October 11, 2018

Historical Hypotheses on the possible origins of the Batangueño Expression “Ala Eh”

"Illanoan Pirates, c. 1800s." Image source:  Wikiwand.
[In this article: Batangas, Batangas province, ala eh, salitang Batangas, Batangas dialect, Wallah, Allah, hala]
The Batangueño Stereotype
Whether you are from Batangas or not, you most likely know that the most familiar stereotype of the Batangueño is the expression “ala eh.” Whether the stereotype is accurate at all is subject to debate; and this writer, for one, maintains that while the two words can indeed be favored by Batangueños in their dialectic Tagalog, the real tendency is for them to use one or the other separately and seldom together.

The ‘Ala Eh’
This writer hastens to add that both ‘ala’ and ‘eh’ are Tagalog words; and neither is endemic to Batangas. He also thinks it is safe to say that the interjection ‘eh’ does not really have one particular meaning. Tagalog-dictionary.com says that the word is used partly to signify hesitation in speech; but is just as frequently used ‘to close a sentence or reinforce disagreement, contradiction or protestation.’

If this writer may add, ‘eh’ may also be used to start a sentence with, such as in ‘Eh ano ngayon?’ (So what?) All Tagalogs use the word as a matter of course; and probably without even realizing that the gist of a sentence or phrase will not really change if the word ‘eh’ is omitted. For instance, the earlier example can just as correctly be said as ‘Ano ngayon?’

Pinoydictionary.com defines ‘ala’ as nothing or zero, null or without. This writer suspects, however, that the definition applies to the ‘alâ’ as a variant of “wala” (nothing, null, zero) and primarily because the word is listed as a noun rather than as an interjection.

Also, ‘alâ’ is becoming just as common as ‘walâ’ because of contemporary expressions and the natural evolution of language and spread of new usage because of modern media and communications. For instance, young people are just as wont to lazily say ‘alâ lang’ in place of ‘walâ lang,’ an expression that this writer cannot say was used in his youth.

The Batangueño Connection
To get more depth on his understanding of the expression, this writer turned to his connections on social media, the core of whom at one time or the other lived in the province of Batangas and many continue to do so in the present day. While this writer can categorically state that the stereotype ‘ala eh’ is false, he will however admit that ‘ala’ and “eh” used as standalones is liberally used hereabouts.

That is, unless it is substituted with the local dialect ‘anla’ or coupled with ‘pa’ as in ‘ala pa’ or ‘anla pa.’

So this writer asked his Batangueño connections how they understood the word ‘ala.’ None of the responses, of course, was backed up by scholarly citations. However, many language experts consider Batangas as Tagalog heartland; so the responses were more from personal understanding and practical daily usage of the word.

Funnily enough, there was no consensus at all among the respondents, something that hints at the word’s natural ambiguity. Many suggested that ‘ala’ signifies something negative such as an interjection of annoyance, disagreement, displeasure, uncertainty or disapproval.

For instance, if one gets invited to the lomi (a noodle delicacy) house and one has no inclination to go, the response may be, “Ala, busog pa ako!” (I am still full.) Similar to the ‘eh,’ the ‘ala’ can be omitted and the gist of the sentence remains. Inserted at the beginning of the sentence, ‘ala’ hints at a bit of displeasure or even annoyance at the invitation.

It can also take the place of ‘ayaw ko’ (I don’t like) or its contraction ‘ayoko.’ Thus, ‘ala, busog pa ako’ actually also means ‘ayaw ko, busog pa ako.’ (I don’t like, I’m still full.)

In expressing disagreement with something, one can also say, “Ala naman!” The word may also be used to express doubt, hesitation or uncertainty, such as in, “Ala, bakâ matumba ang punô!” (No, the tree might fall!)

Strangely enough, the word ‘ala’ may also be used as a standalone interjection coupled with the appropriate facial expression, frequently to convey the negative. So instead of saying ‘ala busog pa ako,’ one can just as lazily say ‘Ala!’ and be understood.

There is no rule of thumb, however, that states that ‘ala’ is used exclusively to connote the negative. One respondent correctly pointed out that it can also be used to signify pleasure. For instance, ‘Ala kasarap ga nare!’

For those not from this province, ‘ga’ is Batangas dialect for the more universal ‘ba’ used in most other Tagalog provinces. “Baga” is the word’s formal version. ‘Nare,’ on the other hand, is ‘nito.’ (this)

It is also possible that in the above example, as other respondents pointed out, ‘ala’ is used as a substitute for another common interjection, ‘aba.’ Thus, ‘ala kasarap ga nare’ can also be stated as ‘aba kasarap ga nare.’ In this case, ‘ala’ loosely translated into English appears to approximate ‘oh’ so that the sentence in English is ‘Oh this is good!’

‘Ala’ from Allah?
One interesting hypothesis was put forth by a couple of respondents, who suggested that ‘ala’ as an expression was originally ‘Allah,’ the name Muslims use for God. This writer cannot find any suitable literature over the Internet to support this as a viable etymology. However, Islam predated the arrival of the Spaniards in Luzon, so this may not entirely be baseless.

Here the plot thickens because one respondent based in Saudi Arabia said that Saudis use this Arabic interjection ‘wallah’ to signify disbelief, surprise or doubt. Wikipedia defines the expression, however, as ‘I swear by God.’ ‘Wallah,’ therefore, is probably used in the interrogative or ‘Do you swear by God?’ to signify disbelief, surprise or doubt.

Because Arab traders prowled Southeast Asia long before European colonizers arrived, the ‘Allah-to-ala’ proposition gains a measure of viability. After all, some of the respondents had stated using ‘ala’ to also signify doubt or uncertainty in Tagalog, specifically Batangas Tagalog.

Let us not completely forget the Spaniards, however, because they ruled in this country for more than three centuries and arguably left the most lasting legacies. They have this expression ‘hala,’ an interjection that Spanishdict.com says can mean ‘wow,’ ‘come off it,’ ‘let’s go,’ ‘come on,’ ‘get on with it,’ ‘hurry up,’ or ‘heave.’

Admittedly, none of these meanings approximates those suggested by the respondents. A point of interest, though, will be something evident to those who took units of Spanish in college.

That is, that in Spanish, the ‘h’ is not pronounced. Thus, ‘hala’ and ‘ala’ sound the same although in ‘hala,’ the accent is on the first syllable. ‘Ala,’ on the other hand, is just as correct pronounced with accent either on the first or second syllable.

Because Medieval Spain was for a while also under the Islamic Moors – or Moros, in Spanish – perhaps ‘ala’ is traceable to both ‘hala’ and ‘wallah’ and therefore to Allah. There are, in fact, suggestions in some Internet etymology boards that ‘hala’ evolved from Allah.

Notes and references:
This article has been updated and retitled from an earlier article published on Life so Mundane in Batangas, a web site now renamed Buhay Batangas.

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