Written by: Rome Lim
Carabao English is, as the Filipino Times calls it, “a form of Filipino conversational English riddled with grammar boo-boos or gaffe”.
It’s what you would call the kind of English your one Tito speaks when he’s had one too many drinks and tries to ask about your non-existent partner while holding the microphone. Or maybe he just always talks like that, sans the alcohol.
Examples of Carabao English could be: “I’m going house to my father”, “Where is you?”, or even literal translations of phrases like “Ikaw kasi” (“Because you”) being expressed in English, purely for comedic effect.
This kind of humor is common among mainland Filipinos and pokes fun at the absurdity that is North American English. Carabao English unintentionally plays with the structures of language and openly embraces – in true Filipino fashion – the difficulty of being bilingual.
English is the bully we should all make fun of
I want to start off by claiming that I am not an expert in comedy - both as a profession and as a genre of entertainment. However, as someone who exists in an age where everything that exists on the internet is subject to critical analysis, I’m starting to learn about what makes a joke, “good”.
Across the board, I think we can all agree that quick-wit is one of the many foundational pillars to becoming a strong comedian. Being able to make a sharp joke on the fly is just as important as how you deliver it.
Overseas Filipinos tend to lean towards anchoring their jokes with their interpretation of the Filipino accent when retelling stories in a funny setting. And while I do think this is the diaspora’s version of “Carabao English”, and certainly has cultural significance in our experience living away from the mainland, it is low-brow humor.
By removing the need to use a Filipino accent in my recounting of hilarious stories, I’ve realized that the true heart of the humor is not in how this person was talking, but rather, it is in what was said. I understand the power forcing an accent has when world building. In fact, some online personalities have built whole careers off of speaking with a “Filipino accent”.
But I think there’s a difference between being genuinely funny and just being silly.
Sounding “White”, despite being highly proficient in speaking English, has proven to be a deciding factor when it comes to whether or not a non-White individual receives a job. So to see many Filipino comedians and online personalities alike, creating “characters” out of a trait that has the power to deskill and unqualify those in our community… I don’t know - it kind of makes me feel weird. It makes me feel like we’re affirming the ways White people see us.
There’s no doubt that the use of Carabao English doesn’t fall into the same trap. It does. Especially in industries that exist in major cities and operate internationally. Elitism runs itself through the quips from co-workers who correct you, unprovoked, with a smile.
But all jokes are just half truths, diba?
Carabao English in the wild
For me, the thing that separates Carabao English from other common forms of Filipino comedy, is its witty nature.
Take this video of Stell from SB19, teasing his other band member, Josh, for how he pronounced the word “enamel”.
Stell’s “you’re an enamel” joke, transforms Josh’s perceived mispronunciation into something that everyone can enjoy that isn’t entirely at his expense.
I’ve always believed that if you’re going to make fun of someone, you should always do it to those “above” you. Carabao English does so by making fun of the English language itself, as something that inherently make sense; riddled with inconsistencies, and more cultural influences than our country’s very own history, English deserves to be made fun of.
Although we can say that comedy is “never that deep”, I invite our community to be more mindful/critical of the kind behaviors we encourage within each other. I think we’ve grown past the need to mimic someone’s speech in order to elicit laughter.
Besides, if you don’t have something nice to say, it’s better to not say it at all.