A linguistic philosophy for intellectualized Tagalog

IRAIA thoughts
IRAIA thoughts

After many years of writing alternately in Tagalog and English, I noticed that I am now more at ease in English, although I can still write fluently in Tagalog. On self-reflection, I realized the reason for my strong English bias is that I want to reach an intellectualized audience even if they too are Filipinos like me. The unspoken premise is that Tagalog is much less intellectualized than English, and so it has become more precise, concise, and easier for me to write intellectually in English rather than in Tagalog.

Thus, at work, almost always I have been opting to write in English even if I had a choice of language. It became so habitual such that I’ve been most often writing in English even those personal pieces which I could just as easily write in Tagalog, such as draft journal notes.

On further self-analysis, I see that subconsciously I avoided writing in Tagalog—despite a mostly Filipino prospective readership and subject matter—because I set myself a very high bar. I wanted to develop and internalize my own tight linguistic rule-set for Tagalog, a full-blown linguistic philosophy even, before committing myself to it. In other words, it wasn’t that I belittled Tagalog’s potential and actual capacity for intellectual expression. On the contrary, I wanted to prove and add to that capacity, while making sure that I’m still easily understood by the masses.

In that regard, I openly admit my dissatisfaction with the theory and practice of a lot of intellectual writing in Tagalog today. Much of it is too stilted, intimidating and tortuous for the ordinary Filipino to read and understand.

After many years of language research, writing and editing, and self-analysis, I think I’m now confident to express my own linguistic philosophy for Tagalog. Thus this blog piece: to quickly present a very summarized outline of such a philosophy, since I can’t allot an entire free month to write a long treatise on “Tagalog for 21st-Century Filipinos.”

I want this piece to trigger lively discussions, even heated debates, towards what I hope every patriotic Filipino wants to achieve: for Tagalog and other Philippine languages (at least the major ones) to become fully intellectualized, and eventually to join the ranks of the world’s top-level intellectualized languages such as English, Spanish, Mandarin, German, French, and Japanese.


So here goes, my highly summarized theses on developing an intellectualized Tagalog:

It’s Tagalog, not Pilipino. I will use the term Tagalog (or “modern Tagalog” if some purists start complaining) instead of “Pilipino” or “Filipino”. I will not pick a quarrel with those who assert that it’s now called Pilipino/Filipino, and that it is THE national language.

But I would rather push for a more nuanced policy that makes at least Tagalog and Sebuano the country’s default official languages, and maybe add two or three more to the list. Switzerland, after all, with a population of less than 10 million, has four official languages. India, with nearly 1.5 billion people, has no national language but 22 official languages.

While descriptive guides are most useful, let’s not straitjacket ourselves with prescriptive standards by language nazis. I support a descriptive instead of a prescriptive “standard” of Tagalog grammar, word usage and spelling. A descriptive guide on modern Tagalog (I will avoid the term “standard” as much as possible) is one that encourages ordinary folk to level up in reading college-level texts and writing for publication without having to worry too much about making errors in grammar and spelling. Such guide, which editors and teachers should support, are much more flexible and lenient than most official rules on Tagalog/Pilipino now strictly taught in schools and obediently echoed by Pinoy language nazis in media.

My rule of thumb: If your readers get your meaning, and no confusion ensues, then give allowance for supposed “errors”. For example, if in doubt whether to use “nang” or “ng”, use the shorter one; better still, always use “ng” with almost no exception. The sky won’t fall and the cosmic fabric won’t rip. After all, Filipinos from the 18th century onwards have always used ñg — note the tilde sign — as a shortcut for “nang”.

Borrow foreign words a lot, allow variant spellings. As much as possible, we should not coin artificially constructed Tagalog equivalents of foreign words, which are ridiculous and unpopular, such as “salumpuwit” (for chair) and “salipawpaw” (for airplane). Rather, especially in the case of scientific and technical terms, or in cases where the Spanish or English equivalent has seeped down to common usage, we should gladly accept as loan words either the original or Tagalized versions. In this regard, a descriptive Tagalog dictionary should give enough time—say, 10 years, for several variant Tagalized versions to be used—until the most popular version is chosen as standard.

For example, my ideal Tagalog dictionary of loan words would include the original term “psychology” and its four most common variants (“saykolodyi”, “sykology”, “saykoloji” and “sykoloji”) until the law of natural selection works its magic and the applicable orthographic rules are rationalized. (Btw, if “sykoloji” becomes most accepted later, then “bioloji” should become equally acceptable. Consistency is most often sensible and practical, because rules become simpler and easier to understand and follow.)

Oh: “taxi” and “taksi” should be allowed to coexist, in the same way that “chinelas”, “tsinelas” and “sinelas” are all fine because everyone knows they mean the same. In case foreign loan words create multiple choices, then so much richer Tagalog will be. Luntian and berde, bughaw and asul, rosas and pink— why not indeed?

But please, let’s avoid bastard monstrosities such as “pesante” (for peasant), “polisiya” (for policy), and “groseria” (for grocery), if only because they lead to confusion. If, despite my pleadings, they become accepted by the masses, then I’ll just shrug my shoulders and move on. Linguistic change, like a creek seeking new channels, seeks the path of least resistance.

The shorter and simpler, the better. Again, if the shorter form (which is often also easier to pronounce) doesn’t introduce any confusion, and any vagueness is settled by context, why waste extra letters and extra space? The general trend in language as it develops and intellectualizes is that more meaning is compressed into shorter words that lend themselves better to crispier diction. 21st century Tagalog is no exemption. Even in our lifetime we saw how “Maghintay ka” evolved into “Hintay ka” and eventually “Teka”. “Tayo na” became “tena” or “tara”, and “Hayaan mo” became “hamo.” Why muddle in unnecessary redundancy? Other examples:

  • Combat monstrosities such as “Ang mga malalaking gusali ay matitibay.” It’s enough to say “Ang mga malaking gusali ay matibay.” One “mga” in a sentence is plural enough. Sometimes you can even drop the “mga” if it doesn’t matter because you’re dealing in generic terms: “Ang malaking gusali ay matibay.” Modern Tagalog need not be dogmatic about strict singular and plural forms in generic cases.
  • Drop obsolete plural and similar repetitive forms, unless you absolutely need to be poetic or unambiguous. E.g., why use “nangagsisitakbuhan sila”? In ordinary writing, you just say “tumatakbo sila” (or perhaps “nagsisitakbo sila” if you really want to note that they are running in groups).
  • I predict (and will welcome) the further evolution into shorter forms as Tagalog usage expands and develops. “Mamamayan” will probably shorten into “mam’yan” and eventually “mmyan”, “manggagawa” into “mggawa”,  “magsasaka” into “mgsaka”, “magkakariton” into “mgkariton”, “magmamani” into “mgmani”, and so on, as a matter of convention.

Tagalog allows most words to serve as noun or verb; maximize this trait. Mastery of Tagalog conjugation allows a writer the leeway to maximize the power of well-conjugated forms, or do away with unneeded conjugation.

Instead of saying, ­“Kailan sya magpapabunot ng ngipin?” you can say, more tersely, “Kailan ang pabunot nya ng ngipin?” Instead of saying, “Hindi na uso ang pagiging mahinhin ngayon,” you might want to tighten it into “Di na uso ang pagka-mahinhin ngayon,” or even “Di na uso ang mahinhin ngayon,” without losing the basic meaning you want to convey.

There’s more. Please wait for them. ###

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