Why the F in ‘Filipino’ and How Did It Get There?

 The Abakada (Tagalog Alphabet) (Source: The Language Gulper)

The Abakada (Tagalog Alphabet) (Source: The Language Gulper)

"Purist” Tagalog speakers, the superannuated academic, and sometimes the man on the street, will all insist that the letter F does not exist in the Tagalog language. One can never hear it, they say, in everyday speech.

On the other hand, the same speakers whose parents were more or less educated in the old Hispanized orthography, or later in American English, do in fact use the letter F in pronouncing surnames like Fernandez or first names like Fidel.

Just these two instances will demonstrate the inconsistency in past and current speech and orthography, or the oral and written speech of Filipinos. “Past and current” means that a little history may help resolve the issue and that Filipino names like “Pablo Fernandez” and not “Pablo Pernandez” are perfectly all right, and that even the original “talyada” or screaming gay character created by the komiks writer Mars Ravelo, “Facifica Falayfay” -- made into a rollicking and sympathetic film by the National Artist Lino Brocka, and given flesh onscreen by the late great comedian, Dolphy -- has a perfectly possible spelling.

The history is simple and may be traced to the rare recounting of the development of the National Language called “Filipino,” and its root and basis, Tagalog. Right now, only National Artist for Literature Virgilio S. Almario, current chairman of the Komisyon sa Wikang Filipino (KWF), has made the effort to compile a written history of the language. For our purposes, our main source would mainly be two important articles or monographs he has prepared and with which I am familiar since I have been requested by him to translate said articles into English.

 Virgilio S. Almario (Source: virgilioal.blogspot.com)

Virgilio S. Almario (Source: virgilioal.blogspot.com)

Almario felt that the articles must reach the English-speaking sector in the Philippines, who this late needs convincing of the importance of a national language, or needs updating on the history and development of the “adolescent” beast called “Filipino,” which when they were not looking had grown by leaps and bounds into a robust and sprightly adult.

The two articles in question are “Madalas Itanong Hinggil sa Wikang Pambansa” (Frequently Asked Questions on the National Language), a pamphlet, and the long monograph “Purismo at ‘Purismo’ sa Filipinas” [the title obviously does not need a translation]. I will be quoting liberally from both sources but will avoid cumbersome inverted commas and repetitious citations.

Now to the history. The simple and most direct reason for the presence of the letter F in Filipino (the language and the orthography) is the 1987 Constitution of the Republic. Eight “new” letters have been legislated into the language: F, C, J, Ñ, Q, V, and Z.

But hold it there. The previous statement may be inaccurate. While the letter F and seven others were not directly legislated, it was the name “Filipino” that was specifically mentioned in the 1987 Constitution at the instance of the language committee (of the Constitutional Convention) then headed by linguist and University of the Philippines professor Ernesto Constantino.

The specific provision says, “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.” (Emphasis mine.)


 The 1987 Philippine Constitution specifies Filipino, not Pilipino. 

The 1987 Philippine Constitution specifies Filipino, not Pilipino. 


As implementer of the language provision, the Department of Education, together the Surian ng Wikang Pambansa (later, Linangan ng Wikang Pambansa) or Institute of the National Language, both precursors of KWF and both then under the aegis of the Department (Ministry previously), had first issued a directive in 1973, and based on the existing 1973 Constitution, stating to the effect that the Filipino alphabet consisted of 36 letters based on the Spanish one. This alphabet included such Hispanic oddities as LL, RR, etc. which even the Spanish considered cumbersome and obsolete, and was later modified and reduced.

Thus, in another move to reform and advance the language, SWP issued a directive based on the 1987 Constitution (the “EDSA Constitution”) trimming the alphabet down to 28 letters. The adding of the letters C, F, J, Ñ, Q, V, X, and Z had several and again simple justifications. F, J, V, and Z represent sounds that are native to Philippine languages, in spoken or written form, while they may not be present in Tagalog and other “major” languages (of this later). On the other hand, C, Ñ, Q, and X, represent sounds that are already existing in our language in the form of our names (first names, surnames) and in borrowed technical and scientific words.

The examples I will provide can overlap according to the kinds of rationale of inclusion. The letters F, J, V, and Z, for instance, are very much in such languages as Ivatan, Ibanag, Ifugaw, Kiniray-a, Mëranaw, Bilaan, and other native languages (even the names of the languages themselves show the letters). At the same time, they are present in our names and surnames which makes it absurd if such important letters in our birth certificates—say, Zuñiga and Ybañez—do not exist in the official alphabet, and thus render dubious even their being legitimate (or the existence of the owners themselves).

In an entirely different category are the examples from the native languages. The Ivatan language of the Batanes isles has words such vakul for grass headdress, and avid for beauty. Also from the north, the Itawes has alifuffug for whirlwind, vulan for moon (buwan in Tagalog and bulan in Bikol), and kazzing for goat (kambing in Tagalog); the Ibaloy, safot for cobweb (saput in Tagalog); feyu for a smoking pipe in Kalinga; the Ibaloy has kuvat for war, and the Ibanag, zigattu for east, and vuyu for falling star or meteorite.

From the south, the Tausug and Mëranaw have masjid for mosque from the Arabic, and jalan for path (daan in Tagalog, or dalan in Bikol); the Tiruray has falendang for a kind of flute; and there is jambangan for plant, and julup for bad behavior in Tausug.

These examples alone provide a seminal list for a multilingual dictionary and thesaurus of the “Filipino language.” I have also provided, whenever possible, the equivalents in Tagalog and my own regional language of Bikol to show the cognates and “blood relations” among our languages. In whole, the list demonstrates the apparently edgeless diversity and ultimately unified constitution of the Filipino language as part of one Austronesian family.

While the examples give us a linguistic perspective on Filipino, and how it is in fact developing with the lexical entries from the various other native languages, they also show us the strategic possibilities for the natural enrichment of the language “on the basis of existing Philippine and other languages,” as provided by the Constitution. This only means the language can and will naturally grow on its own as the Tagalog-based lingua franca, now geographically dominant, interacts with the other native languages through human or oral means and through the mass media.

At the same time, and to understand more the ongoing processes of the evolution of Filipino, we must also revisit the guidance provided by the historical perspective.

KWF chairman Almario makes clear distinctions between “real” purism and “perceived” and historical purism, which he considers erroneous and mainly a label that has been lobbed against Tagalog by its opponents as basis for the national language, but also opposing as well the government efforts to implement the constitutional language provision first enunciated by Manuel L. Quezon in the 1930s. This name-calling was much in fashion during the “language wars,” as Kerima Polotan called the controversy during the 1960s.

Almario cites the linguist George Thomas who said in his Linguistic Purism (Studies in Language and Linguistics): “An exposition of purism should try—despite the obvious difficulties involved—to distinguish between purism motivated by a healthy concern about the language’s well-being and future vitality on the one hand and purism emanating from a morbid anxiety about the ability of a language to survive on the other.”

The history tells us that Filipino was not, in fact, the language of salumpuwit and salipawpaw that its detractors used to deride both its “artificiality” and “inadequacy” and whose vague motives harked back to their own “puristic” motives of insisting on other Philippine languages as basis of the national language, or insisting that English itself was already the operative “national” language.

How English, an Anglo-Saxon and Germanic offspring from linguistic lineages from the other side of the world could substitute for native Tagalog, which was already a widely recognized and evolving lingua franca interacting with its Austronesian, and Filipino linguistic siblings from north to south of the archipelago, was nothing next to illogical.

According to KWF’s FAQs on the national language, by numbers alone, “much progress has been made in the dissemination of the National Language. In the national censuses made from 1939 to 1980, the speakers of the National Language increased from 4,068,565 to 12,019,139, or from 25.4% to 44.4% of the entire population of the Philippines. In 1989, a survey conducted by the Ateneo de Manila University further showed that 92% understood Tagalog in the whole country, 83% could speak it, 88% could read, and 81% could write in it.”

The statistical explanation continues: “This is a huge advantage over the reported 51% that could understand English and 41% that could understand Cebuano. (Note that “Tagalog” and not “Filipino” is used to call the National Language.) This rapid growth in the number of speakers of Filipino means that it can now be considered a “people’s language” or lingua franca, and is being used as a language of communication by any two Filipinos with different native languages but wanting to talk to each other.”

This should give us an idea of the continuing saga of “Filipino” and how salumpuwit and salipawpaw have become such obsolete jokes. Salumpuwit,, in the first place, is a coinage that is not found in any Filipino dictionary. It was invented primarily to make fun of the emerging national language, while salipawpaw is a real Tagalog word that means to soar or move in an upward direction. No one among the “industrious coiners” (as the group then researching and proposing local equivalents to scientific or technical terms following a UNESCO directive for language development was referred to) ever used or proposed the said word as translation for “airplane.”

Again, “salumpuwit” was a useless notion since there were existing words for “seat” in Tagalog: upuan or the older likmuan were very much more preferable because of natural linguistic ownership, while there was also the borrowed Spanish term, silla, which had long been Tagalized/Filipinized into silya. In the other “major” languages such as my own Bikol, we have tukawan for chair or seat while the naturalized silya from the Spanish is still very much in use.

Incidentally, the only use salumpuwit was able to generate for itself were the countless jokes invented to feature the “salo” part of the word (to catch) and prefix it to a variety of nouns to produce such crude oddities enjoyed by many, as salumbola, salunsuso, etc.

That Tagalog—later Pilipino (as directed by the education department in 1950), then Filipino (according to the 1987 Constitution)—and its advocates are not necessarily “purist” maybe traced to Jose Rizal himself. In his study, Estudios sobre la lengua tagala, published in 1898, Rizal “determined” the Tagalog abakada as having 20 letters based on the 17-character baybayin syllabary, but introduced the first reform of adding two vowels. The baybayin script had three vowels, a, e, and o, with the e and o capable of variations as i and u by adding a period under each letter. Rizal did away with this method and introduced the actual i and u to accommodate the pronunciation of Hispanic vowels. Long before our time, Tagalog and Filipino have been evolving.

Rizal reformed the 17-character baybayin into the Tagalog abakada. Lope L. Santos’ Balarila grammar derived from Rizal’s Estudios adopted the 20-letter abakada, and the latter formed the foundation for the new 28-letter alpabeto, the basis for Ortograpiyang Pambansa that sets out the (still) evolving rules for written Filipino and the future Gramatikang Filipino that KWF is developing under its (for the first time ever) three-year, medium-term, language development plan.

In sum, the current Filipino alpabeto replaced the Tagalog abakada based on the old baybayin script. As Almario writes in “Madalas Itanong…,” abakada has proved inadequate for the writing requirements of a national language. “Clearly, the letters of the alpabeto were increased so that the sounds that are absent in Tagalog can be written but which can be pronounced in the other native languages… This move is in accordance with the intent for Filipino to thrive and develop from Tagalog towards becoming the National Language because enriched with entries from the country’s other native languages.”

It is also to be observed that prior to the emergence of Tagalog as Filipino, the advocates of the other “major” languages (eight or ten as variously defined) expressed no objections to the use of the old abakada orthography without the F and other letters, as applied to their own languages. This underscores the fact that the lingual characteristics of the said major languages had much in common with Tagalog. The so-called major languages are Bicol, Ilocano, Hiligaynon, Pampango, Pangasinan, Cebuano, Tagalog, and Waray (Samar-Leyte). They are also often referred to as regional languages. There are times when Mëranaw, Tausug, and Magindanao are included in the group.


Incidentally, the only use salumpuwit was able to generate for itself were the countless jokes invented to feature the “salo” part of the word (to catch) and prefix it to a variety of nouns to produce such crude oddities enjoyed by many, as salumbola, salunsuso, etc.

The FAQs pamphlet continues: “The whole phenomenon [of the historical struggles of ‘Filipino’] is one proof that the people’s language is changing and it is necessary to align the tools of teaching and disseminating language to such changes. After only 50 years it has been proven that the use of the Tagalog abakada was a hindrance to the advancement of the National Language… [and the reason for replacement and reform based on] ‘the nationalistic and modernist spirit of the term ‘Filipino.’”

This late, opposition to Filipino, because it is purportedly “only Tagalog” in disguise, continues mainly from individuals and one straggling organization like DILA (Defenders of the Indigenous Languages of the Archipelago). The KWF seeks to work with such groups to implement its mandate of providing the impetus for language development, including that of the country’s other native languages.

In the case of DILA which regularly, through its individual members, sends out broadsides against Filipino and KWF, the language commission maintains a tolerant attitude in acknowledgment of its nominal objectives. Its main observation, however, is that such organizations must work to enrich their native or regional languages by writing precisely in those languages instead of in English. “Defending” indigenous language should not be a disguise, up to now, for fighting for English as the national language, as DILA itself has verbalized.

Filipino, the language, is now as much a reality as Filipino, the person or nationality. The language is still called “Tagalog” in much of the world, in acknowledgement of its linguistic basis, but even Google has shifted to the term “Filipino” to refer to the language.

Whatever problems still exist in terms of the cultural and historical identity of the person (is there a “pure” culture in the world, after all), the language itself has proved over the decades its capability to represent the person and nationality as it has gone through its paces of becoming the lingua franca in the country (Filipino is understood all over the archipelago), the language of instruction in all the schools, and in a more accelerating rate, the language of government.

In the academe, what has started in the ‘60s is currently resuming. Filipino is set to again become the dominant language of science and learning. Titles of textbooks and trade books in economics, engineering, math and the other sciences, apart from language, literature, and the social sciences, are again being reprinted or produced.

And the language’s stepping into the late stage of development, as identified by language planners, as moving from unification to standardization to modernization, is borne by the fact that Filipino has grown capable of carrying and comporting itself (bearing meanings and content) in the various domains of knowledge and life.

And such capability—often unacknowledged by Filipinos themselves who prefer English—is natural to the language that first interacts with its local and linguistics siblings (the other Filipino tongues apart from the major languages) that lend their own streams of native knowledge and culture, and not least of which is contained in words that carry the letter F and others. And in such manner is Filipino even more prepared to “converse with the world.”


 Marne Kilates

Marne Kilates

Marne Kilates is an award-winning poet and freelance writer in Manila.