McEachern: Why Tagalog?

HOW did Tagalog become the basis of the national language?

I went home and looked the history up. Just out of curiosity.

During the Spanish time government bureaucracy was conducted mostly in Spanish.

However, given the persistently low level of knowledge of Spanish among the commoners (partly due to the lack of universal education until very late in the Spanish era), many of the Spanish authorities—especially the religious sector—learned Philippine languages. Around their main settlement, Manila, this was Tagalog. But in other parts of the archipelago, they learned the other languages too, which is why families of Spanish descent, like the Ortegas of La Union, can speak Ilokano today.

Towards the end of the Spanish era, and again after the Americans left, Filipino leaders were anxious to create a strong national identity, and looked to create symbols of nationality in almost everything—which is why the Philippines now has a national flower, fish, hero, tree, and even a language. But what are the origins of this national language?

The first time Tagalog was elevated to the status of a national language—or was attempted to be so—was in 1897. The Revolutionary Constitution of 1897 was drafted in defiance of the Spanish, and although this constitution was never enacted, it listed Tagalog as the national language. Interestingly, all the revolutionary leaders who drafted this constitution were native Tagalog speakers. People from other ethnolinguistic groups—like Warays, Ilokanos, Pangasinenses, etc—were not represented in the assembly.

The Malolos Constitution of 1898 was more equitable in making the use of all Philippine languages optional, alongside Spanish for “public authorities and judicial affairs.” No Philippine language, like Tagalog, was considered to be any more important than any other. Unfortunately, the Americans arrived shortly thereafter and only recognized English and Spanish. In 1935, the idea of an indigenous national language reemerged. The Constitution of the First Republic instructed the National Assembly to adopt a common national language based on one of the existing ones. The Constitution did not specify which one, but President Quezon had Tagalog in mind.

It was not until the Japanese Occupation that the Constitution specifically mentioned Tagalog, and demanded that steps toward the “development and propagation of Tagalog as the national language” be taken. Before the Japanese, Tagalog was only taught in the fourth year of high school, but the Japanese incorporated it into all grade levels. Future constitutions inherited this Tagalog bias (and English), largely to the exclusion of all other languages of the Philippines. The Constitutions of 1946, 1959, 1973, and 1987 made minor changes, such as changing the name from Tagalog to Pilipino to Filipino. But even though the name was changed to make it seem as if the national language were somehow representative of all people, the fact of the matter has not changed: Filipino is merely a politically motivated name for a variation of Tagalog. Nobody can deny that they share the same grammatical rules and vastly similar vocabularies.

So, the next time someone tells me, “Oh, but Tagalog-based Filipino is our National Language”, I’ll remind them that it was the Japanese that first made this a reality. And why would it have been in their interest to make it so? Because a population is much easier to influence and control if they all speak the same language. Furthermore, it helped dissociate the Philippines from the United States, who were Japan’s bitter enemies at the time.

Many governments in history have sung praises of “unity,” but this is often just a euphemism for “Let’s all think and talk the way we do in the seat of power (Manila).” Those countries that continue to shy away from preserving their linguistic diversity are still stuck in the World War mentality of “one country, one language.” Diversity was seen as inconvenient at best, and a recipe for mutiny at worst. Nations felt it necessary to present unified fronts. As countries today are not as vulnerable to invasion and outright war as last century, they have begun to look inward and notice that: a) Diversity is valuable; b) Trying to make everyone the same makes people less happy, not more; c) We don’t all have to think the same way or speak the same language in order to be a strong, proud country. We can preserve the national language alongside the local languages. Some countries even have multiple national languages.

Unfortunately, with its lack of government support for non-Tagalog languages and dialects, the Philippines is still stuck in World War II paranoia, when symbolism and uniformity was considered necessary for nation building. It may give lip service to diversity, but the government has yet to truly embrace it.

Published in the Sun.Star Baguio newspaper on October 06, 2010.

One thought on “McEachern: Why Tagalog?

  1. Our overweening desire to be “one nation” as driven by the nationalists (who just happen to be mostly Tagalogs) — many of whom were and are in the corridors of power, in the media and in the academe — especially at the height of the nationalist movement in the 60s, has driven us into this worship for symbols , e.g., “one nation, one language”, which did — and still does — little to enhance the feeling of belonging to one nation among the non-Tagalogs — certainly not at the level the Koreans or the Japanese feel for their respective national languages.

    We already were one nation even before those shrewd Tagalogs (Manuel Luis Quezon, for one) and pro-Tagalogs realized the socio-economic and political significance and outright advantage of imposing their language upon the rest.

    As an Ilocano, acquiring the skills to speak Tagalog didn’t seem to me to fit the bill as something so compelling that made me feel more nationalistic; in spite of spending more than half of my life in a foreign land where English is spoken, I still feel a certain affinity and pride in speaking Ilocano whenever the company permits it. It’s just that I was born into the Ilocano language, spent my formative years speaking the language, lived a good chunk of my life in an environment steeped in Ilocano traditions, grew up into adulthood speaking the language — and now, the symbols, the lore, the traditions, and the uniqueness of the language I was born into still affect my thought processes, my values. Anyone, in a similar situation as I had been, who tells you the contrary is likely pulling your legs.

    Even as I could speak decent Tagalog whenever the occasion calls for it, I think first and foremost as an Ilocano and to the best of my knowledge, no amount of nationalist, er, Tagalog propaganda can alter whatever had been burned in my brain over these many years and this makes me feel safe in the thought that I could proudly claim to be an Ilocano — taga Filipinas.

    English just happens to be a useful, convenient crutch to communicate, at this stage, to a broader audience.

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