The Filipino Language, Part 1: Existing Filipino Language is still Tagalog

This post is about the Filipino language of the Philippines. There are still a lot of people who do not know the difference or similarity between Tagalog and Filipino, who insist that Filipino exists already as an independent language from Tagalog. I say that’s a hat trick and more like an illusion.


Perhaps a little bit of history will remind us the evolution of the basis of the Philippine national language. I will be relying heavily on the book “Language and language-in-education planning in the Pacific Basin”  by Robert B. Kaplan and Richard B. Baldauf (2003) for most of the details in this short history.

1. On May 17, 1935, the 1935 Constitution was ratified, which stated in Section 3 that “The Congress shall take steps toward the development and adoption of a common national language based on one of the existing native languages. Until otherwise provided by law, English and Spanish shall continue as official languages.”.

Why did the then 1935 constitution mandated a national language based on one existing language, when the Philippines has several major languages at that time? Professional linguists of that period were divided into 2 camps: (a) the fusionist camp proposing that the various languages could be fused into a single national language, and (b) the Tagalog camp, proposing that Tagalog alone should be the national language. (Kaplan and Bildauf, p.69).

The basing of the national language on one language was something that a Tagalog President slyly orchestrated by urging changes to the draft Constitution, which originally had the following drafts in the Laurel Proceedings of the Constitution Convention kept at the Laurel Foundation Library, as Agcaoli wrote:

1st draft:  Article XIII, Sec. 2: "A national language being necessary to strengthen the solidarity of the Nation, the National Assembly shall take steps looking to the development and adoption of a language common to all the people on the basis of the existing native languages."

2nd draft:  Article XIII, Sec. 2.a: "The National Assembly shall take steps toward the development and adoption of a common national language based on the existing native languages, and until otherwise provided by law, English and Spanish be the official languages."

3rd draft: no revision.

4th draft: Article XIII, Sec. 3: "The National Assembly shall take steps toward the development and adoption of a common national language based on one of the existing native languages. Until otherwise provided by law, English and Spanish shall continue as official languages."

Andrew Gonzalez, as quoted from Agcaoli based from Aruego’s 1936 account,”The Framing of the Philippine Constitution”, wrote:

The clamor for a national language as a symbol of solidarity and unity received official recognition during the 1934-1935 Constitutional Convention. The Committee on Official Language presented a proposal which went through three drafts, in essence mandating the search for a common national language based on the existing Philippine languages. The committee on style, under Quezon’s prodding, made a substantial alteration by stipulating that the common national language be based on one language rather than on many" (Language and Nationalism, 1980: 24).

The Committee on Official Language of the Convention “differentiated between an official language (the language of government) and a national language (the language of the people in their daily lives and in their dealings with each other). The committee stated that the time was not ripe for the selection of a national language.” (ibid, p.69). The committee proposed that (a) English shall be the official language, (b) Spanish shall be official until 1940, (c) The legislature shall create a permanent academy that will study Philippine languages to adopt and develop a national language, and (d) The national language once approved will be co-official with English. (ibid, p.69). These were the recommendations that underwent debate and revision and eventually became the source of the 1st draft above. The 4th version, “survived” its critics in spite of the un-stylistic liberties taken by the Special Committee on Style. “It was widely understood that the ‘one language’ was to be Tagalog.” (ibid, p.70).

On the surface, this Constitution looks fine. Tagalog was not adopted as the national language, it was just used as the one, single basis of the national language. It could be said that this is the reason why, from its infancy, the national language is identical with Tagalog. The national language has to start from something already existing, and its origin is Tagalog. As it were, any basis will do, as Tagalog and Sugbuhanon have very minor advantages over each other in terms of suitability as a national language, as both really are under-developed and poor languages in terms of modern lexicon, and the same can be said of the rest of the other languages too. None of these languages have served as a national language in the past, equipped with all the necessary technological, legal and scientific vocabulary. Essentially, what they will develop is not Tagalog, but the national language. It is implied of course that as the national language develops, it will diverge from Tagalog, and a fully developed, mature national language will not be Tagalog or identical to it or mutually intelligible to it. Well, at least that is how it sounded, but the reality was different. It was all a hat trick. It will be Tagalog that will be standardized and elaborated.

2. On November 13, 1936, the National Language Law or Commonwealth Act no. 184 established the National Language Institute (NLI) to specifically choose which of the local languages will be the basis of the national language. Its duties include (a) undertaking descriptive analysis of each of the chief languages spoken by at least half a million persons, (b) compiling a comparative list of cognates, (c) undertaking phonemic analysis to develop a uniform standard spelling system, (d) undertaking a comparative morphological study, and (e) selecting the national language, preparing its dictionary and grammar, and enriching the language with lexis from other Philippine languages, English and Spanish (ibid, p.70). Represented in the NLI were the languages Tagalog, Sugbuhanon, Ilokano, Hiligaynon, Bikol, Waraywaray, Kapampangan, Pangasinan, Maranao-Magindanao.

3. On December 30, 1937, then President Manuel Quezon issued Executive Order No. 134 adopting Tagalog from December 30, 1939  onwards as the basis of the national language after recommendation by the institute. “Now, therefore, be it resolved, as it is hereby resolved, that the Institute of National Language in harmony and in compliance with section 7 of Commonwealth Act No. 184, select as it hereby selects the Tagalog language to be used as the basis for the evolution and adoption of the national language of the Philippines;….Now, therefore, I, Manuel L. Quezon, President of the Philippines, by virtue of the powers vested in me by law, pursuant to the provisions of section seven of Commonwealth Act Numbered One hundred eighty-four, and upon the recommendation of the Institute of National Language set forth in the resolution above transcribed, do hereby approve the adoption of Tagalog as the basis of the national language of the Philippines, and hereby declare and proclaim the national language so based on the Tagalog dialect, as the national language of the Philippines.

There is a little phrase here which might shed a light on the ensuing and continuing debate and confusion on the national language issue, the phrase “Tagalog dialect”. I have encountered Filipinos whose thinking can be distilled more or less as follows: “a dialect is any speech that is local or region-wide, a language is a speech that is national or country-wide”. This is common in all ethno-linguistic groups but what is incorrect about this thinking is that this is used to support the insidious idea that there’s this one speech which is called Tagalog if we are referring to the dialect spoken in Southern Luzon, and is called Filipino if we are referring to the language spoken nationwide. In other words, the distinction between Tagalog and Filipino is their official geographic scope: Filipino is spoken and understood nationally, Tagalog is spoken and understood regionally, yet they are and should be one and the same speech in terms of intelligibility. This popular misconceived Tagalog/Filipino distinction is rampant among the Tagalogs. This misconception is the Trojan horse used to steal Tagalog into the national identity and resented by other ethno-linguistic groups.

When the Institute of National Language finally chose Tagalog as basis of the national language, the reasons were included in Manuel Quezon’s Executive Order No 134. The reasons for choosing Tagalog were that Tagalog is:

a. The one that most nearly fulfils the requirements of Commonwealth Act No. 184. This is the act establishing the Institute of National Language. So it seems that this act laid out certain requirements for the national language. Unfortunately, I can’t find a copy of this in the internet, so can’t comment on it’s supposed contents.

b. Used and accepted by the greatest number of Filipinos. Census shows the speakers as follow:


1939 Census






























































Note: The percentages of 1939 was taken using the total population of 1939.

Although Tagalog has the biggest number of speakers at 4.1 million in 1939, Bisayans (Sugbuhanon, Hiligaynon, Waray) have 6.5 million speakers. The reason for counting Bisayan languages together as one is that they have higher level of intelligibility among themselves, than between one Bisayan language and Tagalog or Ilokano. This closeness of the major Bisayan languages is due to their main differences being lexical/phonological and quite minor grammatical differences. So, if one of the Bisayan languages get chosen as the national languages, it will be easier to use and accept by the greater number of Filipinos. Also, by 1960 census, Cebuano has more speakers than Tagalog.

c. Represents not only the conviction of the members of the Institute but also the opinion of Filipino scholars and patriots of divergent origin and varied education and tendencies. Again, this one is debatable. This reason actually never specify whether this conviction is unanimous or a majority. There is actually proof that during those times, there are other organizations that does not endorse Tagalog as the national language, like Sanghiran san Binisaya (1909), Giming Dagati Umiiloko (1927) and others. (ibid, p.81) but a fusionist view is the more popular one. And even if there would be supporters of Tagalog among the non-Tagalog speakers, that does not support this reason at all, for surely, there are Tagalogs with fusionist views as well.

Besides, is there really a documentary basis for this reason produced by the NLI listing Filipino scholars and patriots, signed by them, that shows (1) scholars from various regions, (2) agreeing that the national language is to be based on one language, and (3) favouring Tagalog as that one language? Hardly. It should be remembered that Manuel Quezon is a Tagalog, and the one who prodded the 1935 Constitution stylists to change the basis of the national language from many to one.

d. Accepted by local newspapers, publications, and individual writers.  Accepted where locally? I think this is hard to substantiate, given that there is a strong resistance from non-Tagalog areas for Tagalog even then. Again, where is this list showing that in Cebu, Iloilo, Tacloban, Zamboanga, Davao, Naga, San Fernando, Dagupan and Vigan, the publishing industry there where they exist accept Tagalog? Unless they are referring only to Manila-based publishing industry, which we all know dominate the publishing industry then as the most populous city and with the largest readership. Although Manila has the largest share in the publishing industry, does it really matter, as penetration level of Tagalog outside where it is spoken is miniscule then, and these publications serve only Tagalog speakers? There were a lot of regional papers then, and its Spanish and English that have countrywide readership. A publication cannot actually be divorced from its readership.

4. On June 7, 1940, Commonwealth Act 570 declared “Filipino National Language” as one of the official languages of the Philippines, alongside English and Spanish, effective July 4, 1946, when the Philippines is to be granted independence by USA. The term Filipino in conjunction with “national language” is used here as an adjective, not as a noun that can stand alone in itself and refer to the national language. The national language is yet to be christened as Filipino in later years. Although called Filipino, its to be understood to mean Tagalog, as the next two events show.

5. On September 4, 1943, The Japanese-imposed Constitution stated in “Section 2. The government shall take steps toward the development and propagation of Tagalog as the national language.”

With the Japanese occupation, Nihonggo became one of the official languages together with Tagalog. This is the lowest point in the history of the national language, for this Constitution unambiguously stated that Tagalog is the national language, in opposition to the earlier and later Constitutions. The Japanese themselves see the national language policy for what it is, as actually Tagalog and had done away with the political correctness. They don’t have to, being the occupiers and in reality, the distinction between Tagalog and the yet-to-be-named national language is non-existent, and continued the imposition of Tagalog on non-Tagalogs.

6. On  August 13, 1959 through Department Order No. 7, the national language was officially designated Pilipino by Jose E. Romero, the education secretary. This is to dissociate it from its regional origin (Tagalog) and give it a national character. Before, the national language has no name of its own. It was referred to indirectly as the national language. Unfortunately, following Shakespeare’s "What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.", the National language would still be Tagalog since the grammar is Tagalog however its called. As long as its basis is solely Tagalog in terms of grammar, it’s still thought of as Tagalog and confused with it. We can say that the effort of the government to unify the entire archipelago as one nation will never be achieve as long as this historical misdeed oppressing other ethno-linguistic groups is never redressed.

This Department order was also instrumental in making Pilipino (Tagalog) the medium of Instruction from grades 1-4. Previously, Tagalog was never taught as a medium of instruction.

a. on June 19, 1940, the Secretary of Public Instruction through Department Order No 1 ruled teaching the national language in all schools in the Philippines (ibid, p. 70).

b. Under the Japanese rule in 1942, the NLI was re-assigned to report to the Department of Education rather than the Office of the President.

c. On January 8, 1944, the Institute for the Teaching of the Filipino language was opened in the Philippine Normal School, with Tagalog to be taught in both private and public schools, colleges and universities. From 1946, Tagalog was taught on all grades (1-12) as a subject. (ibid, p.72)

With the use of Tagalog as a medium of instruction, the migration of non-Tagalogs to Manila and environs, and the use by the mass media (press, comics, radio, cinema, TV, etc.) of Tagalog, the percentage of Tagalog native speakers jumped from 21% in 1960 to 28% in 1990. (ibid, p. 73). I would say that the major contributor to the increase in Tagalog population was the migration to Manila, due to the very low priority given to provincial development by the national government. To slow this process, there is clamour for federalisation of the Philippines from among the provinces.  

7. In January 17, 1973, the 1973 Constitution was ratified. It states in Section 3. (2) to (3):

    Section 3.

    (1) This Constitution shall be officially promulgated in English and in Pilipino, and translated into each dialect spoken by over fifty thousand people, and into Spanish and Arabic. In case of conflict, the English text shall prevail.

      (2) The National Assembly shall take steps towards the development and formal adoption of a common national language to be known as Filipino.

      (3) Until otherwise provided by law, English and Pilipino shall be the official languages.

What is little know about the Constitution Convention that crafted this Constitution was that it fell apart on language issues in April 1971, when the convention broke into pandemonium after the first Tagalog speech was followed by speeches in other native languages. Also, there are 3 camps with different views on the language: (a) the fusionist view based on theory of language convergence, (b) a universal view based on common features found in most of the languages, and (c) an anti-purist view based on Tagalog (ibid, p.74). Eventually, on September 1, 1971, English will be used as the language of the Constitution, a move by non-Tagalogs who still resent the choosing of Tagalog as the national language. The voting was 165 (non-Tagalogs mostly) to 101 (Tagalogs mostly) and 49 absent and 1 abstain. (ibid, p.74)

Although the Constitution will be officially promulgated in Pilipino (Tagalog), the English version prevails over the Tagalog version. This affords no advantage by Tagalog over other Philippine languages with over 50K speakers, as they will also have the Constitution in their languages. Not only that, this Constitution introduced another idea, that there are two languages, Pilipino, an official language, and Filipino, an unofficial yet common national language to be developed and adopted in the future, and implying that Pilipino/Tagalog will be phased out. This mark the first defeat for the use of Pilipino/Tagalog as the national language.

Another distinctive idea here is that the dialect/language distinction has resurfaced again. We can see that all the non-national languages are still called dialects. I have a suspicion that calling them languages will imply plurality of nations in the Philippines, whereas the Philippines is supposed to be building just one single nation, with one national language.

8. On January 30, 1987, Executive Order 117 renamed Institute of National Language as Institute of Philippine Languages. On May 27, 1987, the guideline for implementing Bilingual education in Tagalog and English was issued.

9. In February 2, 1987, the 1987 Constitution was ratified, stating that Filipino is the national language. It states, from Section 6 to 9:

Section 6. The national language of the Philippines is Filipino. As it evolves, it shall be further developed and enriched on the basis of existing Philippine and other languages. Subject to provisions of law and as the Congress may deem appropriate, the Government shall take steps to initiate and sustain the use of Filipino as a medium of official communication and as language of instruction in the educational system.

Section 7. For purposes of communication and instruction, the official languages of the Philippines are Filipino and, until otherwise provided by law, English. The regional languages are the auxiliary official languages in the regions and shall serve as auxiliary media of instruction therein. Spanish and Arabic shall be promoted on a voluntary and optional basis.

Section 8. This Constitution shall be promulgated in Filipino and English and shall be translated into major regional languages, Arabic, and Spanish.

Section 9. The Congress shall establish a national language commission composed of representatives of various regions and disciplines which shall undertake, coordinate, and promote researches for the development, propagation, and preservation of Filipino and other languages.

Since this Constitution supersedes the other previous constitution, it now appoints an under-developed Filipino language as the official national language that needs further enrichment and development. It extends such basis to “existing Philippine and other languages”, by “other languages” of course it means languages not indigenous to the Philippines. The language Pilipino (Tagalog) is also dropped from this Constitution. The regional languages are also official languages, but auxiliary official regional languages. They are not co-official languages in their regions or languages with identical official status, only subsidiary official status thus lesser in importance even in their own regions. How is that for making them second class even in their own hometown! 

This constitution expressly states that Filipino is the official national language, and also hints that in the future, English might be dropped as an official language. The predominance of English in the courts, print media, theatre, business, and government and the non-translation to Filipino of Spanish and English laws means that this will not happen soon. Personally, I would like to see English demoted from being an official language and simultaneously seriously implement a real many languages based Filipino. And if the Philippines is economically and politically sensible, any status given to English should be extended to not just the languages of long-time colonial masters (English and Spanish) but languages of up-and-coming nations and relevant nations as well, like Mandarin, Hindi, Portuguese, Arabic, Malay, Japanese, French and German. All these foreign languages (10 all in all) should have the same treatment like what Spanish and Arabic is getting now.

Being a general law, the Constitution does not specify the details of how Filipino is to be enriched or developed, like whether the vocabulary is the only one to the enriched, or the grammar as well is to be enriched. This is up to the national language commission.

9. On August 14, 1991, Republic Act 7104 created the Commission on the Filipino Language or Komisyon sa Wikang Filipino (KWF), with some of its duties as follow:

“(a) Formulate policies, plans and programs to ensure the further development, enrichment, propagation and preservation of Filipino and other   Philippine language; (b) Promulgate rules, regulations and guidelines to implement its policies, plans and programs; (c) Undertake or contract research and other studies to promote the evolution, development, enrichment and eventual standardization of Filipino and other Philippine languages. This will include the collation of works for possible incorporation into a multi-lingual dictionary of words, phrases, idioms, quotations, sayings and other expressions, including words and phrases from other languages now commonly used or included in the lingua franca; (d) Propose guidelines and standards for linguistic forms and expressions in all official communications, publications, textbooks and other reading and teaching materials;(e) Encourage and promote, through a system of incentives, grants and awards, the writing and publication, in Filipino and other Philippine languages, of original works, including textbooks and reference materials in various disciplines; (f) Create and maintain within the Commission a division of transaction which shall encourage through incentives, undertake and vigorously support the translation into Filipino and other Philippine languages of important historical works and cultural traditions of ethno-linguistic groups, laws, resolutions and other legislative enactments, executive issuances, government policy statements and official documents, textbooks and reference materials in various disciplines and other foreign materials which it may deem necessary for education and other purposes;”

10. On May 13, 1992, the commission passed Resolution No. 92-1, which described what Filipino is:


IPINAPASYA, GAYA NG GINAGAWANG PAGPAPASYA NGAYON, na sa layuning maisakatuparan ng Komisyon sa Wikang Filipino ang mga tungkulin nito, ang batayang deskripsyon ng Filipino ay ganito:

Ito ay ang katutubong wika, pasalita at pasulat, sa Metro Manila, ang Pambansang Punong Rehiyon, at sa iba pang sentrong urban sa arkipelago, na ginagamit bilang wika ng komunikasyon ng mga etnikong grupo. Katulad ng alinmang wikang buhay, ang Filipino ay dumaraan sa proseso ng paglinang sa pamamagitan ng mga panghihiram sa mga wika ng Pilipinas at mga di-katutubong wika at sa ebolusyon ng iba’t ibang baryedad ng wika para sa iba-ibang sitwasyong sosyal, sa mga nagsasalita nito na may iba’t ibang sanligang sosyal, at para sa mga paksa ng talakayan at matalisik na pagpapahayag.

In the 1987 Constitution crafted by lawmakers and ratified by all Filipino people, its based on existing Philippine languages. But in this Resolution of the KWF prepared by a few, they are continuing the use of Pilipino which is based on Tagalog. In this resolution, they have expressly stated that the basis of the national language is the indigenous language in Metro Manila and other urban centres in the archipelago used for communication by native Filipinos. They actually did not develop a new language enriched from the many languages of the Philippines but instead chosen whatever is the existing language of communication between the urban centres. They are in effect continuing the status quo, that of Tagalog persisting as the national language. This is a very crafty way to re-assert Tagalog again as its not possible anymore to do this in the Constitution. This means that the next battleground in the national language debate will be in the KWF!

The national language issue in the Philippines is actually still unresolved. What is meant by “based on”? Does it mean that the grammar is identical with that language, or just limited to lexis? If Filipino will continue to be “Tagalog-based”, meaning that it has Tagalog grammar and substantially Tagalog vocabulary with borrowings from Philippine and other languages, that is unconstitutional and pulls back all the advances gained through these years by other language groups in gaining recognition of their identity in the Constitution.

3 Responses to “The Filipino Language, Part 1: Existing Filipino Language is still Tagalog”

  1. Firth Says:

    Your blog is amazing. The article above is exactly what I’m writing about at the moment. you are very articulate, thorough, and logical, which I wish were universal but unfortunately hard to come by. P.S. I also can’t find a copy of Commonwealth Act 184 unfortunately…

    • vagabonddrifter Says:

      Thanks a lot. There is actually a second part to this article, but I just had no time to complete it. Cheers!

  2. Anonymous Says:

    Mabuhay ka, Isa po akong mag-aaral ng Edukasyon Mejor ng Filipino sa Pamantasang Normal ng Pilipinas na siyang sentro ng kahusayan sa Wikang Filipino sa kasalukuyan..

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