Language insights

Philippines Language History: Exploring Cultural and Linguistic Heritage

Andrew Samkowski 25 Apr 2023
Philippines language history

Discovering the Richness of Philippines' Language History

The Philippines, as an island nation with a rich history of colonization, boasts of a fascinating blend of cultures and languages. It is no surprise that with over 170 lingos spoken by roughly 85 million people in the country, linguistic diversity is astounding. While only 13 major languages have more than 1 million speakers, the rest are still commonly used and can be found scattered across approximately 7,000 islands. This plethora of dialects can be attributed to the Philippines' 400-year history of colonization and its interaction with traders from Southeast Asia and the Middle East. However, one may wonder if there is a singular Philippines language at all and how this remarkable nation managed to preserve such an extensive array of languages throughout its history. Let us delve into this captivating country and uncover the answers.

Brief History of the Philippines

The group of islands which today comprise the Philippines have been inhabited for thousands of years. Home to various Austronesian and Negrito ethnic groups, islands were divided between many local kingdoms. Trade with China, India, and Indonesia flourished between the 10th and 14th centuries. Spanish arrival, led by famous explorer Ferdinand Magellan in 1521, proved to be the defining moment in Philippine history. Magellan claimed the islands for Spain and was eventually killed in a conflict with a local chieftain. Half a century later, the Spanish returned and landed in Luzon, where they founded Intramuros, which would later become Manilla. For the next three centuries, the Philippines remained a colony of Spain. Under Spanish rule, Catholicism became the majority religion. Major changes arrived in the Philippines in the 19th century, when the Philippines began to trade with the outside world, increasing the country’s overall wealth and level of development. It also meant that Filipinos began to develop a national consciousness of their own and sought to break free of Spanish colonial rule. Tagalog's emergence as the most widely spoken was tipping point of Filipino language history.
When a war between the United States and Spain broke out in 1898, the Philippines were invaded by the Americans. Spain suffered a defeat and ceded the US islands, but at the same time, a local revolutionary leader declared independence. After a brief period of Japanese occupation during WWII, the Philippines were granted independence from the United States in 1946. During the next decades, young nation was gripped by poverty and Ferdinand Marcos’ autocratic rule.

Introduction to Linguistic Makeup of the Modern Philippines

People who ask what language do they speak in the Philippines may find themselves a little confused because there are more than a hundred dialects spoken across the Philippine islands. Filipino is the most prevalent, serving as the country's national language since the 1970s. It originated from Tagalog, which is spoken on the northern island of Luzon. Filipino is commonly used in major urban areas, including Manila, the capital and largest city, as the official language in the Philippines.
English has become an essential part of the linguistic history of the Philippines since its recognition as a co-official language. English has taken the place of Spanish as the primary lingo used in public education, government affairs, business, and trade. Spanish was the official one during the Philippines' colonial period under Spain, but its usage has been declining since the 1950s. Reports suggest that only around 450,000 Filipinos speak Spanish as their native lingo.

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Official and National Languages of the Philippines

There are more than 28 million native Tagalog speakers in the Philippines today. Tagalog speakers tend to be heavily concentrated in the central area of the Philippines, including the southern half of Luzon Island. Tagalog is the most prominent native language of the Philippines. You can use eLearning translation if you want to learn more about Filipino languages.
Another prominent lingo spoken in the Philippines today is Cebuano. It originated on the island of Cebu and is the native of more than 22 million Filipinos. During the mid-20th century, Cebuano had the status of the most spoken. Historically, Cebuano speakers were opposed to Tagalog becoming the official language.
Ilocano has 8 million native speakers who are concentrated in the northwestern and central areas of Luzon Island. It is one of the many Austronesian lingos spoken in Southeast Asia. With about 9 million native speakers, Hiligaynon is another widely spoken native lingo in the Philippines. It is spoken predominantly in the country’s central and southern areas. The incredible linguistic diversity of the Philippines is evident in the fact that there are more additional native languages with between 1 and 5 million native speakers. Some of them are Bicolano, Waray, and Tausug. Many of the local dialects have their own dialects, but there is no definitive answer to the question of how many dialects in the Philippines exist today.

History of Language of the Philippines

Philippines language history is long and diverse. The linguistic heritage of the Philippines is rich and varied, boasting over a hundred native languages that have been influenced by numerous other lingos. Tagalog and Bahasa Indonesia are believed to have shared linguistic roots, according to experts. Prior to the arrival of the Spanish, the Philippines was made up of many small polities, with different dialects being spoken. None of these local lingos could be considered the Philippines' main language at this point in time.
Under the centuries-long Spanish occupation, it was mandated that religious education be conducted in Spanish. However, the majority of Filipinos did not adopt Spanish as their primary lingo because Catholic priests preferred to use local dialects for communication. This helped to preserve the native languages during the Spanish rule. However, Spanish was the medium of instruction in Filipino schools during the colonial period.

Tagalog Emerges as the Main Spoken Language

The end of Spanish colonial rule was an important time in Tagalog history. In spite of this, the majority of the Filipino population still spoke their native languages. The absence of a common language that all Filipinos could understand proved to be a problem. To make communication easier between various native peoples easier, English was introduced as the new common tongue. At the same time, many loanwords from English (as well as Spanish) left a strong influence on Tagalog. Before the arrival of the Spanish, Tagalog used a different writing script called Baybayin. When the Philippines came under Spanish rule, a new alphabet based on Spanish orthography was adopted. It consisted of 32 letters. The modern Tagalog alphabet consists of 28 letters. There is currently no definite agreement on how many Tagalog dialects exist. There are four main dialect zones, Northern, Central, Southern, and Marinduque. Those new to Tagalog may find professional subtitling services handy when watching shows and movies in the Philippines.

Tagalog vs Filipino language? What Is the Difference?

Many people confuse Tagalog with Filipino, thinking they are the same. Even though this is not the case, the two languages are technically considered to be dialects. In practice, it means that a person who speaks Tagalog will have little trouble understanding Filipino due to similarities in grammatical structure between them.

To fully understand the difference between these two languages, we need to go back to the 1930s. The emergence of a new national identity was not possible without a national language, and English and Spanish, which the constitution of 1937 had recognized as Philippines official language, were not suitable for that purpose. President Manuel L. Quezon sought to introduce a new national language. Tagalog was selected as the base for the new language, owing to the fact it was the most widely spoken one. The new Filipino language, as it was named in 1959, was adopted as the official language less than 20 years later. In the Constitution of 1987, Filipino is referred to as the national language.

Other Languages of the Philippines

  • Cebuano was the most commonly used native language in the Philippines up until the 1980s. Cebuano speakers live in the southern parts of the country, including the provinces of Cebu and Bohol. Native speakers often use the term Bisaya to refer to Cebuano.
  • Ilocano is another major native language spoken by a significant number of Filipinos. Its modern alphabet consists of 28 Latin letters. An interesting fact about modern Ilocano is its usage of two writing systems, Spanish and Tagalog language.
  • Hiligaynon, also known as Ilonggo or Binisaya, uses the Latin script. What sets it apart from other native languages is a large number of Spanish loanwords.
  • Spanish played an important part in the history of the Philippines, evident in the fact it remained government lingo until 1973. All native languages still use many Spanish loanwords today, and the Spanish orthography decisively shaped the spelling systems used for writing native Filipino.
  • English arrived in the Philippines relatively late, but its importance as the new lingua franca keeps growing. According to the latest estimates, English has more than 200,000 native speakers in the Philippines. Up to 55 million Filipinos speak it as their second language.

Is There Still an Official Language of the Philippines Today?

Two languages have official status in the Philippines today: Filipino and English. The former has been granted the status of the Philippines national language. There is still a far-reaching debate on the topic of the similarity between Filipino and Tagalog and whether they can be considered the same language. Many linguists consider Filipino to be ‘Tagalog-based’, implying that the two languages are largely the same. Filipino is the prevailing language in the modern-day Philippines, spoken by 82 out of 109 million people living in the country today. Tagalog was the main language in use in Manilla and had a rich literary tradition. In recent times, the authorities have sought to promote the use of Filipino over English in order to reinforce its status as the national language. The Filipino alphabet has 28 letters. The name of the letters are pronounced like in English, the sole exception being the letter Ñ.
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Richness of the Philippines

The history of language in the Philippines is complex and fascinating. There are up to 187 different lingos spoken across the Philippine archipelago. Tagalog is the most widely spoken among the native languages, with Cebuano and Ilocano also having more than five million speakers. Tagalog and Filipino are mutually intelligible and share the same linguistic origins. The two most important non-native languages are Spanish and English, with the latter as the co-official language alongside Filipino. Today, Filipino/Tagalog and English are the most spoken languages in the Philippines.