Tagalog is the main language of the Philippines. It is believed that the name ‘Tagalog’ comes from the endonym taga-ilog, which in Tagalog means “inhabitant” or “native of the river”. Old Tagalog is one of the core Philippine languages, belonging to the Austronesian linguistic family and, more specifically, to the Malayo-Polynesian subgroup of languages.

Tagalog and the linguistic reality of the Philippines

Despite the multilingual reality of the Philippines, where more than 170 different languages and dialects are spoken, only English and Tagalog have the status of official languages. Tagalog is spoken by more than 50 million people in the Philippines, although it is mainly used in the northern region of Luzon, where the capital Manila is located. The Cebuano language, also belonging to the Malayo-Polynesian linguistic branch, is spoken mainly in the southernmost part of the archipelago, and has about 20 million speakers in the country (in fact, until the 1980s, Cebuano had more speakers than Tagalog). Other important languages in the country are Ilocano, Hiligaynon, Samareño and Chabacano. The latter is a language of Creole origin currently spoken mainly in the Zamboanga peninsula in the southeast of the Philippines. Chabacano is a word of Spanish origin meaning “vulgar” or “rude”, and during the colonial period this term was used to refer to the Spanish spoken in common or street environments, thus differentiating it from the Spanish spoken by the elite. 

The History of the language in the Philippines: what happened to Spanish?

Originating on a remote peninsula in the far southwest corner of Europe, centuries later, Spanish became the official language and language of culture in a remote region of the Far East like the Philippine Islands. However, unlike in other areas such as Cuba or Puerto Rico, it is very unlikely that today you will meet a Filipino whose mother tongue is Spanish. In fact, the Philippines is a country with Hispanic roots where Spanish is not spoken; but why is this so?

When investigating the possible causes that explain the current situation of Spanish in the Philippines, we must take into account an important –and generally ignored– fact: Spanish as such has not died in the Philippines because it never became the language of the Filipino people. It was not because of two main factors that shaped the situation in the Philippines and set it apart from the rest of the Spanish colonial world. On the one hand, due to the geographical spread of the territory and the difficulties involved in traveling overseas, the Spanish presence in the archipelago was always very sparse in comparison with other territories of the Crown. On the other hand, the Spaniards never aimed to do away with the multilingual reality of the territory; on the contrary, they respected it and grew closer to it: the missionaries found it much more useful to learn the indigenous languages and preach in them than to try to get the native inhabitants of the Philippines to learn to speak Spanish correctly. In this sense, the Spanish influence was evident in some cultural aspects such as religion, but not in the language; the objective was more to ‘Christianize’ than to ‘Hispanize’.

Spanish in the Philippines was always the language of the elite, the language of culture used in universities and Creole circles. The rise of Spanish as a language of culture in the Philippines was especially evident during the revolutionary era, with such famous figures as José Rizal; in fact, the First Constitution of the Philippine Republic was written in Spanish in 1899. However, when the Americans took political control of the archipelago, English gradually replaced Spanish as the cultural and administrative language.

Tagalog and Spanish

The fact that Tagalog and Spanish coexisted for so many centuries led to a reciprocal influence between the two languages. With regard to Tagalog, it is estimated that one third of its vocabulary is of Spanish origin; in most cases, the Tagalog words influenced by Spanish refer to objects unknown to the indigenous inhabitants until the arrival of the Spanish: silya (chair), kutsara (spoon), hustisya (justice), etc. On the other hand, we also find in our language a few words of Filipino origin, such as abaca, paipay, salacot, etc.

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Carlos Sánchez Luis