How a simple question evolved into a heated debate: Is Tagalog a language or a dialect?

The answer is simple, Tagalog is a language. Why make such a simple question into something so complex?

I believe that the answer lies in the confusion between the definitions of a language and a dialect. We all know what a language is; it’s what we speak everyday to communicate, so let’s take a closer look on the meaning of dialect. A dialect is a language variety spoken by a population within a geographical region. This can confuse those who believe that dialects are those words and sounds from people’s mouths in an area that is different from others and from a different region of others. It’s natural to think this way, because most individuals think with an egocentric perspective, thinking that their way of doing things (even their own way of speaking such as grammar, slangs, and whatnot) is correct while others aren’t. The truth is, this process of thinking is biased. Critical thinkers often think outside the box and for an issue such as this, we will go through that process of thinking outside the box. For this process, we will examine four countries and their linguistic statuses. It’s important to note that your egocentric perspective should not get in your way when examining these linguistic statuses of the counties as that perspective is biased.

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A dialect is a language variety. What is a language variety? We know what a language is, so now the question is, what is variety? It simply means many different types. A language variety is many different types of spoken words in a language. Note that a dialect is a language variety, not a variety of languages which would mean many different types of languages while a language variety is many different types of spoken speech in ONE language; note how it is not plural in language variety as opposed to varieties of languages. Therefore in a single language, we have a variety of speeches among people, and every person has their own way of speaking the language that differs from others who speak that same single language, which is known as an idiolect.

A collection of idiolects among a similar group of people is called a dialect. Normally these dialects are clustered in an area, usually a geographical or regional area, but dialects also exist among peer groups and certain communities of people who speak alike in that language. The following examples will show how this dialect-language issue is put into play.

1.) China – As we know, the majority of Chinese people speak a language called Mandarin, which also happens to be the world’s top most spoken language with over one billion people who speak it. However, little do many of us know that aside from Mandarin, there are also other languages spoken in China by China’s ethnic minorities that dwell among the shadows of the Chinese regime. Languages such as Yue (Cantonese and Taishanese), Min (Hokkien/Fukien and Taiwanese (Hokkien)), Uyghur and Arabic, Manchurian, Mongol, Wu (Shanghaiese), Tibetian, Hmong, Portuguese and Macanese, Vietnamese, and much more are spoken all over the country. Although these languages are separate languages and that speakers from each group cannot understand each other, i.e.: a Macanese speaker cannot understand a Shanghaiese speaker, these languages are constantly referred to as dialects because of a regional distance from other populations who speak a different word, which by now you should know that is wrong. A similar situation is apparent in The Philippines and will be examined about later.

Written language is not considered as language since pronunciation changes over time. The perfect example for this is English, as her spelling is not the same way it is spoken since pronunciation has changed in English over centuries. In Chinese, orthography characters may be shared and used among other Chinese languages, but when pronounced, the pronunciation is different and varies; therefore, written language can not be considered language. We must rely on our ears and what we hear to determine if what we hear is a dialect of a language or not, that’s why spoken language is much more crucial.

Our example will be the language, Mandarin. Mandarin is spoken not only in China but also in Singapore and Taiwan. Speakers of Mandarin from Beijing will differ in their speech variety or dialect from Mandarin speakers in Taiwan. Some common differences are the –r endings that Northern Mandarin has while the absence of this –r ending is in Southern Mandarin. Another common difference is the use of “hé” and “hàn” for the word “and.” Although both of the speech groups speak different dialects of the same language, these difference do nothing to impede the understanding or the intelligibility between the speakers; hence, people who speak dialects of the same language will always understand each other will little or no difficulty.

It is a given rule that everyone speaks a dialect of their own language and that includes everyone to have an accent, even if we do not think that we speak with an accent. Again, do not let the egocentric thoughts fool you as you do have an accent to other listeners or if you think you speak the more “correct” or “proper” form of your language. The fact is, there is no “correct” form of a spoken language. Every dialect is acceptable, although some dialects are more preferred than other as certain dialects are much better understood by majority of speakers who speak other dialects of that language. An example would be General or Standard American, which is the name of a type of dialect spoken in the USA, and leads us into the next country.

2.) The United States of America – English is the national language of this country despite not claiming an official language. English is spoken everywhere throughout the country, and knowing how this country is geographically vast in size, the English language will definitely experience a variety of speeches spoken among various regions of the USA. Southern, Pacific West Coast, New England, the North, the Midwest, Ebonics (African-American English), and the Mid-Atlantic are all major types of English dialects spoken in the USA. Among these dialects was created a general/standard American English dialect which is considered to be more “neutral” among every dialect since this dialect is the most widely understood English dialect spoken among Americans in media and nationwide. It is also the best representative of American English among the international community.

Evidently, people who speak General/Standard American are bi-dialectal with their own regional dialect. Since English is not regulated by a governing language body, prospects for English to evolve and change in grammar and vocabulary are open as evident in comparison from today’s English from English spoken in the 1800s and early 1900s. Although there doesn’t exist an official language in the USA, English is the national language of the country; however; there are countries that try to differentiate what is and what isn’t the national language verses the official language and what is a dialect verses what is a language, which takes us to the next country to be surveyed, Spain.

3.) Spain – Spain is well-known today as the motherland of Spanish. Her golden age of the Spanish empire heightened the spread of the Spanish language world-wide. Spanish is also spoken in Latin America, Latin Africa, and Latin Asia but prospects for these Spanish dialects of Spanish to develop into separate languages are very slim as the Spanish language is regulated by the Real Academia Española. Spanish, like many other sister Romance languages, descended from Vulgar Latin in the Iberian Peninsula.

When the Roman Empire collapsed, the Latin language was spoken across southern Europe and stretched from present-day Portugal to Israel and all across northern Africa. Since Latin was a language spoken in vast regions, dialects of this language were obviously evident as speech communities of Latin spoke in various types with regional accents. Since the Latin language was never governed or regulated in grammar and vocabulary by anyone, these dialects over many years had evolved into their present-day Romance languages such as Spanish, Occitan, French, Portuguese, Italian, Romanian, Catalan, and Galician. These are now separate languages since speakers from these languages will have difficulty in understanding what speakers from the other languages say, in short there is a low degree of mutual intelligibility among some of these speakers.

Going back to Spain’s issue, in the Iberian Peninsula exists more than just the Spanish language. Portuguese, Galician, Occitan, Catalan, Leonese, Aragonese, Asturian, Basque, and Aranese are spoken in Spain. Although Spanish is mandatory as a language that every Spaniard needs to know and has official status, four more languages in Spain share official status as regional languages, and they are: Catalan, Basque, Galician, and Aranese. Some regionalists and separatists describe their own regional variant of their language as a separate language. An example would be Catalan speakers in Spain’s Eastern coast. The Northern part speak Catalan with a unique Catalan dialect while the Southern part of the Eastern coast speak the same language as well, Catalan, but speak a Valencian dialect of Catalan and consider their variant or dialect to be a separate language when in fact, speakers from both parts will understand each other with no difficulty. Some extremists of Spanish will also say that the Catalan language is just a dialect of Spanish since there is some mutual intelligibility or understanding between the two languages. This is a form of Spanish nationalism where Spanish speakers would say that regional languages that sound similar or close to their language are just dialects of their language. Remember again, do not let your egocentric perspective get in the way as it is biased, and do not let nationalism or regionalism fool you. Speaking from this nationalism and regionalism spur come our country next. The last country that we will examine is our very own beloved “Patria Adorada,” the Philippines.

4.) The Philippines – The linguistic situation of The Philippines is one of a very complicated situation. As many of us know, according to the 1987 Philippine constitution, English and Filipino are the only 2 official languages with Filipino being the national language. Filipino came about when the development of a national language was started. The original language that was thought to be the national language was Tagalog. Overtime, this Tagalog was masked by the word, Pilipino, then evolved into a conceptual language called Filipino, which is essentially based on Tagalog and will further be in development and evolve as more vocabulary from other languages enrich it. Filipino is basically a language that will soon evolve and mutate into a monstrous language with a wealth of who-knows-what-and-where the grammar and vocabulary will come from. The state of Filipino as of right now is still a developing baby, and is regulated by the Commission of the Filipino Language (KWF) so thus far remains mutually intelligible to the language that is was derived from, Tagalog, until further notice and development which is slow at the moment.

Basically, Filipino is still a dialect or variant of Tagalog as speakers of both can still understand each other with no difficulty, but once Filipino starts to grow and mutate into the predicted monster it will be, that dialect will evolve into a separate language, just how the dialect of Vulgar Latin developed into Spanish, except this development process isn’t natural nor natural-made, but forced. Aside from English, there are over 170 languages spoken in The Philippines and Filipino is a required subject that every Filipino is supposed to learn and be able to speak fluently. That means a speaker of Ilocano, Cebuano, Cuyonon, etc… are not only supposed to learn English, but the dialect of Tagalog right now, called Filipino. Tagalog speakers also have to not only learn English but also take a course on their language’s other dialect, Filipino. Tagalog speakers are dreaded with the problem of learning another dialect of their language while the rest of the non-Tagalog speaking Filipinos have to learn a completely new language to them which isn’t even spoken at most homes.

One big contradiction with Filipino to develop is that the Filipino language is regulated by a governing body, the KWF, and when ever a language is regulated by a governing body, the growth and development for a language to evolve will drastically slow. Unlike Vulgar Latin dialects, which didn’t have regulating bodies, the Latin dialects evolved into modern-day Spanish, French and Italian. Spanish and French are some languages that have governing bodies (La Real Academia and La Academie Française) to protect the French and Spanish language and help regulate their grammar and vocabulary. If the mission of the KWF is to further develop and grow the Filipino language, then they shouldn’t be regulating what should be and shouldn’t be apart of the Filipino language. Otherwise the Filipino language will never develop into the language it is supposed to be and will just remain in the same status it is in which is a status as a dialect of Tagalog.

The bottom line is: Tagalog is a language with her own dialects. Once a Tagalog speaker can no longer understand other speakers around her, then the speakers are speaking a different language. Some examples of Tagalog dialects are the infamous Filipino, Marinduque, Quezon, Rizal, Metro Manila, Caviteño, Batangas, Bataan, and Tayabas. Despite that these dialects speak Tagalog differently, every Tagalog speaker of these dialects will understand each other with little or no difficulty at all since they all speak the same language, Tagalog. The same goes with other Philippine languages such as Cebuano, Ilocano, and so fourth.

The best solution? Encourage the usage of English more alongside with the teachings and developments of native regional languages. Possibly develop literature and media in unhealthy status-type languages. Re-introduce Spanish into full teachings until graduation and get rid of the Filipino language once and for all! It is only delaying the development of other dying languages and hindering the communication barriers among Filipinos, moreover; it is promoting regional division within a country that is already struggling.

We as Filipinos need to get rid of our egocentric perspectives and think with the importance of English and Spanish, no more “inglesero or kastilaloy/katsilaloy” attitudes.

15 Replies to “How a simple question evolved into a heated debate: Is Tagalog a language or a dialect?”

  1. It does not matter how each evolve by common use, there are only two types of English: -England and
    American. These are written and spoken in English
    worlds -the product of commerce and science [comprehensive in nano precision]. Ebonics do not fly in American landscape -Nation of immigrants-
    instead, one gets a big fat huhhhhh?

    1. I was really disturbed with this comment of yours. Other than giving a very vague terminology for the British variety of English, you also blatantly obliterated the reality that there are a multitude of English varieties around the world other than your “American” and “England” (or should we say British) English.

      Ever heard of Philippine English? Singapore English? Jamaican English? Malaysian English? Canadian? Australian? New Zealand? I cannot count more.

      Those ‘Englishes’ I’ve given you are institutionally and linguistically accepted both by experts and teachers. We can say that the English we are speaking in the Philippines is not American or British, but Philippine.

      Where did you get that linguistic maturity of yours?

      1. We can say that the English we are speaking in the Philippines is not American or British, but Philippine.

        That is true.

        In fact, some English words can different from the standard definition when it comes to Philippine English. For example:

        Salvage –
        v. the act of saving or rescuing a ship or its cargo, or property in danger. (Standard)
        v. to kill or assassinate. (Philippines)


    2. Australian English, Appalachian English, Canadian English, Singaporean English, Nigerian English all want to know your location.

  2. better yet, why not follow what China did centuries ago, conquer the whole nation and enforce the Tagalog Dialect. Then again, it’ll cause resentment to those in the Tagalog region, but hey… we have to sacrifice something to gain something else right?

    1. and who are you to say you can enforce tagalog on us ilonggo people and cebuanos who speak visayan? there are more of us than you tagalogs….

  3. Using your language like Tagalog; everywhere, to show your nationalism is absurd. I can be a nationalist, speaking English. Language is just a tool to tranfer your thoughts to another person.
    There are words and terms, that are used in every specilized field of professions. The Medical profession is full of Latin Words…Highly Technical fields are full of unique words,and terms. Some in lingoes…some in slangs…some in words, I’ve never even heard before…
    So, languages use should not be our point of contention. If any language can help you perform your job well, to earn your daily living: then, USE IT. Our OFW slaves/ Drug Mules are all over the world. Would they use Tagalog in speaking to their masters?

    1. There is no contention with English , in fact. It IS recognized as an official language by law, therefore, it is acknowledged as a figment of national consciousness; it is a part of Philippine life. Those who rally Tagalog as the prime and sole banner of Philippine identity yet are receptive to English education, transcations and media are hypocrites.

  4. I grew up in Bicol with Tagalog as our language at home and I speak it better than Bikol. Like most pupils, I studied in schools that idolizes Tagalog (alias “Pilipino”)and devalues the vernacular. Fortunately, I got engrossed with English. Being a language that promotes learning and having read treatises about multilingualism and multiculuralism, it liberated my mind as i found it to be more sensible and in line with reality. Tagalog is not the problem but Tagalogism, which discourages an individual into exploring the beauty of other Philippine languages and is detrimental to Tagalog itself. Those who speak Tagalog as their mother tongue should consciously study about other Philippine languages, not really to master them, but at least learn to respect them. MTB-MLE is a good start.

    1. Same here, my mother tongue is Ilocano, and I also speak Ibaloi. But I was lucky to have 2 grandfathers who insisted that I learn English, and through English, learn Cantonese and Hebrew as well. I can say with plenty of pride (and a bit of arrogance) that my world view certainly trumps that of those people who insist that focusing on Tagalog equates patriotism.

  5. I agree that tagalog is a Language not a Dialect , because Tagalog is widely spoken and is the most understood in all the Philippine Regions. Dialect is applied most often to regional speech patterns, example Ilokano,Ibanag, Itawis,Bicolano .

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