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Demet Arpacik: Commentary on Angela Reyes’ Language, Mix, and the Postcolonial Elite

This week’s presentation by Dr. Reyes was a very good analysis of the convoluted relations of coloniality, class, race with the language in the center in the Philippines today. She first gave a historical trajectory of coloniality in the country under the Spanish and American rules. Then, she analyzed the current discourse around the Conyo register, a term that was historically used to refer to different groups of people who were the power holders, but lately came to also assume a form of linguistic register of the rich elite. Conyo is a Spanish word that literally refers to women’s genitals, but it was assigned new meanings throughout the colonial times; first used to refer to people of Spanish origin, and then to mixed races and lately to the Philippine elite.  She then, by putting the listening subject at the center, instead of the speaking subject, tried to understand the implications of Conyo language register (a mix of English and Tagalog with certain iconized features) after colonial times.

Reyes first described the Philippines as a bifurcated national state with non-Christian darker skinned savages (as it is generally referred) on one end of the spectrum and white Christians or mixed breeds on the other end of the power relations. During colonial times, the Mestizos (a mix of Spaniards and the local people) were the middle people, who on the one hand were seen as inferior to the Spanish rulers and but who, on the other hand, were holding higher status compared to the local people. For this reason, Mestizos had a very dubious representation in the eyes of the Spanish because while they were Spaniards’ best collaborators to enact colonial rules, Mestizos were still seen as having the blood of the local people and therefore were perceived by Spanish as treacherous and dangerous. After the end of colonial rule, there was a visible case of new subjectivity of the colonial elite (Mestizos mainly), who still ensures the enactment of colonial structures in the absence of a colonial rule. This privileged group keeps colonial structure intact and uses it for their own advantage. The most recent indicator of this situation is language. “Language is mapped on the race” stated Dr. Reyes and it holds an essential meaning in terms of the questions of coloniality. Since language has been a determining aspect in colonial times, those who spoke English or Spanish, have had de facto access to knowledge and positions of power.

The current language trends or ways of speaking are illustrations of changing interior alterities in the Philippines. Conyo is a type of speech that is believed to be characteristic of the rich elite Filipinos who mix English with Tagalog and use certain features of speech to differentiate themselves from the rest of the people. The term is now used not only to define a certain form of register, but also to describe a certain group of people who speak this register. It does not refer to real people, but rather to the objects of commentary.

Reyes stated that Mestizos or Filipino elite has middle class nationalist consciousness, a consciousness that is not completely restricted to an economic class, but to a class that aspires to have some material strength. Formation of this class cannot be understood without the analysis of Tanglish and Conyo way of speaking. After the end of colonial rule, the subject positions were redefined around different axis; distinct forms of speech being the most effective in determining subject positions. Conyo also came out of this consciousness and it is now coded as a different form of register. Two features are iconized in this register; mixedness (mix of English and Tagalog) and excessiveness (too many features that are highly used and are viewed as exaggeration). Mixedness and excessiveness extend beyond the description of Conyo register and are also used to describe Conyo people as speakers of this register. Conyo people are seen to aim for modernity and are very invested in keeping colonial relations. As a result of their representations by listening subjects, Conyo people (both an abstract and an embodied term) grapple with their postcolonial subjectivities. Dr. Reyes showed us a few listening subjects, who can be either rich people but not speak this register or local people who have other registers, interpreting this register and analyzing its features. Among these were videos of a young Filipino boy and an American Filipina woman who imitated Conyo speakers and used pejorative words to describe them. The boy even wrote an article called “10 Conyo Amendments” that listed 10 rules of Conyo register.

The presentation was a very good analysis of intersectionality of language, race, class to determine current forms of representation and power relations in today’s Philippines. It revealed the non-formal, yet very real forms of linguistic register, Conyo’s reinterpretation along the lines of race and class. Term Conyo carries the legacy of colonial times and the fact that it is still used to define a group of people, Filipino elite, tells much about the current relations between different groups of people. I would like to hear more about the term Conyo’s sexist reference and historical evolution. While distinct forms of linguistic registers are common among elite groups of almost any society, the Conyo case in the Philippines is special because it is also imbricated with race relations and colonial subjectivities.

~ Demet Arpacik

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