Tagalog: through the Centuries


by Michael L. Tan

19thcentury-2.jpg (26731 bytes)

How did Tagalogs count in the 17th century? You’d think, well, just like we do today: isa, dalawa, tatlo, etc.

That commonsensical answer is only partly right. I checked the Vocabulario Tagalo, a Tagalog-Spanish dictionary dating back to 1624 and found the numbers were pretty much the same except for some variations in spelling (“dalaua”, “ualo” and “sampouo”).

Besides these spelling variations, the dictionary did reveal other differences. It didn’t occur to me, until I read Vocabulario Tagalo, why we say “labing-isa” for 11. To create numbers beyond 10 in old Tagalog, you used the suffix “labi-“, which means “more than”. So, “labin-isa”, or the number 11, means “one more than 10” while “labin-walo”, “eight more than 10” gives us 18. It gets more complicated when you get to the hundreds but the early Tagalogs managed that quite well. Labi sa daan isa was “one more than one hundred” or “101”. Count on to “labi sa daan sampouo” for “110” then draw a deep breath to say “labi sa daan labin-isa” or “eleven more than a hundred”.

I’m going to stop counting here and explain what I’m trying to do. I had to give a talk the other day at the Filipinas Heritage Library on the evolution of Tagalog and while doing background research I realized so little had been written about how Tagalog has evolved across the centuries. What has been written appears in inaccessible academic journals or books so I thought of doing a summary in non-technical language.

Why bother to trace origins, you may ask? Well, because it’s National Language Week and the national language, like it or not, is Tagalog-based. A more important reason though is that by understanding the origins and evolution of Tagalog, we’ll see how it’s always been a rather cosmopolitan language, borrowing words left and right. This extensive borrowing means a search for “pure Tagalog” (or “pure Filipino”) will be futile and silly.

Let me point out we shouldn’t get an inferiority complex because of this penchant for borrowing words. Languages are like living organisms, their vigor coming from interactions with other languages. English itself is a hybrid language filled with loan-words from all over the world, reflecting how original English speakers explored and colonized the world.

This takes us to the third, and most important reason for tracing Tagalog’s, or any language’s, origins. A language’s evolution tells us of the kinds of social and political relationships within one culture, as well as between cultures. I’m not referring to colonialism alone. We’ll see how linguistic analysis can shed light on what day to day life was like among early Tagalogs.

Linguists are able to draw family trees of languages, and determine which ones are older, by comparing words, across languages and across time. In recent years linguists have started working with geneticists – putting linguistic data together with information about the DNA of different groups may give us a family tree that accounts for both biology and culture. But that’s for a column maybe five years from now. Let’s concentrate now on what we know about Tagalog.

Linguists classify Tagalog as part of a huge Austronesian (or, to use an older term, Malayo-Polynesian) family with more than 1200 living languages. The earliest Austronesian families probably emerged out of New Guinea and then spread out across a large geographical area.

Today, Austronesian languages are found from Taiwan in the north down to New Zealand in the south. Austronesian languages stretches eastward across the Pacific, to include the Hawiian islands and on to Rapa Niu (Easter Island) off the coast of Chile. West of the Philippines, we don’t find Austronesian languages except, curiously, on the island of Madagascar off the coast of Africa, because many centuries back, the island was settled by people originally from what is Indonesia today.

The Austronesian family has several branches, including a large Philippine division with more than a hundred languages. (The Summer Institute of Linguistics, a missionary group that specializes in translating the Bible, counts 171 languages, excluding dialects, for the Philippines.) The number of languages reflects our tendency toward “tribal fission” – early settlers were nomadic and constantly splitting into new groups. When two groups are isolated from each other – often by geography as in the case of the Philippines with our islands and mountain ranges -- they develop new words, diction, accents and intonation, grammar.

Intially, the variations may be minor – for example, the difference between Manila Tagalog and Batangas Tagalog – which means we now have separate dialects. Eventually, however, the differences become more radical, making it difficult for two groups to understand each other, as in the case of Cebuano and Tagalog. We now have two separate languages rather than just dialects.

Tagalog is a fairly young language, not more than a thousand years old. It belongs to a “Central Philippine” group, bearing more similarities with languages in the Visayas than those of Luzon (e.g., Ilokano and Kapampangan). Linguists say the Visayan languages are older than Tagalog so we can conclude that today’s Tagalogs are descended from settlers who originally came from the Visayas. Eventually, the settlers’ Visayan-based language evolved into Tagalog, new words being coined, others borrowed from the settlers’ new neighbors, for example the Kapampangan.

Through the centuries, Tagalog absorbed many words from other non-Philippine languages, reflecting the extensive contacts that came with trade and, later, colonization by Spain and the United States. We’ll continue with this linguistic tour next Tuesday but here’s something to keep you busy – how would a 17th century Tagalog have said “722 million dollars”, the amount of money Ping Lacson and Erap are said to have salted away in the States?

Note: This article was sent by Mr. Tan via e-mail to nmorada@niu.edu after a follow-up request after Part II of this article (below) first appeared on the online edition of his column in the Philippine Daily Inquirer dated 28 August 2001.

Back to Top


by Michael L. Tan

19thcentury-7.jpg (30711 bytes)

LAST Thursday, we began a tour of Tagalog through the centuries, tracing its origins and evolution.

Toward the end of the article I asked readers to guess how a 17th century Tagalog would say "722 million dollars"--the amount allegedly salted away in overseas bank accounts by Sen. Panfilo Lacson and Estrada.

While several readers wrote in asking for more specific information about Tagalog’s evolution, no one attempted to answer the 722-million-dollar question.

I suspect many got it right with the start--pitong daang dalauamput dalaua--properly spelled in the old style, but were stumped with "million" and "dollars."

If we rely on the Vocabulario Tagalog of 1624, a Tagalog-Spanish dictionary, it seems there were no words yet for "dollars" or "millions" at that time.

Nevertheless, the Tagalogs did seem to have words for rather large numbers: libo for thousand from the Malay ribu, and the Sanskrit words lacsa for ten thousand and yota for hundred thousand. (Yota originally meant "million" in Sanskrit but somehow got devalued when it was incorporated into Tagalog.)

Those terms for numbers are among the many loan-words Tagalogs took in from diverse languages.

There are many reasons people borrow words from other languages. Often it is a simple matter of cultural contact, often because of trade.

New goods, especially food items, come with new names. Other cultural exchanges may be more profound, involving science, religion and philosophy.

In the case of the Philippines, colonialism added another dimension to language, the dominant cultures bringing in or even imposing new words.

Let your imagination run wild now. Think how 16th century Tagalogs would have expressed their sorrow over a shattered relationship.

A commoner would have sighed, "Kay lungkot!"--lungkot being a hoi-polloi Kapampangan-Tagalog word. A datu’s daughter would have etched out a poem on bamboo, expressing her sorrow in Malay-tinged Tagalog: "O dusa! O dukha! O dalita! O dalamhati!"--all four words derived from Malay.

A datu’s daughter could have visited Brunei, with which Manila’s aristocracy had close ties, and picked up words from Malay, considered a high-status language at that time. "Dalamhati" was only one example, the intensity of sadness expressed by two Malay words: dalam (inside) and hati (heart, although it can also mean liver).

Note that luwalhati, a feeling of euphoria, is generated from the Malay luwar (outside) and again, hati.

Words have a life of their own, sometimes changing meanings as they move from one culture to another.

"Dalita" was originally derived from the Sanskrit dhrta (borne), becoming the Malay derita (to endure) and dalita in Tagalog, where it means great suffering.

The association with suffering produced extended meanings in Tagalog: dalita and dukha, both Malay-Sanskrit words for suffering, are also used to refer to poverty and the poor.

The Malay and Sanskrit words that entered Tagalog related to philosophy and religion. They were also languages of learning, as we see in the borrowing of the numerical terms I mentioned earlier.

Terms like lacsa and yota suggest that we conducted a lot of trading with our neighbors in what are today Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia.

Later, Arabic traders entered the region, bringing in not just material goods but also Islam, and new words. To give just one example, aqala, Arabic for intelligence, was transformed in Tagalog into "a concept, a notion, a hunch."

Curiously, some Arabic words may have come to us from the Spaniards, who themselves were once colonized by the Arabs.
Thus, the Arabic kafir, for an unbeliever, became the Spanish cafre for a savage and eventually became kapre, a mythical giant.

The Hokkien Chinese, who didn’t just come in as itinerant traders but often stayed on, introduced hundreds of other terms into Tagalog covering more mundane items and activities from food (siopao, tokwa, petsay) to household products (bakya, siyansi) to gambling (huweteng) and trading (suki, pakyaw).

Under colonial rule of the Spaniards and the Americans, Tagalog went through even more modifications. Hundreds of Spanish words entered Tagalog, their system of counting (uno, dos, tres, as revived recently by singer Ricky Martin) often displacing the earlier Tagalog system.

Some Spanish words we adapted as is but many others mutated, both in form and in meaning. Como esta became kumusta; hacer caso (de), to pay attention to, became asikaso.

We borrowed the Spanish pobre, meaning poor, but spinned off another word, pulubi, to mean a beggar, to whom we give alms or limos, originally alimos in Spanish.

Then there’s English, which we’ve been using in the last 100 years because of the American colonial period and, today, because it is a new global prestige language.

Listen to people speaking Tagalog in the streets and you’ll hear many English connectors--"so," "but" "and then"--as well as the occasional "shit" (or "syet") when discussing our senators’ latest "gimik."

People sometimes complain that we are captives of a colonial mentality, relying too much on English. But another perspective, often expressed with alarm by Americans and English, is that we’re colonizing the Queen’s English, gobbling up words and regurgitating them in new forms.

Just look at how English nouns have been transformed into Tagalog verbs, complete with conjugation (nag-text, mag-che-chess, makikipag-Internet).

Languages evolve because of cultural contacts, people meeting as tourists, traders, teachers, whatever. It’s not just a matter of the Tagalog language borrowing words from the world. You just wait and see.

Courtesy of the many Filipina yayas caring for the children of the world, someday we just might hear a British prime minister ordering Parliament to come to "votation"--but only after very properly offering a 10-minute break for people to go to the ‘‘See Ah.’’

Philippine Daily Inquirer Online edition
28 August 2001

Post a Comment

license to use my original content

is hereby granted as long as credit is given to the original author, this license should neither be understood as a claim that any image or content found here came from me nor should it be construed that I convey any license to use such content that did not come from me; the use of third-party images and the responsibility to assess the fair use of such or to procure a separate license to use them is the sole responsibility of the licensee, any clarification should be directed to the original author, see above
Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
you can support the author by clicking one of the links below, Thanks!


Lijit Stats Wijit - Recent Readers List