The History of the Filipino Languages

J. Nicole Stevens
Linguistics 450
June 30, 1999

The Filipino languages have been influenced by many other language groups throughout their history, as well as being influenced by each other. Their position in the Pacific Ocean so near Asia has allowed them many opportunities for trade and correspondence with other nations and languages. In addition, various occupations of the region by different nations has brought the Filipino languages in to direct contact with many other languages, which have also had their influence.

The first Indonesians are thought to have come to the Philippines in groups, beginning some 5,000 to 6,000 years ago and again about 1500 B.C. (Bautista). Linguistic evidence connects Tagalog with Bahasa Indonesia as having common roots, so the main root of the modern Filipino languages probably came with these people (although other groups of people are thought to have come to the Philippines much earlier). In addition, the Malay people make up the largest percentage of the population in the Philippines (Bautista).

Before the Spaniards came to the Philippines, the people lived in small towns called barangays. The leader of a barangay was called a Datu. Many barangays would cluster together for safety and protection. This way of life could have had a great affect on the languages at this time (Bautista). The people of the Philippines were not united under one government, but were under many smaller governments, and they had many different languages and many different dialects of each language. At this time, the different barangays traded openly with one another. There was also foreign trade with Japan, China, Borneo, Sumatra, Thailand, Cambodia, and other islands in the area (Bautista). The languages of the Philippines were heavily influenced by Chinese at this time, and probably by many of the other languages to which they were exposed as well.

The Islam religion was brought to the Philippines in the 14th century (Bautista). It was spread throughout Mindanao and also reached into Manila and Tondo before the Spaniards came to the Philippines and stopped its spread. This spread could have also contributed new words and concepts to the existing languages. Bautista also mentions Sanskrit influences, which also have contributed new words to these languages.

In the 16th Century Spain claimed the Philippines for its own. Many friars and priests were sent by the crown to teach Christianity to the native people. At first, the friars were encouraged to learn the local dialects in order to teach the people in their own languages. This they did, gaining a strong influence over the Filipino people.

In time, the crown determined that instruction in religion should be conducted in Spanish (or Castilian, as it was called). However, by that time, the priests already enjoyed a great deal of power because of their position between the Spanish crown and the Filipino people. The Filipino people depended on the priests for all of their religious instruction (and basically any education) and for understanding of any laws or ordinances that came from Spain. The Spanish government needed these priests to conduct any business in the Philippines at all, because the people could not speak Spanish and the only way to communicate with them was through the priests who spoke their languages. In addition, the priests did not want the natives learning Spanish because they considered themselves an elite class–a better people than their Filipino counterparts. They wanted to maintain this separation, and saw that by preventing the Filipinos from learning Spanish, they could do so In addition, they feared that if the native people learned Spanish, they would be more likely to be proud and rebel against the government (Frei, 16).

Because of these various conditions, the priests were sluggish and hesitant, even in the face of direct orders from the government, to implement Spanish teaching programs in Filipino schools. Being all the way across the ocean and having very slow communication at the time helped them in their attempts to be slow in setting up these things.

When the Filipinos insisted on having equal rights with the rest of the Spanish people, and were not given them, they rebelled against the Spanish government and set up their own republic. At this time Tagalog was not really set up as the national language. However, Rizal, an important Filipino hero at the time who had been killed because of his involvement with the revolution, had brought a lot of attention to Tagalog by writing many papers in Tagalog and writing about the grammar, etc. (Frei, 28-29).

The period of Spanish rule brought many borrowed words into the Tagalog language from Spanish. Some of these included the adoption of the Spanish number system in many settings, especially when dealing with money, and adoption of Spanish household and religious words. Some examples of borrowed words are the Spanish words for fork, spoon, knife, table, God, holy spirit, Jesus Christ, and blessing.

The new Republic of the Philippines did not last long until American occupation began. The Americans began English as the official language of the Philippines. There were many reasons given for this change. Spanish was still not known by very many of the native people. As well, when Taft’s commission (which had been established to continue setting up the government in the Philippines) asked the native people what language they wanted, they asked for English (Frei, 33). In addition, it was hard to conduct government in the native languages because there were so many of them, and a united language was desired.

English began to be taught in the schools to all. For a time, Spanish was still used in many areas, but in time more and more of the people learned English. After many years of not teaching Spanish, those who had known it were older or had passed away, and it was lost as a major influence (although the native dialects continued to use borrowed words from Spanish). For many years, the people of the Philippines were satisfied to simply learn English and adapt to the new system (Frei, )

During World War II, Japan occupied the Philippines for three years (Bautista). At this time English was still the official language of the Philippines, however, Japanese certainly influenced the various dialects during this time as well.

Debates continued back and forth in America and in the Philippines as to whether the official language of the country should be English or one of the other native languages. It was part of the agreement of American occupation that in 1946, the Philippines would become independent of the US again. At that time, Tagalog became the official language of the Philippines, this change having been decided about ten years later and having begun already to be implemented in the educational system.

Even though English is no longer the official language of the Philippines, it continues to be taught today along with Tagalog in the public schools. Several English words have also found their way into Tagalog and other Filipino languages, and are simply conjugated and adjusted to fit the conventions of the languages into which they are adapted. Some examples are the English word "transfer" which is used in some languages to mean "move" (as in "magtransfer kami sa Maynila"–"we are moving to Manila") and the English "adjust" which is used with the same meaning (as in "maaram ko mag-adjust"–"I know how to adjust").

Additionally, the languages of the Philippines continue to borrow words from one another. Since the languages come from a common root anyway, it is often hard to distinguish which words are simply descended from the same roots and which have been borrowed later from another Filipino language. Among both categories, these words do not always have the same meanings in the different languages, in fact, one must be careful not to make embarrassing errors!

Over the course of its development, Tagalog (and other languages of the Philippines) have been influenced by Chinese, Japanese, Spanish, English, and many other languages, in trade and in occupations by various countries. They have taken and adapted words from all of these languages to make them part of their own languages. They have, however, still maintained their own languages, and maintained separations from one language to another.

Works Cited:

The Philippines: Then and Now. Excerpted from The Filipino Americans (From 1763 to the Present): Their History, Culture, and Traditions, by Veltisezar Bautista.

Frei, Ernest J. The Historical Development of the Philippine National Language. Manila: Bureau of Printing, 1959.

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Department of Linguistics
Brigham Young University
Last Updated: Monday, September 6, 1999