The national language of the Philippines is Filipino or Pilipino. The term “Filipino” and “Pilipino”is used interchangeably, reflecting the acceptance of different accents in the country. The second official language is English, widely used in national newspapers, government, and higher education. Like neighboring Indonesia, the Philippines is an archipelago, with many communities separated by sea, mountains, and history. The number of languages in the country is 187, spoken by of a population of 100,699,000 (2015 UNDESA).
Philippine languages are part of the Austronesian language family. The Austronesian languages is a large and diverse group that includes Taiwan, Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Madagascar. There is scattered use of Austronesian languages in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, and islands in the central and south Pacific. Filipino shares some vocabulary with Bahasa Melayu and Bahasa Indonesia. Filipino is also highly influenced by Spanish and English.
Tagalog emerged as the basis of the Philippine National Language, because it is the native language of the capital, Manila. On December 1937, Tagalog was declared by the first commonwealth Filipino president, Manuel L Quezon, as the base language from which a national language will emerge. Before the declaration of a national language, English and Spanish were the official languages of the country. Notice, Quezon did not cite Tagalog precisely as the national language, only as a starting point from which a national language will evolve. At the time of declaration, Tagalog was hardly spoken outside the Katagalugan, or Land of the Tagalogs. And it would take decades before non-Tagalog speakers adopted the national language as their own.
Tagalog is the home language of the Tagalog people of central and southern Luzon. The other contender for the title of National Language was Cebuano – the regional language of Visayas and Mindanao, and home language of Cebu City, the first capital of the country.
There are three main island groups in the country, that make up a total of 7,641 islands. Imagine the country in the shape of a sitting cat or dog. The head and front leg (Palawan Island) of the cat is Luzon. The torso of the cat is the scattered Visaya Islands. The wide, sitting bum of the cat is the island of Mindanao. A few kilometers east of Mindanao is the state of Sabah, Malaysia.
There are distinct language divisions in the country. And you can observe these divisions, even among Filipinos overseas. Many younger generations have adopted Tagalog, or Filipino, as the shared national language. Filipino language is taught in schools, from primary school to higher education. It’s taught as its own subject, and many Filipino students learn it as a second language.
Tagalog and Ilocano in Luzon
In northern Luzon, there are 71 different languages. The regional language is Ilocano. Today, most Ilocano speakers also speak Tagalog. Through necessity of trade, marriage and migration, different ethnic groups have adopted Ilocano as the lingua franca of the north. The term “Ilocano” can refer to the ethnic group Ilocano, and to the language which is also called “Ilocano”. Not everybody who speaks the Ilocano language identifies as a member of the Ilocano ethnic group.
Ethnic Tagalog are the people who comprise the Katagalugan, or “Land of the Tagalogs.” The Land of the Tagalogs includes parts of central Luzon, southern Luzon, and nearby islands of north Palawan, Marinduque, and Mindoro. Unlike Ilocano, Tagalog language was not naturally adopted by other ethnic groups as a common language. Before the language was introduced into the national education system, Tagalog language was confined to the Tagalog people. This is because the Tagalog people are the dominant ethnic group in their home region, with abundant resources, and little need to learn other local languages. Instead, the Tagalogs were one of the first groups to adopt foreign languages, such as Spanish and English.
In contrast, the Ilocano people have their homeland located between the sea and the impassable mountains. They depended on trade with other groups. The Ilocanos often traded salt and fish with groups from the mountains. Scarcity in the Ilocos region has cultivated a reputation of the Ilocano personality as hardworking, but stingy. As resources become more meager, there was a need to migrate out of the Ilocos region. The Ilocano people were the first large group to migrate out of Luzon, and out of the Philippines. As it turns out, naturally, Filipino migrants who left for Hawaii are Ilocano.
Philippine history, as taught in primary school, is centered on events that happened in the Tagalog region, the Katagalugan. The 1896 Philippine Revolution, against the Spanish colonizers, centered around the Tagalog region. Many of the leaders of the revolution, now national heroes, were Tagalog and their main objective was to create a Tagalog Republic or Republika ng Katagalugan.
A one-sided telling of history, centered on the Tagalogs, does not mean other ethnic groups in the Philippines had no participation in the country’s history and formation. It just so happens that several Tagalog people, like national hero Jose Rizal, were educated enough to read and write. So the events in the Tagalog region are carefully recorded for posterity. While events in other parts of the country, valiant as they were, remained stories and oral history. For example, the heroic deeds of Gabriela Silang, a woman general of Ilocos, who led an uprising against Spain long before the Philippine Revolution of the Tagalogs, were passed down verbally. There are also several ethnic groups in the mountains of Luzon, and groups in Mindanao, that remained independent and actively resisted the centuries-long colonization of Spain.
The Tagalog region centered around Manila. It is a wealthy and well located region for agriculture and commerce. Manila has long been a center for trade, education, religion and government. The wide and slow moving Pasig River provides good, fertile soil and irrigation for Manila and the surrounding cities. The Pasig empties into Manila Bay, a sheltered port that has welcomed commerce and trade for centuries. In terms of geography, the Tagalogs are very fortunate.
Tagalog as the National Language
In 1937, Tagalog was made the basis for a Philippine National Language by the government of President Manuel L Quezon, a mestizo Tagalog, of Spanish descent. In 1959, the national language was called “Pilipino.” President Quezon is called the “Ama ng Wikang Pambansa” or in English known as the “Father of the National Language.”
The 1973 Philippine constitution, under the Presidency of Ferdinand Marcos, an Ilocano, declared English and the Tagalog based language “Pilipino” as the official languages of the country. The 1973 constitution articulated the development of “love of country” and “duties of citizenship” as objectives of the education system. The government of Marcos took steps to adopt and promote the use the national language. Prior to this, English was the formal language of government and education.
Within the country, 28 million, or a quarter of the population, claims Tagalog as a first language (2007). Another 45 million, nearly half the population, claim Filipino/Tagalog as a second language. Second language learners pick up Filipino in school and television. The majority of the films and telenovelas (TV dramas) produced in the country are in Filipino/Tagalog.
While traveling different provinces within the country, it might feel like there are many people who do not speak Tagalog. But this assessment is not accurate. Many Filipinos understand Tagalog, but as second language learners may be shy about speaking in the language. Also many non-Tagalog Filipinos speak Tagalog with a heavy accent. It’s not unusual to mangle Tagalog grammar. It is also generally understood in the culture that the individual adapts to the majority.
For instance, in the Visayas, expect to speak to somebody in Tagalog only to have them reply to you in Bisaya language. They then carry on the conversation in two languages. The Bisaya speaker assumes you understand them, but you’re just too shy to speak in Bisaya. So they continue to speak to you in Bisaya, completely understanding what you’re saying in Tagalog, even as you don’t understand them. This happens repeatedly and relentlessly: when you order food, ride public transportation, go to the hospital, go to work, go to school, as long as you remain in their territory. Then you finally relent, and learn Bisaya language, for the sake of your own survival.
Tagalog as the national language, Filipino, is very flexible, as it aspires to be inclusive of other Philippine languages. Written Filipino uses the Latin alphabet, just like English. Filipino scholar Lope K Santos created the Tagalog based abakada, a very simple alphabet with 5 vowels and just 15 consonants. The humble abakada was easy to learn, and made Tagalog easier to teach to second language learners. Unlike in written English, there are no surprises with written Tagalog. You spell everything the way you hear it. The five vowel sounds of the abakada are all short vowel sounds – “a, e, i, o, u”. When the abakada is recited, all the consonants are paired with a short “a”, to create a syllable:
A – Ba – Ka – Da – E – Ga – Ha – I – La – Ma – Na – Nga – O – Pa – Ra – Sa – Ta – U – Wa – Ya
The abakada was taught in schools from the 1930’s until the Filipino alphabet was revised in 1987, into what is now called the Modern Filipino Alphabet, with 28 letters. The 15 abakada consonant sounds coincide with the unique pronunciation of the Tagalog language. For instance, Tagalog prefers a hard “P” sound, over of a softer “F” sound, such as “Pilipino” instead of “Filipino”, or “Puersa” instead of “Fuersa”. Tagalogs avoided “V”, which was replaced with “B”. Like other Asian languages, “R” and “L” is sometimes interchanged. An “H” sound inserts itself where there is no “H”, as with the “L” that comes and goes. Soft digraph sounds such “Th”, “Sh”, “Ch”, “Wh”and “Ph” become hard sounds when translated by a Tagalog tongue. The booby trap “J” sound that makes “John” becomes “Dzahn” or “Juan”. The confusing “C” sound in Spanish and English is replaced by a concrete “Ka”.
|Original||Tagalog Pronunciation||Word Origin (English)|
|The, There, Then||“Da”, “Der”, “Den”||English|
|What, Where, When||“Wat”, “Wer”/”Wur”, “Wen”||English|
|Livin’ La Vida Loca||Libing La Bida Loka||Spanglish|
These pronunciation quirks are unique to Tagalog speakers. For instance, from the Ilocanos in the north to the Chavacanos in the very south, there is no confusion between “F” with “P”. The Malay word “balay” remains “balay” in Ilocano and Bisaya, and does not transform into “bahay,”as it does in Tagalog.
During the 1987 administration of President Corazon Aquino, the abakada got an update. The abakada is elegant in its simplicity and fun to learn for children, as the entire abakada can be recited in one breath. But an update was long overdue. The Makabagong Alpabetong Filipino, or the New Filipino Alphabet, has 28 letters. Eight more letters from the Spanish alphabet were added: c, f, j, ñ, q, v, w, and z. The new Filipino alphabet is nearly identical to the English alphabet, with addition of “ñ” and “ng”. Sometimes, the Spanish “LL” and “RR” are also added.
The latest revision of the Filipino alphabet is the Revisyon ng Alfabeto at Patnubay sa Ispeling ng Wikang Filipino, issued in 2001 by the Commission on Filipino Language. The revision translates as “The Revision of the Alphabet and Guide for Spelling of the Filipino Language”. As evident in the evolving spelling of the word “alpabeto” to “alfabeto”, or “revision”, “revisyon”, “rebisiyon”, to “rebisyon”; Filipino spelling is very changeable and difficult to take seriously, especially concerning borrowed words.
The general rule is to write how you hear it. So “spelling” can become “espeling”, then “ispeling”. The added “e” before “s” when using the borrowed English word “spelling” is a throwback from Spanish speech habits, that always puts an “e” before an “s”, like “españa”. The double “LL” in “spelling” is made single “L” because double “LL” is the Spanish “elle”, and pronounced differently. Other examples of this transition are sport to “isport” and speaker to “ispiker”. Nobody will misunderstand if you switch “isport” to “esport” or, “ispiker” to “espiker”, as “i” and “e” are interchangeable when spoken, depending on your home accent.
The Filipino people have adopted Tagalog as the national language at a slow, but steady pace. The success of Tagalog/Filipino can be interpreted in many ways. Most people in the country do not rely on just Tagalog/Filipino language to navigate the different islands and communities in the country. There’s a wide use of English, regional languages such as Ilocano, Cebuano and Hiligaynon, and even Spanish in the southern islands.
The Philippine Social Weather Surveys, an independent, nonprofit institution that conducts social surveys in the country, published in 2014, that 37.8% Filipinos claim to speak Tagalog at home. A 2000 survey has 85% of Filipinos saying they understand spoken Tagalog/Filipino. Comprehension is 97% in Luzon, 78% in Visayas, and 63% in Mindanao. Language comprehension is very different from being able to read, write or speak in a language. Nationwide, only 79% claim to be able to speak Tagalog/Filipino – 96% in Luzon, but only 61% in Visayas, and 48% in Mindanao, say they are able, or confident enough to carry out a conversation in Tagalog.
Many people who speak Tagalog as a second language have a heavy accent. They don’t speak Tagalog in the same way you would hear it in Manila, or on television. Tagalog, in comparison to Ilocano and Bisaya, is “malumanay”. To the ears of Ilocano and Bisaya speakers, Tagalog language is gentle, soft, and feminine, with no hard punctuations, and with liberal use of extra “H” sounds. The tone of each sentence ends with an upward lilt, as if asking a question even when you are not.
Tagalog is polite and deferential. You say “po”, which translates to “sir/madam,” instead of a full stop, question mark, or exclamation point – “Thank you, po”, “Hello, po”, “Bye, po”. Other Philippine languages do not have an equivalent for “po,” and it takes some effort to remember to be more polite when speaking Tagalog/Filipino.
Ilocano language, also called Ilokano, Iluko, Iloco or Iloko, is the third most spoken language in the country. Most speakers are in northern Luzon. The ‘i’ in Ilocano means “from”, and ‘looc’ means “cove or bay.”“Ilocano” translates to “people from the bay.”
The original “Ilocano homeland” is northwest Luzon, comprised of the provinces of Ilocos Norte, Ilocos Sur, Abra, and La Union. Ilocanos are highly migratory and have populated other provinces, overtaking the native ethnic groups of their adopted home. Government sponsored migration have also resulted in the resettlements of Ilocanos in Mindanao, particularly provinces of South Cotabato and Sultan Kudarat. Ilocano communities also exist in Manila and Palawan. There is a large community of Ilocanos in the United States, especially in Hawaii and California, and in Europe, especially Italy.
Ilocano has been called the “National Language of the North.” Several ethnic groups in the north use Ilocano as the shared regional language, along with Tagalog/Filipino. Ilocano as a language has a very stable history, because Ilocano people originate from a small homogeneous homeland. Diversity in dialect is very small.
The Ilocos is one of the smallest regions in the country with a minuscule land area of 4.28 percent of the national total. The region is between the sea to the east, and a mountain range to the west, leaving little space for agriculture. Limited living space and an increasing population pressured a large number of Ilocanos to venture outside their homeland as early as the mid-1800s. In 1906, many were recruited to migrate to Hawaii and California to work on plantations that were short in labor. Ilocanos comprise the largest number of expatriates to the United States. In Hawaii, Ilocanos are 85% of the Filipino population.
Languages in Visayas and Mindanao
There are 119 languages in the Visayas and Mindanao islands. But you can count just two as major regional languages – Cebuano and Hiligaynon (Ilonggo). The term Bisaya or Visaya language refers to the group of regional languages spoken in the south part of the country.
Cebuano is the most widely spoken in central Visaya, eastern Visaya, and Mindanao. Cebuano is the home language of the island of Cebu, with Cebu City as the historical center of trade, education, and government in the Visayas. Cebu is the country’s first city and the Spanish capital in the Philippines. It is strategically located, right in the middle of the Visaya group of islands, acting as a geographic hub for Visayas and Mindanao.
The second most spoken Visayan language is Hiligaynon or Ilonggo, a regional language used in western Visayas. HIligaynon is also called Ilonggo, the native people of the Iloilo island. As a written language it uses the Spanish alphabet, with 32 letters. Hiligaynon as a spoken language is known to have a sweet, sing-song tune, which makes the speaker sound flirty. It is “softer”sounding than Tagalog. It is a common joke that when an Ilonggo wields a large knife and makes a battle cry in Hiligaynon, it’s difficult to tell if they are angry or not, because of their gentle, sing-song accent. Think of Hiligaynon as the equivalent of the Irish accent in English.
The third most popular regional language in the Visayas is called Waray-Waray, spoken in eastern Visayas. Waray is the language of the Waray people native to Samar, Leyte, and Biliran, although their neighbors have also adopted it as a second language. The center of eastern Visayas, also called Region VIII, is Tacloban City – home city of the infamous first lady, Imelda Marcos. Waray is a spoken language. It is rare to read, write, or publish in Waray. Many Waray speakers will have Cebuano, Tagalog, and/or English as a second language.
There is a historic rivalry between Tagalog and the Visaya languages. Like Ilocano in the north, the Visaya languages established themselves as regional languages through natural evolution. This is unlike Tagalog, which had to be introduced by law, and taught in schools. There is also a long standing rivalry between the two old capitals, Manila and Cebu. Policies of any kind from Manila, especially those concerning culture, have many times been put down as Manila-centric by Cebu and other centers in the south.
Not surprisingly, many Visayan speakers have adopted English over Tagalog/Filipino as the shared language with the north. Don’t be surprised to meet an educated Ilonga in Manila, fluent in English but stumbling in Tagalog. Surveys (2008) by the Social Weather Station count 87% of native Hiligaynon, and 70% of native Cebuano speakers say they understand English. Compare this to slightly lower numbers of those who claim to understand Tagalog (2000 survey) – 78% in Visayas, and 63% in Mindanao.
Spanish in the Philippines
The Philippines is sometimes called the Latin country of Asia, because of the country’s long colonial history with Spain. To other Asians, Philippine languages sound Spanish, rather than an Austronesian language, with close ties to Malaysian and Indonesian. There are living Spanish dialects in the Philippines, especially active in the south of the country.
All the regional languages, including Tagalog, borrow heavily from the Spanish vocabulary, which is why Filipinos sound “Spanish.” But any native Spanish speaker will disagree that Filipino is Spanish. Filipino languages are a firm member of the Austronesian family. The Philippines is not like other former Spanish colonies, such as those in South America, wherein the Spanish language had been completely adopted.
The Spanish Colonial Rule in the Philippines started in 1521 and ended in 1898, a total of 333 years rule. The end of Spain’s colonial rule in the country was the beginning of the American Colonial Period. Spain’s legacy in the country includes a European feudal style government and culture, Christianity, taxation and global trade. Spain is the reason the Philippines is the only Roman Catholic country in Asia.
Until 1987, Spanish was an official language of the Philippines. The language was a required course in tertiary education, until 1998. After that, Spanish became an elective subject. Students who major in History still take extra Spanish courses because before the American Colonial Period, all important texts were written in Spanish. The demotion of Spanish language as a former official language was a reflection of its decline in the everyday lives of the Filipinos. There is a preference for learning English, and so Spanish had to be left behind.
The most widely spoken Spanish dialect in the Philippines is called Chavacano, a Creole language. Speakers of Chavacano are over 689,000, who live mostly in and around Zamboanga City and other cities in Mindanao. Aside from groups in Mindanao, there are also native Chavacano speakers in Cavite and Ermita, located around Manila. Chavacano is a spoken language that can sound like broken Spanish. Written Spanish defaults to the international standard of the language.
The Instituto Cervantes, a nonprofit language school created by the government of Spain, estimates there are 3 million native and second language Spanish speakers in the country. The third largest Instituto Cervantes in the world is located in Manila, where they boast a revived interest from a new generation, eager to learn Spanish, and willing to pay for tuition.
The Philippines is host to many foreign companies seeking to setup call centers and business process outsourcing (BPO) offices in the country. In the beginning of the outsourcing boom, foreign companies mostly employed English speakers. But there is also a market for Spanish speakers and other European and Asian language speakers, who usually command a higher salary than English speaking employees. This created a new economic incentive to learn Spanish. For today’s Spanish learners, Spanish is no longer the dreaded, archaic language their parents were forced to learn at school. Rather, the language is a leg up in the job market.
For Filipinos, Spanish is the most accessible “foreign” language to learn, other than English, even if you only speak a local Filipino language. There are still many Spanish language teachers nationwide. Tagalog vocabulary is around 20% Spanish. Filipinos still count money, days and months in Spanish. Many people use Spanish cuss words, words of endearment, and expressions of happiness, love and excitement in Spanish. You can hear Filipino speakers sprinkle their conversations with expressions like “basta!”, “gusto!”, and “sige!”, and not even know these are Spanish words.
Summary & Introduction to Part II
There is no question that English is widely spoken in the Philippines. In our next series we will deeply explore the role of English, the emergence of “Taglish”, Code-switching, and the international job market. Some of our readers may have come across in their calls to American companies a conversation with an outsourced call center representative based in the Philippines. In our attempt to appreciate the rich beauty of the language, it is critical that we understand the larger historical, economical and cultural forces at play.