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The real story behind “Tagalogism”

August 17, 2013

It was in 2009 when I first realized that the use of the mandated national language, “Filipino”, in the Philippines was a contribution to the decline of the original Philippine languages. Back then, multilingualists were saying that ‘Filipino’, a dialect of Tagalog in fact, was destroying the ability of the people to speak, write, and even think in their own native language, and that the promotion of ‘Filipino’ amounted to “Tagalogism”. Aurelio Agcaoili’s essay won me over to the multilingualist camp, as I was wavering back then about the multilingualist movement being the harbinger of an ethnic-purism situation such as I observed with Cebuano separatists. I decided to write and help strive for a multilingual Philippines, a multilingual Philippine mindset.

Some pro-Filipino academics, on the other hand, posited that multilingualism was a danger to the unity of the nation, and amounted to “regionalism”. Roberto Añonuevo’s essay, criticising Agcaoili’s characterisation of the pro-Filipino push in government, society, and mass media as “a figment of (his) imagination” (kathang-isip), defended the “gains” the Tagalog language has made in lingustic strength as not only for the Tagalogs but for the rest of the Philippine peoples.

We can argue that Añonuevo neglected to do an intensive literature search for works in Philippine languages other than Tagalog during the Spanish period, for which he might be chastised as an academic; that his attack is written as if a native Tagalog were describing only his own literary tradition, which of course is more than enough evidence of “Tagalogism” in practice; that he, without sufficient convincing arguments, views Agcaoili and those who support him as “murderers” of a “nascent” Filipino language by labeling it as “neo-Tagalog”, and charges Agcaoili and others as “regionalists” and “ethnicists”, the enemies of Philippine unity, which is simple pandering to nationalist and neo-nationalist tendencies within the oligarchy and the common people.

We can say all of this against Añonuevo’s ideas, but there is no question that the majority of the Filipino people adopt a laissez-faire approach to language: whatever the major language is, we shall speak it.

My Tagalog friends and relatives could not understand why there has to be a distinction between “Tagalog” and “Filipino” AND at the same time could not understand why we should not have Tagalog as the national language. They therefore view these efforts by non-Tagalogs as “unnecessary” and “impractical”. On the other hand, my non-Tagalog relatives and friends adopt a more pliant attitude toward the Tagalog language, believing that it is good for them to learn Tagalog as another language, while maintaining that the language is named TAGALOG and continuing to speak their own native language. They believe that a revitalization of their own language is “unnecessary” because they do not recognize the possibility that their language can be a poetic language, a scientific language, that their language can develop further.

In both cases, the sad reality is that the common people find the discussion on language as out of touch with reality. Surprisingly, Tagalogs and non-Tagalogs among the common folk find common ground in refusing to overcome this linguistic and literary inertia.

The ‘Filipino’ language, as the common folk see it, is an academic invention to make Tagalog more palatable for everyone to accept. It is, for them, no different from the Tagalog that the Tagalogs speak, even if academics put in words like “gahum” or whatever Tagalized English words one wants. It is an instinctive acceptance of Tagalog as a language apart from their own tongue. Non-Tagalogs are condescending to the language, in fact: they learn it in schools because the government orders it, but they speak other languages at home and in familiar situations. Of course they eventually think that it is better to speak Tagalog, rather than the native language, with their children, but then again this process of Tagalogization is slow the farther from Manila one gets – and so many places are far from Manila geographically and socially, the effect of centralized development.

This is where ethnic Tagalogs are likely to lose. For them, as described above, ‘Filipino’ is no different from the Tagalog that they speak. The problem is, the Tagalog people in general have not borrowed these words themselves. None of the dialectal variants of Tagalog were even consulted for words which can be used in general. Where are the vocabularies of Batangas Tagalog, Marinduque Tagalog, and Quezon Tagalog? Virgilio Almario, attempting to be a centrist in these questions but still promotive of the “national language”, has discussed this in some length in his book Filipino ng mga Pilipino, but came off rather woolly regarding suggestions for the inclusion of dialectal words. The sad fact is that Almario, a theoretical ivory-tower academic, is unwilling to concede what the common folk already know, lambasting them instead for being “ignorant” and “small-minded”. He and other like-minded academics in the literary sphere have taken issue with linguists, which have stood against the artificial modification of the Tagalog language to suit the official mantra of “one nation, one language”, professing as “biographers of the nation” to side with “the people”, about whom and which groups in fact they have little idea.

The horrible thing then is that Añonuevo may be right, in a perverse sort of way. When he says that the Tagalog language has “struggled” for the nation, we are inclined to ask if the “struggle” was against American influence (the eternally vogue topic in academic nationalist circles) or against the nationalist academics, the “Tagalogists”. For us, it seems that the Tagalog people have been robbed of their language, of the right to use it. It has come under the strict, if inept, professional regulation of the Tagalogists.

The corpus delicti of this rotten situation is that it is just one more symptom of a desperate attempt at control in the hellish, chaotic Philippine sociopolitical scene, in a world of Janet Napoleses, deep-pocketed Customs officials and congressmen, colluding and pandering Catholic clergy, cheating small-time business owners and individuals forced to do their “diskarte”. The oligarchy itself is discordant within, while it expects us to believe that it has everything under control at the same time it tries to convince us it does not exist. The language snafu is extensively connected to the other problems of the Philippines, having so many tangents with the issues that make the headlines that we do not bother to count anymore.

The Tagalogists will likely be defeated in the non-Tagalog regions with the rise of the Mother-Tongue Based Multilingual Education (MTBMLE) system, the declaration of local languages as official in provinces such as La Union, the efforts by certain members of Congress to discuss multilingualism, the nationwide outrage over the expulsion of three Ilokano students for speaking Ilokano in school, and other initiatives undertaken by literary and linguistic councils in the non-Tagalog regions.

But there is no such comfort for Tagalogs who would like to see their own language develop in the natural way, who treasure the dialectal riches of the original Tagalog language. Unless the Tagalogists are silenced and their ideology curbed, the Tagalog language will be destroyed, to be replaced by a new language no one can or will want to speak.

  1. edgar artates permalink

    I am not very sure what you will call the language they are using in movies and television are whether it is tagalog or national language. But what I know is that even muslims in far away Tawi Tawi can now speak and understand tagalog because they learned it from watching movies and television and not because they learned it from school. It is the common language which everyone can understand that counts and can unite us not so much the language used in the academy.

    • I’d be dry here and say that Filipinos do not learn much from school anyway, due to the state of the education system. 😀 So, you’re partly right…but then, people have no choice.

      Would they watch Tagalog shows if they had a choice between these and non-Tagalog shows? I fear that your characterisation of the situation is simplistic. We are hitting at the very fact that those people outside Katagalugan do not have any choice whatsoever. The Tagalog-speaking media outlets are richer and can expand more.

      On the question of unity, it is not language that unites Filipinos, nor should it. It is shared history, friendship, and a sense of destiny.

      Just look at how many intermarriages occurred between peoples of different ethnic groups in our country during the Spanish period and the American occupation – back then there was no “common language”!

  2. aurelioagcaoili permalink

    Let the conversation begin. This should lead us to diversity, and this will be better for us all. No Philippine language should ever go the route to extinction, not anymore, not any longer. Thanks for this enlightening piece, Prof Ramirez Joven.

  3. The main question is: What then should our unifying language be? The USA has English, Mainland China has Mandarin, Taiwan (as an independent state) has Cantonese, Malaysia has Bahasa Melayu, and even Singapore has English (to solve the issue of the different cultures it has: Malay, Indian, Chinese). Filipinos however came from one race only, the Austronesian race (argue it if you can); hence, there is no need to choose a foreign language as our unifying language, in which English wrongfully fulfilled (I’d been to Cebu, and the Cebuanos and I only understood each other through English). If Tagalog people and non-Tagalog people could not sort this out, English would only rise into its ‘power’; thus neither parties win. Kung Tagalog na nga ang pinakasasambit sa buong Pilipinas ay bakit hindi yaon ang gamitin? Kung hindi Tagalog ay alin pa?

    • I’m sorry, but your misconception of the history of the Philippines is what leads you to accept Tagalog as a national language.

      The Philippines did not come from one “race”. The concept of “races” is debunked by modern biology and social science. We should think of Filipinos as coming from a common Austronesian root.

      The thing is, the language these Austronesians speak is not Tagalog. Face it, it’s not. Proto-Pan-Philippine (as reconstructed) is not even close to Tagalog. Iyon naman ang punto ko: nagkaiba-iba na ang mga kulturang yaon mula nang dumaong sila sa Pilipinas. Hindi rin naman ganoon karami ang Tagalog sa panahong iyong iniuukol. In essence, the “pinakasasambit” that you say is a modern politico-cultural construct, forced by the use of Tagalog as a national language! Hindi naman talaga iyan ang pihong ibig sabihin ng “pinakasasambit”, hindi ba?

      There is no real problem with adopting English as a unifying language. Have you read English works by Filipino authors? They have made the language so pliant to Philippine realities. Kay Carlos Bulosan pa nga lang e.

      We must develop a method of overpowering the colonial mentality in us, by transforming symbols of colonial power into our own instruments. Post-colonial na tayo, matagal na, kaya magagawa na natin iyan.

      Nagawa iyan ng India, bakit hindi natin magawa? Ayaw natin gawin, ka’mo, dahil tinamad na tayong lahat.

    • And I must draw your attention to some errors as well. Mainland China has Mandarin as official language, but the languages of the regions are taught in schools. This is part of China’s official line regarding the union of nationalities in a Communist government.

      Taiwan also has Mandarin as official language, but 90% of the population speaks Taiwanese, or Hoklo (not Cantonese), and Hakka. In addition, there are fifteen Austronesian languages in Taiwan. All of these languages are being preserved by the ROC government. They’re being taught in schools, and there are cultural foundations devoted to preserving them.

      Malaysia uses Bahasa Melayu AND English. Unlike the Philippine government they are not concerned that using English will diminish their national interest. They do not fear their former colonial master, because they seldom think about it. That is post-colonial thinking, which we must adopt.

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