Tagalog: A History of the Language of the Philippines

"Makati Skyline" by Benson Kua

There are more than 50 million speakers of Tagalog in the Philippines, mostly in the southern parts of Luzon, the archipelago’s largest island. Other dialects spoken in the Philippines include Cebuano, Ilokano, Waray-Waray, Hiligaynon, Pangasinan, Bikol, Maranao, Maguindanao, Tausug, and Kapampangan, but the official language, Filipino, is based on Tagalog. There are also significant numbers of Tagalog-speaking communities in other countries, with the largest in the United States where it ranks as the sixth most-spoken language.

Derived from “Taga-ilog,” which literally means “from the river,” Tagalog is an Austronesian language belonging to the Malayo-Polynesian subfamily, with outside influences from Malay and Chinese, and later from both Spanish and American English through four centuries of colonial rule. This influence is seen in Tagalog words and their spelling.

Tagalog had its own writing system based on an ancient script called the Baybayin that uses a syllabic alphabet, which the Spanish colonialists romanized. Even the modern alphabet has been changed several times to incorporate foreign sounds from both Spanish and English.

There are thousands of loan words in Tagalog, particularly from Spanish, and the use of “Taglish,” the mixing of Tagalog and English, is common, especially in urban areas. In both spoken and written Tagalog, English words (sometimes spelled according to their Tagalog pronunciation, oftentimes not) are used alongside words of Spanish origin. Some of these borrowed words do have equivalent forms in Tagalog but their use is reserved for formal or literary language. But many of these loan words do not have Tagalog counterparts, especially those that refer to objects or concepts that did not exist in the country prior to the arrival of Westerners.

However, in spite of all the foreign borrowings in Tagalog, the richness of the language remains intact. Foreign words are not absorbed into the language without being subjected to the complexity of Tagalog’s system of affixes—or syllables or letters fixed within a word—which permits any noun to be turned into a verb and vice versa. If language is the collective product of the genius of a people, as linguist Wilhelm Humboldt put it, affixation is the genius of Tagalog and its challenge as well.

Ready to dive into learning Tagalog? You can start right away with our online course, or if you prefer to learn with a book, check out our Spoken World Tagalog course here.

“Makati Skyline” by Benson Kua. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons