Language in The Philippines

Speech in Manila, the capitol, is a continuum from nearly pure Tagalog (if you count long established Spanish and English loan words as actually Tagalog words)  to pure English, with vast fuzzy region in the middle known as “Taglish.” No Filipinos actually speak pure English to communicate with each other, outside of certain government or academic settings, (English, along with Filipino-the official name of the national language which is more or less the same as Tagalog-are both official languages of the Republic of The Philippines) but basically all formal writing is in proper English. Newspapers and magazines  are also mostly in English, and virtually all books are. Lower class newspapers or magazines, such as celebrity tabloids, may be in Tagalog or other regional languages, and even entirely English language daily newspapers have the most peculiar practice of leaving direct quotes that were spoken in Tagalog in the original language, with no translation or explanation in English. This is because the audience, even for English language newspapers, is assumed to be entirely domestic and bilingual, unlike the English language newspapers in most countries, which are at least partly intended for a foreign or international audience.

The language continuum is strongly correlated with class and education, with better educated Manileños peppering their speech with more English words, phrases, and often, incongruously, entire clauses or sub-sentences of grammatically correct English embedded into the larger context of a Tagalog sentence. English words inserted into Tagalog speech are pronounced-and spelled, if written-as English words, and not adapted to the phonetic or phonological patterns of Tagalog, as actual loan words are in most cases. This is because English words are still considered English words, as opposed to words borrowed from English, and there is conscious code-switching occurring in such mixed speech, as opposed to a creolization of the  two languages. (I’m sure there may also be exceptional English words that have been Tagalog-ized as loan words, but this code-switching is more common.) There are also certain English phrases of Philippine origin, such as the famous “Comfort Room” or CR for restroom or lavatory, or “buy one take one” instead of the more common American English expression of “buy one, get one free.” Aside from exceptions which are purely local usage, Philippine English follows American English norms and rules, and never British.

Here is an illustrative example I overheard on the radio while getting a haircut last week. A DJ was interviewing a musician who was playing some live songs on the show. The musician said something in Tagalog ending with the phrase “diverse acoustic alternative rock.” The DJ responded by saying, in English, “Now how do you say that in Tagalog?” The musician was left nonplussed, pausing for a moment before they both burst into laughter.

6 thoughts on “Language in The Philippines”

  1. I noticed that habit of not translating quotes when I found a newspaper for Filipino expats on the train in Tokyo. Kind of frustrating when you can only understand the skeleton of the story! I wonder if places like Nigeria or India do something similar.

    The mixing of entire English phrases into a conversation that is otherwise held in the local tongue sounds very similar to what’s done in Malaysia. I was watching their version of American Idol and found that very prominent to the point where I could basically follow what was going on. TV shows in Malaysian also tended to have English subtitles – again very helpful for me, though the shows I watched were some of the lamest slapstick sitcoms, even cornier than the 3 stooges.

    In Japan, I have very noticed that international school students seem to instinctively code-switch, while clearly the rest of the population does not. Riding the train to Rokko Island resulted in my overhearing of much Japanese conversation peppered with California-accented English.

  2. “Rokko Island resulted in my overhearing of much Japanese conversation peppered with California-accented English.”

    Sounds like MTV Japan.

  3. With regards to translating quotes – in Indian papers (that are in English and not the local language) some quotes are translated some aren’t. The quotes that they expect any well educated person to know – aren’t translated, however, other Indian languages (Hindi, Tamil, Marathi etc) quotes are. Hindi may be an official language – , however, though most educated people speak their mother tongue and english, but not always Hindi – as there are political and regional reasons why they don’t want to feel they have to use the language of another state.

    Philippino papers are definitely geared to a local audience with even the most serious filled with loads of gossip, celebrity sightings and aspirational living.

  4. I should say the above are my observations and may not be true of all newspapers in either country – however – of the ones I did read over the years – that is what I saw.

  5. “diberse acoustic alternatib rock”?

    I have family in Montreal that mix English, Tagalog AND French. It’s quite mind blowing just hearing how natural they mix the three. Coming to Japan, I was hoping to hear a Taglish/Japanese mix. Unfortunately, the Filipinos I’ve met so far speak both separately.

  6. About Malaysia, it’s not necessarily that they mix in English while knowing that it’s a separate language, they just outright use the words as part of the Malaysian language with its own spelling to reflect local pronunciation rules (c->k and all that). You can pretty much figure out what most public signs are saying once you learn a few basic Malay words.

    Of course, in speech for trendier occasions they do mix in English phrases and sentences like the Filipinos, yeah…

    Here in Singapore of course even Chinese programs (particularly the go-around-country-hunting-for-food-with-annoying-overlays-and-stupid-acting types) throw in lots of English. Not that it’s gratuitous, sometimes it’s because too much Chinese gives a “cheena” feeling to locals, but I suspect it’s got more to do with the fact that many ethnic Chinese have bad enough Chinese skills that it’s easier and more effective to put in English sentences. It’s not unusual for local Chinese interviewees (from office workers to MPs) to make brave attempts in speaking in broken Chinese with long sentences of English or just do the whole thing in English.

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