived growing up.

Though both are defined as unmarried, Petras points out that it is in the appendage that a girl's womanhood ought to be "walang dungis," or clean and virginal to meet her proper description. Whereas a young man need not have the same quality.

Landi/Malandi
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Slide from Dr. Jayson Petras: Linguistic Sexism: Survey of Filipino language in everyday communication

The definition of malandi (flirty) also raises alarm for the double standard against  women in terms of slut-shaming in the country, as it is attached to women in both entries from the Commission on the Filipino Language and the University of the Philippines.

"Actually anyone can be malandi," Petras quipped. "Even boys can be malandi, but the dictionaries only attribute it to the female."

Progressive pushes

Taking into consideration that not everyone conforms to feminine or masculine identifiers, Petras also pointed out that the Philippines has no solid term for sexuality just yet, as the word sekswalidad comes from Spanish-English origins and changed to cater to our Filipino structure of writing. The umbrella terms for heterosexual, homosexual, and bisexual are also in need of specific Filipino words/terms to broaden the conversation on local LGBTQ+ issues.

Petras says that it’s not only the language that must be liberating, but the society we live in. Society and language are one and the same when it comes to seeing how far we've come. As gender-neutral as our basic terms may be, there are still fissures that display the split thinking that many are trying to push against.

But it's not too late to change mindsets and destabilizing definitions, as initiatives such as the Philippines Women's Movement and yet-to-be-passed SOGIE (Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Expression) Bill offer people the liberty to both reject being boxed into dictionary definitions and introduce more inclusive terms fit for our language.

"Language is the witness to the events in our society. It contains our reality which in turn is the basis of our consciousness and culture," Petras concluded. True enough, if history is written by the victors, language could be rewritten by the liberators.