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Thursday, August 30, 2007

Articles: Filipino and Tagalog, Not So Simple / How to Value Our Languages


Ricardo Ma. Nolasco, Ph.D.
Chair, Komisyon sa Wikang Filipino
August 24, 2007

To most Filipinos, only the national language is a language, and all the rest are dialects. Not quite so.

Linguists have a way of distinguishing a language from a dialect. This is the mutual intelligibility criterion. When speakers cannot understand one another, they speak different languages. When they can, they speak the same language, or dialects of the same language. It doesn’t matter if the speech variety has only five speakers or a million; or if it has a writing system or not; or if it is spoken in only one barangay or in an entire province. All these do not count in defining a language.

On this basis, Ilocano, Cebuano, Kapampangan, Pangasinan, Hiligaynon, Bikol, Butuanon and Meranao to name a few, are not dialects but languages. Variations of a language, like Dumaguete-Cebuano, Davao-Cebuano and Iligan-Cebuano, are called dialects.

The Komisyon sa Wikang Filipino or KWF has recorded around 170 languages in the country. The dialect count could reach 500. We are the 10th most linguistically diverse country in the world. Papua New Guinea is number one.

Are “Tagalog,” “Pilipino” and “Filipino” different languages? No, they are mutually intelligible varieties, and therefore belong to one language. According to the KWF, Filipino is that speech variety spoken in Metro Manila and other urban centers where different ethnic groups meet. It is the most prestigious variety of Tagalog and the language used by the national mass media.

The other yardstick for distinguishing a language from a dialect is: different grammar, different language. “Filipino”, “Pilipino” and “Tagalog” share identical grammar. They have the same determiners (ang, ng and sa); the same personal pronouns (siya, ako, niya, kanila, etc); the same demonstrative pronouns (ito, iyan, doon, etc); the same linkers (na, at and ay); the same particles (na and pa); and the same verbal affixes -in, -an, i- and -um-. In short, same grammar, same language.

Certain academicians equate Tagalog with “purist” usage and Filipino with “non-purist” usage. To them, “pulong” and “gurô” are Tagalog words, while “miting” and “titser” are Filipino words. Word borrowing however is not a reliable basis for language differentiation. Zamboangueño (Chavacano) borrowed heavily from Spanish but evolved a different grammar from Spanish. It cannot be understood by Spanish speakers.

“Purism” has its uses too. I am not talking here of the salumpuwit and the salipawpaw type of purism. Salumpuwit is short for pangsalo ng puwit (“ass catcher”) and salipawpaw came from sasakyang lumilipad sa himpapawid (“a vehicle that flies”). These terms were invented in the 1960’s to purify the national language. Because silya and eroplano were already being used, this kind of purism didn’t make any sense and was repudiated by our people.

I subscribe to “purism” of the gasang type. Gasang is Cebuano and Tagalog for “coral” and kagasangan is for “coral reef.” If we persist in using the English term for the concept, or be content with the phonetic respelling (koral rif), the local term will die. One must not be afraid of teaching our audience new words when they are exact and appropriate for the occasion.

But whether it is simple Tagalog or deep Tagalog, pure Tagalog or halu-halo Tagalog, it is still Tagalog. They all belong to one language.

Why then did we have to change the name from Tagalog, to Pilipino then to Filipino?

The reasons are largely socio-linguistic. From being a language confined to native Tagalogs and their provinces, Tagalog has grown into being the common language of an entire people. It has become nationwide. Non-native speakers of Tagalog outnumber native speakers. Based on the 2000 census, 9 out of 10 Filipinos now speak and understand it with varying degrees of mastery. Even as far south as Tawi-Tawi, there are speakers of the national language. Inter-ethnic communication through the national language has become a reality. Thanks to TV, radio, movies, comics, out-migration and the educational system.

However, most of our people speak a first language other than Tagalog. Cebuano as a first language has 18.5 million speakers, next is Ilocano with 7.7 million, followed by Hiligaynon with 6.9 million and Bicol with 4.5 million. Tagalog as a mother tongue has 22 million speakers.

Non-native speakers of Tagalog tend to be influenced by the pronunciation and grammatical habits of their first language. For instance, the word manî (with the glottal stop at the end) would invariably be pronounced as mani (without the glottal stop) by a Tagalog-speaking Ilocano. As a result, regional variants of Tagalog have sprouted all over the country and are gaining acceptance and legitimacy.

English is also a second language to most Filipinos. It is however more prestigious than Filipino. According to the 2006 Social Weather Station survey, 7 out of 10 Filipinos understand and read in English. Almost one half (48%) said that they could write in English and a third (32%) replied that they could speak in English.

This explains why Filipinos often code-switch and code-mix in English. The product is widely known as “Taglish.” To some, it is when you begin a sentence in either English or Tagalog, tapos nag-switch ka sa kabilang wika in the same sentence. “Taglish” is also when you use Tagalog grammar but English vocabulary. English borrowings in Filipino have become so extensive that more than 1,500 English words appeared at least three times in a Filipino corpus of one million words. This is according to a 1998 study which also suggested that the most frequent English words, like okey, mommy, pulis, daddy and mister, were already part of Filipino.

In 1987, our country’s leaders finally gave recognition to this idiom used by Filipinos as lingua franca. They named it “Filipino” with an “F” to signal that it will be a language based not only on Tagalog but also on other Philippine and foreign languages. They also wanted to dissociate this language from “Pilipino” which they believed to be “puristic”.

However, users of the national tongue, oblivious of and unimpressed by the debates, are not confused. Twenty years after their common language was christened Filipino, they still refer to it as Tagalog.

In many fora, I have also been asked what to call our language, our nationality, and our country. I always start by saying that it depends on the language you’re using. In English, our language is “Filipino”, our nationality is “Filipino” and our country is the “Philippines”. In the national language called Filipino, our language is called “Filipino”, our nationality “Pilipino” and our country “Pilipinas.” I won’t advise using “Filipinas” for our country and “Filipino” for our nationality because they are contrary to official usage.


The national language called Filipino is a convenient tool for inter-ethnic communication. One can go to any place in the country and communicate with fellow Filipinos through this language. Of the 76 million Filipinos, 65 million speak and understand Filipino, according to the 2000 census.

People however ignore the fact that most Filipinos speak Filipino or Tagalog as a second tongue. Only 22 million speak it as their first language. Twice this figure or around 43 million speak it as their second language.

Non-native speakers of Tagalog may not be as proficient in it compared to their first language. This explains the reluctance of some groups in embracing Filipino. They only accept it in sufferance. They would rather use English, because it is everyone’s second language. Besides, it is more prestigious than Filipino.

Historically, Tagalog has occupied a privileged position in this country compared to the other languages, except English. In 1937, Tagalog was declared the “basis” of the national language. In effect, it became THE national language. In 1959, the name was changed to Pilipino. In 1987 it was renamed Filipino with an “F”. It was also designated as one of the official languages and medium of instruction. The regional languages were named auxiliary languages in government and in education.

Having a national language does not mean giving up one’s first or second languages. It also doesn’t mean devaluing the other Philippine languages.

How is a language devalued?

One way is by calling it a “dialect”. By referring to the non-Tagalog varieties as mere “dialects,” their status as legitimate modes of expression is downgraded. The necessity for learning them is reduced. Because Tagalog is the national language, literary works written in it are passed off as national literature. The best Tagalog writers enjoy the status as national writers. On the other hand, non-Tagalog literature is invariably referred to as “regional” or “vernacular” literature, and their best writers, as “regional” or “vernacular” writers.

Look at it from the side of the non-Tagalogs. The Ilocano or Cebuano staying in Manila takes great pains in learning the metropolitan language. In contrast, the Tagalog visitor makes no effort to learn the local idiom.

Another way of devaluing a language is by telling everybody that by speaking the national tongue, you automatically become a patriot. This means that those who can’t speak it, or who choose to speak in English, aren’t.

Our people seem to think so too. In a 1996 Social Weather Station survey, 62% of Filipinos agreed that it was very important for a true Filipino to be able to speak Pilipino. Half of the Visayans (55%) agreed with this statement. And so did 67% of urban Mindanaons.

If that is the case, then our greatest patriots must be the Japanese who invaded our country in the 1940s. During that time, they made Tagalog the primary medium of instruction, together with Nihonggo. The use of English was completely banned. The absurdity of the argument is so obvious that it need not detain us here.

We also devalue our languages by adhering to the slogan of “one nation, one language.” This means one centralized nation-state with one standard language for official functions and education. Many people in this country are pushing for English to be that standard language, invoking globalization and modernization as reasons. Others demand that it should be Filipino because it is the national language and we are Filipinos.

None of these views is supported by reality in the Philippines and in the world. In the Philippines, everyone speaks three or four languages, except the Tagalogs who know their first language and English. In the world, knowing two languages or more is the norm, while knowing one language is the exception. There are only 200 nation-states but more than 6,000 languages. This means that many nations have citizens speaking several languages. The European Union has twenty three (23) official languages. Canada has French and English as official languages. Even the United States has not found it necessary to proclaim a national language.

The enabling law on language is Republic Act No. 7104. This law established the Komisyon sa Wikang Filipino and mandated it to “undertake, coordinate and promote researches for the development, propagation and preservation of Filipino and other Philippine languages.” The policy is to develop and enrich the national language on the basis of existing Philippine and other languages. In other words, the local languages and other languages are equally important and not subservient to the national language. The idea is to strengthen them in order to expand the knowledge and linguistic base of our national language.

The best way to put down any language is by preventing it from being used in the educational system. Children bring their home and community’s language to school only to have the bilingual system extinguish them. The favorite formula is to impose fines or punish students for speaking their home language. The message to our children is that their language and their culture are not important and therefore cannot be reproduced. Only the nationally prescribed languages and the knowledge encoded in them matter.

The usual reasons against using the home languages in school are that it allegedly promotes disunity and that it is impractical because we have so many “dialects”. Disunity results when there is no respect for each other’s cultures and languages. We can learn a thing or two from Papua New Guinea. Papua New Guinea is the most linguistically diverse country in the world with more than 800 languages. But this did not deter that nation from developing literacy materials in a third of its languages. If they can do it, why can’t we?

Let’s move closer to home. Lubuagan is a district of Kalinga where the local language is the medium of instruction for primary grade subjects even for science and mathematics. Tagalog and English are taught as subjects. The Department of Education, the Summer Institute of Linguistics and the Lubuagan community are partners in this project. The 2006 reading test in the division of Kalinga showed remarkable results. Lubuagan pupils registered the highest scores in English (76.5%) and Filipino (76.4%), compared to pupils of the bilingual districts.

How do we value our languages?

A first and crucial step is to change our attitude towards them. Let us look at our local languages not as liabilities but as resources which we can harness to educate society and improve lives.

We need a national language much as we need our local languages and the languages of wider communication (i.e. English, Spanish). Through these languages, we gain a local identity, a national identity and a global identity. They help us to think globally, and act locally.

The indigenous knowledge systems stored in the local languages also complement our knowledge of Western science and technology. This integrated knowledge ensures that any development resulting from it will be sustainable and friendly to the ecosystem.

Our children have the inherent right to be educated in their home language. The home languages and local cultures have been found to be enabling factors to learning in the content areas. They also serve as two way bridges to learning other languages more effectively, as shown in Lubuagan. A learner gains self-respect when his experiences and the language in which they are expressed are acknowledged. The child can then builds from this knowledge, add new concepts and learn more remote and abstract ideas.

At the same time, our people should be given the opportunity to learn the national language and the other languages of wider communication like English. They should be allowed to explore into the exciting opportunities that the national and global economy has to offer. Linguistic diversity does not mean that indigenous cultures must remain unchanged.

By valuing our first languages, we learn to value our second languages, namely Filipino and English. It is the first step for our people to regain control of their environment and their inalienable right to exist.

Read the Tagalog version (pdf).

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A Tao 道 Sign

Le poèt de Pangasinan

Santiago B. Villafania, a bilingual Filipino poet who writes in English and in his native language of Pangasinan, is the author of poetry collections Bonsaic Verses (2012), Pinabli and Other Poems (2012), Malagilion: Sonnets tan Villanelles (2007), and Balikas na Caboloan (Voices from Caboloan, 2005) published by the National Commission for the Culture and the Arts (NCCA) under its UBOD New Authors Series. He has been published in several countries and translated into several languages. Villafania is one of the 11 Outstanding Pangasinan conferred with the 2010 ASNA Award for the Arts and Culture (literature) during the first Agew na Pangasinan and also the 430th Foundation Day of the province on April 2010. He is a member of Philippine PEN writes a regular weekly column for the Sunday Punch.



A collection of ghazals in Pangasinan language. Order now at Amazon.com

A collection of haiku, senryu, tanka, haiga, and other poems in English and Pangasinan language. Order now at Amazon.com

“Santiago Villafania is a searcher with a seemingly insatiable curiosity and endurance. His quest has brought him to explore world poetry from points East and West. He is no stranger to sophisticated verse forms such the Sapphic strophe nor to the diverse permutations of the Japanese haiku. But he is not a formalist, he has daringly explored Asian and Western cultures in a very personal way and writes his mind with a daring, invigorating, aesthetically pleasing ease. In his poetry Villafania displays not only a breadth, but it feels very much like a breath of fresh air.” – Ute Margaret Saine, poet, critic, translator, past president of PEN Orange County and the former editor of the California Poetry Quarterly

“Villafania’s emergence as a poet is a fine moment to celebrate. Another voice from the regions augurs a richer body of writing that Filipinos can hold up as a mirror of our native culture.” – Bienvenido Lumbera, National Artist for Literature

The Beloved Idiom | A Reading of Villafania’s ‘Pinabli & other poems’ by Dennis Andrew S. Aguinaldo

LCCN.: 2010338612

Order your copy now at CreateSpace or Amazon.com :)

"The publication of Malagilion: Sonnets tan Villanelles by Santiago B. Villafania should be a source of rejoicing for readers of regional literatures. This second book by Pangasinan's leading poet today is impressive in both form and substance. Villafania has created 300 sonnets and 50 villanelles in his own language that attempt to reflect the primacy of native culture and return the poet to the central stage of social life."A Boost to Pangasinan Literature from Breaking Signs by Cirilo F. Bautista (Philippine Panorama, 16 Dec. 2007, pp.25-26)

"Villafania is not only a visionary poet, he is a linguistic philosopher who codifies the origin of language and culture, dissects the myths and the common beliefs of the people against the urban legends, juxtaposes the literary tradition against the modern influences by dialectically infusing them in his poetic revelation of truth."Poetic Revelation in Language and Culture by Danny C. Sillada (Manila Bulletin, 12 May 2008, pp. F1-F2)

Photos: Book Launching at the Pearl Manila Hotel, 5 Feb. 2008

"Santiago Villafania's Balikas ed Caboloan certainly has reinvigorated the anlong tradition of Pangasinan that for a long period of time suffered silence from the hands of writers more attuned to English writing. Characteristically anacbanua, Villafania's poetry echoes his predecessors and presages a promising era for young writers in Pangasinan." – Dr. Marot Nelmida-Flores

Thesis: Bilay ed Caboloan - Reconfiguration of Space using a New Historicist Lens by Ayesah Tecson

from Pangasinan 'Anlong': Oral tradition into the 21st century published in Manila Times / Sunday Magazine, March 13 & 20, 2011.

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