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We’ll be glad to help clarify matters about English usage for you

This Students’ Sounding Board is a section created especially for college and high school students. On request, it will provide informal advice and entertain discussions on specific questions, concerns, doubts, and problems about English grammar and usage as taught or taken up in class. If a particular rule or aspect of English confuses you or remains fuzzy to you, the Students’ Sounding Board can help clarify it. Please keep in mind, though, that this section isn’t meant to be an editing facility, research resource, or clearing house for student essays, class reports, term papers, or dissertations. Submissions shouldn’t be longer than 100-150 words.

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Did Dr. Jose Rizal ever speak and write in English?

In January of 2010, a Forum member posed this very intriguing question: “I know our national hero Jose Rizal wrote and spoke many different languages, such as Spanish, German, and French, but I was wondering if he also spoke and wrote in English.” I admitted that I wasn’t aware of any major work that Rizal originally wrote in English. My understanding, though, was that he spoke a smattering of English and French, particularly during his studies in Spain and his sojourns in various places in Europe.

I came across a passing mention in an account of his life—probably apocryphal—that Rizal had told some foreign acquaintances in Europe that he was beginning to study English seriously. According to the account, he wanted to polish his English at the time because “he was seriously trying to win the love of an Englishwoman.” This finding so intrigued me that I embarked on a no-nonsense research on our national hero’s English-related linguistic and corollary interests, the fascinating results of which I was delighted to share in the Forum.

What follows is a Rizal Day 2016 commemorative update of his English-related linguistic and corollary interests:

Most of his writings were in Spanish, of course, and several others were in Tagalog. He used Spanish to write his landmark novels Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo, the poem A La Juventud Filipina (To the Filipino Youth) that he wrote when he was 18 and the poem Mi Ultimo Adios (My Last Farewell) that he wrote on the eve of his execution, and many of his essays and articles for periodicals. And he used Tagalog to write the poem “Sa Aking Mga Kababata” (To My Fellow Youth) when he was only eight years old, some essays, and many of his letters to family members, friends, and associates in the Philippines. I think we can confidently say that Rizal was not only very fluent but very prolific as well in both Spanish and Tagalog.

As to English, I’m not aware of any major work that Rizal originally wrote in English. My understanding, though, is that he spoke a smattering of English and French, particularly during his studies in Spain and his sojourns in various places in Europe. I came across a passing mention in an account of his life--probably apocryphal--that Rizal had told some foreign acquaintances in Europe that he had begun to study English seriously. According to the account, he wanted to polish his English at the time because “he was seriously trying to win the love of an Englishwoman” (possibly Gertrude Beckett, Jose Rizal’s fling in London). This was most likely during his stay in London from 1888-1889.*


Jose Rizal (left) wears a mischievous smile in this group photo in Paris in the late
1880s, with his pretty girlfriend Nelly Boustead (fourth from left).

Although I gather that he didn’t write professionally in English, I came across convincing evidence that he was adequately proficient in using it at least for personal correspondence with friends who were conversant in English. Below is a portion of a facsimile of a letter he wrote in beautiful longhand in three languages—German, English, and French—to express his condolences to his friend Ferdinand Blumentritt, a German teacher and secondary school principal, on the death of Ferdinand's father. The letter was written on July 31, 1894 in Dapitan, where Rizal was then on exile for alleged subversive activities against the Spanish government.

In the letter, Rizal first writes in German to express his condolences, then shifts to English at some point:


Here’s a transcription of the English portion of that letter:

“You would certainly oblige me, my dear, if you send me a copy of that interesting account of the Chinese about my country. Do you remember that Mr. Hirsch’s translation?

“My grammar about the Tagal is long ago finished. I intend to publish it as soon as I shall be set at liberty. It will bring to light so many things that I believe nobody thought of. I make references to bisaya, Malay, and Madecassis* according to Dr. Brandstetter.** Greet him, if you ever write to him

“My life now is quiet, peaceful, retired and without glory, but I think it is useful too. I teach here the poor but intelligent boys reading, Spanish, English! Mathematics and Geometry, moreover I teach them how to behave like men. I taught the men here how to get a better way of earning their living and they think that I am right. We have begun and the success crowned our trials.

“This Gewaltthat*** exerted upon me gave me a new language, the bisaya; taught me how to steer a vessel and to manage a canoe; made me better acquainted with my country and presented me with some thousands of dollars! God can send you your fortune amidst the persecutions of your fiends! How do you find my English!”

[From here he begins to write in French]

Based solely on this letter to his friend Blumentritt, my opinion is that Rizal was quite proficient in English, comfortable using some of its idioms, and competent in constructing even oblique expressions in English. He was evidently still self-conscious with his English; we can see this in his use of the exclamation mark after the word “English” when he told his friend that he was teaching the language, and when, apropos about nothing, he abruptly writes “How do you find my English?” He also committed a spelling error in one instance (“fiend” for “friend”).

As to his English grammar, here’s how I would have advised Rizal had he consulted me about the English of his draft letter:

1.         “Do you remember that Mr. Hirsch’s translation?” This is an awkward use of the adjective “that” for emphasis. Better: “Do you remember that translation of Mr. Hirsch?” Alternatively: “Do you remember the translation of that Mr. Hirsch?”
2.         “My grammar about the Tagal is long ago finished.” The use of the present tense “is” in this sentence is in error. Corrected: “My grammar about the Tagal was long ago finished.”  Much better in the active voice: “I long ago finished my grammar about the Tagal.”
3.         “I teach here the poor but intelligent boys reading, Spanish, English! Mathematics and Geometry, moreover I teach them how to behave like men.” Rizal doesn’t seem to know how to deal with the conjunctive adverb, particularly “morever.” Structurally, “moreover” needs a semicolon before it and a comma after it. That sentence as corrected: “I teach here the poor but intelligent boys reading, Spanish, English, Mathematics and Geometry; moreover, I teach them how to behave like men.” (Stylistically, so that the flow of the exposition won’t be disrupted, it would be much better to set off the exclamation mark after “English” with parenthesis: “English (!)”.
4.         “We have begun and the success crowned our trials.” This sentence suffers from the rather awkward phrasing of “the success crowned our trials.” It will read much better if the definite article “the” is dropped and the present perfect is sustained for the second clause: “We have begun and success has crowned our trials.”
5.         “This Gewaltthat exerted upon me gave me a new language…” Here, Rizal’s use of the word “exerted” wasn’t very well-chosen; “imposed” would have been more appropriate semantically: “This Gewaltthat imposed upon me gave me a new language…”

Overall, though, Rizal was definitely above-average in his written English. His facility with written English could put many of us to shame considering that he was essentially self-taught in English while we are formally taught English grammar and usage from grade school onwards.

-------
*According to some historians, Rizal probably meant the Malagasy language here.
** Dr. Renward Brandstetter (1860-1942) was a Swiss linguist who studied the insular Malayo-Polynesian languages
***[i]Gewaltthat[/i] – German for “act of violence, atrocity”; an oblique reference to Rizal’s exile in Dapitan by the Spanish authorities.

Primary source: Lineage, Life and Labors of Jose Rizal: Philippine Patriot by Austin Craig

LINKS:
A La Juventud Filipina (To My Fellow Youth)
Mi Ultimo Adios (My Last Farewell)
Sa Aking Mga Kababata (To My Fellow Youth)

RELATED READING ON JOSE RIZAL IN EUROPE:
Looking for Rizal in Europe, finding a “little bad boy” (June 17, 2011)
By Howie Severino, GMA News

*THE WOMEN IN RIZAL'S LOVE LIFE:

José Rizal’s Loves: An Analyzed, Revised View (2013)
By Dr. Penélope V. Flores

RECENT BOOK ON JOSE RIZAL:
Rizal Invigorated Southeast Asia’s Revolutionary Spirit
My review of John Nery's book Revolutionary Spirit: Jose Rizal in Southeast Asia (2011)

RELATED FEATURE THAT JUST CAME OUT TODAY (December 30, 2016)

“Unhappy wife of Jose Rizal”

By Ambeth R. Ocampo, @inquirerdotnet

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Cautionary tale on asserting what is good or bad English

Two weeks ago, the anguished letter below was posted in the Personal Messages box of Jose Carillo’s English Forum. I am presenting it here in full with very minor editing, but I have withheld the name of the letter-writer and of the English teacher involved to protect their privacy. It has taken me this long to act on the letter because I wanted to avoid judging or moralizing on a matter that’s not entirely the province of English grammar and usage, but in the end, I thought it would be for the public good to just share the letter as a cautionary tale about the perils of asserting what’s good or bad English.

Here’s the letter:

February 6, 2016

Dear Sir Carillo,

Something terrible happened to me last Tuesday. My instructress in Earth and Environmental Science publicly confronted me because I corrected her grammatical mistake on her examination paper.

When I was answering the midterm exam, I found what I believed was a grammatical error in this sentence: “Mauna Loa is the largest volcano in the planet.” I encircled the preposition “in” and replaced it with “on.”

In the afternoon, my teacher called me and confronted me in public. She told me how insensitive and offensive my actuation was, and how I had shown her practically no respect. She emphatically declared, “You are not greater than your teacher!”, then told me that I do not have the right to rectify her mistake.

Despite her immature behavior and apparent hysteria, I remained composed and just listened, although I have to admit that the confrontation made me feel really sick. If Mrs. ________ did that same thing to a student with low self-esteem, that student might have experienced depressive episodes or committed suicide at worst.

What can you say, Sir? I felt so offended and insulted by the behavior of my teacher. Was my act of silently correcting her English appropriate? Was my grammatical correction correct in the first place? Why are there people like that Mrs. ________? What can I do as a student to address that problem?

My comments:

Prudence on the part of the student and better anger management on the part of the teacher could have avoided that very unpleasant confrontation. It’s neither here nor there now though. As to the grammar issue involved, however, I need to say this:

In the test sentence “Mauna Loa is the largest volcano in the planet,” the use of the preposition “in” rather than “on” is grammatically correct. Recall that the general rule for establishing relationships in space is to use “in” for an enclosed space, “on” for a surface, and “at” for a point (http://tinyurl.com/clvn9tw). In the case of the word “planet” though, this question arises: Isn’t it a surface rather than an enclosed space?

From the standpoint of its land area alone, Earth can indeed be considered a surface. This is why it is grammatically correct to say “Mauna Loa is the largest volcano on Earth” and, to be didactic about the usage, also to say “The Philippines with its 7,100 islands is an archipelago that has the second biggest number of islands on Earth, next only to Indonesia with its 18,307 islands.”

From a planetary standpoint, however, Earth is an enclosed space. This is because its land surface is actually surrounded by an atmosphere with six sparse (but still material) layers of diminishing density: the troposphere, stratosphere, mesosphere, thermosphere, ionosphere, and exosphere. Grammatically, this warrants the use of “in” for establishing the position of a volcano and all other objects within this enclosed space.

Clearly then, since the teacher used the word “planet” in the context of an enclosed space, her choice of the preposition “in” in the sentence “Mauna Loa is the largest volcano in the planet” is grammatically correct.

This essay first appeared in the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, February 20, 2016 issue © 2016 by Manila Times Publishing. All rights reserved.

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Retrospective: Did Rizal ever speak and write in English?

On the occasion of Dr. Jose P. Rizal’s 151st birth anniversary last June 19, 2013, the Forum decided to repost this very interesting discussion on whether the Philippine national hero ever spoke or wrote in the English language.

Rizal

Forum members with more insights about this aspect of Rizal’s life are invited to share them  and continue this discussion.

Question by paul_nato, Forum member (January 28, 2010):

I don’t know if this is the right place to ask this question, but…

I know our national hero Jose Rizal wrote and spoke many different languages, such as Spanish, German, and French, but I was wondering if he also spoke and wrote in English.

I don’t remember reading or hearing anything about it in class. Admittedly, I might have been absent, or I was asleep when it was discussed.

My reply to paul_nato (January 29, 2010):

You’ve come to the right place, paul_nato! The Students’ Sounding Board is the place to discuss anything about English that baffles you—and that includes not just English grammar and usage but also vignettes in the history of the English language, its literature, and its acquisition and use by nonnative English speakers.

Now to your question on whether Jose Rizal also spoke and wrote in English…

Most of his writings were in Spanish, of course, and several others were in Tagalog. He used Spanish to write his landmark novels Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo, the poem A La Juventud Filipina (To the Filipino Youth) that he wrote when he was 18 and the poem Mi Ultimo Adios (My Last Farewell) that he wrote on the eve of his execution, and many of his essays and articles for periodicals. And he used Tagalog to write the poem Sa Aking Mga Kababata” (To My Fellow Youth) when he was only eight years old, some essays, and many of his letters to family members, friends, and associates in the Philippines. I think we can confidently say that Rizal was not only very fluent but very prolific as well in both Spanish and Tagalog.

As to English, I’m not aware of any major work that Rizal originally wrote in English. My understanding, though, is that he spoke a smattering of English and French, particularly during his studies in Spain and his sojourns in various places in Europe. I came across a passing mention in an account of his life--probably apocryphal--that Rizal had told some foreign acquaintances in Europe that he had begun to study English seriously. According to the account, he wanted to polish his English at the time because “he was seriously trying to win the love of an Englishwoman.” This was most likely during his stay in London from 1888-1889.

Although I gather that he didn’t write professionally in English, I came across convincing evidence that he was adequately proficient in using it at least for personal correspondence with friends who were conversant in English. Below is a portion of a facsimile of a letter he wrote in beautiful longhand in three languages—German, English, and French—to express his condolences to his friend Ferdinand Blumentritt, a German teacher and secondary school principal, on the death of Ferdinand's father. The letter was written on July 31, 1894 in Dapitan, where Rizal was then on exile for alleged subversive activities against the Spanish government.

In the letter, Rizal first writes in German to express his condolences, then shifts to English at some point:

http://josecarilloforum.com/imgs/b148.jpg
http://josecarilloforum.com/imgs/b149.jpg

Here’s a transcription of the English portion of that letter:

“You would certainly oblige me, my dear, if you send me a copy of that interesting account of the Chinese about my country. Do you remember that Mr. Hirsch’s translation?

“My grammar about the Tagal is long ago finished. I intend to publish it as soon as I shall be set at liberty. It will bring to light so many things that I believe nobody thought of. I make references to bisaya, Malay, and Madecassis* according to Dr. Brandstetter.** Greet him, if you ever write to him

“My life now is quiet, peaceful, retired and without glory, but I think it is useful too. I teach here the poor but intelligent boys reading, Spanish, English! Mathematics and Geometry, moreover I teach them how to behave like men. I taught the men here how to get a better way of earning their living and they think that I am right. We have begun and the success crowned our trials.

“This Gewaltthat*** exerted upon me gave me a new language, the bisaya; taught me how to steer a vessel and to manage a canoe; made me better acquainted with my country and presented me with some thousands of dollars! God can send you your fortune amidst the persecutions of your fiends! How do you find my English!”
[From here he begins to write in French]

Based solely on this letter to his friend Blumentritt, my opinion is that Rizal was quite proficient in English, comfortable using some of its idioms, and competent in constructing even oblique expressions in English. He was evidently still self-conscious with his English; we can see this in his use of the exclamation mark after the word “English” when he told his friend that he was teaching the language, and when, apropos about nothing, he abruptly writes “How do you find my English?” He also committed a spelling error in one instance (“fiend” for “friend”).

As to his English grammar, here’s how I would have advised Rizal had he consulted me about the English of his draft letter:

1.   “Do you remember that Mr. Hirsch’s translation?” This is an awkward use of the adjective “that” for emphasis. Better: “Do you remember that translation of Mr. Hirsch?” Alternatively: “Do you remember the translation of that Mr. Hirsch?”
2.   “My grammar about the Tagal is long ago finished.” The use of the present tense “is” in this sentence is in error. Corrected: “My grammar about the Tagal was long ago finished.”  Much better in the active voice: “I long ago finished my grammar about the Tagal.”
3.   “I teach here the poor but intelligent boys reading, Spanish, English! Mathematics and Geometry, moreover I teach them how to behave like men.” Rizal doesn’t seem to know how to deal with the conjunctive adverb, particularly “morever.” Structurally, “moreover” needs a semicolon before it and a comma after it. That sentence as corrected: “I teach here the poor but intelligent boys reading, Spanish, English, Mathematics and Geometry; moreover, I teach them how to behave like men.” (Stylistically, so that the flow of the exposition won’t be disrupted, it would be much better to set off the exclamation mark after “English” with parenthesis: “English (!)”.
4.   “We have begun and the success crowned our trials.” This sentence suffers from the rather awkward phrasing of “the success crowned our trials.” It will read much better if the definite article “the” is dropped and the present perfect is sustained for the second clause: “We have begun and success has crowned our trials.”
5.   “This Gewaltthat exerted upon me gave me a new language…” Here, Rizal’s use of the word “exerted” wasn’t very well-chosen; “imposed” would have been more appropriate semantically: “This Gewaltthat imposed upon me gave me a new language…” 

Overall, though, Rizal was definitely above-average in his written English. His facility with written English could put many of us to shame considering that he was essentially self-taught in English while we are formally taught English grammar and usage from grade school onwards.

-------
*According to some historians, Rizal probably meant the Malagasy language here.
** Dr. Renward Brandstetter (1860-1942) was a Swiss linguist who studied the insular Malayo-Polynesian languages
***Gewaltthat – German for “act of violence, atrocity”; an oblique reference to Rizal’s exile in Dapitan by the Spanish authorities.
 

Primary source: Lineage, Life and Labors of Jose Rizal: Philippine Patriot by Austin Craig 

LINKS:
A La Juventud Filipina (To My Fellow Youth)
Mi Ultimo Adios (My Last Farewell)
Sa Aking Mga Kababata (To My Fellow Youth)

COUNTERVIEW. Dr. Jose Rizal didn’t write the poem “Sa Aking Mga Kababata,” Forum member justine aragones wrote in the Forum’s Lounge section last June 20, 2013. Read justine aragones's posting now!

MORE DISCUSSIONS FOLLOW
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