Thinking in the Present Tense. Just do it.

The winner of a copy of Elementary Tagalog was Christine in Missassauga! (The book’s in the mail, Christine.) For everyone else, please always feel free to use the “friends & family” discount code OMNIVORE at our website. The code takes 35% off the price of everything in your shopping cart.


Keith Chen’s TED talk how your future is shaped by how you talk about it

Does your first language have a future tense? If so, bad news to report. You’re likely to save less, smoke more, and become overweight. The details are in a TED talk by behavioral economist Keith Chen that my friend Janet emailed me.

Chen’s hypothesis is that people whose languages don’t separate the future from the present tend to plan ahead better because they perceive future time vividly as a continuation of the present, not as a separate, distant thing. The idea is that if I can tell myself: “I will quit smoking tomorrow”, I’m able to assign quitting to the cozy abstraction of a mañana that’s always just over the next horizon.

Chen believes that if, as in Japanese, for example, your only grammatical choice is “Tomorrow I quit”, you’re more likely to perceive tomorrow as connected to today and, therefore, just get on with it. Or, in the words of the great American philosopher Janis Joplin: “It’s all the same f****** day, man”.

Where does English score? We’ve got a future tense, of course, but we also often speak about the future (“I will quit”) using a present progressive form (“I’m going to quit”) and, to be particularly evocative, we can say “tomorrow I quit”. That puts us in the middle. Interestingly, Chen separates UK and US English, putting the UK more towards the future-using end of the scale and the US towards the present-using scale. Some of the languages at the end of the futureless scale are Chinese, Japanese, German, and Dutch.

So Chen’s Nike-esque advice to people who want to make a change in life? Don’t say “I will do it.” Just say “I do it.”

Rebolusyon sa EDSA ng 1986

Monday, February 25 marks the 27th anniversary of the morning in 1986 when Corazon Aquino took the oath of office as President of the Republic of the Philippines. Called the “People Power Revolution”, in Tagalog, the day is called Rebolusyon sa EDSA ng 1986.

“Rebolusyon” is a good example of how Filipino spellings of Spanish loanwords often reflect the pronunciation better than the Spanish original. Kinse and kabayo, from Spanish quince (15) and caballo (horse), are similar. Sa in Tagalog is a location marker. EDSA is an acronym for the Epifanio de los Santos Avenue, the 54-kilometer road blocked by two million Filipinos that became the focus of civil resistance to the Marcos regime. Ng is a possessive or genitive marker; i.e., “of”. The gist of the phrase then is “Revolution on EDSA of 1986”.

Offering the world one of the best examples of non-violent political change in the 20th, or any, century, Filipinos are rightly proud to celebrate on February 25. I wanted to remember the day by giving away a copy of our new, best-selling Elementary Tagalog by Jed Domigpe of the University of Washington, Seattle and Nenita Domingo of UCLA.

Tagalog, also called Filipino and sometimes Pilipino, is an Austronesian language. Spanning 9,000 miles from Madagascar to Rapa Nui (Easter Island), the Austronesian family is the most geographically wide-spread of all language groups. Some of Tagalog’s linguistic cousins are Malay/Indonesian and the languages of the Pacific such as Maori and Hawaiian.


Tuttle’s Elementary Tagalog by Jed Domigpe and Nenita Domingo

Tagalog is the first language of about a quarter of the population of the Philippines. Of the many languages of the Philippines, Tagalog, by dint of being the language of the capital area, made the largest contribution to the language known as Filipino, which is spoken by the great majority of people in the archipelago. Some use “Tagalog” and “Filipino” interchangeably, but the two languages are not identical. Some speakers of the Philippines’ other languages, however, passionately oppose anointing any one language as “the language of the Philippines”.

For English-speakers learning an Asian language, three things ease the way into Tagalog. First, it’s written in very familiar, very consistent Roman script. The only thing that surprised me was the use of ts for Spanish and English ch: Sp. coche > Tg. kotse.  En. teacher > Tg. titser. Second, unlike many continental Asian languages, Tagalog is not tonal. Pronunciation is quite simple. Third, its many loanwords from Spanish create an additional bridge into Tagalog from a language most of us have at least some familiarity with.

For the real language fan though, those of us who actually steer clear of any language product that promises to be “quick and easy”, Tagalog has a lot to offer. Tagalog verbs have conjugations, but unlike Indo-European languages as well as Japanese and Korean ones, these “conjugations” are not limited to suffixes. Tagalog verbs can be modified by prefixes, suffixes, or infixes that drop right into the middle of the word. As a Japanese speaker, I don’t feel that learning Japanese, however different it may be from English, stretched me to re-evaluate the framework within which I understand language as much as Tagalog has.

The last reason you might learn Tagalog is that there are nearly 4,000,000 Filipino-Americans in North America who, in my experience, are extremely encouraging of newcomers. If you’d like to win this “state of the art” hardback edition that comes with a free audio CD, click here to email me just put Tagalog in the subject line.

Gaudeant Magistri Linguae Latinae

There was much smug rejoicing in Latin classes this week when news of the pope’s resignation in Rome was scooped by Giovanna Chirri, the sole reporter present who was able to follow the announcement as it was made in Latin rather than wait for the Italian translation.

It’s hard to imagine something farther from modern Asian languages in space and time than Latin. At the same time, absolutely the easiest people to teach a little Japanese to are Latin speakers. Latin’s noun declensions “map” pretty cleanly over to Japan’s case-marking “particles”. Nominative = ga/wa, genitive = no, dative = ni, accusative = o. Ablative, well, that’s always a longer conversation.

This is a good moment to remember that, if you speak a little Latin or want to hear some Latin in action, the Finnish Broadcasting Company (YLE) does a 5-minute weekly Latin news recap called Nuntii Latini, which you can listen to for free online. Some good news for Latin purists: unlike Vatican announcements in Latin, which use Italian pronunciation, the Finns use classical Latin.