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181 languages

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August is designated as National Language Month (Buwan ng Wikang Pambansa) because Aug. 19 is the birth anniversary of President Manuel Quezon, who first designated Tagalog as the basis for a national language, way back in 1937.

More than 70 years later, we continue to be linguistic schizophrenics, still debating on whether we should use Filipino or English (some schools even threatening expulsion for violators of “English-only” rules on campuses), and whether we spell the national language Filipino or Pilipino.

I don’t think anyone now denies the need for a national language but there is still resentment, mainly from Cebuano speakers, at “Tagalog imperialism.” Less discussed is the way Filipino, as a national language, has been slow to absorb words from languages other than Tagalog. The original intention, after all, of a national language was to bring in words from different languages in the Philippines.

In the last few years there has been still another twist to our language situation and this is the implementation of Mother Language-Based Multilingual Education, with the Department of Education requiring the use of an area’s mother language up to Grade 3 as the medium of instruction.

Many mother languages

The DepEd has designated 17 languages for now that qualify for Mother Language-Based Education. There are actually many more potential mother languages, the total number spoken in the Philippines running to 181, if we are to use the count of the “Ethnologue” of the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL). SIL started out as a missionary group sending out linguists to learn the languages of the world in order to translate the Bible. That mission remains but in the course of their work over several decades, SIL has become a recognized authority on the world’s languages.

“Ethnologue,” which has a print and electronic edition, is a standard reference now for people interested in languages.  The latest electronic edition was uploaded on the Internet a few months ago, with information on more than 7,000 languages of the world. For the Philippines, it lists 185 languages, of which four are extinct.

There is open access to ethnologue.com, so I would encourage readers to visit. For starters, learn about the languages used in the Philippines. Rather than looking at linguistic diversity in the country as an obstacle to national unity, look at these languages as contributing to a richer national identity.

Every time I browse through “Ethnologue” I discover something new. I didn’t know for example that we have more than two million deaf people. Filipino Sign Language or FSL is listed as one of the 181 living languages in the Philippines.

Although my paternal roots are in Davao, I didn’t know  Davawenyo  qualified as a language, described as a “synthesis” of Filipino and Cebuano and other Visayan languages.  Or that there is a language called  Malaynon, spoken in Malay, Aklan.

Note these are languages in their own right, and not dialects.   Malaynon,  Davawenyo  are languages, just like Tagalog, Cebuano, Ilocano. Dialects are variations on a language, for example, Tagalog’s dialects are listed in “Ethnologue” as Bataan, Batangas, Bulacan, Lubang, Manila, Marinduque, Puray, Tanay-Paete, Tayabas. I suspect that there are many more dialects waiting to be identified, just like new animal or plant species.

Language status

The latest “Ethnologue” listing does not just list languages and the number of speakers. What it does now is talk about the status of these languages, using 13 categories of an Expanded Graded Inter-generational Disruption Scale or EGIDS. I know it sounds almost like a scale to measure earthquakes and in some ways it is—linguistic seismic activity, that is. The scale goes from 0 or International, meaning the language is used globally, down to Extinct status.

The main point about EGIDS is to look at the way languages are developing. High on the scale would be languages that have written forms, that are moving toward standardization in pronunciation, grammar and other language attributes, and “modernization,” meaning the ability to translate to and from other languages and to be able to communicate on a wide range of topics that are part of contemporary society (e.g., computers).

Using this EGIDS, we find two languages in the Philippines classified as “national”: English and Tagalog (with 21.5 million speakers). The second category is “wider communications,” and includes Cebuano (15.8 million), Ilocano (6.9 million), Bikol (4.5 million), Hiligaynon (5.7 million), Waray (2.5 million), Pampangan (1.9 million), Pangasinan (1.1 million), Maguindanao (1.1 million), Tausug (1.06 million), and Masbateño (700,000). Note that most of the numbers of speakers that are cited come from the 2,000 national census. The 2010 census apparently did not collect data on language use.

I’ll skip the other categories and jump to the “threatened” and “nearly extinct” languages. These are mostly Agta languages, spoken by various Negrito groups whose younger members no longer speak their mother language. Not all the threatened languages are those of the Agta though. Included here is Bolinao.

The EGIDS categorization emphasizes how languages are transmitted, a particular language is seen as threatened if younger people no longer use it. When a language is spoken only by those who “are no longer of child-bearing age,” it means there will no longer be natural transmission of that language.

I did wonder about Maranao not being in the “wider communications” category and was surprised to find it had 776,000 speakers. I had always thought Maranao speakers outnumbered those of Tausug and Maguindanao, but I realized this was only because the Maranao are so visibly dispersed throughout the Philippines as traders. This dispersal might actually work against the Maranao language, as the children end up speaking Tagalog, Cebuano, Ilocano or whatever the dominant language is in the area they’ve migrated to, and do not learn Maranao.

A decline in the use of a language can be reversed though.  A language can be “rediscovered,” as I’m seeing this happening to Sambali (Sambal in the “Ethnologue” listings) through a family friend, Malou Tinio, and her group, who are trying to get Sambali to be used by the young. A language is said to be revitalized if it can be spoken by a second generation, and is reestablished if it is picked up by a third generation.

So, lolos  and  lolas, work hard on your grandchildren if you want your mother tongue propagated. You can do this simply by using the language at home, but better still, work on dictionaries, on a written literature (collecting stories and poems for example). Get local universities and colleges into the act, following the lead of Holy Angels University, which has done wonders for Kapampangan, both the language and culture.

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E-mail: mtan@inquirer.com.ph


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  • http://jaoromero.com/ Jao Romero

    i look at language extinction as a natural process of evolution. only the fittest survive. if you need to consciously propagate a language, it doesn’t deserve to survive.

    ultimately, we’re all going to have one universal language. not English, but something that will evolve from it and from all the other major languages still alive. and that language will fracture and evolve again once we set out for space.

    language is continuously evolving, and it will never stop evolving. dying languages are a part of that evolution, and trying to stand against the flow of evolution is like trying to still a raging river.

    • GMGUERRERO

      Yes, when hell freezes over.

    • Fulpol

      the river is flowing back.. it’s something like de-evolution..

      still I love diversity.. diversity was created because of evolution..

    • http://imjinah.blogspot.com/ imjinah

      Do you have literature to back your claim that we are becoming more monolingual? But yes I agree with you that language death is a natural process. It’s neither good or bad. However, it’s the people to choose to let go of their native tongue and not be disincentivized through punitive and shaming government measures.

      We have several studies attesting that indeed world languages might shrink to 600 from 7,500 documented ones by the next century because of enforcement (read: forced; unnatural) of governments of inequitable language policies that do not fit several portions of their populations. However, there are also linguistic studies that reveal that the major languages that we know of might in fact be diverging from each other as well (Brazil Portuguese from European Portuguese and several English varities from the British English). Another example is Arabic. Vernacular Arabic across several “Arabic-speaking” countries are not really “unified” as we think of. For on instance, a Moroccan Arabic speaker might not understand an Egyptian Arabic speaker more so an Iraqi Arabic speaker. They only understand each other if they use the Quran-based Standard Arabic.

      People also think that Boholanos speak a variant of Cebuano, but there are debates as to consider it a separate language already.

      Prominent linguist William Labov has noted a significant shift of sound systems and grammar among numerous American English dialects. Who knows, they might also diverge into separate languages after several generations. This is the same case that has been observed in African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) which has dramatically veered away from the “standard” form of English. Only time will tell.

      But, yes, there is a paradox with the notion that as we “choose” to speak a couple of official and national languages weaker, unprotected languages die. We see that these major languages that we know are already separating from each other. Just like evolutionary biology, languages are also changing.

      Having a one-tongued world might be far from reality. The future of our linguistic diversity might not be as colorful as compared to 500 to 1000 years ago, but still, it won’t be a single one standing ;)

  • GMGUERRERO

    There’s a difference between a language and a dialect. Ibanag should be the national language of the PH.

    • Fulpol

      how Ibanag people talk? they say, they talk fast??

  • Ulipur

    Ang mga taga-Batangas ay proud na proud sa kanilang salitang Tagalog at saka sa kanilang accent. There are many sites that contribute to the preservation of the Batangas Tagalog. One of these sites is THE SALITANG BATANGAS PROJECT.

  • tgtercero

    The wealth of what has become our national language did not come from other Philippine dominant dialects or languages alone. It has been said before and it bears repeating——There is hardly any complete sentence that can be spoken in the Philippines without evincing its Spanish heritage, beginning with “Kumusta” which is of course our version of “Como esta.” My favorite is “iginisa sa sariling mantika!” Original words being “guisar” and “manteca.” But heck, the uber nationalist Pinoy cannot even curse in his own language—–P..tang ina !!!! “P_ta” is a Spanish word and its universal use in these islands must have been observed for more than 400 years now.

    Just wondering if SIL has ever heard of the words “pampam” or “burikak”? Somewhat vulgar but that is original Pinoy!

  • Fulpol

    there is beauty in learning your dying culture especially language.. the world is becoming homogenous.. and it is ugly..

    diversity of culture is beautiful..

    • WeAry_Bat

      Yes, and one does not see the richness of diversity in field trips to recreational parks and resorts. The native huts and implements within, they feel transplanted. One does not have a change of consciousnesses that comes when entering a culturally different house.

      Much like entering a certain type of boxed mall, when you go to one, you see them all.

    • http://jaoromero.com/ Jao Romero

      cultural diversity is beautiful yet fatally divisive. i’d rather have a homogeneous society and achieve peace than have a culturally diverse society and have endless wars.

      • http://imjinah.blogspot.com/ imjinah

        Cultural diversity has been existing for thousands of years. American culture or even Japanese or Korean are NOT identified as one monolithic identity. If you’d look at more content on these countries, you would find that they have their own regional or prefectural cultural markers that are labelled to be diverse from each other despite relatively more “uniform” in look.

        Malaysia, Singapore, the United Kingdom, among many others, boast their nationalistic and economic vibrance because they KNOW they have a lot of sources of ingenuity. They don’t stifle human development by making everyone follow one identity and language. Their common denominator except the US is by fate, majority if not all of their citizens speak one language although regional dialects are present.

        As for us Filipinos, we still try to deny it and see the mould for success from our Northeast Asian neighbors which we superficially think of as homogeneous (isang bansa, isang wika, isang diwa). As a culturally and ethnically diverse country, I might say India might be a better example for us.

        Our ancestors’ languages and cultures existed before the concept of the Philippines. If we want to stay intact as a strong, dynamic country, we must see the advantages of being pluriethnic. Language issues should never be a matter of “you should”, but “if you want to”.

    • http://imjinah.blogspot.com/ imjinah

      Fulpol, I must say I would agree with you this time. Beautifully written

  • WeAry_Bat

    “Rather than looking at linguistic diversity in the country as an obstacle to national unity, look at these languages as contributing to a richer national identity.”

    Bravo!

  • virgoyap

    For me the only Cebuano word that is assimilated to the Tagalog language is the word: KAWATAN. He he he

    • Bantayanon

      And another negative — buang — only those.. as for the rest, ambot na lang.

  • RyanE

    Let those languages or dialects being left behind to just die a natural death. The objective should be to eventually came up with a dominant language acceptable to majority of the citizens.

    Truth is, Tagalog is never accepted as national language in other regions except in Central Luzon.

    • Mux

      True. I was once in Bacolod and was speaking Tagalog to some colleagues of mine there. They asked me politely “Can we just use English instead? ‘

      • TotoyKalentong

        Many Visayans find Tagalog tongue-twisting, just like Koreans when they are learning English. These are peculiarities, rather than them speak to you in Hiligaynon, of course they would opt to choose to speak to you in a language they presume you can also speak, which in this case is English.

      • Mux

        True. If they started speaking in Hiligaynon I would have been lost.

    • TotoyKalentong

      Linguistic diversity just shows how rich and deep our culture is. The multitudes of languages in the country has developed the Filipino aptitude of learning languages, that’s why we find it easy to assimilate ourselves even in non-English communities.
      Let’s not copy the errors of the Australians and the Americans who denied the existence of the native inhabitants of their lands and imposed on them a culture foreign to them, including their language. Now these governments are paying the injustices to the native inhabitants.
      Various studies like the Lubuagan, Kalinga (Lubuagan language) and Sta. Barbara, Iloilo (Hiligaynon) experiments have shown that students on the average have better grades when the language they use to communicate at home (mother tongue) is used as medium of instruction in school. Their grades are even higher compared to Metro Manila students even in Filipino and English subjects.

  • josh_alexei

    Funny, how Generations of Chinese, Italians and other nationalities can still speak their mother languages after living all their lives in North America where in most, the only official Language is English and in some, English and French and maybe Spanish. And even Jamaicans, whose official language is English can still speak their own brand of English and their birth country type of English. And Filipinos or Pilipinos are still arguing what languages are theirs?

    • http://imjinah.blogspot.com/ imjinah

      Because of very bad national identity propaganda. They want us to think that we can only survive as one country if we have a single identifier which shouldn’t be the case. India and Switzerland never imploded because they acknowledge that they have more than 1 language that define their countries.

      India has more than 20 recognized scheduled/official languages (Hindi, Gujarati, Malayalam, Tamil, Oriya, Punjabi, etc). Switzerland has 4 (Italian, French, German, Romansh). South Africa has 11 (English, Afrikaans, Zulu, Xhosa, etc). They’ve always been like this ever since. They have NO national language. Zero. Nada. No unrest, no economic and social collapse. Their economies are stronger than ours.

      The United States, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and United Kingdom also have no national language. Some have official, but it’s better than having a National that doesn’t apply for everyone.

      Note that the “Italians” and “Chinese” in other lands might have very diverse mother languages and not really the Tuscan-based Italian and Mandarin labelled as Chinese.

      • josh_alexei

        We do have two Official languages, English and French, but these two official languages are mandatory only on Federal Government and the other Language, the French is official only on two autonomous jurisdiction or Provinces in a confederation and we Thrive on being a Multi-Culture society officially, with all the nationalities of the world living in perfect harmony building a great nation in different mother tongues yet understood each other in many tunes and accented English or French spoken words or if working among their own, in which ever spoken language they choose..



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