Philippine English and the Oxford English Dictionary

My main research project is an investigation of the relationship between World Englishes and lexicography, with a specific focus on the lexicography of Philippine English. The project is being carried out under the mentorship of Professor Charlotte Brewer at the Faculty of English Language and Literature, as well as at Oxford University Press, home not only of the historical Oxford English Dictionary (OED), but also of a wide range of dictionaries of current English, such as the Oxford Dictionary of English.

The spread of English worldwide has led to the growing acceptance of varieties of the language beyond the British and American standard. Lexicography has played no small part in this shift in attitude towards World Englishes—localized varieties of English used in different sociolinguistic contexts throughout the globe—as the creation of a dictionary represents an important step forward in the legitimization of a language spoken by a particular community (Dolezal, 2006). The publication of a dictionary paves the way to a local variety’s wider acceptability, as illustrated by the success of Australian, New Zealand and South African national dictionary projects.

The World Englishes paradigm has also made an impact on traditional lexicography within the “inner circle” of English, to use Kachru’s (1985) terminology. In the long history of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), considered to be the definitive record of the English language, lexicographers’ opinion of lexical entries from non-British contexts has evolved from alien terms, to exotic additions requiring distinguishing labels, to legitimate items deserving not only a space in the dictionary, but also their own targeted reading programme (Ogilvie, 2004). These non-British contexts include the use of English as a second language in postcolonial nations within Kachru’s (1985) “outer circle”, such as India, Hong Kong, Singapore and the Philippines.

However, a closer look at the lexical items from outer-circle varieties that have made it into the OED and other major inner-circle dictionaries such as Merriam-Webster’s reveals the bias towards a specific type of vocabulary: words that refer to native flora and fauna and other indigenous objects and concepts that date back to the colonial period, the earliest stage of contact between English and local languages (Bolton & Butler, 2004). Philippine English, for instance, is represented in the OED by headwords such as ylang- ylang (“an anonaceous tree”), taclobo (“a bivalve mollusc of great size”) and ladronism (“organised resistance to law or authority among the native population”). These are items of undeniable anthropological interest, but they are hardly an accurate reflection of English as it is spoken and written in the Philippines today.

Several lexical studies of New Englishes suggest that the nativized lexicon of these emerging varieties is composed of more than just direct borrowings from indigenous languages that colonizers had to use to describe their unfamiliar new surroundings. This is what I aim to explore in my research project, with Philippine English as the main object of study. This outer circle variety of English, aside from being one of my mother tongues, has certain historical features that set it apart from other postcolonial Englishes. The Philippines is a former colony of Spain as well as the United States, and for this reason, Philippine English follows American English instead of British English as an exonormative standard, and many Philippine English words are influenced by Spanish, the language of the country’s first colonizers.

The few studies on the lexicon of contemporary Philippine English show interesting trends in word formation that merit further investigation. Bautista (1997) identified four major categories for these trends: 1) ‘normal expansion’ of reference, as in topnotcher (the highest scorer in an examination) and coddle (to treat leniently); 2) ‘preservation’ of archaic or rare items in other English varieties, as in solon (lawmaker), fetch (to pick up someone) and viand (meat dish accompanying rice); 3) ‘coinage’ through neologisms, clippings, abbreviations, innovations and compounds, such as holdupper (mugger), presidentiable (presidential candidate), TY (thank you) and ambush interview (unscheduled interview); and 4) ‘borrowings’ from other Philippine languages (e.g., Pinoy from Tagalog), Spanish (e.g., despedida, estafa) and other languages (e.g., feng shui from Chinese).

There is also evidence of lexicogrammatical and phraseological features characteristic of English used in the Philippines. There are, for instance, the collocation of the verbs close and open with nouns such as light and television and the collocation of the verb cope with the prepositions up and with, to form the distinctive phrasal verb cope up with.

These lexical innovations are products of the unique sociolinguistic environment in the Philippines and the creativity of Filipino users of English. They are also reflections of Philippine culture and history. The adjective imeldific, for example, means “ostentatious, extravagant” and is a clear reference to the country’s flamboyant former First Lady, Imelda Marcos. The use of the verb salvage to mean “to summarily execute” may be a borrowing from Spanish salvaje (savage) (Bautista & Butler, 2000), but is sadly also indicative of the prevalence of such killings in the country.

My goal is to make a significant contribution to the still limited research on the Philippine English lexicon. The research involves identifying Philippine English words from existing corpora representing this variety, such as the Philippine component of the International Corpus of English. However, given the relatively small size of corpora of this type, corpus results need to be supplemented through the consultation of dictionaries and previous surveys of Philippine English vocabulary, as well as quotation evidence from Oxford Dictionaries’ own resources.

I am also studying quotation evidence from the OED for instances of words that have distinctive usage in Philippine English, first to confirm that their use in the Philippines is indeed distinct from their use in other contexts, and second to trace their origin and development and understand the lexical processes involved in their creation. In addition, I am analysing the lexicographic treatment of Philippine English words that were included in the OED, so as to propose effective lexicographic descriptions for those words that were not.

The long-term benefit I hope to obtain from this postdoctoral fellowship is using the results of my research at Oxford and the knowledge I gained from having directly observed the dictionary-making process in a world-class institution to initiate a large-scale lexicographic project for Philippine English that can a result in a national dictionary able to legitimize its status as a separate, norm-providing variety of English.

Bautista, M. L. (1997). The lexicon of Philippine English. In M. L. Bautista (Ed.), English is an Asian language: The Philippine context (pp. 49–72). Manila: The Macquarie Library Pty Ltd.
Bautista, M. L., & Butler, S. (2000). Anvil-Macquarie Dictionary ofPhilippine English for High School. Pasig City: Anvil Publishing, Inc.
Bolton, K., & Butler, S. (2004). Dictionaries and the stratification of vocabulary: towards a new lexicography for Philippine English. World Englishes, 23(1), 91–112.
Dolezal, F. (2006). World Englishes and lexicography. In B. Kachru, Y. Kachru, & C. Nelson (Eds.), The handbook of World Englishes (pp. 694–708). Oxford: Blackwell.
Kachru, B. (1985). Standards, codification and sociolinguistic realism: The English language in the outer circle. In R. Quirk & H. Widdowson (Eds.), English in the world: Teaching and learning the language and literatures (pp. 11–36). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Ogilvie, S. (2004). From “outlandish words” To “World English”: The legitimization of global varieties of English In the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). Proceedings ofthe 11th EURALEX Conference (pp. 651–658). Lorient, France.