Wika Notes 01a

Tagalog lessons with an attitude
Note 1: I’m starting a new series—or rather, resuming an old series—on Tagalog. I dedicate this series to my increasing number of foreign friends who want to learn, are starting to learn, or have acquired some fluency in, Tagalog. It’s also for my fellow Filipinos who want to refresh and deepen their knowledge of the language. I decided to resume this series (I started it in 2001, through an e-group named Wika) because I wanted to explore novel and more interesting ways of learning it than the usual boring lectures and drills.
Note 2: Take notice that I call the language Tagalog, not Filipino or Pilipino. For hundreds of years, the people speaking it as native tongue were called Tagalog. At present, the Philippines has more than a hundred languages, from Ivatan to Tausug. Thus I prefer to talk about Philippine languages (in the plural) rather than the Philippine language (in the singular). We do have an officially-proclaimed and widely-accepted language called Pilipino or Filipino, but it’s nothing more than modernized Tagalog. Call it Pilipino (or Filipino) if you will, but I’m calling it Tagalog. That doesn’t make me less patriotic than you. Gets?

Our lesson for today is on Tagalog’s basic pronunciation rules. Many teachers and books will offer you a dizzying and often dogmatic list of rules on how to pronounce Tagalog words and syllables. Many of them, I won’t take seriously. They are just making it harder for you to learn Tagalog basics by nitpicking about the finer points of phonetics. I, on the other hand, suggest that you stick only with my seven simple guidelines. I provide more details under each guideline, but you can skip them if you want.

Guideline 1. In native Tagalog, there are only three basic vowels, a, i, and u. Pronounce a as in Eng. “father”; i as in Eng. “skip”; and u as in Eng. “took”.

a. a is pronounced “ah” (phonetic ä), as an English speaker would pronounce it in “father.”

b. The usual pronunciation of i is “ee” (phonetic i) as one would pronounce “skip” in English. But there’s a range of acceptable pronunciation of i that includes e (“eh” or phonetic e), as prounounced in English “pet.”

Some Tagalog teachers would insist that i and e are different vowels, but I say they are a range of phonetically similar vowels that are interchangeable because they merely represent one basic vowel. You can pronounce it as lalaki or lalake (Tag. “male”), babai or babae (Tag. “female”) but Tagalog people will still be able to understand you. The tendency, however, is for the e sound to predominate over the i when the vowel is at the end of the word. Generally, though, you shouldn’t worry much whether you pronounce the vowel as i or e. Native speakers will get you right.

c. The usual pronunciation of u is “oo” (phonetic u), same as in English “took.” But, as in point b, there’s a range of acceptable sounds of u that includes o (phonetic ô, as in English “paw.”

Again, some Tagalog teachers would strictly differentiate between u and o, but the range of sounds between u and o merely represent one basic vowel, with the tendency for o to predominate when pronounced at the end of a word. Again, don’t get hung up over u or o—they’re basically the same vowel. You can pronounce it as suut or suot (Tag. “wear”), butu or buto (Tag. “bone” or “seed”), and Tagalog speakers will still get you right.

Guideline 2. Modern Tagalog also recognizes the vowels e and o. These are used to capture similar sounds mostly in foreign loan words.

a. e is strictly pronounced as “eh” (phonetic e), and distinct from i (“ee” or phonetic i). A lot of Spanish loan words oblige Tagalog speakers to strictly distinguish e and i to avoid confusion. Thus, mesa (Sp. “table”) is different from misa (Sp. “Holy Mass”). However, if there is no room for confusion, pronouncing e as i in loanwords has also become acceptable, as in pandesal or pandisal (Sp. “salt bread”), bandera or bandila (Sp. “banner”).

b. o is strictly pronounced as “awe” (phonetic ô), and distinct from u (“oo” or phonetic u). Again, a lot of Spanish and English loan words oblige Tagalog speakers to distinguish the two. Thus, bote (Sp. “bottle, can”) is different from buti (Tag. “good”), although such instances are great opportunities for Tagalog speakers to play with puns. Ask someone, for example, what the expression “Daanin sa maboteng usapan” means.

Guideline 3. In Tagalog, 16 native consonants are recognized: B, K, D, G, H, L, M, N, Ng, P, R, S, T, W, Y, and the unvoiced glottal stop. All 16 native consonants are pronounced in standard phonetic ways.


  • B as in “boy”
  • K as in “key”
  • D as in “dig”, although in many cases D is interchangeable with R; “din” and “rin” mean the same, Eng. “also”. In some deep Tagalog towns, D becomes R in most cases: “Sumarsar na ang bangka, ay gaor pa nang gaor.”
  • G as in “get”, although educated Tagalogs can also pronounce soft G when they see it in “gin” or “Gerry.”
  • H as in “hat”
  • L as in “let”
  • M as in “meet”
  • N as in “nice”
  • Ng as in “sting.ng is often pronounced with an additional g when referring to place names, the town Angono or the province Pangasinan for example. But this is more reflective of spelling convention rather than non-standard ways of pronouncing ng.
  • P as in “put”
  • R as in “Rio Grande”
  • S as in “send”
  • T as in “tall”
  • W as in “web”
  • Y as in “yes”

The unvoiced glottal stop, or schwa, needs a bit more explanation. It is represented in phonetics as ?, but here we’ll use lower-case q. To have an idea of how schwa is pronounced, consider the word “backup.” Replace the voiced “ck” with a soundless catch of the throat, as if you wanted to say “k” but suppressed the sound. Thus it becomes baqup. The Tagalog word gaod (Eng. “row, use oar”), for example, is not pronounced with the diphthong ao, but as gaqod. In traditional Tagalog spelling, the glottal stop is usually assumed or represented by a hyphen between two vowels in the middle of a word, or by an accented vowel if found at the end of the word. Thus, some writers would write gaod as ga-od, and suki (Tag. Ch. “favored clientele”) as sukì.

To be continued

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