It’s the new small talk. You do it so awfully well.

by Kiko Matsing

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That’s Derrida in jejenese, quoting Saussure, talking about how writing precedes language, in the deconstructionist’s bed-side book Of Grammatology. (Beats counting sheep.) Don’t understand jejemon talk? Don’t worry, no one understands Derrida.

I’ve recently come across the jejemon phenomenon in the Philippines through the Google 2010 Zeitgeist. Goes to show how out of touch I am with popular culture back home. I need the search engine’s statistical tools to get my finger on the pulse. Anyway, what I found amazed me: a vibrant street youth culture centered on language used in mobile communication devices and social networking media. I find the spontaneous creation of new, transgressive languages the most inventive phase in these emergent subcultures. Take for example the colorful swardspeak of effeminate Filipino homosexuals that has transcended their humble beauty parlor origins, to become the lingua franca of tabloid gossip, and now even used to spice up the kaffeeklatsch of the educated elite. (Are they still using outdated terms like “sward” from the 1970s?)

The backlash from the grammar police were equally interesting–and revealing. Their preposterous dooms-day scenarios of jejenese taking over Tagalog and English as the legitimate languages of learning is more telling about their postcolonial insecurities about language and identity.

If Jejenese is used as the medium of instruction in public schools, imagine how would the first line of our National Anthem be spelled in Jejenese: “bAiAn9 mA9ieLiWh pUrlAsh n9 xIlan9aNaN …” or Jose Rizal’s last work: “mEih UltIMoiX aDioSxH.” Fortunately, this is an extreme scenario. That’s why others take the more mortifying definition of Jejemon given by UrbanDictioary.Com: “Low IQ people who spread around their idiocy on the web.”

(from Jejemons: The new ‘jologs’, Inquirer Lifestyle, 24 Apr 2010)

Jejemon is derided as low-class culture, like the jologs in the 1990s, identified with Jolina Magdangal. Not from the lower classes herself, Jolina nonetheless appealed to the masses with her tacky, syrupy image (i.e., baduy, bakya) in Ang TV. The facility for English is a signal of education, but more so of breeding, in the Philippines, such that willful disregard of grammar is considered crass.

The biggest anti-jejemon group, Gotta Kill ‘Em All, Jejemon has more than 88,000 members, while jEjEmon uNite has less than 500 members…

The initial reaction to jejemon talk was the same across the board – irritation and bewilderment.

“I am shocked that they text like that because I really can’t understand the messages. I just had to accept the fact that some people have ‘skills’ to make language oh so despicable,” recalls 19-year-old Nheigeio Balatbat, also an administrator of Gotta Kill ‘Em All, Jejemon.

(from How do you solve a problem like the Jejemons?, Manila Bulletin, 27 Apr 2010)

Gotta Kill ‘Em All? Wow, you gotta be kidding me. That’s almost as bad as jejenese. Look at their numbers. Now we know that jejemon’s have better things to do than most jejebusters.

These language purists have every good reason to despise the jejemons. The breaking of grammatical rules is flaunted at them like the middle finger. It is wantonly transgressive. It creates a demarcation line around the subculture to exclude as much as to include. Persecution and ghettoization only serves to solidify the group. The only other thing they need now would be a martyr.

As it begins the yearly cleanup to prepare schools for the start of School Year 2010-2011, the Department of Education is also seeking to cleanse school-age Filipinos of the “jejemon” mentality.

DepEd Secretary Mona Valisno strongly “discouraged” young Filipinos from using jejemon spelling and grammar, especially in popular communication platforms such as text messaging.

“Dini-discourage lang namin, pag nagte-text sabi namin kailangan buong sentence at ang spelling dapat tama (We discourage them from using jejemon language especially in sending text messages. We want them to use the correct spelling and the entire sentence in sending text messages),” Valisno said in an interview on dzBB radio Saturday.

She said that communicating in jejemon might cause deterioration of young Filipino students’ language skills.

(from DepEd seeks to purge schools of ‘jejemon’ mentality, GMA News TV, 22 May 2010)

Now we know that the Philippine Department of Education has also nothing better else to do. Why is the DepEd on the jejemon’s case? It serves no purpose than to make them look like a bunch of dinosaurs to these media savvy kids. Language, like culture, is a practice; it cannot be legislated. Grammatical rules are merely artifacts of linguistic practice; they are not writ on stone. What better way for acquiring language skills than to actually invent a new language, or at least new lexical, phonetic, and orthographic systems?

Someone actually wrote code for a jejemon translator that is available online:

jejemon translator

The fact that a translation program can be written in the first place, i.e., that one language can be algorithmically transformed to another, attests to formal rules in writing jejenese. It is a writing mode unto itself that is acquired by kids on top of the ‘legitimate’ languages of Tagalog and English. It is the language they use intimately and exclusively among their peers when communicating with their electronic devices.

Like Freddy Eynsford-Hill said in My Fair Lady: “It’s the new small talk. You do it so awfully well.”

Lourd de Veyra takes the populist highroad in blasting elitist contempt for jejemons: How can they mock the jejemons when they themselves bottom-feed on American kitsch like Twilight? (While he himself then poses as the Wittgenstein-quoting intellectual arbiter.) But then he gives a shoddy, romanticized analysis and defense of jejenese:

Conversely, jejemons, in a sense, might even posses a high degree of aesthetic appreciation. One of the demands of art is the element of complication. What is a drawing but a single line developed into its own intricate universe? What is painting but a single blot of color amplified? Such is the restless nature of the human mind. What is a jeje-word but a basic clump of letters systematically arranged to make sense–only with extra ornaments? Indeed, why be content with a simple “po” when “poh”–like “Bhong” or “Vhong” or “Vhingo” and “Rhose”– sounds more beautifully aspirated? Why does “ingat” sound mysteriously better, more sincere and lighthearted, and more importantly, modern, when slapped with a “Z”?

(from Attack, Jejemons, Attack!, 29 Apr 2010)

Jejemons with a “high degree of aesthetic appreciation”? C’mon! It is a street culture, not high art. De Veyra further confuses complication with amplification. What are the trailing Z’s for in guyZzZ, CutiEzZ, and uZtazzz but to intensify the giddiness of speech? Amplification is also achieved by multiplying consonants with the same phonetic sound, like Q, C, and K in iMiszqcKyuH and lAbqCkyOuHh. Jejenese, as a substitution cypher, is similar to l337, but highly inflected with Pinoy street and queer culture. (Ironically, l337 connotes an elitism in computer geek culture.) Replacement of B’s for V’s (LiVre), S’s for Z’s (ZupOrtErZz), and adding H in words ending in A or O (mUsZtAh, KoH) are gestures borrowed from swardspeak, e.g., Zsazsa Zaturnnah, for that dash of panache. There are also borrowings from Pinoy ghetto speech, like Da Port (from Ebonics?), and Bhong or Rhose (H between a consonant and O), to confer street cred in the cyberhood.

The jejemon phenomenon only attests to how Filipinos have embraced the new technologies of communication. According to Forbes: “The Philippines is not a rich country, but it has one of the most sophisticated cell phone markets in the world and one of the highest concentrations of users. More than half the population owns a cell phone, and the ownership rate is still climbing”. In a Universal McCann study, the Philippines also emerged as the social networking capital of the world. The map below of friendships formed on Facebook shows the Philippines being distinctly bright. Ties of friendship create a striking outline of the entire country–a visualization of the gregariousness of Filipinos.

Facebook Map

Text messaging and social networking did not make us gregarious, but it created a new social space for this quality to flourish. gEtz~ MO,~ n0h?