Lugar Lang | Should I Stay or Should I Go?

The impression that Filipinos are “low commitment” stems from the expression “ningas kugon,” literally burning cogon grass. It suggests that attitude of having very high energy at the beginning, which is then quickly spent, like burning cogon grass.

A trait usually demonstrated in government projects, which are enthusiastically pursued at onset but later quickly abandoned for some mysterious reason.

Do linguistic concepts unite us as a people, as suggested by the controversial Sapir-Whorf hypothesis? The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is significant because it points to ideas about linguistic relativity and determinism. To what extent does language influence the way we think? The extreme version posits that language determines thought. For instance, Filipinos find learning the perfect tenses in English difficult because our native languages have a simpler system. We have a more relaxed view of time because our grammar allows for it. So there we find a nifty excuse for “Filipino Time.”

While we cannot dismiss this entirely, it would be wrong to accept this extreme version, so sociolinguists like R.A. Hudson propose a weaker version that language “tends to influence” thought. But meanings “can be adjusted by the individual to fit his needs.” Ideas shape language, not the other way around. Language evolves to accommodate what we think.

Given that, which of the more than 170 languages in the Philippines should we base our values on? Does the Tagalog expression, “ningas kogon,” influence the values of speakers of Cebuano, or Ilocano, or Hiligaynon? The simple answer is it does not. I asked my friends for equivalents of the concept in their native language. In Ilocano, they use the expression, “tangken tabungaw,” which literally means “hard like the gourd.” It describes a person who is all talk but no action, like the upo, which looks hard but inside is all soft and mushy. In Cebuano, or Binisaya, as we use it in Davao, we have the expression “puros kamaguwangan,” literally meaning “all first-born.” It describes a person who starts many projects but doesn’t finish any. As you can see, these three expressions are unique, and reveal different values about their linguistic communities. One group values energy, the other appearances, and another shows family orientation. What can we say for certain then about Filipinos, based on linguistic relativity?

At this impasse, I seek comfort in image. Imagery speaks to us in a place that direct language can’t. Poet Jane Hirshfield explains that images, which are perceived through the senses, “let us inhabit abstraction as if from within, and so begin to know our kinship with the wide field of being.” Thus, we are able to overwrite the differences in our languages, showing our kinship with those with whom we do not share language or ethnicity, allowing us to develop empathy.

If we look at our words for “commitment,” we will find, in Tagalog, “paninindigan,” which can also be expressed in Cebuano as “baroganan,” and in Ilocano as “pagtaktakderan.” Notwithstanding existing words that suggest keeping our promises, these words speak to us through their root words, “tindig, barog, takder,” which all mean “stand.” When the conjugation falls away, we are left with the image of a person standing. Thus, to commit means to stay standing, to stand up for, and in a more abstract sense, what you stand for.

In fact, Filipinos have more sayings that suggest high commitment and endurance. Who hasn’t heard of the Filipino saying, “Habang maikli ang kumot, matutong mamaluktot?” That is, learn to adjust if the blanket is too small. Other Philippine languages have similar images suggesting the value of enduring through difficult times and suffering.

But is staying necessarily better than quitting? Studies have shown that people who stay in unpleasant situations usually do so because they are thinking of how much they’ve invested in it and what they stand to lose by leaving. We fall victim to what is known as the sunk cost fallacy, examined by Arkes & Blumer in The Psychology of Sunk Cost. For example, you cannot recover the cost of a ticket whether you stay 10 minutes or 2 hours in a movie. So if the movie sucks, you don’t have to suffer the two hours just to recover the price. You cannot. It’s a sunk cost. But majority will choose to stay two hours. Does it make the price worth it? No, we end up losing more.

It applies to other aspects of our lives that we invest in: projects, careers, relationships.

This brings me to my final point about commitment. Language is not our prison. But our thoughts could be. How we think shapes what we say and do. We do not need to be defined by phrases like “ningas kogon,” and the other impressions created by so-called value systems. Pay attention to what you are thinking of as our unchanging or inherent Filipino values.

What are you committing to believing about yourself and your choices? What do you stand for?

(Cruz delivered the full version of this piece as a TEDx talk on Jun. 5, 2018 in Davao City.)

Posted in Opinion