Filipino, the language that is not one

Filipino is the national language that seeks to become more than a native tongue and aspires to become the nation’s official speech. It is contaminated and compromised from the start by the very languages it seeks to exclude or subordinate.

Vicente L. Rafael
Published 3:30 PM, August 21, 2015

First of two parts

The ghost month of August is also celebrated as “Buwan ng Wika.” It is dedicated to propagating the national language, Filipino, at a time when there has been on-going debate as to its future in the curriculum of higher education, thanks to the reforms being contemplated by the Commission on Higher Education (CHED).

Those who teach and advocate the wider use of Filipino see CHED as threatening its place with the current proposals to abolish its teaching as a language at the university level in the coming years. Instead, universities would be left to decide which courses would be in Filipino and which in English.

Claiming that without proper protections, Filipino will not be able to match the sway of English among students and fearing the loss of their jobs, teachers of Filipino have been fierce in their opposition to such proposals.

To clarify the stakes in this current debate, we might begin by inquiring about the nature of Filipino itself.

What kind of a language is it? What is the ideology and politics of its development? And how is its emergence linked to European colonial and romantic ideas about the power of the nation-state to order, in all sense of that word, linguistic and cultural differences? To answer these questions, we can turn to the highly instructive document, “Frequently Asked Questions on Filipino,” issued by the Komisyon sa Wikang Pambansa (Commission on National Language).

Filipino, according to the Komisyon, is not one language but two. It is both a national and – because based on Tagalog—a native language.

However, Filipino also seeks to differentiate itself from its origins in Tagalog. It begins by substituting “Filipino” for “Pilipino,” using the letter “f” found in other vernaculars in order to distance itself from Tagalog that has only the letter “p.”

Furthermore, by contrast to the plurality of Tagalog “dialects,” the Komisyon insists that there ought to be only one Filipino: that which has been standardized by the Surian’s offices and prescribed in schools. It’s as if Filipino can become truly national only when it has definitively subordinated the many Tagalogs to the one Filipino. Becoming national thus entails that Filipino establish itself on top of Tagalog, translating the latter into an instrument with which to achieve a trans-local reach as the language not of one group but of everyone in the archipelago.

Preservation of vernaculars

And what of the many other vernaculars throughout the archipelago?

As with Tagalog, so too with other native tongues. The Komisyon calls for their preservation and use as “auxiliary languages” in the learning of Filipino and in the enhancement of its national reach. Such a call implies two things. First, that native languages are in danger of disappearing or, at the very least, falling into obscurity. For this reason, they are in need of protection. Second, that as the language learned from birth, they should be pressed into serving as assistants in the apprehension of Filipino. The mother tongues are meant to nurture the growth of the national language itself.

Vernaculars, from the perspective of the Komisyon, take on a dual and somewhat contradictory aspect. They are both essential and supplementary – indeed, as endangered as they are robust. Like mothers, they are expected to take care of the speech of the young—students from K-3rd grades, for example, who, since 2012, have been taught first in their mother tongues before being taught Filipino and English.

But just as one grows up to leave one’s mother, students are supposed to mature to the point of being able to leave behind those very mother tongues. At once indispensible and disposable, native tongues exist once again in the service of the national, supporting it to the extent that they are subordinate to it.

As one of the mother tongues, Tagalog is meant to share the same fate as the other vernaculars. Insofar as Filipino grows out of Tagalog, the Komisyon claims that Tagalog is naturally superior to other vernaculars. It cites the authority of various American authors, who, harking back to early Spanish missionaries, point to Tagalog as the most “refined” and “intellectually developed” of the vernaculars.

Hence, while the Komisyon claims that there exists a natural kinship among all Philippine languages, thereby making each readily familiar and easy to learn, this family relationship is also an unequal one. Just as the national language rules over its native origin, so is Tagalog situated as first among its linguistic siblings. And it does so based on what non-Tagalogs and non-Filipinos have said about it.

Hierarchy of languages

This hierarchy of languages that privileges Tagalog over other vernaculars is further buttressed by another key distinction that the Komisyon makes: that between native and foreign languages. Native languages are those that are natural to their speakers: they grow up speaking it as a first language, learned presumably from their mothers or someone who assumes that role.

Foreign languages are those that come from the outside, spoken by non-natives. English and the varieties of Chinese languages fall into this latter category. According to the Komisyon, foreign languages will always remain foreign. They cannot and do not grow naturally on Philippine soil. They thus exist as unassimilable languages, beyond naturalization and localization. Wholly distinct from all the mother tongues, they can, at best, be step-mother tongues. They can never aspire to become a national language.

By essentializing the place of English and Chinese languages as irreducibly alien and outside the nation, the Komisyon thus disavows the plain fact that both languages are spoken by sizeable numbers of people as either their first language at home, or as a lingua franca across ethno-linguistic divides. Just as vernacular languages are mother tongues that naturally belong to the national language as their essential supplements, so foreign languages can only be alien impositions that intrude and disrupt the family romance among languages.

Harking back to German idealist notions that conceive of the national language as the very spirit that animates national culture, the Komisyon holds that Filipino leading the mother tongues will ensure the life of the nation. Such a task becomes all the more imperative in the face of the threat posed by foreign languages – French in the case of a Germany under Napoleonic occupation, English in the case of the Philippines still under the American colonial shadow.

External to the nation, foreign languages from the perspective of romantic nationalism, can only spell the death of national culture. Such views have been espoused by writers as diverse as Fichte and Cabral, Jose Rizal and Renato Constantino. Subordinating the mother tongues while overcoming foreign languages is the manner by which Filipino underwrites what the Komisyon regards to be the cultural vitality of the nation-state.

It’s not too hard to see how this linguistic nationalism continues the legacy of colonial ideology, which tends to map linguistic hierarchy onto social hierarchy.

We can further see this continuity in the role of the State, especially in the area of education. While Filipino has long assumed the status of a national language, it has also long aspired to become the sole official language. Such aspirations have been constrained by English, which continues to be the dominant language of the State, as sanctioned by the Constitution. The English-using State thus comes across as an alien presence when addressing the nation conceived in Filipino-Tagalog terms. This linguistic divide echoes a long history of conflict between the State – a colonial innovation introduced by the Spaniards–and the nation–a belated development that emerged in and through the contradictions of colonial governance by the late nineteenth century.

Filipino as the putatively authentic language of the nation seeks to defend the latter from the abuses, imagined or real, of the English-speaking State deeded directly by the American colonial regime.

However, the Filipino-speaking nation also needs the English-speaking State to fund its programs and schools, provide teachers’ salaries and pensions, set rules and curricula for its students. Without the State, the nation would be without the institutional resources it needs to survive amid a welter of social pressures and ethnic differences. Just as English during the American period excluded Spanish to become hegemonic over other languages in the Philippines, so, too, does Filipino in the post-war Republic now seek to displace English.

Gradualist approach

This change, however, is seen to happen gradually, sometime in the future, once Filipino is deemed ready to take over English. Such a gradualist approach echoes the politics of independence under US rule when Filipinos were promised eventual sovereignty once the US judged them capable of governing themselves.

Filipino’s ability to replace English as the official language is hence subject to constant delay and deferral. A staple contention of the Komisyon is that Filipino is still a language in development. It is yet to be fully “intellectualized” and is still not quite capable of serving as an adequate language for conveying knowledge derived from the West. Where Filipino is concerned, the task of translation is forever beginning. As such, advocates of Filipino are acutely conscious of its position as not being quite equal to, and not being as modern as, English.

Structurally subordinate to English, Filipino is seen by its proponents to be always already vulnerable to attack and diminution. It requires protection and nourishment both from the nation’s mother tongues and from the State. At the same time, it is always on the verge of being betrayed by both. The mother tongues grumble and threaten to rebel against the so-called impositions of imperial Filipino. The State, for its part, continues to insist on the use of English for addressing the world and its own population. Despite the President’s use of the national language in his addresses, Ingleseros in the State and among elites, along with a growing horde of Fil-Am and Fil-foreign scholars and returnees, are seen to threaten the place of Filipino in schools and society.

Filipino thus occupies an ambiguous position, perhaps analogous to many other vernacularly-based national languages around the world.

It is the first among vernaculars even as it is rendered subordinate and intellectually beneath the other official language, English. It is the language of the nation that remains dependent upon, yet resistant to, the State. It seeks to protect the imagined integrity of a national culture that is at the same time infiltrated by, and infused with, a dizzying array of foreign borrowings, traversed by a history of colonial occupations and, more recently, the forces of globalization.

Filipino is the national language that seeks to become more than a native tongue and aspires to become – even as it chronically fails – the nation’s official speech. It is thus itself only by becoming other, asserting (even as it seeks to transcend) its given condition. It is contaminated and compromised from the start by the very languages it seeks to exclude or subordinate: the foreign and the vernacular.

Filipino bases its authority on its claim to serve as the authentic and democratic medium for conveying the sentiments of the nation and unifying its disparate parts. The strength of this claim, however, is also its weakness. Its authority, based on the claim of authenticity, also means that it thrives on the pathos of colonial victimization and nationalist injury characteristic of romantic ideology.

Contradictions of Filipino

Like the nation, Filipino is often regarded as oppressed and vulnerable to attack by foreign interests and languages. Its self-confessed intellectual unpreparedness requires constant support, while its institutional marginalization triggers dissent.

Holding out the promise of bringing about a more just and unified nation, proponents of Filipino decry the betrayals of elites and unjust treatment in the hands of the English-using State and its universities. At the same time, it seeks to consolidate, in the face of linguistic pluralism, a linguistic hierarchy and, in the midst of cosmopolitan globalization, a nativist exceptionalism.

As I pointed out earlier, the pattern of enforcing a hierarchy of languages in order to manage the insistence of heterogeneous, populist, and often insurgent expressiveness are the historical legacies of Spanish and American rule. The debates about the national language, such as they are, are thus borne by what we might think of as the linguistic colonial unconscious deposited into the foundations of a national culture constantly under pressure from regional and global changes.

Such are the irresolvable contradictions of Filipino – the language that is not one. Its condition, if the Komisyon is to be believed, mirrors that of the nation conceived as distinct from, yet dependent upon, the State itself. The vicissitudes of Filipino thus encapsulates the conundrum of the country’s national culture today and no doubt for some time to come.

Filipino is the national language that seeks to become more than a native tongue and aspires to become – even as it chronically fails – to be the nation’s official speech. It is contaminated and compromised from the start by the very languages it seeks to exclude or subordinate. –

Vicente L. Rafael is Professor of History and Southeast Asian Studies at the University of Washington in Seattle. He is the author of several works on translation, history and cultural politics in the colonial and post-colonial Philippines and in the United States.

Rafael’s books include Contracting Colonialism, White Love and Other Events in Filipino History and The Promise of the Foreign: Nationalism and the Technics of Translation in the Spanish Philippines. He also has a forthcoming book, Motherless Tongues: The Insurgency of Language Amid Wars of Translation.

University of Washington staff profile.