IN a posting in response to my analysis last October 18 of the negative construction “I didn’t (see, saw) her” (tinyurl.com/molq5vp), a reader who identified himself only as Dustin observed that most Filipinos don’t seem to know that “him” and “her” are male and female pronouns, respectively. “I think that needs to be understood before they learn about ‘see’ & ‘saw’ & when to use ‘each’ or ‘either,’” he said.
As I promised Dustin, I’m now sharing my thoughts about his observations:
In Tagalog, the base language of Filipino, there’s a common singular pronoun, nonsensitive to gender, for the third-person in the objective case. That Tagalog pronoun is “siya,” into which both the English objective masculine pronoun “him” and the objective feminine pronoun “her” gets translated. Thus, the Tagalog sentence “Mahal ko siya” is gender-blind; unless the antecedent noun is known or given, we won’t know whether “siya” refers to a male or female object. The English translation therefore can either be “I love him” if the object of affection is male, or “I love her” if that object is female.
The same gender-nonsensitivity applies to the Tagalog third-person singular pronoun in the possessive case. That pronoun is “niya,” into which both the English possessive masculine pronoun “his” and the possessive feminine pronoun “hers” gets translated. Thus, the Tagalog sentence “Hindi ko tinanggap ang pag-ibig niya” is likewise gender-blind; unless the antecedent noun is known or given, we won’t know whether “niya” refers to a male or female object. The English translation therefore can either be “I didn’t accept his love” if the object is male, or “I didn’t accept her love” if that object is female.
Of course, the gender distinctions between “him” and “her” and between “his” and “her” are supposed to be taught to and learned by every Filipino child as early as in primary school; after all, next to Filipino, English is the second official language and a major language of instruction in the Philippines. However, not all Filipinos use English in their everyday interactions; in fact, the majority of adult Filipinos don’t get fluent or conversant in English at all. What’s more, their brains and tongues remain mainly wired to Tagalog syntax. On the fly, therefore, particularly in unexpected communication encounters with English-speaking foreigners, their gender blindness to the “him/her,” “his/her” distinctions sometimes shows.
I think this is why Dustin got the impression that most Filipinos don’t know that “him” in English refers to males, and “her” to females. On not a few occasions, Dustin—I presume he’s a middle-aged UK subject who has been in the Philippines for some time now—might have approached some non-English-savvy Filipinos and, flashing a mugshot of a Filipina with perhaps a pageboy hairdo, asked them: “Hey, guys, do you know this friend of mine? I was told she lives in this neighborhood.” One of the Pinoys took a close look at the photo, searched his Tagalog-wired brain, hazily remembered from a long-ago grammar lesson that masculine is the default gender in English when the sex of the object is indeterminate, and then unwittingly told Dustin in halting Taglish, “Sorry, sir, talaga pong I don’t know him.”
There’s really no reason to doubt that Dustin had encountered such “his/her,” “him/her” glitches in English-Tagalog cross-translation quite a few times, but I don’t think the problem is as serious or as widespread as he pictured it. Its incidence would really depend on how inadequate the English is of the Filipino crowd he moves in and of the friends he keeps. Nevertheless, his observation should alert educators and teachers in the Philippines to the need to strengthen the teaching of English pronoun usage. That should go a long way in minimizing the embarrassing incidence of “him/her,” “his/her” misuse in the Filipino’s spoken and written English.
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