In Our Words

Personal reflections on linguistic diversity in the Philippines

By Camille Cabezas

About the Author:

Camille Cabezas is a senior at the Beacon Academy in Laguna, Philippines, where she has lived most of her life with her family and long history of pets. She is the head of Beacon’s Media Arts Club and the artistic branch of Beacon Publications, as well as the drummer of the school band, Wednesday Firsts. As a dedicated content creator and worldbuilder, Camille’s passion for Filipino culture and LGBTQ+ advocacy has made representation her personal mission in her art and writing. Outside her creative ambitions, Camille trains in kali, a Filipino martial art, and hopes to bring kali to Beacon by founding the club Griffin Filipino Martial Arts. Upon entering university, she plans to take up a degree in the arts and humanities. In her spare time, her hobbies include playing video games, curating her Twitter, streaming animated TV series, and being adventurous with food. She uploads her art on Instagram (@breezami) and Twitter (@_breezami).

7641 islands, 17 regions across 3 island groups, inhabited by more than 175 ethnolinguistic groups.

Given those numbers, I am reminded of a discussion in IB Social and Cultural Anthropology class. Our teacher wrote the word “FILIPINO” in big letters on the whiteboard, pointed at it, and just made a funny face, yelling: “Filipino. What the heck even is ‘Filipino?!'”

In the entirety of the Philippine archipelago, there are an estimated 120-180 languages spoken among those 175 ethnolinguistic groups. I am a Filipino, and growing up here in the Philippines, Buwan ng Wika  (“Language Month”) was a yearly tradition every August. During this time, the Department of Education and schools all around the country promote the Filipino language and local culture to the younger generations in the midst of prevalent colonial mentality and globalization. We were called upon to speak and appreciate the “Filipino language” declared as the national language in 1937, even though it was constructed mainly with only one language out of that large three-digit estimate of 120-180. That language was the language spoken in the capital, Manila, and in the surrounding provinces in Luzon: Tagalog.

Nowadays it is more encouraged to say “Filipino Languages”–plural–instead, to avoid regionalist connotations of treating Tagalog as the standard national language when there were many other major languages like Kapampangan, Cebuano, Bisaya, Ilocano, Waray, and Hiligaynon being widely spoken in the regions outside of Manila and the rest of the Tagalog domain. Even beyond those major languages are creole languages like Chavacano and lesser known indigenous languages, some of which have unfortunately gone extinct. Before European contact and colonization by Spain, the USA, and then Japan, there was no “Philippines,” only hundreds of individual nations that happened to coexist on what was identified as the Philippine archipelago. All these groups had their own cultures and languages. Many Filipino peoples had a strong oral tradition that was a means of expression through literary forms, traditions, and folklore, and some languages were accompanied by their own writing systems (like Baybayin for Tagalog and Kudlitan for Kapampangan) that were eventually replaced with the Latin alphabet.

As a result of the establishment of the Philippine nation and our interactions with foreign cultures across centuries of history both in the pre-colonial and post-colonial period, the cultures across the nation have become a very complex melting pot, and in turn, so have our languages, which are Malayo-Polynesian at their roots. Spanish, Chinese, Indian, Japanese, and even Arabic have found their way into our indigenous languages as a result of cultural transmission. 

I find the diversity and multicultural nature of the Philippines to be an essential aspect of what “Filipino” personally means to me. I speak both Tagalog and English–I learned both at the same time as both were taught in school and at home. Colloquial, everyday Tagalog and English was rarely ever just pure Tagalog or pure English, but rather “Taglish,” a hybrid of the two that even had some form of established grammar. There was a “right” and “wrong” way to do Taglish–do it wrong, and prepare to be the object of jokes and general cringe from your peers. Speaking English fluently (especially with a thick American accent) had many connotations, both positive and negative depending on who you asked. English was associated with the educated, wealthy, upper-class, and with a preference for the foreign over the local. Given these connotations and the general confusion of how to even define Filipino, I found myself often using my command of English and Tagalog as my way of trying to “negotiate” or figure out how I was expressing my Filipino identity.

Many Filipinos were also trilingual, speaking Tagalog, English, and another mother tongue (my father, for instance, knows Kapampangan as his mother tongue). A friend of mine from Cebu, who speaks conversational Cebuano and Bisaya as well, has shared how she has constructed sentences that combined most if not all four of her spoken languages. For better or for worse, it was much easier for me to articulate my thoughts in multiple languages rather than just one, as combined Filipino and English was the default form of communication in everyday life–confining myself to either Tagalog or English felt very limiting. Slang was an even more unpredictable wild card, switching or eliminating syllables and/or manipulating one or more languages that it was sometimes hard to keep track of what slang was still “in” and what was already “old-fashioned.” Some slang would fall out of use, some would be revived, some would maintain across generations like the specific slang of Filipino gay men that, occasionally, finds its way into the slang of the general populace. 

I believe the evolution of languages in the Philippines speaks to its complicated history and our constant struggle between what’s national, and what’s global. While our yearly Language Months call for the preservation of the local, on the other hand there is great pressure to keep up with the developments of the international community. There’s a very distinct image I can conjure when I think of these Language Months, with the recycled barong and baro’t saya costumes, festivals, popular folk dances, Filipino pop songs, and summer-themed tourism ads. Admittedly, it got to a point where I felt underwhelmed by this distinct image. Just as I like to insist there’s more to Filipino cuisine than adobo I like to insist there’s more to Filipino language appreciation and cultural identity than “Mabuhay” and “Proud to be Pinoy.”

I think there’s more to our languages and our literature beyond just the poems recited every year, the music we listen to, or whether we spoke Tagalog or English or a weird quirky mix of both. Every Filipino has their own experience with the languages of our ancestors. Our experience with foreign languages and cultures is still reinterpreted with a Filipino context. I like to think it’s not black-and-white, that even the “foreign” influences in our languages and cultures are still ultimately reclaimed to kind of become our own. After all, it’s not just anywhere you’ll see an English verb naturally conjugated into a sentence in Cebuano, or a hip-hop rap battle in Tagalog that draws its roots from older poetic traditions. Rather than dismiss slang, language hybrids, or non-Tagalog languages as “less civilized” or unacceptable in literary circles I believe it is better to instead embrace and celebrate the diversity and creativity of our languages and the people who have communicated with it across history. The Filipino is not a single, universal identity, and neither are the large array of Filipino and foreign languages that have found their way into our communities not just here on home soil but in Filipino communities around the globe.