Mark Libatique

Seven Things You Should Know About Pilipino Languages

Let's talk about talk. We all know the importance Tagalog plays in Pilipino identity here in the States. You're viewed as "more Pinoy" if you can at least understand the main dialect of the Metro Manila region. Tagalog is the lingua franca (the default universal language) of the global Pilipino diaspora. It unites, empowers, and strengthens the Pilipino.

But you'd be amiss if you didn't give a nod to the dozens of other languages/dialects that the Pilipino speaks. In a land of 7,107 islands, with a history of influences from dozens of kingdoms, dynasties, tribes and regimes over centuries and centuries, the Philippines boasts one of the most linguistically diverse populations in the more developed countries of the world.

I can write novels about this, but here's the run-down on the skills of the Pinoy tongue (wink!):

  • There are eight recognized regional language of the Philippines: Bikol, Cebuano, Hiligaynon (or Ilonggo), Ilokano, Pampango, Pangsinense, Tagalog and Waray. Of the 170 languages spoken on the islands, these have the highest number of native and secondary speakers.
  • The official language of the Philippines is not Tagalog per se, but Filipino: It's the language used in news and official communications by the Philippine government. Filipino has had a bumpy ride toward universal acceptance since it inception in 1959 as "Pilipino", particularly by non-Tagalog speakers, since – let's be honest – it's basically Tagalog. But language evolves, and the government hopes that Filipino evolves over time, adapting more and more aspects of the other dialects.
  • The Philippine languages are Austronesian, which means they're more related to Malaysian, Indonesian, and even Hawaiian than they are to Chinese, Vietnamese, etc.
  • There are Philippine creole languages! Which is awesome. Look up Chavacano. Much like how Haitians speak a French Creole and Jamaicans have Patois, a creole of English, Chavacano is a a dialect of Spanish that arose in the southern Philippines that sounds super fun. (I showed some Latino friends videos of people speaking Chavacano and they were amazed.)
  • The Philippines has its own variant of Chinese called Lan-nang, which has its origins in the islands' trading history with China. If you're a Chinese Pinoy, your family probably speaks it. They might also call it Hokkien or Fukkien.
  • Philippine English is its own variety of English, exactly like Australian English or British English. Lots of Pinoys get heat in the US for speaking English with a Pilipino accent, when it's much more than that. It's the national language of the Philippines, for Hesukristo's sake! School is taught in English. English movies are not dubbed. English is the language of the law.
  • Taglish – mixing Tagalog and English, and switching back and forth between the dialects – is a legitimate and recognized thing, and you shouldn't be ashamed of it (no more "Marunong ko po lang mag-Taglis!"). Pinoys are masters of linguistic fluidity, and you're just as Pinoy speaking in hybrid as you are speaking in pure.

If you're one of the millions of Pinoys here in the US or elsewhere in the world that doesn't just use Tagalog and English, but maybe one or more other dialects at home, it's something to be proud of. These dialects have as rich a history as any other, and should be nurtured and supported. My home is a jumbledunk of Tagalog, English and Ilokano, and whenever I hear strangers speaking Ilokano on the street, I'm reflexively even more informal and familiar with them. Almost as if there was an even deeper level of closeness than the already-close bond of general Pinoy-ness.

Ya feel me? Good. Now you're speaking my language.

Spoons, Forks and the Cultures that Use Them

When I was 18, I worked at the Times Square Swatch megastore as a cashier. I was the only Filipino and only Asian there, and once in a while, I would come in with some baon from home for lunch. One night, I had some sort of fish and rice deal courtesy of my mom, which I eagerly dug into—with my spoon and fork. One of my co-workers looked at me with the most puzzled look, as if I was eating duck fetus or something (what was this, Sunday?).

"What?" I said.

"Why in the world are you eating with a fork and a spoon? And where's the chopsticks?" she asked.

This was the single most ridiculous question I'd ever heard, and not because of the (totally forgivable, honestly) cultural misconception about Pinoys and chopsticks. I replied with what I thought was an equally ridiculous question: "You never seen anyone eat with a fork and a spoon? Hahaha."

Hahaha indeed—but the joke was on me. This was my first foray into the world of having to explain eating habits that I assumed were universal. The fork's the broom! The spoon's the dustpan! But as my co-worker started calling the attention of other employees to look at me eating with both basic utensils simultaneously, I began to realize how alien and unique the Pilipino eating style is to the mainstream.

And, as we know, it doesn't just stop with the shovel-spoon. There's kamayan, the hand-eating technique employed by most of the developing world, but which has such a codified set of steps in the Pilipino culture that it might as well be considered an art form. But perhaps more defining is our lack of chopsticks.

Since the Detroit murder of Chinese-American man Vincent Chin in 1982 for being mistaken as Japanese, the countless Asian immigrant communities in America have undergone a reactive transformation, a social merger that has proved less polarizing and, quite frankly, beautiful. The decades since have seen the emergence of the term "Pan-Asianism": No longer are we simply Chinese, Koreans, Filipinos, Vietnamese, etc. in the eyes of mainstream America. We can collectively call ourselves Asian-American, and very proudly. It's something that could only have happened in the environment that the United States creates for immigrant groups. Despite differences between countries that are sometime stark and prejudice-inducing back in the Far Eastern mother continent, the world's largest and most diverse demographic has found a united identity in this term.

For better and for worse. Pan-Asianism has introduced a subconscious sharing of relatively small details with origins in individual cultures. Boba, originating in Taiwan, has become an Asian drink. Lucy Liu, Harry Shum Jr and Andrew Yeun aren't just Chinese and Korean actors, they're Asian. It's become vogue (and then not vogue, and then vogue again) to have Asian Fusion food—an amalgamation of the best things about all these culture's taste buds.

And while much can be said about the Filipino's rising image in this as well as mainstream entertainment's milieu—as dope as it is—it's important to remember and appreciate the little things about Pilipino culture that set us apart. The double utensils, the hands, and the chopsticks.

Well, the lack thereof.

Photo credit: Live in the Philippines