The date was Aug. 16, 1934. A convention was underway to write a new constitution for the Philippines, then still under the Americans. The constitution was important because it would provide for the transition toward independence.
Delegate Felipe Jose, one of the representatives from the Mountain Province (which at that time included all of the provinces we know today as the Cordillera Administrative Region), got up to deliver a speech. He began in Spanish, to inform his fellow delegates that his speech would not be in English or Spanish, but in Tagalog.
That was a dramatic declaration, but even more powerful was the speech he delivered, to argue for a national language.
“We have to let the world know today that we are a people no longer under the Flag of Spain, nor under the shadow of the American Flag. It is necessary that as early as now we must love the freedom and the soul of the nation—our own language. We will only deserve freedom if we can defend the sacred soul of the nation, our own language. Because language, the language of any country in the world, is used as a powerful tool for expressing the people’s sentiments, for gaining knowledge and for defending their rights.”
The Tagalog original is so much more eloquent. For example, the opening line actually reads: “Kailangan natin ngayong ipakilala sa daigdig na tayo’y hindi na ang mga mamamayan sa silong ng Bandila ng Espana, sa lilim ng Bandilang Amerikano.”
The end of that paragraph resonates for us today, and I hope it can be taught in schools to get students to reflect on why a national language is so important: “… sa pagpapahayag ng (ating) damdamin, sa pagtuklas ng karunungan at pagtatanggol ng mga karapatan.”
I got this account about Jose’s speech from a bilingual booklet issued by the Komisyon sa Wikang Filipino (KWF), “Madalas Itanong Hinggil sa Wikang Pambansa” (Frequently Asked Questions on the National Language), a copy of which was given to me by the author and KWF chair, Virgilio Almario (better known to many by his pen name, Rio Alma). The booklet is packed with information which I’m using, together with additional research material, to do a history of Filipino for today’s and Friday’s column. I hope this history will clear up some controversies around the crafting of Filipino, our national language.
Before getting to the history, let’s remember that we have some 170 languages in the Philippines. While they are all related to each other, belonging to the Austronesian family of languages, they are distinct and can become barriers for Filipinos communicating with each other. President Manuel L. Quezon was worried about this linguistic diversity, mentioning in a speech that he needed interpreters as he went around the country, and expressing fears that language divisions could cause strife among the groups.
Second, the term “Filipino” itself was originally used by Spaniards born in the Philippines. It was not until late in the 19th century that Rizal and other reformists began to expand the use of the term to include what had previously been called “indios.” The idea of a “Filipino” language was to come around much later.
Rizal, a Tagalog, spoke many languages, and was a philologist, interested in the origins and relationships of languages. He was especially concerned about orthography or the system for writing out words. He was the first to propose a 20-letter alphabet for Tagalog, which became the basis for the Filipino abakada several decades later.
The 1899 constitution of the Malolos Republic declared Spanish as the official language of the new nation. The Malolos Republic was short-lived, with the Americans annexing the Philippines and attempting, initially, to propagate English through the educational system.
But as early as 1925, a Monroe Survey Commission noted that with many Filipinos dropping out of school early, the use of English in the Philippines would remain limited. Another American administrator, Joseph Ralston Hayden, noted that even among Filipinos educated in American colleges and universities, English was not a “home language” and that “(I)n the great or intimate moments of his life even the most completely Americanized Filipino would never use English if he were speaking to a person who understood his native tongue.”
Fathers of Filipino
If the Americans did not push for English as a national language for the Philippines, Filipinos fighting for the restoration of independence did advocate for a national language.
Commissioner Almario gave me the KWF booklet during commemoration rites for Quezon, who is frequently acknowledged as the father of Filipino because he issued the Executive Order declaring Tagalog the basis for a national language.
But the booklet from KWF shows our national language had many fathers, and I meant that in a good way. Delegate Jose should be remembered more for that first bold move at the 1934 Constitutional Convention, which resulted in discussions on what could be the national language.
Delegates first proposed Tagalog, but this was shot down by non-Tagalogs and in the end, the 1935 Constitution declared English and Spanish as our official languages, even as it called for “the development and adoption of a common national language based on one of the existing native languages.”
The National Assembly (the equivalent of our Congress today) quickly worked on the constitutional convention’s recommendation, creating a National Language Institute (the precursor to today’s Komisyon sa Wikang Filipino). The KWF booklet refutes the myth that Quezon intervened to push for Tagalog as the national language by pointing out that the bill to create a National Language Institute was introduced by Norberto Romualdez, a Waray who had been actively promoting Waray literature.
The first board of this Institute was headed by another Waray, Jaime C. de Veyra, and the board members included an Ilokano, a Sebwano, a Bikolano, an Ilonggo, a Kapampangan, a Pangasinan and two Tagalogs. In the end, the Institute recommended Tagalog as the basis for a national language, drawing from studies including one by Trinidad Rojo, “The Language Problem in the Philippines,” where he noted that Tagalog enjoyed several advantages including the number of books and periodicals in that language and Tagalog having an “intermediate position” among Philippine languages. (Looking back, one could argue that Tagalog’s advantages came from Manila being the national capital, developed from the Spanish period into the American occupation.)
Commonwealth Act 570, passed in June 1940, proclaimed the national language as the official language of the Philippines, to start July 4, 1946, the date set for regaining our independence. It ordered preparations for this national language, including its use for textbooks. In 1941, the Institute (now the Surian ng Wikang Pilipino) published the first Balarila (grammar) including Rizal’s orthography as an abakada, and a dictionary.
The Second World War and the Japanese Occupation may have actually contributed to the adoption of this national language because the Japanese wanted to convince Filipinos that under their “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere,” Asia would be for Asians, and that included linguistic nationalism.
On Friday I will continue with the story, a turbulent one, of our national language.
(The booklet can be downloaded from www.kwf.gov.ph.)
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