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Spanish in the Philippines

By Ian Mackenzie, University of Newcastle upon Tyne

1. Introduction

The Philippines were incorporated to the Spanish crown in 1571. The capital, Manila was founded by López de Legazpi (originally the Mayor of Mexico City) on 24th June 1571.

Spanish achieved rather less success in the Philippines than in the Americas. This appears to be due to a number of factors, primarily the low numbers of Spanish settlers in the islands and the peripheral location of the islands within the Spanish Empire. Fray Miguel de Benavides remarked in 1595:

En México hay ahora innumerables españoles, no sólo de los idos de acá, sino de los naçidos allá, que ya son como naturales de allá […] y no sólo hay esta multitud de españoles en la çiudad de México, sino también en otros ynumerables pueblos, de suerte que ya aquel rreyno y rrepública está aún en la gente muy mudada, lo qual no es ansí en las Philippinas, porque aunque en la çiudad de Manila ay españoles, pero en los pueblos de los yndios no vive español ninguno, y ansí están los pueblos de los yndios sin haçer en ellos mudança ninguna como se estavan antes que los españoles allá fuesen. (Cited p. 206 in L. Hanke Cuerpo de documentos del siglo XVI, Mexico, FCE, 1977.)

To reach the islands from Spain, the usual route was via Veracruz in Mexico, with an overland journey to Acapulco, to board the Galeón de Manila. Until the opening of the Suez Canal, Spanish communication with the Philippines was conducted entirely through Mexico and indeed throughout the colonial period the Islands formed part of the Viceroyalty of New Spain.

Unlike in the Americas then, Spanish never came to be the general language of the Philippines. There were efforts in the late 18th and 19th centuries to expand the provision of free schooling, which involved the obligatory teaching of Spanish. However, the slow process of Hispanization came to an abrupt halt in 1898, when sovereignty was ceded to the USA. The USA spent vast sums on establishing the usage of English in the Islands and on dismantling the educational apparatus set up by the previous administration. From 1935, Spanish and English co-existed as official languages in the Philippines, but in the Philippine Constitution of 1987 this status was withdrawn from Spanish. Thus according to the constitution, Pilipino (i.e. Tagalog) and English are the official languages of communication and instruction, while ‘Spanish and Arabic shall be promoted on a voluntary and optional basis’.

According to the latest figures, 1,816,773 persons or 3% of the population speak Spanish. To that figure can be added the 1,200,000 speakers of Chabacano or Philippine Creole Spanish. Thus the total number of Spanish and Spanish Creole speakers in the Philippines is just over 3 million.

2. Philippine Spanish

2.1. Pronunciation. In Philippine Spanish there is a tendency to raise the mid vowels /o/ and /e/:


[tinÈia] tenía

[Èkumen] comen

[ÈnuÈse] no sé

[semuÈbjo] se movió

The other salient feature involving vowels is the frequent insertion of a glottal stop [/] before stressed syllable-initial vowels, as occurs in indigenous Philippine languages:


[È/alma] alma

[poÈ/eta] poeta

[paÈ/is] país

Turning now to consonants, the following facts are worthy of note:

The statistically most frequent realization of /f/ is bilabial [¸]. Occasionally, the realization may be [p], which mirrors the process whereby Spanish /f/ is usually merged with /p/ in indigenous Philippine languages (which all lack the phoneme /f/).

Alveolar sounds tend to become palatalized when they appear before [j]:


/s/ + [j] ® [Sj]: [neÈgoSjo] negocio


/n/ + [j] ® [ø]: [matRiÈmoøo] matrimonio


/l/ + [j] ® [´]: [sanÈda´a] sandalia

Some speakers preserve a distinction between [s] and [T], but most are siseantes (i.e. the /s/ ~ /T/ distinction is eliminated in favour of /s/).

Considerable variation attaches to the articulation of /x/ in the Philippines. The most common pronunciation is [h], although [x] is not unknown.

Virtually all speakers preserve the distinction between /´/ and /Æ/.

Among some speakers, /´/ may depalatalize in initial position: [Èlubja] lluvia.

2.2. Vocabulary. In keeping with the islands’ historical links with the Viceroyalty of New Spain, the Philippine vocabulary contains quite a few Latin Americanisms. Many of these stem ultimately from indigenous Latin American languages: bejuco ‘liana’, maguey (a kind of sisal), guayaba ‘guava’, camote (a type of sweet potato), maní ‘peanut’, tiangue ‘street stall’, petate (bedroll made from matting), atole (hot maize drink). Others stem from Castilian Spanish, but with the distinctive American meaning: lampazo ‘mop’, lampacear ‘to mop’, mancuernas ‘cufflinks’, estar parado ‘to be standing up’, fósforo ‘match’, escampar de la lluvia ‘to shelter from the rain’.

There is also the usual sprinkling of archaisms and regionalisms: ¿Cuál es su gracia? ‘What is your name?’, ¿Mande? ‘Sorry?’, sobretodo ‘overcoat’, terno ‘suit’, vapor ‘boat’, nortada ‘north wind’, corcovado ‘hunchbacked’; aretes ‘earrings’, candela ‘candle’, alcancía ‘pocket’, ábrego ‘south wind’, tirabuzón ‘screw’, quebrado ‘suffering from a hernia’, cajón ‘coffin’, herbolario ‘folk healer’.

There are also certain words that have acquired a specific meaning or phonetic shape in the Philippines: balasar ‘to shuffle’ (compare mainstream barajar), almáciga (type of soft wood), aparador ‘cupboard’, apetitos ‘hors d’oeuvre’, abogadillo (legal advisor without status of lawyer), alabado ‘beggar’, tubero ‘plumber’, tapa (dried salted meat), sinigüela ‘cherry’ (compare mainstream ciruela), castila ‘Spaniard/Spanish language’, bolador ‘kite’, salamanquero ‘conjurer’, juramentado ‘insane’, lanceta ‘penknife’, hijo del sol ‘albino’, casco/cascó ‘large boat’.

Finally, there are borrowings from indigenous Philippine languages: bolo (type of machete), abacá (plant that produces Manila hemp), baguio ‘typhoon’, jambunguero ‘braggart’.

For more information consult A Linguistic Introduction to Spanish by Ian Mackenzie, University of Newcastle upon Tyne, LINCOM Studies in Romance Linguistics 35, ISBN 3 89586 347 5.


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