You Say Tagalog, We Say Filipino

Is there actually a difference between Tagalog and Filipino? Most of the time, we don’t care about this question and declare that these language terms are not indicative of many differences since native speakers of both languages will still completely understand each other as they converse. However, technical translations always call for more precise language, so we need to be more sensitive about whether or not to use Tagalog or Filipino.

In answering this question, it is important to recognize and grasp the historical evolution of the national language from Tagalog to Filipino.

  • Tagalog is the foundation of the Philippine national language. While it is only spoken in the capital city of Manila and its neighboring provinces, Tagalog existed as the lingua franca since the 1930s when the Commonwealth Constitution was drafted. The Charter did not specify a national language, but Tagalog became the de facto national language as it was acceptable to and understood by the entire populace of the Philippine archipelago.
  • When a new constitution was framed in 1970, it introduced the development of a new national language— Pilipino. Neologisms were brought into the Tagalog vocabulary in order to enrich the language by replacing words of foreign etymologies and origins. However, this program failed since the old vocabulary was already deeply ingrained in the daily discourse of the Filipino people.
  • In the mid-1980s, another constitution was ratified and labeled the national language as Filipino. The aim was to espouse and acknowledge people’s preferences for several existing words derived from Spanish and English terms. Thus, the formerly non-native letters and foreign speech sounds of c, ch, f, j, x and z were included in the official Filipino alphabet. It has also been more politically appropriate that the Philippine national language is referred to as Filipino and not Tagalog.

The fundamental difference between these languages is that Filipino is inclusive and encompassing in the sense that it incorporates several entries, borrowings and contributions from other languages aside from Tagalog. An example is diksyunaryo, which is the acceptable Filipino translation of dictionary. It was derived from its Spanish form, diccionario. Tagalog purists insist on translating it as talatinigan. This translation is nevertheless indigenous to Tagalog-speaking regions. Such other differences are:

  • Filipino has more letters in its alphabet to accommodate phonetics. Its alphabet also demonstrates the variations in spelling between comparisons of Tagalog and Filipino translations.
  • Filipino deviates to becoming Taglish or Englog. This is largely due to the fact that Filipinos are prone to combining English and Tagalog words, since most Filipinos are not articulate in both the English and Tagalog languages. They are more eloquent and comfortable with their native regional dialects. The middle class and the upper echelons of society are generally more conversant and fluent in Taglish or Englog than the marginalized sectors of the community.
  • Filipino is inclined towards transliteration. In Filipino, words are spelled in accordance to how a Filipino enunciates them; examples include drayber (“driver”), diskusyon (“discussion”) and iskul (“school”). Alternatively, words are spelled as they were in the source language. In a strictly formal Tagalog translation, purists resort to transliteration only when source words—particularly technical, scientific, medical and legal word forms—definitely have no direct, exact and accurate equivalents in the target language.

As a rule of thumb widely accepted in translation practice, words that have been universally and extensively in use for a long time in the Tagalog regions are safely classified as Tagalog. Contemporary paronyms or cognate words and other such borrowings are distinguished as Filipino.

Although the etymologies of these Tagalog or Filipino words are not generally determined, linguistic scholars, writers and academicians constantly create neologisms in order to assimilate ever-changing current events, mass media and popular culture into the existing language. It has always been necessary to “nativize” or “Filipinize” most expressions, words and phrases through the application of Filipino rules of spelling.

Whatever your preferences for Tagalog or Filipino, the distinction only becomes a concern when there is an existing strict requirement and demand to use either one of the languages.

You say Tagalog, we say Filipino; the bottom line is that Filipinos understand both. So, a typical translation is never actually meant to be purely Tagalog or essentially Filipino.

About Geoff Gumban

I’m a native Filipino translator living in the Philippines. I have a degree in mechanical engineering but a passion for all things literary and academic. Engineer by profession, translator and writer by vocation.