Bamboo Spanish

August 6, 2014

tag: pio andrade jr, spanish philippines, thomasite,  philippine american war



How did the American soldiers in the Philippine-American War manage to make themselves understood by the Filipinos in the absence of an interpreter? Answer: By speaking “Bamboo Spanish,” which was also called “Soldier’s Spanish”, or “Pack-Train Spanish.” 

By far, Bamboo Spanish is the most comical version of the language of Cervantes. It is more comical than Chabacano, the “Spanish” of Zamboanga City and Cavite City. “To speak Bamboo Spanish,” according to Thomasite William Freer, “the American soldiers have but to know, correctly or incorrectly, about 10 verbs in the third person, singular number and present tense, 20 nouns, the adjective forms bueno and malo, and the adverbs, si, no, and por que, and to be able to throw these together with the English words interspersed; and lo, he was able to converse anywhere and everywhere.”

To this, I would like to add that Bamboo Spanish hispanized English by adding Spanish endings to English words, especially the nouns, and using the word “este” a lot, spiced generously with hand gestures. Here are some Bamboo Spanish stories:

A One day an American troop detachment escorting a mule team with lumber for a bridge was ambushed by Filipino soldiers. The mules ran away as soon as the fighting began. When the Filipinos were driven off. The American soldiers went after the mules; but they came to a crossroad and did not know which way the mules took.

A few civilian Filipinos came along and the captain, wanting to question them, called out to his men: “Is there anybody here who can speak Spanish?” A corporal presented himself and said he could. “All right,” the captain said, “Ask this man here if he has seen any mule go down this road.”

The corporal thought for a few minutes, and then he questioned the frightened Filipino, “Say, hombre, you see este mulio go down este rodeo?

Were the mules found because of the corporal’s Bamboo Spanish? The story did not say so. It ended with the statement that the captain never again used his corporal as an interpreter.

It was 1900 and Manila was already well under American control. The American authorities ordered that “Keep off the grass” signs be planted in the Luneta to keep the lawn green and beautiful.

One day an American ex-soldier, who was a member of Manila’s Finest, was pounding his Luneta beat when he saw a Filipino sauntering over the lawn. The American policeman accosted the Filipino trespasser.

“Hey, you,” he shouted while pointing at the sign. “What’s the matter with you? Can’t you read?”

“No comprendo, (I don’t understand)” the Filipino replied. “que quire decir eso? (What does that thing mean?)”

After a few exchanges, the American realized that the Filipino did not understand English. So he switched to the language of Cervantes, Manila American version: “You sabe este signio habla, oostay no puede vamos este caballo chow-chow. (Roughly: This sign means that even a horse is forbidden to come near this grass to eat.)”

The Filipino sneaked off the lawn into the gravel path. Did he understand the Bamboo Spanish of the American policeman, or was he just intimidated by the gringo?

Not long after his arrival in the Philippines, geologist Dr. Warren E. Smith, who later became Bureau of Mines director, assisted Jesuit Fr. Sanchez, a teacher, admirer, and friend of Rizal, in cataloguing the geological and mineralogical specimens of the Ateneo Museum. Since Fr. Sanchez did not know English, Dr. Smith had to talk Bamboo Spanish. The two worked together very well despite Fr. Sanchez perfect Castillian and Dr. Smith’s questionable Spanish. Dr. Smith admitted, though, that Fr. Sanchez’s innate courtesy made him unaware of the in-adequacy of his bamboo Espanol.

Bamboo Spanish may be crude, comical, and grammatically monstrous, but it generally worked. A Thomasite, in his first three weeks in the Philippines, was amazed at the linguistic ability of his fellow Americans. Everywhere he went, he saw Americans, especially soldiers, conversing effortlessly with Filipinos in Spanish. A month later, when he had learned some Spanish, the Thomasite realized that what he heard his compatriots speaking was Bamboo Spanish. There was a big difference between la lengua de Dios, as Spanish-speaking people call the Spanish language, and la lengua de los soldados Americanos en las Islas Filipinas, or Bamboo Spanish.



This article was sent to me by historian Pio Andrade Jr., This first appeared in his Philippine Daily Inquirer column.

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God, this article made me cringe. Am so lucky to have been born and raised in a tri-lingual family.