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Translating the Tagalog Language

The Tagalog language has a reach that stretches far beyond its country of origin, the Philippines. Tagalog is one of the most widely spoken non-English languages in the U.S., and its usage is growing in other parts of the world. In this article, we look at the history and influence of this complex and interesting language.

The Tagalog Language

The Philippines is a very ethnically diverse nation, with 120 to 175 languages spoken throughout the country. Of these, the most common are Tagalog, Cebuano, Ilocano, Hiligaynon or Ilonggo, Bicolano, Waray, Pampango, and Pangasinense. Tagalog is the most widely spoken, used by approximately 29% of the population. Filipino (the standardized version of Tagalog) serves as the official language of the Philippines, along with English. Filipino is also one of the most common languages in the Austronesian family, which includes about 1,200 languages (such as Indonesian and Malay) spoken throughout the islands of Southeast Asia and the Pacific, as well as Madagascar.

Migration has brought Filipinos to all corners of the globe. Per the Commission on Filipinos Overseas, 10.2 million Filipinos live outside the Philippines, in more than 200 countries and territories. Worldwide, it is estimated that approximately 35.2 million people speak Tagalog as their native language. Outside the Philippines, the U.S. has the largest number of Tagalog speakers, with 1.3 million people speaking the language as their mother tongue.

The Origins of Tagalog

The Philippines has a long history of diverse cultures, ethnicities, and languages coexisting throughout the archipelago. During the country’s 333 years of Spanish rule (1565-1898), the Spaniards established schools and taught the Spanish language. Over time, Spanish became the lingua franca of the islands. In 1898, the U.S. replaced Spain as the colonial influence, and brought the English language into the mix. When the Philippine Commonwealth was established in 1935, ending colonization, the Philippine Assembly proposed the adoption of a national language. While Tagalog was viewed by many as a natural frontrunner, it was decades before a national language was formally established.

The Making of a National Language: Filipino

In 1959, Tagalog was named “Pilipino” and eventually renamed “Filipino” to give it a stronger national identity. While the Filipino vocabulary first and foremost borrowed from other Philippine languages, it was also augmented with words borrowed from English, Spanish, Malay, and Chinese. Eight new letters were added to the Filipino alphabet, including c, f, j, ñ (borrowed from Spanish), q, v, x, and z. Today’s modern Filipino alphabet consists of 28 letters, primarily the English alphabet with the addition of the Spanish ñ and Tagalog ng.

Support for Filipino as the national language gained steam in the 70s when the government, under the rule of President Ferdinand Marcos, focused on developing a “new society” in the country. This ideology was especially conducive to the adoption of a national language. Finally, in 1987, the Philippine Constitution formally declared Filipino as the national language of the Philippines.

Confusion exists as to the linguistic distinction between Filipino and Tagalog. They are in fact not different languages, as Filipino is the mutually intelligible, standardized, prestige register of Tagalog. Because it is widely understood throughout the Philippines, Filipino serves as a lingua franca in the country, allowing people from different regions to communicate.

Taglish and Englog

Many Filipinos, especially those in urban areas, have adopted “Taglish” or “Englog,” a mix of English and Tagalog. In a single conversation, speakers may use Tagalog or English words, whichever comes to mind first or whichever is easiest to say. For example, “Did you do your homework this morning?” might translate into Ginawa mo ba yung homework mo this morning? This code-mixing can entail reforming (“Filipinizing”) English grammar using Filipino rules, such as verb conjugations. This practice of switching between two languages in one conversation is popular among younger people in the Philippines as well as Filipinos living in other parts of the world.

Characteristics of the Tagalog Language

  • Tagalog has a flexible word order compared to English. While the verb typically remains in the initial position, the order of noun phrase complements that follows can vary.
  • The order of the words in a sentence does not indicate who is doing what. Instead, affixes (additional elements) and markers are attached to words to indicate who is the focus or taking the action in a sentence.
  • Tagalog is considered an “agglutinative language” (“glued together”) because many words are formed through the combination of small morphemes (the smallest meaningful component of a linguistic expression). Other examples of agglutinative languages include Turkish, Finnish, Hungarian, and Korean.
  • Tagalog does not have grammatical gender. There is no equivalent to “he” or “she,” instead, the neutral siya is used to communicate “he,” “she,” and “it.”
  • Numbers (mga bilang/mga numero) in Tagalog follow two systems. The first consists of native Tagalog words and the second system uses numbers derived from Spanish. For example, when a person refers to the number “seven,” it can be translated into Tagalog as either pito or siyete (from the Spanish siete).

Tagalog in the U.S.

Large numbers of Filipinos began migrating to the U.S. around the turn of the 19th century, but it was in the 1960s, due to changes in immigration policy, that workers began to arrive by the thousands and the population of Filipino Americans expanded significantly. Today, there are more than 4 million Filipinos, or Americans with Filipino ancestry, in the U.S. Tagalog is the third most widely spoken non-English language in America, following Spanish and Chinese.

While Filipino Americans live throughout the U.S., they are especially concentrated in the Western part of the country. Tagalog is even the most spoken language after English and Spanish in the states of California and Nevada. Large populations of Filipino Americans also live in New York, Hawaii, Texas, Illinois, and Washington.

Tagalog Translation

Due to the large number of Tagalog speakers in the U.S. and the growing prominence of the Philippines in the global economy, the need for Tagalog translation is on the rise. And while translating into Tagalog presents huge opportunities, as with any language, it’s important that the language sounds natural to your target audience. By using experienced linguists who are native Tagalog speakers, Eriksen can help you tailor your translations to the specific audiences you are trying to reach.  Get in touch to discuss your Tagalog translation needs with a member of our team.

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