Dialect, or language? Which?

by Firth McEachern

Many young people and professionals are abandoning their mother tongue in preference for Tagalog and English, and this is unsustainable for Filipino diversity. I am only 24, and it frightens me that in the same amount of time, many Philippine languages may become extinct.

Perhaps the most concerning threat to Philippine languages is the low level of knowledge about them. The vast majority of Filipino society do not even know that the tongues they call “dialects” are, for the most part, full-fledged languages. This is not a case of the public not remembering the proper terminology taught in school. It is a case of the schools themselves misinforming their students, with textbooks and teachers erroneously calling Ilocano, Hiligaynon, Bikolano, and the other languages as mere dialects. This claim, whether intentional or not, dangerously undermines the importance of the other Philippine languages. Losing a dialect is losing one variant of the same language, but losing an independent language—which represents thousands of years in the making—is even more serious. In dismissing a language as a dialect, therefore, one absolves oneself from the urgent responsibility to protect it.

Why is it incorrect to refer to Philippine languages as dialects? The mainstream, internationally accepted definition of a dialect is that it is mutually understandable with another dialect. That is, speakers of different dialects should be able to understand each other. If you say Ilokano and Kapampangan are dialects, for example, that implies that an Ilokano person and a Kapampangan person can understand each other even if it is the first time they have heard the other dialect. But that is clearly not the case. A Kapampangan cannot understand Ilokano, and visa-versa. Kapampangan and Ilokano, therefore, are separate languages. This applies to the rest of the 100+ languages of the Philippines. In fact, many Philippine languages have less in common with each other than European languages have, like Italian and French.

If you don’t believe that the various mother tongues of the Philippines are languages, go research for yourself. Check on Wikipedia. Check on Ethnologue, the world’s compendium of languages. Check your very own Constitution! Article XIV, Section 7 correctly refers to the vernaculars as “languages”, and further recognizes them as “auxiliary official languages in the regions.” It is also interesting to note that the Constitution proclaims these regional languages as “auxiliary media of instruction.” This means that penalizing a pupil for speaking a major Philippine language like Ilokano or Pangasinan violates the most supreme law of the Philippines. To put it simply, teachers and schools who have punished or fined their students for speaking a vernacular have actually broken the law. Those who feel reluctant to use the local language in school—don’t be ashamed. You have a constitutional right to do so.

Even though many people misuse the word dialect, I must clarify that dialects do exist in the Philippines. The true meaning of dialect, however, is not what the general public is familiar with. In truth, dialects represent variations of the same language. Southern Tagalog, for example, is different from Manila Tagalog. These would be correctly classified as dialects (i.e variations) of one language, Tagalog. Similarly, the Iloko spoken in Ilocos Norte is a little bit different from the Iloko spoken in La Union and Isabela, yet they can still all understand each other. These regional differences are dialects, but viewed together they make up the whole Iloko language. Similarly, Bikol Legaspi and Bikol Naga City are dialects of the Bikol language. By this criteria, there are 300 dialects in the Philippines, representing 120 or more distinct languages.

As explained by Dr. Andrew Gonzalez, former DepEd Secretary and Professor of Linguistics at De Le Salle University: “The other Philippine languages (not dialects), as of the last count, were put at 120 (see McFarland, 1993). If one adds the varieties which are mutually intelligible (hence genuine dialects), the estimate extends to over 300. Part of the confusion in the literature on the Philippines during the American period (l898 to l946), and even now among non-linguistically trained academic researchers, is that authors still speak of the 120 Philippine languages (by linguistic definition, mutually unintelligible) as if they were `dialects’.”

Now that you know your local “dialects” are in fact complete languages according to the international community and according to mainstream science, any threat to their survival should be taken very seriously. If children are not speaking the mother tongue as fluently as their parents, and if local languages continue to be excluded from media, education, and business, then you risk losing something as important, as old, and as celebrated as the English language itself.

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