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“I’m a Cuyonon and I love my Language” (By Katherine Jack)

Ester Timbancaya-Elphick comes from Cuyo, a small, remote island in the Sulu Sea to the Northeast of mainland Palawan. She is a remarkable woman who is working on the first ever comprehensive bilingual dictionary of the Cuyonon language – part of a project to help save her native language and culture from dying out.

I first came across Ester when she performed a Cuyonon song at the Baragatan festival in Puerto Princesa, Palawan, the city where she grew up. I then went to meet her in her family home to talk more about her extraordinary life and the Cuyonon Culture and Language Project (CLCP) which she has founded.

Ester was born in Cuyo but her family soon moved to mainland Palawan when her parents were assigned as school teachers in Puerto Princesa, the capital city. During the War, her father joined the Guerrilla forces fighting the Japanese and Ester returned with the rest of the family to the relative safety of Cuyo. She was just six years old at the time but has clear memories of school on the beach where her mother taught Ester and her two brothers how to write. “We wrote our first letters on banana leaf scrolls – the backs of the leaves are frosty so you can write on them with a stick. The only disappointment is the next day they are wilted”.

Ester was a bright student and, in later years, went on to receive scholarships to Silliman University, Dumaguette and Stanford University, USA. She studied hard and, after she finished her Masters Degree in Education at Stanford, she took up a course in Teaching English as a Second Language at the University of California. It was here that she met an academic who sparked her interest in preserving her native language. “One of my professors somehow found out that I spoke a ‘strange language’ which he had never heard of before so he persuaded me to stay an extra semester so I could take up an MA in Linguistics.” The professor then started to learn Cuyonon himself and published an article about it in an academic journal. Encouraged by this but not quite knowing where to start, Ester began compiling a list of Cuyonon words. “I was starting from scratch, absolutely from zero, so I just began where I was – I translated the word for table into English. By the time I had finished my MA, I had quite a corpus of words”.

It was also at UCLA that Ester met her future husband, Richard Hall Elphick, an English Canadian from Toronto. On completing her Master’s, she did not return to the Philippines as planned but stayed with him in the States where she continued her studies in Linguistics and became Head of E.S.L. at an adult education centre for immigrants. Now 69 years old and retired from her full-time job, Ester is determined to use the skills that she learned throughout her career to help prevent her native culture from disappearing. “After all”, she says, “what is academic study without service?”

Cuyonon is the main language spoken by the 29,000 inhabitants of Cuyo and – despite the wide variety of people from other cultures who now live there – it remains the most widely spoken language in Palawan. In Puerto Princesa, you don’t need to look hard to find traces of the rich cultural heritage of Cuyo Island. San Manuel, to the north of the city is known as the barangay of the tipano band, the tipano being a bamboo flute native to Cuyo. However, according to Ester, Cuyonon language and culture are endangered. “Although it may seem robust, Cuyonon language is increasingly feeling pressure from Tagalog and from English. Tagalog is enforced in schools and has reached such a status that people from other cultures in Palawan have been made to feel that their languages are inferior.” Through her conversations with Cuyonons in Puerto Princesa, Ester has found that many are not even speaking their native language any more in the home – “instead they speak Tagalog to their children, even if their Tagalog is not that good”. This is worrying since, according to the Foundation for Endangered Languages, when traditional language transmission breaks down, there is a large loss of inherited knowledge. Or, as Ester puts it “when a language dies, a whole culture dies with it.”

Ester is not opposed to change and will be the first to point out that it is natural for a living language to evolve over time. “Remember that language first and foremost is a tool for communication and cannot be static. It has to change according to the needs of the people who use it”, she told me. However, she wants to provide enough documentation of Cuyonon culture to ensure that it does not disappear without a trace.

Cuyonon is principally an unwritten language, the only substantial written heritage is a translation of the New Testament. So Ester’s first task was to make a standard writing system for Cuyonon for, as she sees things, “without written texts, most of the cultural heritage and history of Cuyo will be lost.” She is now using this writing system to transcribe the audio tapes which have been collected by a team of dedicated researchers in Palawan. By the end of September or October, they hope to have finished collecting and transcribing more than three million words. Making a dictionary is a long process and it will take a year or more to analyse the texts and at least four or five years to complete it. In the meantime, the CLCP team will teach Cuyonons to read and write in their own language, they will transcribe stories that have been passed down orally from generation to generation and will make films of traditional events and festivities.

Although Ester makes many trips to the Philippines, she is based in Connecticut, USA where she lives with her husband. Her son and daughter grew up in a Canadian, Filipino and American multi-cultural setting. Between them they speak at least twelve different languages. Ester is the only Cuyonon speaker in the house but her children are quite familiar with the music, dance, cuisine and customs of their mother’s native island. They enjoy their trips to the Philippines and blend easily with their Filipino relatives. Ester’s husband, Richard, also an academic, is Treasurer of the CLCP as well as sitting on the Board of Directors. He gives her support in many different ways. “Without his support and total commitment to this project, I would not have undertaken this difficult and all-consuming task. He continues to inspire me each day to go on and fulfil our mission,” says Ester.

Ester works from home and typically spends between four and eight hours a day on the Cuyonon project, depending on her energy levels and the flexibility of her schedule. She always finds time for afternoon tea though which is an important time for everyone in the household. It gives them a chance to relax and share the activities and events of the day. Ester is eager to get on with her work and see the project progress – “for me, there isn’t enough time to process all the materials we have collected so far. Modern technology helps to shorten every stage of the project but still there isn’t enough time”, she told me.

Her work is not easy – travelling in Cuyo and throughout the Province of Palawan is challenging to say the least, especially during the rainy season. It can also be hard to find native speakers who are willing to be taped voluntarily. Ester says of her team “I could not have even begun this project, if I did not have the support that I do. I have an advisory panel of seven distinguished Cuyonons, a team of able researchers taping Cuyonon speech in Palawan and generous sponsors in the United States.” The reaction of the Palawan Government has also been very supportive and they have invited Ester to take part in a number of City and Provincial celebrations.

Ester’s project is ambitious and seems set to have a profoundly positive effect on the future of Cuyonon culture. It is a big task but, enabled by her training in Linguistics and Education and driven by a passion for her native language, she is certainly capable of fulfilling it. “It is a daunting and formidable undertaking; however I am totally committed to it and have my family’s support and the Cuyonons’ cooperation and collaboration.”
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Published in the Sunday Inquirer Magazine July 16, 2006.

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