Sunday, December 2, 2007

Notes on the bugtong

Notes and anecdotes on the bugtong, mostly taken from my Filipino 14 class under Mr. Popa.

    The bugtong, loosely translated as "riddle" in the English language, is a form of pre-colonial Filipino literature that still enjoys some popularity to this day. It is known by various names in different regions of the country, such as tigmo (Cebuano), burburti (Ilokano), tugma (Ilongo), kabbuñi (Ivatan) and tukud tukud (Tausug), with bugtong being the term employed by the Tagalogs.

    The bugtong is a form of poetry, usually consisting of a couplet (though sometimes a quatrain is employed). Each line is done in a heptameter or octameter, with the end syllables rhyming. In the common case, the couplet follows a formula: the first line will conjure an image, while the second line adds a detail that turns the image into a paradox. The overall image painted by the two lines will highlight a specific feature of the object in question, allowing those who are asked the bugtong to accurately guess what it is. This is different from a conventional metaphor, in that the picture painted is so far removed from any natural reality, yet at the same time concretizes the object that the bugtong's maker wishes the audience to guess. For example:

Original:Translation (English):
Buto't balatBones and skin

    This is a conventional and oft-repeated bugtong. The first line projects the image of bones and skin, while the second line gives a detail that makes the situation arise from its mundane picture. This style of defamiliarization serves to highlight certain features that allow those who are guessing to give an answer. For this case, the answer is a kite. The skin and bones refer to the kite's frame of cut-out paper held together by several sticks and string, while the second line refers to the kite as something that flies. It is the unnerving and unconventional portrayal of flying skin and bones that allows the bugtong to stand out from an ordinary portrayal of the kite. This makes the bugtong a unique style where defamiliarization is key. This trait may have been developed from the needs and beliefs of the pre-colonial communities in the Philippines. Daily life consisted of looping routines and roundabout labor, and as such the bugtong served as a way of reminding the community of the richness of their lifestyle. The ability of the bugtong to make something ordinary seem extraordinary gives the community a new perspective. It also serves as a mental exercise to sharpen the wit and intellect of members of the community. The bugtong may have also served as a form of sparring between locals in a community, an alternative to more physical forms of contest. The inability to solve a bugtong, especially one that involves such normal objects as a person's hand or house, showcases a person's katangahan (stupidity). Bugtungan is the term used to describe the event wherein people ask each other bugtongs.

    The bugtong normally covers daily chores or objects that are familiar to the speaker and the community he or she is referring to. This springs from the bugtong's relevance to the community as a continuous reminder of their lifestyle. This choice of topic also reflects the harmony between early communities and nature. During pre-colonial times, Filipino communities believed in animism, or the existence of spirits called anitos (singular form: anito) who were present in the primordial forces of nature. This belief, tempered and fueled by a need to survive in the harsh tropical climate, made early Filipinos share a close relationship with nature. The bugtong also serves as a reminder of this closeness, as it draws many of its metaphors from nature and everyday life. However, this makes the bugtong a solely communal exercise; the lack of universal themes will initially drive an outsider back, as he or she does not have the knowledge required to solve a bugtong. An example would be:

Original:Translation (English):
Mataas kung nakaupoTall when seated
Mababa kung nakatayoShort when standing up

While there are many answers that would adequately answer this bugtong, the first one that (by convention) will spring to mind for the everyday Filipino would be that of the dog, an animal whose ubiquitous presence in the community is well-known.

    The bugtong as an art was known for its light-heartedness; sometimes the picture painted may include a hint of sexuality on an otherwise mundane portrayal of the object. The addition of this element, however, highlights the closeness of the individuals sharing the bugtong; if no one is offended, it is because they have no qualms with each other and are comfortable in each other's presence. Also, the bugtong is meant to be a spontaneous form. The inherent nature of the bugtong as a reminder of the richness of one's life requires that it be done at the bat; it is also due to its characteristic as a mental exercise. The bugtong is supposed to be done on the spot, as a testament to the maker's intellectual prowess. This is also done so that the bugtong is fresh and thus keeps the object it describes fresh in one's mind. When a bugtong is repeated often, it loses its power to surprise a person into developing an appreciation of the object in question; thus it loses its reason for existing.

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