Sugar Sun series glossary term #31: banca (bangka) (but really this is the post on language)

The Definition

What is a bangka? It depends on whom you ask.

Javier was not thrilled to be out on the water at such a late hour, even if the moon was bright and the rowers competent. Had this been a pleasure tour, the hacendero would have had no complaint, but tonight he wanted to get on with it or go home. As if they could read Javier’s mind, the rowers abruptly beached the banca, hopped out onto shore, and dragged the vessels away from the water line.

Under the Sugar Sun

As you can probably guess from the context, banca or bangka means boat—specifically a double-outrigger canoe. If you have visited anywhere outside Manila, you have probably taken a bangka. When I first drafted Sugar Moon, Ben and Allie did a fair amount of bangka travel in Samar.

Boat in the Taal volcano
A colonial photograph of a banca in the crater lake of the Taal volcano, accessed at the University of Michigan Philippine Photographs Digital Archive.

But here’s the problem: bangka may mean outrigger canoe in Tagalog and Cebuano, but I found out that it means cockroach in the Waray language of Samar, Biliran, and parts of Leyte. While strange stuff happens in Sugar Moon, riding a cockroach through the surf is a whole new level. So I took the word out and used boring old English.

The Implication

This brings up an important point about the Philippines: it the tenth most linguistically diverse country in the world. There are eight language groups, 19 local languages that can be taught in early childhood education (from kindergarten to 3rd grade), and now 200 total languages identified. Such linguistic abundance makes geographic sense. The Philippines is an archipelago nation of 7,641 islands, and it is so spread out that it stretches almost from Seattle to Los Angeles. No wonder one language could not dominate. But this doesn’t make things easy.

Philippines ethnolinguistic maps
On left, an area comparison map of the Philippines as created by the Central Intelligence Agency; on right, a linguistic map of the Philippines by GeoCurrents.

As you may remember from previous posts, the Americans turned this rich multilingual heritage into a justification for a monolingual (English) education system. English is still one of the two official languages of the country, along with Filipino. (Filipino is the “most prestigious variety” of the Tagalog language of Metro Manila, according to the chair of the Komisyon sa Wikang Filipino, or the Commission on the Filipino Language.)

For the purposes of my series, Filipino (or Tagalog) had not yet been designated official (1937), which means that regional languages, such as those in the Visayas (like Cebuano and Waray) would have been even stronger at the beginning of the twentieth century. I have to thank Liana Smith Bautista (and her mom) for being my newest go-to research sources on Cebuano, though all errors in my books are my own. I also am deeply indebted to the creator of the amazing Binisaya online dictionary and reference guide.

Top ten languages spoken in Philippine households
From the article “Debunking PH Language Myths” in the Inquirer newspaper.

American readers, have I utterly confused you? The number of indigenous languages is daunting—and I have not even mentioned the foreign tongues spoken in some families, like Hokkien (from China). Is it any surprise that most Filipinos grow up bilingual, at the very least? As Javier said to Georgina when they first argued about her English textbooks: “I grew up bilingual, learned three more languages in school, and another while traveling. It’s only Americans who can’t seem to manage more than one.” (And with the direction of funding for foreign language education in US public schools, we will not be getting much better.)

Allegra is a polyglot, too, by the way:

“To be honest, it’s a little eerie how fluent you are. From what the folks here tell me, you also speak Spanish like an Iberian. And Cebuano, and Tagalog, and Latin . . .”

She used her free hand to wave away the compliment. “I grew up speaking Spanish in the house and Cebuano in town—and then Tagalog in Manila. No one but a priest speaks Latin, but I learned to read it in school—”

“You’re missing my point. You’re a linguist, a natural. If you study for the rest of this test with Allegra-like persistence—and maybe a little un-Allegra-like humility—I have no doubt you’ll pass next time.”

She blushed even more furiously than when he had first taken her hand. “Thank you.”

— Sugar Moon (upcoming)

Ben’s respect for Allegra’s intelligence has been one of the most fun things about writing this couple. He is not a scholar and doesn’t pretend to be, but he is not intimidated by her skills, either. In fact, as we’ll see, he needs them.

So we’ve gotten a little bit away from the bangka in this glossary “definition”—sorry—but you probably just needed a picture for that. (If you want more nautical know-how, read about this group trying to help local fishermen design bangkas out of fiberglass—a light, durable, super-typhoon-proof alternative to wood.) Otherwise, I hope that you, like me, have learned a larger lesson about language through the study of this one little word.

Philippine boat for Sugar Sun glossary series
Maybe we all need a vacation to ponder these languages a bit more. Photo at Pixabay. Featured photo at top of post also from Pixabay.

EDITED TO ADD: Bangka is also a verb! This is from Liana: “Also it’s to be noted that in Bisaya, bangka with a hard stress on the final syllable refers to a type of boat, but keep the pronunciation soft and it is a verb meaning to treat someone out (usually to a meal, but can be used in other contexts where you pay for another person’s fare, lodging, etc.). It’s not uncommon for my cousins to say ‘bangkahi ko, beh?’ (Won’t you treat me?) when we talk of going to lunch or seeing a movie, for example.”

Sugar Sun series glossary term #28: parol

An hour later they safely stumbled into a cluster of chromatic light. Georgie wondered if she had fallen under some kind of enchantment….Surrounding the church were hundreds of colorful star-shaped lanterns hanging off white-blossomed frangipani trees. Georgie stood frozen in place, overwhelmed by the feeling that she had entered a secret village of wood sprites.

Under the Sugar Sun

Creative commons image courtesy of Kent Kawashima.

Want to know a secret? This passage is wrong. Sort of. Maybe.

One thing is right. Those “colorful star-shaped lanterns” are the ubiquitous symbol of Christmas in the Philippines: parols. They are everywhere: on houses, in malls, along highways, and—their original purpose—lighting the path to church. The original star design was reminiscent of the Nativity story:

After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. (Matthew 2:9-10)

I am still overjoyed when I see a parol. In fact, so much so that I brought one back with me, and it may be the only one of its kind in rural New Hampshire. And, okay, that’s fine—we live in a globalized world these days—but would Hacienda Altarejos really have had a parol or two in 1902? Eh, close enough. The parol—from the Spanish farol for lantern—did originate in Spanish times, so that’s good for my timing. It even seems that the Mexican piñata got jumbled in the origin story somewhere, accounting for the bright colors of crepe paper or papel de Japon (Japanese rice paper). But I think they looked a lot different, more like the regular lanterns they were named after.

Parol sellers on the sidewalk of Macapagal Highway, image courtesy of Dindin Lagdameo.
Parol sellers on the sidewalk of Macapagal Highway, image courtesy of Dindin Lagdameo.

It was not until 1908—when a salt vendor in Pampanga named Francisco Estanislao slapped together some bamboo strips in festive shapes—that the tradition we know today was born. And, if Estanislao did not invent this “real” parol until 1908, and he was all the way up in Luzon, wouldn’t it have taken a few years for the tradition to spread to the island of Negros, where my story takes place? Okay, so I was a little off. But no one has called my bluff—yet. I think this is because to anyone in the islands, the Christmas season requires parols. I would have gotten flack if I had forgotten them!

Parols today do light the way to mass…and the way to Starbuck’s, too. Whatever gods ye worship, people! Back in the Edwardian era, the main light sources were candles or coconut oil lamps. These days there are at least three hundred tiny light bulbs in just a small parol. This is why mine had to be refitted for 110v before we shipped it back. (Thank you to Edith Rocha Tan for help on that!) Now, those three hundred lights give unsuspecting New England drivers fits as they drive by at night. Sweet.

hallock-parol
The Hallock parol in rural New England. Keeping the neighborhood jolly!

Fortunately, the art—and it is an art—of parol-making is still being passed down the Estanislao-David-Quiwa family:

When we were kids, my brothers and I would play with our toy trucks and attach our own parol drawings on cardboard, simulating the position the way the real arrangements of actual giant lantern festival entries were supposed to be during competitions. We simulated a mini-competition in our home and let our tatang [father] judge who among the siblings had the best design.

The giant lantern competition Arvin Quiwa was emulating is Ligligan Parul in San Fernando, Pampanga, which takes place the week before Christmas. And there are similar competitions and displays all around the greater Pinoy diaspora. I’m telling you: it’s not Pasko without a parol, no matter where you are. Maligayang Pasko! (Or Malipayong Pasko! in Cebuano.)

A parol festival in San Francisco, image courtesy of Nicole Abalde.
A parol festival in San Francisco, image courtesy of Nicole Abalde.