First among these is the sometimes wholesale reliance on context to express meaning. I don’t know if it’s the same in other regions of the country, but Ilonggos shorten words and sentences like ants stripping clean a cockroach carapace: everything extraneous, and frequently things that would seem rather necessary in English, is dropped in the belief that the context of the statement will make the meaning clear.
On one hand, that makes the language bewildering sometimes. We didn’t exactly learn formal Ilonggo during our training, but what we did learn was generally grammatically whole, complete with verb conjugations, articles in their proper places and without any undue mixing with other dialects. This is not how Ilonggos speak.
Nagkadto ako sa tinda: I went to the market. The nag indicates past tense, and ako is the proper subject-focus first-person pronoun. In common usage this could easily be shortened to Kadto ko sa tinda, dropping the tense, chopping a syllable off the pronoun and relying on the context in which the statement is given to indicate when the action took place. The frustrating-for-western-tongues nga, frequently used to link an adjective and its noun (we don’t have a direct equivalent in English), is often a casualty, as is ang, which usually means “a” or “the.” Adjectives always start with ma, but most of the time this is dropped.
Ilonggos often mix Tagalog words in with their speech, which is sometimes frustrating but which I find myself doing now too simply because on occasion I prefer the Tagalog word to the Ilonggo one. The Ilonggo for “why,” nga-a, sounds too much like the nuh-uh sound we use in English; I usually use the Tagalog bakit. I prefer the Tagalog malamig for “cold,” because there are two similar words in Ilonggo which mean “cool” and “cold” and I often confuse them, just as I still misspeak sometimes with hapos (easy) and hipos (quiet). Word similarities are useful for amusing my kids, though. “Ah,” I’ll say on a particularly buggy night, “damo nga manok.” I should have said lamok, for mosquito, but the children like laughing at the kano who’s being annoyed by “many chickens.”
In general, Ilonggo words seem simpler than Tagalog: you won’t find many of the eight-syllable monstrosities that cause my eyes to glaze over when I look in my kids’ composition books. And even though the dialects mix and borrow, some things remain distinct. The Tagalog po, a marker of respect thrown into speech with wild abandon, is absent in Iloilo. When I hear somebody po-ing on a jeep, I know they’re from out of town.
Ilonggos and other Filipinos also employ a curious set of archaic and adapted English words. I have no idea when or why some of the following words and phrases were adopted, but they seem rather remarkably consistent throughout the areas of the country I’ve visited:
I don’t know how well I’ll retain my already-questionable language skills after I leave the Philippines, but I’m hoping that corresponding with my kids will keep me from forgetting it all. There’s always Facebook.