The Philippines (and Philippine English) on the BBC

The BBC recently aired an hour-long documentary with the title “World’s Busiest Maternity Ward”. Unsurprisingly, this maternity ward is located in the Philippines, and what I thought was going to be a Midwives-style, life-in-the-delivery-room reality special was in fact an examination of the huge divide between the rich and the poor in the great city of Manila, and the burgeoning middle class poised to close this gap and thus provide a better future for the tens of thousands of new Filipinos born each year.

For those who are in the UK and have access to BBC iPlayer, you can watch the documentary in its entirety here. For everyone else, I do hope this makes it way to Youtube someday soon, but for now here is a short clip.

What is most interesting for me as a linguist is of course the language. It should be noted that the people interviewed by the host Anita Rani in the slums of Tondo, people who represented Manila’s poorest of the poor and could hardly be expected to be highly educated, had a good enough grasp of English to understand Rani’s questions with no translation, and to even answer some of them in perfectly coherent sentences. The documentary also shows just how central the English language is to the socioeconomic advancement of many Filipinos: from the British-accented call center agents working in posh offices in Makati to Junalyn, a young girl from Tondo hoping to get a much dreamed-of job in the local office of a multinational bank. All these people recognized that in order to do well in their chosen careers, they had to speak good English. in Junalyn’s case, the stakes were even higher: she needed a job in Makati to lift her family out of poverty, and doing this required English-language skills.

And of course, the documentary provides the perfect opportunity to hear the Filipino accent for those who are not familiar with it, and to see some very good examples of Philippine English usage. In the clip above is one example. Ana Apruebo, the most senior nurse in the maternity ward of Fabella Hospital, tells a flabbergasted Anita Rani that she has delivered around 200,000 babies in her career. To justify such a mind-boggling number, she says, “Because I’m already here since 1986!” A classic Philippine English construction, where the English adverb already is used as a substitute for the untranslatable Tagalog particle na.

The show even gives a glimpse of the unflappable Filipino spirit. Rani, standing in the middle of the Fabella maternity ward, surrounded by women delivering babies left and right, could not help but comment on the calm, controlled atmosphere in such a high-tension situation. No screaming, no panicking, just matter-of-fact efficiency, “maternity in an industrial scale”.

And as a human-interest story, the documentary can be quite touching in parts. I must admit that by the end, when an overjoyed Junalyn announced that she got the job at the bank, I could feel the tears well up.

What can the first Filipino novel tell us about Tagalog, Spanish and English vocabulary?

Ninay Book Cover

Nine years ago I wrote my undergraduate thesis on Nínay: Costumbres filipinas, the novel considered to be the first to ever be written by a Filipino. I looked at certain characteristics of the novel and argued that it owed a lot to a Spanish literary trend called costumbrismo, which flourished in Spain in the 19th century. Costumbrista literature, which counts such authors as Serafín Estébanez Calderón, Ramón de Mesonero Romanos and Mariano José de Larra among its leading figures, is characterized by satiric, moralizing works full of folkloric detail.

Reading Nínay was not an altogether pleasant experience. Many critics consider the novel a failure as a literary work, and I am inclined to agree with them. This is no Noli Me Tangere or El Filibusterismo: the plot is so convoluted and preposterous it can rival any of our current primetime teleseryes, and its author gave more attention to painting local color than to fleshing out its characters, which were reduced to stereotypes.

In many ways, Nínay can be seen as a European novel. Not only does it follow Spanish costumbrista models, it was written and published in Madrid, in the Spanish language. But Nínay can also be viewed as a quintessentially Filipino novel. It was written by a Filipino (the writer, politician and notorious balimbing Pedro Alejandro Paterno); it has Filipino characters in Filipino settings; it has extensive, minutely detailed, loving descriptions of Filipino places, plants, animals, dress, food, art, language and customs. It has several long footnotes on various aspects of local life, and quotes from 16th to 18th century works on the Philippines, in Spanish and French. It even includes, as an appendix, a lengthy essay on Philippine pre-Hispanic civilization.

Nínay‘s weak, soap-operatic story merely serves as framework for the description of Philippine life and culture of the period. The novel is an exaltation of indigenous traditions, and has the dual objective of documenting native customs threatened by great social change, and of correcting distorted perceptions of the Philippines as an uncivilized, culturally backward colony in the tropics. These objectives are shared by Spanish costumbrista writers, who also lived during a time of social upheaval in Spain, and who saw their country viewed by the rest of the world principally through existing Spanish stereotypes.

I enjoyed writing the thesis more than reading the novel, and for my efforts I got my first journal publication (which is available here), and a shiny medal on graduation day that made me think for the first time that this research thing was something I could actually do.

Years later, I did get into research, but in language and not literature. My main working language shifted back to English from Spanish. It really seemed that I had closed the book on the study of Filhispanic literature, both literally and figuratively. That was what I thought, until I got an invitation to give a paper at the inaugural colloquium of a new research network in Oxford, Translations in Transnational Contexts, which involved scholars working in different aspects of translation that crossed national, geographical, linguistic and cultural boundaries. I saw this as the perfect opportunity to revisit my old friend Nínay, whose namesake novel is a prime example of transnational literature. This time, I was going to look at the novel from a lexical perspective, and see how translating concepts from one culture to another culture’s language aids processes of word formation.

Searching the novel for lexical riches proved to be more rewarding than looking for its literary value. From the very first chapter, Nínay gave me valuable insight on three different kinds of vocabulary. First, there are Spanish words that have made it into the Tagalog lexicon. We all know that a large percentage of Tagalog words (some even say up to 75%) are of Spanish origin, and several of them crop up in the first Filipino novel.

And then there are the Tagalog words that have made it into Spanish vocabulary. We get very excited when we see words of Filipino origin in famous English dictionaries such as the OED and Websters, but what we are less aware of is the fact that the Philippines had made its mark on another language and another dictionary long before any of these English dictionaries even existed: the Diccionario de la lengua española de la Real Academia Española (DRAE). Nínay has a number of words of Tagalog origin that are documented in the DRAE, several of which Paterno himself checked against the 12th edition of 1884 (the first edition came out in 1780).

Dicc RAE 1780

As can be expected, there are the usual borrowings of flora and fauna terms (jusi, nipa, sampaguita, santol, etc.), but there are also some very surprising entries:

1. m. Filip. huracán (‖ viento a modo de torbellino).

(De or. tagalo).
1. adj. Filip. niño (‖ que está en la niñez).
2. m. Filip. Criado joven.

1. m. Filip. Fideo hecho de harina de arroz.

(Del tagalo salakót).
1. m. Sombrero usado en Filipinas y otros países cálidos, en forma de medio elipsoide o de casquete esférico, a veces ceñido a la cabeza con un aro distante de los bordes para dejar circular el aire, y hecho de un tejido de tiras de caña, o de otras materias.

Diccionario de la Real Academia Española, 22nd ed.

And my favorite:
1. m. Vasija filipina hecha con la cáscara interior y durísima del coco.

Diccionario de la Real Academia Española, 22nd ed.

Paterno even uses the verb tabear:

Por varios sitios , á la sombra de los cañaverales, vense grupos juguetones de dalagas de mórbidas formas, sumergiéndose en las ondas, ya levantando espumas con sus pies al nadar, ya formando cascadas al tabearse…

Nínay: Costumbres filipinas, p. 60

This is accompanied by an explanatory footnote on the same page:

Tabear. Verter agua sobre la cabeza con el tabo.
Tabo, m. Vasija filipina hecha con la cáscara interior y durísima del coco. (Dic. de la Acad. Esp., 1884.)

Nínay: Costumbres filipinas, p. 60

And then there is this word, which originated from a Spanish word, was Tagalized, and then made its way back into Spanish:

(Der. tagalo de batea).
1. m. Filip. Especie de terraza o balcón de madera o bambú, sin techo, situado en la trasera de las casas, donde se guardan los útiles de lavar.

Diccionario de la Real Academia Española, 22nd ed.

I also noticed some Spanish words that have undergone semantic change and taken on a new meaning in the Philippines.

Common Spanish meaning:
1. adj. Que abraza.
Filipino meaning:
3. m. Especie de almohada de forma cilíndrica que se usa en Filipinas para dormir con mayor comodidad, y que protege tanto del calor como del frío según la postura que el cuerpo adopte al abrazarse a ella.

(Del part. de caer).
Common Spanish meaning:
1. adj. Desfallecido, amilanado.
Filipino meaning:
19. f. Filip. p. us. Galería interior de las casas de Manila.

Common Spanish meanings:
1. f. Asiento de madera, sin respaldo y a modo de mesa baja.
2. f. Conjunto de entidades que tienen por objeto básico facilitar la financiación de las distintas actividades económicas.
Filipino meaning:
7. f. Embarcación pequeña usada en Filipinas.

Diccionario de la Real Academia Española, 22nd ed.

Finally and more fascinatingly, Nínay also includes Tagalog words that have made into English vocabulary through Spanish. The examples I give here are still used in contemporary Philippine English and are in fact included in the OED:

casco, n.
Etymology: < Spanish casco hull, hulk.
b. A kind of boat used at Manila in lading and unlading ships.

jusi, n.
Pronunciation: /ˈhuːsiː/
Forms: Also husi, jussi.
Etymology: < Spanish jusi, < Tagalog husi.
A delicate fibrous fabric woven in the Philippine Islands.
1851 Illustr. Catal. Great Exhib. iv. 1344/1 Piece of ‘jusi’, and a shawl of ‘jusi’.

sampaguita, n.
Pronunciation: /sæmpəˈɡiːtə/
Etymology: < Filipino Spanish sampaguita, diminutive of Tagalog sampaga Arabian jasmine.
A local name in the Philippines for the Arabian jasmine, Jasminum sambac; the flowers of this tree.
1902 Encycl. Brit. XXXI. 667/1 Valuable essential oils are obtained from the flowers of the ilangilang, sampaguita, and champaca.

Oxford English Dictionary, 3rd ed.

Nínay is particularly interesting for lexical research because of the level of detail the author offers about many of the local terms he employs. This wealth of information not only gives a clear indication of the exact meaning of words, but can also help in dating reciprocal borrowings between Spanish, Tagalog and Philippine English.

Most research now on Filhispanic literature is done from a literary perspective, but we see now that it can also be useful for lexical investigations. In the future, it would be interesting to look at the Tagalog and English translations of Nínay (which came out in 1906 and 1907, respectively) to see how the novel’s depictions of local culture and traditions have been rendered in two such disparate languages. And this also makes me wonder: what can Rizal tell us about the evolution of our vocabulary? How about the other Propagandists? And how about the writers of the Golden Age of Filhispanic Literature: Claro M. Recto, Jesús Balmori, Cecilio Apóstol, Evangelina Guerrero?

This experience also made me realize the value of interdisciplinary research networks. By participating in this colloquium, I learned about, among many other things, the translation of Franco-British military medicine in the 18th century, transcultural architecture in Goa, the politics of translation in Napoleonic France, the translation of Spanish Golden Age Drama into English: topics that I would not have known anything about in my little applied linguistics bubble. It also made me consider my own work from a point of view that I had thought irrelevant, and in so doing led me down a promising new research path.

Nagsampalan, nag-text-an, nag-I love you-han: Reciprocity and code-switching in Tagalog

Full disclosure: I am a big fan of Be Careful with My Heart. I started watching the show when I was in Manila in January, and I brought the habit back with me to Oxford. The television shows I watch usually involve terrorists, drug dealers and serial killers, so this show is a welcome break from all of that darkness and violence. There is something about it that is just so Filipino, so innocent and so fun; I find it really engaging.

The show dropped a bombshell this Friday when the preview for Monday showed the lead characters finally saying those three magic words to each other.

As can be expected, this set off a huge fan reaction. My mother weighed in with a rant:

Ano ba yan! Nagulat ako kanina biglang nagsigawan ang mga kapitbahay! Akala ko kung ano na nangyari, yun pala nag-I love you-han lang sina Maya at Ser Chief!

The excitement wasn’t limited to my neighborhood; Twitter and Facebook were abuzz with anticipation. Here’s a Facebook commenter’s take:

Naku! Nakakakilig talaga ang I love you-han nila!

Quite apart from what they are about (which is awesome, I’m counting the minutes until Monday), these comments are fascinating in that they feature these constructions:

nag-I love you-han

I love you-han

These words perfectly show just how code-switching to English works in Tagalog, and how English words (in this case, a whole English phrase) are accommodated within the morphosyntactic framework of Tagalog.

In Tagalog, the mag/nag-…-han morphemes serve as markers of reciprocity, meaning that the participants in an action have the dual role of patient and agent with respect to each other:

Nagsampalan at nagsabunutan sina Celine at Margaux.

Many languages have special grammatical markers to indicate reciprocity. Spanish, for example, uses the reflexive pronoun se to signal a reciprocal action:

Celine y Margaux se pegaron y se tiraron del pelo.

English does not have a special marker of reciprocity, and thus makes use of phrases such as each other and one another to express this meaning:

Celine and Margaux slapped each other in the face and pulled one another’s hair.

Tagalog, in contrast, has not one but multiple ways of morphologically conveying reciprocity, as shown by the following sentences:

Hindi ko siya papansinin kahit magsalubong kami sa daan.
I won’t pay attention to him even if we bump into each other on the street.

Halos magkatulakan kami sa hagdan sa sobrang pagmamadali.
We almost pushed each other down the stairs in our haste.

Pinaglalapit yata tayo ng tadhana.
Destiny may be bringing us closer to each other.

Itay, hindi ninyo kami mapaglalayo! Nagmamahalan kami!
Father, you cannot keep us apart! We love each other!

This particular characteristic of Tagalog results in an economy of expression that is difficult to achieve in English:

Nagdemandahan ang dalawang artista.
The two actors each filed a court case against the other.

Some linguists believe that code-switching is only possible with free morphemes, but Tagalog-English code-switching proves this false with the frequent affixation of English words with Tagalog bound morphemes, including the mag/nag-…-han reciprocity markers:

Anong oras ka ba darating mamaya?
Di pa ko sure, mag-text-an na lang tayo.
What time are you arriving later?
I’m not yet sure, let’s just text each other.

Nood tayo ng sine mamaya, ang tagal na nating hindi nakakapagbondingan.
Let’s go to the movies later, it’s been a while since we last spent time with each other.

And as can be seen from our first examples, even whole English sentences can be transformed into Tagalog verbs through morphological affixation. They can also be nominalized, reduplicated, and basically be made to do what any other Tagalog verb can do.

Narinig mo ba ang tsismis? Nag-I love you-han na daw sina Ser Chief at Maya!

Mag-I-I-love you-han na ba talaga sila o baka panaginip lang?

Excited na akong mapanood ang i love you-han nila!

Sasabihin mo saking hindi mo boyfriend yan eh I love you-han na kayo nang I love you-han sa text! (I actually heard somebody say this a few years back)

Magsitigil nga kayo. May I love you-han I love you-han pa kayong nalalaman!

As creatively delightful as these constructions are, they also bring up a big spelling issue, which is, to put it simply: how on earth do you spell them? Do you use hyphens? Do you just squash all constituents together? Do you keep the English spelling? Do you transform everything to Tagalog? I chose to write nag-I love you-han for the purposes of this post, to make each element distinguishable, but I could easily have written it any of the following ways:

nag-i love you-han

It’s quite confusing now, but I’m sure we’ll figure out, the same way we figured out similar constructions from a much older colonial language:


In the meantime, let’s enjoy tomorrow’s I love you-han. I don’t know about you, but I’m setting my alarm at 7 am.

Video source: ABS-CBN News YouTube Channel


As someone with a lifelong fascination with words, I feel fortunate for two things. First, that I was born in the Philippines, a country whose rich indigenous heritage and colorful colonial past are reflected in the multiplicity of its languages. I grew up in a society where multilingualism is a way of life, and this has given me a profound appreciation for cultural and linguistic diversity, as well as a wider perspective on how different languages work.

All this has served me well in my career as an applied linguist, a career that has led me to specialize in lexicography—the science of dictionary making—and eventually to a postdoctoral position at Oxford University. And this job is the other thing I feel lucky to have, as it enables me to actually make a living out of doing something I feel passionate about: studying English words and how Filipinos use them.

As a research fellow in lexicography, my work involves the identification and analysis of words that characterize the Philippine variety of English. I am a member of the English Faculty and of Hertford College, but I also do part of my research at the dictionary section of Oxford University Press (OUP), one of the world’s leading publishers of English dictionaries, and home of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), a historical dictionary widely considered to be the foremost authority on the English language.

Another important dimension of my research project is the study of how Philippine English is represented in the OED. At OUP, I use Oxford Dictionaries’ tools and databases to investigate words and meanings of Philippine origin that are not yet in the OED, so that those that meet the dictionary’s selection criteria may be considered for inclusion. In addition, I analyze existing OED entries in order to trace the historical evolution of Philippine English words. Working at Oxford Dictionaries also gives me the opportunity to observe the practical realities of such a huge lexicographical endeavor as the OED, at a very interesting point in its history, as the dictionary is currently undergoing its first comprehensive revision since it first saw print in 1884.

I achieve my research results through the usual linguistic methods: analyzing digital language corpora, reading Philippine literature in English, consulting paper and online regional dictionaries and previous surveys of the Philippine English lexicon. However, a brief visit to the Philippines early this year made me realize the potential of another research source: the Filipino people themselves. Like most human beings, Pinoys love to talk about the way they talk. After a Rappler feature on my OED work, I received not only a very positive response, but also a lot of very useful suggestions from Filipinos who had read it. This reaction should not have surprised me—after all, the OED would not be the dictionary it is today if not for the contributions of the British public throughout the years. This blog is a way for me to tap an immensely valuable resource and include public input in my research. This blog’s comments section will always be open to your polite suggestions.

Multilingualism enriches a culture, but it also gives rise to a number of very thorny issues. Questions of national and regional identity, educational policy, language politics: all these have hounded us since the very early days of the Filipino nation. What really is a national language? What language should we use to educate our children? In which language should Filipino literature be written? Is English really ours now, or are we still borrowing it from the Americans? There are no simple, black-and-white answers to these questions, but that is all the more reason for us to engage in intelligent discussion about them, and this blog aims to be a venue for such discussion.

I will also be writing about words I am working on, articles I am writing, and books I am reading. You can expect posts about the OED, and my work at Oxford University, as well as interesting articles on dictionaries, languages and linguistics. But most of all, I will be sharing my thoughts on Pinoys and their words.