Language of the Month: Tagalog

Coming from an ethnically mixed background, I’m used to hearing another language spoken in the household or when visiting our relatives on the other side of the world. This language, mainly used by my mother and her side of the family, is called Tagalog. To the uninitiated, even the name itself sounds exotic. To their ears, the rapid rhythm of the exotic tongue peppered with seemingly random Spanish and English words has the ability to raise eyebrows. Many people have asked me a variety of questions about the language so I thought I’d write a blog article on it. I hope you’ll find it interesting!

Sample of Tagalog text

It is the national language of the Philippines and there are around 90 million native speakers and 10 million more who speak it as a second language. It is also used as a lingua franca in the Filipino diaspora around the globe, particularly in the United States (where it is the second most widely spoken Asian language after Chinese), Canada, the UK, Italy, the Middle East, Hong Kong, Japan and Australia.

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The red area is where Tagalog is traditionally spoken

The name is a portmanteau of two words taga and ilog which mean from and river respectively. Tagalog is one of 185 languages indigenous to the South-East Asian archipelago of 7,107 islands. Tagalog speakers, or “River Dwellers” as the name literally means, originally inhabited along Pasig River, the main river that runs through the capital city of Metro Manila which today is home to 22 million people. Shortly after independence from Spain, an official language had to be chosen and in 1936 Tagalog became one of the two official languages (the other being English). Although also known as Filipino, many people often refer to it as Tagalog, to keep the original name.



Characterised by a much simpler phonology (consonantal and vowel sounds) and a highly complex system of verbal affixes, Tagalog belongs to the Philippine branch, to which all of the 185 indigenous languages also belong. In turn, this branch is part of the Malayo-Polynesian subfamily under the gigantic Austronesian family of languages that covers the entire Pacific Ocean, Malaysia, Indonesia and even Madagascar, but excluding Australia. As the name implies, Tagalog shares linguistic commonalities with Malay, Indonesian, Māori, Tongan, Fijian, Hawaiian, to name but a few. Here’s a table below illustrating the common cognates (words with same origin) between Tagalog, Māori, Malay and Fijian: 

During the more than 3 centuries of Spanish colonisation, Tagalog had absorbed a wealth of Spanish words and phrases, just like English had absorbed words of Norman French origin after the 1066 Norman invasion. Tagalog used to be written in its own Baybayin or Alibata script which is based on the older Brahmi scripts used in the Indian Sub-Continent and Indonesia.

You may notice that the two pairs of vowels e and i, and o and u are represented by two single symbols. This is because in the older Tagalog version, there were only 3 vowels and the vowels e and i were interchangeable as were o and u. The same is true for d and r which were represented by the same single symbol.

Since the Spanish colonisation, it is now written in the Latin script. The examples below show how Spanish words had been adopted in Tagalog:

Nagmamaneho ako papunta sa trabaho nang alas otso imedya ng umaga. 

The underlined words and phrases are clearly from Spanish, adapted according to Tagalog grammatical and spelling rules: manejo (drive), trabajo (work), a las ocho y media (at half past eight). The above sentence is translated in English as: I’m driving to work at half past eight in the morning.

Tagalog also adopted many English words into its vocabulary, subject to Tagalog orthography, during the short American colonisation of the islands. Spanish and English are not the only languages that have left their marks on Tagalog. For centuries beforehand, the Philippines had been exposed to influences from China, Indonesia, India, the Arabian Peninsula, and Persia and their lexical influences have shaped Tagalog. For example, many words of Sanskrit origin are in relation to religion because Hinduism had been introduced to the Philippines, alongside Islam and, of course, more recently Christianity such as bathala meaning deity or god, and words of Arabic or Persian origin are to do with justice or morality such as hukom meaning judge. Strangely, there is a word that comes directly from Persian (Farsi), alak which means alcohol!

Being Austronesian, Tagalog is not tonal, however stress and glottal stop both play an important role in differentiating meanings. The word suka can mean 2 very different things (vomit; vinegar) depending on the position of stress and glottal stop (a glottal stop is the sound you make when clearing your throat softly, like the ‘t’ in Cockney English water). Accents in the olden days were used in writing to indicate this but they were recently abolished. For example: sukà (where à indicates a stressed initial syllable and a glottalised final syllable) – vinegar but suka (stressed initial syllable) – vomit. Another example is baga (ember, live coal) pronounced with a stressed initial syllable; bagà (lung) pronounced with a stressed initial syllable and glottalised final syllable; bagâ (tumour) pronounced with both a stressed and glottalised final syllable; bagá (interrogative particle) pronounced with a stressed final syllable. Today, speakers must memorise which meaning is intended when reading though context usually makes it clear.

It is a verb-initial language. This means that in a nominal sentence, the verb usually comes first before anything else. For example, kumain ako ng puto translated word for word goes like this: ate I rice-cake. Sometimes the basic word order can be VOS (verb-object-subject). English is normally VSO.

Nagluluto ng adobo* ang kusinero. – The chef is cooking adobo. 

Literally: Is-cooking adobo* the-chef.

[*The adobo is the national dish of the Philippines, made with chicken or pork stewed slowly in a sauce of native sukà vinegar, soy sauce and garlic and served with steamed rice.]

It’s worth noting that words in a Tagalog sentence always have markers (like the little words ng and ang seen above) in front of them. They are used to show their relationship to the main verb which can be prefixed (a little bit of unit expressing a meaning attached to the beginning of a root), circumfixed (a prefix and an ending attached to a root), infixed (a unit incorporated inside a root) or suffixed (an ending) with one or two or even three or four out of a vast array of different affixes depending on context and meaning. As previously mentioned, the verb is probably the most complicated aspect of the Tagalog language for learners, especially whose first language is not an Austronesian one. For example, let’s look again at the previous example: Nagluluto ng adobo ang kusinero (The chef is cooking adobo).

In this example, the verb is nagluluto (cooking) which comes from the root luto. It is the most basic unit that carries the concept of cooking. If we want to use it as a verb, we add the prefix mag- (this prefix means, more specifically, to do the action indicated by the root word) so that the root becomes magluto. This is the infinitive, to cook.

Now, the prefix mag- not only turns it into the verb infinitive but also highlights the actor or subject as the focus (that which would answer the who question) and this is shown by the marker ang in front the word kusinero (chef) as seen in the first example below:

  1. Nagluluto ng adobo ang kusinero. – The chef is cooking adobo.
  2. Niluluto ang adobo ng kusinero: – The chef is cooking the adobo. 

In the second example above, if you want to emphasise on the direct object then you need to change the verbal affix and then move the ang marker to the front of adobo (the direct object). This would answer the what question.

A peculiarity of Tagalog is the ability to turn any noun into a verb using the mag- prefix. For instance, mag-Tagalog means to speak Tagalog and magkape means to drink coffee. 

  • Nagta-Tagalog ka ba? – Are you speaking Tagalog?
  • Nagkakape na kami. – We are drinking coffee now.
  • Magtatrabaho sila bukas. They will work tomorrow.
  • Nagkuwintas siya kahapon. She wore a necklace yesterday. 

Although nouns are not marked for case as they do in some European languages because markers are already used for this, there are two things called ergative and absolutive cases which exist in Tagalog. This simply means that the subject, rather than the direct object, of a transitive sentence is marked.

  1. Natutulog ka. – You are sleeping.
  2. Nakikita mo sila. – You see them.

In the first example, the sentence is intransitive (it has no direct object) so the subject pronoun (underlined above) is in the absolutive case. In the second sentence, there is a direct object so the verb is transitive which causes the subject to be marked in the ergative case. But these cases are only employed if the main verb takes the ma- prefix.

Just to jazz it up, Tagalog is an agglutinative language, like Turkish, Hungarian or Finnish where basic roots can turn into long words. Usually, it is the Tagalog verb that does this. There are phrases like this:

Nagpapatahitahimik siya. – He is trying to be quiet. 

Two Tagalog words into six English words.

Let me break the verb down into manageable chunks:

nagpa + pa + tahi + tahimik

The underlined word above (tahimik) is the root meaning quietness. It is also an adjective so, quiet. It is prefixed with the magpa- plus reduplication of the first two syllables to convey the idea of attempt. In Tagalog, time is expressed by aspect rather than tense like English. Aspect is divided into three basic main parts: contemplated (future), incomplete (present) and complete (past). The verb above is incomplete so the prefix is nagpapa- (mag- changes to nagpa plus a reduplicated initial -pa-) plus a reduplicated disyllable of the root so -tahi-. All this big agglutinated chunk of informative unit is then attached to the root to  give the meaning of trying to be quiet.

See? Tagalog verbs are crazy.

Furthermore, roots can be turned into adjectives adding the ma- prefix:

ma (adjectival prefix+ ganda (beauty) = maganda (beautiful)

ma + lakas (strength) = malakas (strong)

Adjectives also have plural forms by reduplicating the initial syllable of their roots: magaganda, malalakas.

 Example sentences:

  • Maganda ang bahay. The house is beautiful.
  • Malalakas ang mga kabayo. The horses are strong. 

Mga (pronounced mangá) is added in front of a noun to make it plural.

The prefix -um- can be used with adjectives to give the idea of something or someone becoming something.

  • Lumalaki ang puno. – The tree is getting big. (from the root laki bigness/greatness)
  • Lumalakas ang kabayo. – The horse is becoming stronger.

To end this article, I will leave you with some few useful basic Tagalog phrases:

  • Kumusta! – Hello!
  • Mabuhay! – Welcome!
  • Kumusta ka? – How are you? (Informal, familiar, singular)
  • Kumusta (po) kayo? – How are you? (Formal, polite, plural)
  • Mabuti ako, salamat (po). – I am fine, thank you (sir/madam).
  • Magandang umaga (po). – Good morning.
  • Magandang tanghali (po). – Good day/afternoon.
  • Magandang hapon (po). – Good evening.
  • Magandang gabi (po). – Goodnight.
  • Paalam na (po). – Goodbye.
  • Kita na tayo mamaya! – See you later!
  • Ikinagagalak ko kayong makilala. – Pleased to meet you. (Polite)
  • Ikinagagalak kitang makilala. – Pleased to meet you (Informal)
  • Maraming salamat (po). – Thank you very much, (sir/madam).
  • Walang anuman (po). – You’re welcome.
  • Opo. / Oo. – Yes.
  • Hindi (po). – No.
  • Maligayang pagdating sa Pilipinas! – Welcome to the Philippines!
  • Ano ang pangalan mo? – What is your name? (Informal)
  • Ano po ang pangalan ninyo? – What is your name? (Polite, formal)
  • Danny ang pangalan ko. – My name is Danny.
  • Ilang taon ka na? – How old are you? (Informal) 
  • Ilang taon po ba kayo? – How old are you? (Polite, formal)
  1. isa
  2. dalawa
  3. tatlo
  4. apat
  5. lima
  6. anim
  7. pito
  8. walo
  9. siyam
  10. sampu
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