Origins of the Chabacano Cosa

A few years ago, while studying Spanish, I began to become curious about the origins of certain Chabacano words. While doing my research, I also realized that in the world of Linguistics, Chabacano is the "holy grail". And why not? It is the only Spanish-based creole in Asia and one of the oldest creole languages in the world. In fact, when you search Google for the keywords Chabacano or Chavacano, you will be swamped by more than one million hits. That's how popular Chabacano is worldwide!

One of the Chabacano words that I was curious about was cosa. Cosa (what) is a word that we use so many times every day in Chabacano. But have you ever stopped to think how it came about?

Some people say that Chabacano vocabulary has some Italian influences. I was skeptical about it at first because as far as I know, there aren't any evidence of Italian influence in Chabacano vocabulary. But did you know that the word cosa is also 'what' in Italian? Here is an example:

Italian; Cosa stai facendo?
Chabacano: Cosa tu ta hace?
English: What are you doing?

But a more probable theory is that it came from Spanish.

In contemporary Spanish, they sometimes say que cosa when they didn't understand what somebody was saying. But this theory I'm afraid is a weak one and has no legs.

According to John M. Lipski from the Pennsylvania State University who is the author of a study on Chabacano called Chabacano/Spanish and The Philippine Linguistic Identity, there existed a form of (non-creolized) Spanish in the Philippines. In the texts that he cites in his study, we can see that cosa was used as an interrogative in Philippine Spanish.

Philippine Spanish: `¿También redactarás las actas de las sesiones? ---¿Cosa eso, señor?'
English: Will you also take minutes of the meetings? What is that, sir?

Philippine Spanish: `Quiero decir que tendrás muchos galanes. ---¿Cosa galanes?'
English: I mean that you must have many beaus. What are beaus?

An even more interesting fact was that Lipski's study cites some examples during the late 19th century of Chinese people in the country speaking in what is called kitchen Spanish and using the word cosa as an interrogative.

Kitchen Spanish: `mueno dia señolía ... ¿cosa quiele? mia tiene nuevo patila ...'
English: good day, Sir, what do you want? I have new merchandise.

Kitchen Spanish: `Cosa? No tiene biligüensa, mas que mia chino mia siempele genti. Ah, sigulo no siñola bilalelo …’
English: what? Have you no shame; although I’m Chinese, I’m still a person. Surely {she} is not a true lady

The statements above were clearly spoken using Chinese accent and that is why quiere is pronounced as quiele, bueno as mueno, seguro as sigulo, verdadero as bilalelo, siempre as siempele, verguenza as biliguensa.

So is it possible that cosa came from the Chinese merchants speaking in kitchen Spanish? Did this word later enter the vocabulary of Philippine Spanish and subsequently, Chabacano? In his study, Lipski explains that one of the languages that influenced Chabacano was Philippine Spanish so it is very possible that the origin of the word cosa is Philippine Spanish.

I don't know about you, but I had so much fun researching on the curious case of cosa.

Join me in my future articles as I try to unravel more of Chabacano's mysteries!