Vowel movement

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JH Rand sent in this intriguing photograph taken in the Philippines:

Along with the photograph, JH sent these comments:

I thought you might appreciate this picture showing the Filipino way of handling the issue — can I buy a vowel?  Filipinos evidently conflating b and v like Spanish speakers do. Only paying customers are free?

He is obviously responding to this post: "The big squat" (8/12/15).

There are several bemusing aspects to this sign, but the one that troubled me most was the meaning of ihi. Of course, it must mean "pee", but I wanted to know what language it is in. Fortunately, I found it quickly in "Foul Mouth: Filipino Dirty Words" in the section on "Bodily Fluids, Secretions, and Excrements":

ihi – urine

It's interesting that ihi is followed immediately by this special note:


Common signs on walls: No pissing here

The list is full of colorful entries, and continues all the way down to the last one:

utot – fart; Who made utot? – Taglish for who farted?

[VHM: reminds me of "Beans, beans, the musical fruit; the more you eat the more you toot."]

It includes an entry for the Filipino equivalent for what is perhaps the least favorite word in the English language, one which has often been featured on Language Log.

Umihi, the Tagalog word for "urinate", is formed from the root form ihi and the infix -um-. Chris Sundita has provided valuable phonological and grammatical explanation for umihi:

This word has both an initial and a final glottal stop. So, [ʔihiʔ] → [ʔumihiʔ].

-um- is an intransitive (frequently called "actor focus") verb infix. It's unmarked for mood and aspect, so it's in the irrealis mood and has either an infinitive or imperative reading.

-um- can also be perfective aspect. This -um- is descended from an -ungm- that was last attested in the early 20th century. So context helps determine which aspect a verb infixed with -um- indicates.

In any case, with regard to bawal ang [taong] umihi dito, it's literally translated as "the one who urinates here is forbidden." I give it an infinitive reading. There is an implied relative clause, indicated in brackets.

JH provides additional context:

Given the lack of public restrooms ("comfort rooms" — often abbreviated "CR"), public urination is a daily sight in the Philippines and you see lots of signs on buildings there saying bawal umihi dito ("forbidden to pee here").

There are lots of pictures of people doing it, right in front of the bawal umihi dito signs, some of which depict a penis next to a pair of open scissors.

This reminds me of an old post about another anti-urination sign from the Philippines: "It is forbidden to urinate here. The penalty is bang." (9/2/10).

To return to the "PAY COMFORT ROOMS" sign with which this post began, I am particularly amused by the way it ends:


That's even more perplexing than the "BY ORDER" that concludes some of the bawal umihi dito notices in the Philippines.


[Thanks to Ben Zimmer]


  1. Guy said,

    August 13, 2015 @ 1:18 pm

    "Filipinos evidently conflating b and v like Spanish speakers do."

    I've met some Spanish speakers who insist that "b" and "v" are pronounced differently. I think they're identifying the [b] and [β] allophones of the /b/ phoneme with "b" and "v" respectively. One person gave me the alleged minimal pair "volver" ("return") and "bolber" ("vomit"). Standardly, the latter is simply an additional sense of "volver" and would be spelt the same. This makes me wonder whether there are some speakers who observe this phonemic split in speech or they only think that they do.

  2. Gene Callahan said,

    August 13, 2015 @ 3:37 pm

    "Filipinos evidently conflating b and v like Spanish speakers do. "

    There was a take-off of Imelda Marcos singing "Feelings" somewhere on the Intertubes: "Trying to porget my peelings ob lub."

  3. Peter Taylor said,

    August 13, 2015 @ 4:07 pm

    Guy, did they also speak one of the other languages of Spain?

  4. Guy said,

    August 13, 2015 @ 5:27 pm

    @ Peter Taylor

    Monolingual Spanish or bilingual English/Spanish speakers from Mexico (as far as I know). To be clear, I get the impression most native Spanish speakers don't perceive a (real or imagined) phonemic contrast, just that some do (in the case of the alleged-minimal-pair-giver, another native Spanish speaker who was present questioned his intellingence). But I'm still open to the possibility that there exists a minority who have a phoneme split – though I haven't rejected the null hypothesis that they think they're making a distinction that they're not.

  5. LAR said,

    August 13, 2015 @ 11:41 pm

    Clearly a sign posted in a tourist spot frequented by foreigners. CR is rarely spelled out in Philippine restaurants or other places where such facilities exist, as in Bus transit centers. Also the going rate in Manila and surrounding provinces is P2 for number 1 and P5 for number 2.

    The b/v substitution reminds me of an event many years ago when traveling on a bus in the Philippines when my Filipino seatmate when he heard that I am linguist studing Philippine languages advised me of the difference between Philippine languages and English, "We don't have many consonants, like English, but we Filipinos suffer from loose bowels."

    The infix is also an event nominalizer. So that Bawal ang umihi dito literally means "Urinators are forbidden here." It may also be translated as "The act of urinating is forbidden here." No underlying relative clause is necessary. Without the nominal specifier ang, freely translated as "the", the expression Bawal umihi dito, is a prohibitive verbal expression, where umihi is really an infinitive, with the translation "It is forbidden to urinate here."

  6. Tora-chan said,

    August 14, 2015 @ 12:52 am

    @ Peter Taylor
    I'm not aware of any regional languages of Spain that contrast B and V, at least for the most "standard" varieties of Galician, Basque, and Catalan. I wouldn't be surprised if the distinction exists in some dialects (maybe the more Portuguese-leaning varieties of Galician?), but it doesn't seem to be the norm.

    @ Guy
    I've also encountered that insistence that the letters are distinguished, but I've never actually heard the distinction being made in normal speech as far as I'm aware. The context in which I encountered the idea was when a native speaker (Guatemalan) was teaching the alphabet to some non-native speakers, supposedly the way he had been taught it in school. IIRC, he did pronounce them differently, but the V was a sort of labored [bβ] affricate that seemed pretty clearly affected and unnatural. Perhaps it's a mnemonic device meant to help with spellings that are notoriously easy to mix up, or maybe it's just a faux-conservative spelling pronunciation.

  7. Tora-chan said,

    August 14, 2015 @ 1:04 am

    At another extreme, I've noticed Chilean speakers (such as Ana Tijoux) using what seems to me like a clear [v], rather than the expected [β] allophone for both B (e.g.abiertas at 0:16)and V (vengo, throughout). I remember one of my (non-native) Spanish professors disbelieving me when I said I had heard this pronunciation, but to be fair it is almost non-existent outside of Chile as far as I'm aware. I wonder if anyone else has noticed it.

  8. mollymooly said,

    August 14, 2015 @ 5:14 am

    What is perplexing about 'the "BY ORDER" that concludes some of the bawal umihi dito notices'? The fact that it is in English rather than Tagalog?

  9. Victor Mair said,

    August 14, 2015 @ 7:23 am

    From Piers Kelly:

    There are plenty of unintentionally amusing Filipino signs, but deliberate word play – especially in Philippine English but also in Tagalog/Visayan – is a big thing. Even if the visitor has no taste for puns, they begin to appreciate them eventually through sheer saturation.

    A while ago Randy La Polla introduced me to this book: http://www.amazon.com/NGALANG-PINOY-Primer-Filipino-Wordplay/dp/9716301340

  10. Bfwebster said,

    August 14, 2015 @ 8:16 am

    Back when I lived in Central America, it was a common trope to represent young kids' spelling as confusing b and v (e.g., spelling vaca [cow] as 'baca'), the same way in English we might show a kid spelling 'cat' as 'kat'. [Brief aside: iPad autocorrect kept changing 'kat' to 'Kay'.]

  11. Rodger C said,

    August 14, 2015 @ 8:53 am

    I believe the b/v distinction exists in Valencian,

  12. Grover Jones said,

    August 14, 2015 @ 9:44 am

    How do they know which function you perform? Are there separate rooms?

  13. Bastian said,

    August 14, 2015 @ 1:01 pm

    @Tora-chan [v] as an allophone of /b/ is reported to exist in Andalusian Spanish, so it would be no suprise to encounter it in Latin American varieties. Also, Wikipedia https://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Espa%C3%B1ol_chileno#Pronunciaci.C3.B3n) mentions this for Chilean Spanish.

  14. Sumelic said,

    August 14, 2015 @ 11:22 pm

    Well, you can find people who insist that they pronounce the initial consonant sound(s) of English "scent," "cent" and "sent" distinctly (but the difference is "subtle"), so it wouldn't surprise me that similar spelling-based misconceptions might exist for other languages.

  15. ryanch said,

    August 14, 2015 @ 11:50 pm

    Interesting that the attested people distinguishing b and v in Spanish are from Mexico and Guatemala, especially since the Guatemalan was teaching the alphabet rather than distinguishing the consonants in actual Spanish words. Could either or both have been bilingual in an indigenous language? There are Mayan languages with at least 3 sounds in the b/v spectrum. I tried to say thank you in one of the local languages everywhere I went while vacationing in Chiapas a few years back. Something like bocalish lavaleq, or a shortened form bocolaval. At one point someone laughed and told me my v was just wrong enough to mean something ridiculous. But when I tried it more like a b, that was wrong too. It was supposed to be about midway between.

  16. ryanch said,

    August 14, 2015 @ 11:52 pm

    Grover, in many places in Mexico, if #2, you have to pay for the toilet paper on the way in. And they are not generous 'helpings'.

  17. Roger Lustig said,

    August 15, 2015 @ 4:15 pm

    Victor/Piers: the delightful wordplay is one of the best things about the Filipino approach to language.

    I knew that the Marcos family was doomed when, during a long period of daily demonstrations by any and every group in Manila, the dentists' association was photographed carrying a huge banner reading: FIGHT TRUTH DECAY.

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