Sunday, December 28, 2014

No earthly reason why the Philippine clergy should be bad in English grammar

On the eve of the visit of Pope Francis to the Philippines from January 15-19, 2015, I thought of reposting here an essay that I wrote way back in 2003 regarding the need to improve the English proficiency of the country’s Roman Catholic priests. I actually had that essay posted in Jose Carillo's English Forum in 2010 or over four years ago together with the preface below, but not being aware of any determined efforts taken by the church hierarchy regarding the matter, I believe that the forthcoming visit of Pope Francis to our predominantly Roman Catholic nation makes that essay even more relevant reading today. (December 28, 2014)

In their efforts at evangelization, should the major organized religions just rely on the momentum and stickiness of their respective belief systems? Or should they make a purposive and continuing effort to be better communicators and defenders of the faith, whether using English or any other language for that matter?

I have often pondered these questions over the years and even wrote an essay about the subject, “The Grammar of Clerics and Preachers,” sometime in 2003 after listening to a priest give his homily during a mass in Metro Manila. That priest had bungled his English grammar and had stumbled on his English phrases and idioms far too often for comfort, and I felt that this was an untenable state of affairs that needed the immediate action of the church leadership.

Within a few hours after my essay came out in the Internet edition of The Manila Times, however, I received the following e-mail from one of the faithful overseas: 

“Regarding your column on the grammar of preachers, let me say that none of us is perfect. I must admit that I’m not that great either when it comes to English grammar. We even have a Filipino priest who has been here in America for over 10 years, but who still finds it next to impossible to correctly pronounce just a simple English word; he also doesn’t know the difference between ‘she’ and ‘he,’ but of course I know what he means. However, if you listen closely to the message of God that he is trying to tell you through the homily, you will be surprised that all those grammar errors fade away. Let God’s message reach your heart and mind instead. And for their big and little imperfections, our priests need our prayers, too.”

I really wonder if the church hierarchy should follow the line of least resistance being advocated above and leave everything to God, or start being really proactive and make sure that its seminarians and even its full-fledged priests will get much more intensive, rigorous grounding in English grammar and usage from now on. (March 20, 2010)

The grammar of clerics and preachers

A few Sundays ago, my two sons and I attended Holy Mass in one of those improvised worship halls put up inside Metro Manila malls. The priest, in his late thirties or early forties, read the opening lines of the Eucharist in pleasantly modulated English, his voice rippling the familiar words and phrases like the chords of a well-tuned piano. His cadence and pronunciation reminded me of the late Fr. James Donelan, S.J., then chaplain of the Asian Institute of Management, who used to say morning mass at the institute in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He would regale the middle-aged management students with English-language homilies of simple beauty and depth, and then, in his formal humanities class, he would lecture them with delicious erudition about the cultural wealth of Western civilization. Now, listening to the young priest at the mall, I thought that here at last was one more man of the cloth of possibly the same weave. I thus settled down on my chair confident of hearing a well-delivered homily to strengthen my resolve as a believer for the week ahead.

That expectation was soon dashed to pieces, however, for as soon as the priest no longer read from the book and started speaking extemporaneously, it became clear that his command of English left a lot to be desired. He could not even make the form of his verbs agree with the number of his nouns and pronouns, and his grammar was so gender-blind as to be irritating (“The woman walked in the storm and go under the tree to deliver his baby.”). His command of the prepositions was likewise disturbingly inadequate, and he stumbled on his English phrases and idioms far too often for comfort.

I therefore listened to the rest of his homily with increasing distress. Of course, I couldn’t presume that the rest of the congregation shared my discomfort; perhaps I was just too exacting in my English grammar that I tended to magnify what could really be minor mistakes. But two weeks later, I asked one of my sons—then a high school senior—to validate my impressions of that homily. Having attended grade school in a Jesuit-run university, he would normally be squeamish about criticizing priests about anything, but he told me without batting an eyelash that he thought the priest’s English grammar was bad because he kept on messing up his noun-verb agreement and gender usage. I really needed no better confirmation of my impressions than that.

Looking back to that incident, I think that the country’s priests and preachers—more than anybody else in our highly Anglicized society—need better than just average English-language skills to effectively practice their vocation. We expect TV and radio broadcasters to have good English so they can properly report or interpret the news for us; we expect classroom teachers to have good English so they can effectively instruct our children on well-established, often doctrinaire areas of learning; and we expect lawyers to have good English to ably defend us in our mundane civil entanglements or prosecute those who have criminally acted against us and against society. But priests and preachers have a much more difficult job than all of them, for their goal is to teach us modes of belief and behavior that are matters not of fact but of faith. They ask us to believe with hardly any proof. And whatever doctrine they espouse, their mission is to help us experience the sublime, to make us shape our lives according to the hallowed precepts of prophets or sages of a bygone age. This is a definitely a tall order even for one with the gift of tongue, for it demands not only the fire of belief but also good or excellent command of whatever language he or she uses to preach.

Since I was a child, my impression has always been that priests and preachers stay in school the longest—ten to eleven years if my memory serves me well—because they have to master the craft of language, suasion, and persuasion better than most everybody else. My understanding is that this is why seminarians study for the priesthood far longer than students pursuing a degree in medicine or law. I would think that those years of long study could give them a truly strong foundation in English grammar and usage, in listening skills, and in reading skills, then imbue them with a facility with the language that couldn’t be matched by lesser mortals. However, as shown by the fractured English of that priest delivering that homily at the mall and of so many other priests I have listened to over the years, that foundation has been resting on shaky ground indeed.

I therefore think it’s high time that the church hierarchy took steps to remedy this problem. This might be a tall order, but if nothing is done about this, I’m afraid that the established religious faiths would lose more and more of their flock to less virtuous but more English-savvy preachers—preachers who may have rickety or dubious religious platforms but who have honed their gift of tongue and powers of elocution to a much higher degree. I therefore suggest, for their own sake and for the long-term survival of the faith, that all seminarians and even full-fledged priests be given a much more rigorous grounding in English grammar and usage. They need to effectively smoothen out the grammatical and semantic kinks in their English to become more able promoters and defenders of the faith.

As the old saying goes, God helps only those who help themselves. (May 23, 2003)

From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, May 23, 2003, © 2003 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.


The Dangers of Overstatement

As a largely self-taught student of rhetoric, I watched and listened attentively to the homily that Sunday afternoon. The priest officiating the Mass exuded the verve and confidence of an experienced schoolmaster, speaking in fluent Tagalog interspersed with impeccable English. He obviously knew how to speak rhetorically, and I must say that at the start, his eloquence held me and the rest of the audience spellbound.

His elocution was classically Aristotelian. First, although a lector had already given him a suitable introduction, he restated his bonafides to more firmly establish his ethos, or the appeal of a speaker’s character (“Yes, I am a teacher, make no mistake about that.”). Then, for pathos, or the appeal to emotion, he used some academic-style humor that often drew laughter and half-smiles from the audience. I thus imagined that he was conversant with the Grecian flowers of rhetoric, so I naturally expected his homily to have a persuasive logos or appeal to reason as well.

To my bewilderment, however, he used a strange rhetorical device for the homily. What he did was to pick a native-language phrase—let’s just say “pinakamatalik kong kaibigan” (“my closest friend”)—then playfully ask everybody what each letter of the first word represented. Of course, there really was no way even the most intelligent person could have fathomed what those were. It was like telling a quiz show contestant this: “Give me the names of all the persons who perished in the Titanic.” A mind with total recall and steeped in trivia probably could have hazarded a guess if the priest had used a concrete noun instead, like “Doe, a deer, a female deer/Ray, a drop of golden sun…” in that delightful song of the Von Trapps in The Sound of Music. But the priest did it in the manner that people with nothing else to do will ask: “Ano ang kahulugan ng bawat letra sa katagang ‘San Miguel’? Sirit na? Ang hina mo naman! E, di ‘(S)a (a)ming (n)ayon (m)ay (is)ang (g)inoo (u)minom (e)h (l)asing.” (“In our village a gentleman got drunk.”)

The rhetorical device he used certainly was not a hyperbole, or an extravagant exaggeration used for emphasis or effect, as in “I ate so much that I must now be heavier than an elephant.” It could not have been a simile or metaphor, either, because no word was really compared or substituted with another. I had a fleeting feeling—soon gone—that it was some form of synecdoche, a variant of the metaphor that mentions the part to signify a whole, as in “I need six hands” to mean “I need six people.” In hindsight, I can see now that it was a weak fusion of metonymy and prosopopoeia, the first being a figure of speech that substitutes some suggestive word for what is actually meant, and the latter—also called “personification”—one that invests human qualities to abstractions or inanimate objects. In any case, his question was so nebulous that the priest, as might be expected, ended up providing all the answers himself.

The words he assigned to the letters of the word “pinakamatalik” are no longer relevant, so I will not dwell on them here. They formed the core of his logos, however, and from sheer repetition, they ultimately brought home the message of the beneficence, love, and invitation to the communion that God extends to us all. There was no question about that. The problem was that the priest didn’t know when to stop. Ever the taskmaster giving pupils a grammar drill to the very end, he dunned his listeners many times to repeat each word; when they balked, he would browbeat them until they relented and blurted out the words. Then he asked everyone to do what I thought bordered on the absurd: to say “Ikaw ang pinakamatalik kong kaibigan” (“You are my closest friend.”) to his seatmate. He sternly badgered the listeners until he was satisfied that their collective voice was loud enough.

That was where, I think, the logic of his logos snapped; the liberties he took with the language simply became too embarrassing. Perhaps “Ikaw ay aking kaibigan” would have been acceptable rhetorically, but to ask someone to tell a total stranger that he is “your closest friend”? This gave you the feeling that the priest was more interested in testing his power to elicit the blind obedience of his flock than in planting a divine message in their minds.

In his classic book Rhetoric, Aristotle argues that persuasion by argument is best achieved when the speaker’s chain of argumentation is not too hard to follow and not too long: “The links in the chain must be few.” I have this feeling that the priest, in coercing his listeners to be party to his convoluted rhetoric, had seriously violated that role on both counts. This is the danger in overstatement that all public speakers must always guard against to keep their persuasiveness intact.

From the book English Plain and Simple: No-Nonsense Ways to Learn Today’s Global Language, Copyright © 2004 by Jose A. Carillo, Copyright © 2008 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

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