Evolving Filipino | Inquirer Opinion
Pinoy Kasi

Evolving Filipino

/ 12:28 AM September 16, 2015

Last week I wrote about new words from the Philippines that were being considered for the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). The OED actually mentions them as words from Tagalog (e.g., “utang na loob”) or from Philippine English (e.g., “advanced,” as in a watch being advanced).

Looking at the words allows us to analyze how dynamic our languages are in relation to the outside world. Today, I thought of another article on languages, this time looking at internal dynamics or domestic developments around the evolution of words in Filipino.


These dynamics (and the dynamism) have been deftly captured in the annual “Salita ng Taon” or Word of the Year event sponsored by the Filipinas Institute of Translation where scholars “nominate” a word that has been—if I might borrow a word from social media—trending in terms of frequent use during the year, sometimes morphing or mutating from its original meaning.

Readers might remember winners across the years: canvass (2004), huweteng (2005) lobat (2006), miskol (2007), jejemon (2010), wangwang (2012) and selfie (2014).


I’m relying here on an incisive book, “Sawikaan: Isang Dekada ng Pagpili ng Salita ng Taon” by Eilene Antoinette G. Narvaez and published just this year by the Komisyon sa Wikang Filipino and the Pambansang Komisyon para sa Sining at Kultura (probably better known to many as the National Commission on Culture and the Arts or NCCA).

Narvaez, I am proud to say, is with UP Diliman’s Sentro ng Wikang Filipino and the book is derived from her thesis, where she subjected the nominated words, totaling 86, to deep analysis, suggesting why they became popular. In the social sciences, the research method used here is called “critical discourse analysis” (CDA), where researchers analyze the social and political circumstances behind the exchange of words (and, by extension, ideas and opinions).

Discourse analysis started out as a tool for studying languages and was picked up by the advertising industry to look for words and phrases that are significant for a target audience. One early example was “iba ang may pinagsamahan,” which captured the camaraderie associated with drinking… San Miguel beer in particular.

“Spin doctors” or people behind politicians’ campaigns have been busy lately doing their version of discourse analysis to look for words that brand a particular candidate, and punch lines and words that stir the emotions. We’ll see a lot of this applied discourse analysis in the months ahead as election fever grips the United States and the Philippines.

Critical discourse analysis is more academic, looking at the social and political contexts behind the use of words. I won’t go into all the details in Narvaez’s CDA, which she derives as well from the people who sent in nominations for the Salita ng Taon. What I wanted to pick up and share with readers are the “journeys” taken by these words, including their rise to popularity, like I did last week with our contributions to English.

Cell phones, Internet, politics

But first I wanted to quickly demonstrate a little exercise in what is called “domain analysis” with the winners of the Salita ng Taon. Look at them and you will see all but one (jejemon) do not belong to one of two domains: current politics and information technology.


First the political domain. “Canvass” reflected the tensions around elections being held in 2004 while “huweteng” emerged in 2005 at the height of allegations of former president Gloria Arroyo being connected with gambling lords. “Wangwang” was chosen in 2012 although it first catapulted into wide use when the current president, Benigno Aquino III, first used it in 2010 to talk about his government reforms.

No more wangwang, he proclaimed as he banned sirens used by the rich and the powerful to beat the traffic (and create gridlocks for lesser mortals). It was a good move which I hope will stay after his term is over. But, sadly, wangwang picked up another meaning, that of noisy but meaningless political promises, sometimes used against President Aquino himself.

The other winners of Salita ng Taon are from the world of cell phones and the Internet: lobat (2006), miskol (from missed call) in 2007 and selfie in 2014.

But the winners from the new information technologies gained currency not just because of the technology but because of opportunities for added layers of social meaning. Miskol is perhaps the most polysemic (many meanings), all referring to a deliberate dialing of a number but not expecting an answer.

One reason for making a miskol is to hear a particular song used as the ringtone. Another is to look for a missing cell phone. Another is to check if you still have enough load to call. And the last, the most poignant, is to save on costs, especially on an overseas trip, with an understanding that a person is to call once he or she reaches the overseas destination. The goal, “pakiramdaman,” is difficult to translate but speaks of how we emphasize the need to let people we love know that we have arrived at our destination, away from home. There is poignancy here because you have to be content with knowing the person has made a safe voyage, but you can’t talk to the person.

The nominated words come from a variety of languages, many from English. Spanish seems to live on as a source of local words as in tsika, from chica, a little girl (chico being a little boy). Salbakuta’s origins startled me: salvaje (or savage) and hijo de p–a or son of a b—h. Its meaning is to act in an uncivilized way. (In my column last Friday I wrote about the speculation that “salvage,” meaning extrajudicial executions, may have come as well from the Spanish salvaje.

Tsunami is originally Japanese, referring to the tidal waves generated by earthquakes. In 2006 it was nominated as a Salita ng Taon but over the years, Narvaez notes, it has taken on new meanings—like “tsunami walk” used to refer to Shamcey Supsup in the Miss Universe pageant in 2011.

Ukay-ukay, sutukil

Then, too, there are local languages. I was not aware, for example, that ukay-ukay came from Cebuano, given the way it is now used throughout the country.   Then there is sutukil to refer to grilled seafoods, popularized as a Cebuano term but derived from English “shoot to kill,” referring to a seaside place in Cebu with many small eateries where you could get fresh seafood catches to grill.

Languages are vigorous because they are used in a rapidly changing world. We coin new words not just to describe things but the dynamic processes of change, as in korkor, used to refer to the popularity of things Korean, from telenovelas to Korean facial features, those features in fact referred to “gandara,” specifically used to refer to a preferred aesthetic of fairness and “Oriental” eyes.

At the rate we’re going, it will become more difficult each year to decide on a Salita ng Taon.

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TAGS: Filipino, Language, new words, Oxford English Dictionary, Tagalog
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