Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

Word Power, People Power: English and the Philippines

The recent death of Corazon Aquino has stirred memories of her shining moment in 1986, when she became President of the Philippines after a series of protests against the oppressive Marcos regime. The uprising was known both inside and outside of the Philippines as "People Power." The use of an English phrase for such a pivotal moment in national history is a reminder of just how important the English language has been to the Philippines since the advent of U.S. colonialism there more than a century ago. And the Philippines, in turn, has had an impact on English as spoken in other countries.

The island nation of the Philippines has more than 170 indigenous languages from the Austronesian language family, the largest being Tagalog with about 22 million speakers. Three and a half centuries of Spanish colonial rule left many linguistic traces (such as the widespread use of Spanish-derived names for people and places), but English ended up playing a much more prominent role in the modern Philippines, thanks in large part to the American educational system instituted in the early 20th century. Though Tagalog would serve as the basis for the national language Filipino, English is also recognized as an official language and is indeed the de facto medium of communication in such areas as business, government, law, and the sciences.

So it should not have come as much of a surprise that People Power was the alliterative banner under which the 1986 protests were carried out. It's a phrase with a long history in English: the Oxford English Dictionary, which defines it as "power of or belonging to the populace; esp. political or other pressure exercised through the public demonstration of popular opinion," has citations back to 1649 ("Speeches made by some Members of the Commons House ... to cry up their People-power, the better to Divert his Majesty"). But Cory Aquino and her followers made the term their own. Of course, despite the slogan, the anti-Marcos struggle wasn't primarily an English affair. Aquino and her fellow opposition leaders gave their stirring speeches in Filipino, joined demonstrators in singing the patriotic song "Bayan Ko" ("My Country"), and flashed the "L" sign for Laban ("Fight").

Though the influence of English on the Philippines is pervasive, the impact that the Philippines has had on English in general is a bit more subtle. I've put together a list of a couple of dozen words that have been borrowed into English from Tagalog and other Philippine languages. Most of these terms refer to flora and fauna: from carabao ('kind of water buffalo') to the wonderfully reduplicative ylang-ylang ('kind of evergreen tree'). Only a few have worked their way into everyday use outside of the Philippines. One such word is boondocks ('a remote and undeveloped area'), from the Tagalog word bundok 'mountain.' The toy name yo-yo is believed to have originated from the Ilokano word yóyo — imported into English by a Filipino-American, Pedro Flores, who opened the Yo-Yo Manufacturing Company in California in 1928. And the capital of the Philippines, Manila, has given us manila paper, which was originally made from Manila hemp (obtained from the abaca tree).

Meanwhile, much like other world Englishes, English as spoken in the Philippines has developed on its own peculiar course. The Oxford Companion to the English Language gives a number of coinages that have sprung up in Philippine English:

  • agrupation (from Spanish agrupación) 'a group'
  • captain-ball 'team captain in basketball'
  • carnap 'to steal (kidnap) a car'
  • cope up 'to keep up and cope with (something)'
  • hold-upper 'someone who engages in armed holdups'
  • jeepney (blending jeep and jitney) 'a jeep converted into a passenger vehicle'

If you ever travel to the Philippines (a trip I highly recommend), try hopping on a colorful and crowded jeepney, the main mode of public transportation in Manila and other cities and towns. The brightly painted vehicles were originally made from American jeeps left in the Philippines at the end of World War II, and they now have come to embody the bustling urban life of the country. The word jeepney, too, illustrates the fascinating confluence of the English language and Filipino culture. Think of it as People Power at a linguistic crossroads.

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Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday August 4th 2009, 3:07 AM
Comment by: chamahal (San Jose, CA)
Maybe my comment is more emotional than analyzing English Tagalog interaction! I live in US and in the process of learning English. The nickname I have chosen is combined of two words I got from my love from Philippines: Cha & Mahal. Cha is the short form of Charibelle and Mahal is love.
At this place I wish to remember the great woman Mrs. Corazon Aquino who had impressed me when I was young.

Tuesday August 4th 2009, 7:05 AM
Comment by: Bruce (Florence, SC)
I was stationed at Clark Field, near Angeles, Pampango Province for one year (1955). It was a very good year. I learned survival Tagalog by mixing with the Angeles and Manila populations. I will always have a soft place in my heart for the people. They suffered considerably especially in the 19th and 20th century but they remain friendly, cheerful, and optimistic. Tagalog is a fun language. The grammer is uncomplicated and the pronunciations tickle the palate.It is totally different but if feels and sounds a little like native Hawaiian.
Tuesday August 4th 2009, 10:26 AM
Comment by: Don H. (Antioch, CA)Top 10 Commenter
During the Marcos era we lived four years in Mindanao learning Cebuano. It was always fun to see how the Filipinos incorporated English words into their language. Their word for "refrigerator" was "pridgidar" — a bastardization of Frigidaire. I asked someone why a person had died. "Nakahiblud man siya," I was told. "Nakahiblud" has as its root "hiblud" — their co-opted and abbreviated form of "high blood pressure."

We loved the Filipinos and enjoyed many parts of its sunny and laid-back culture. Everyone hated the government. The Marcos reign exerted a pervasive and pernicious influence. They needed Akino.
Tuesday August 4th 2009, 1:03 PM
Comment by: Bruce (Florence, SC)
What a wonderful article by Mr. Zimmer (Deutch for "room").
Mr. Zimmer might be able to help me locate one of our members who is fluent in Japanese (Nihon go). I learned a lot of Japanese during my year and subsequent travels in Japan. I also have a diploma in Japanese from the Inlingua Institute in Atlanta. After several years of not speaking Japanese, I am trying to refresh my skills.
Tuesday August 11th 2009, 6:27 AM
Comment by: Josefina B.
Nice to read about my country.
Tuesday August 11th 2009, 12:13 PM
Comment by: Raju Kalampuram
Traveling across the Philippines was definitely fascinating. The sights and sounds are definitely awe inspiring for any curious traveler. Thanks very much for taking me back in time!

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