Transformations of Tagalog Identity: Preliminary Notes

Some preliminary notes on a survey on Tagalog identity


The term "Tagalog" commonly raises associations with the language of the same name. Internationally, the language has become so important and well-known, that the term Tagalog has largely lost its association with the original Tagalog people, the inhabitants of the regions around what is today Metro Manila.

On the other hand, the Philippine state has since the 1970s basically relabeled Tagalog to be the Filipino language. In the state"s narrative, the language of Metro Manila, Tagalog with many loanwords, then with further additions of loanwords was to become this "Filipino" language (Gonzalez 1980). Since then, supporters of this narrative portray the Tagalog language not completely as dead but as in a status that can be described as frozen.1 Assuming that this redefinition had been accepted by a majority of people, the Tagalog people would have lost one of its essential identity markers.

Seen from either perspective, it would be likely to assume that the Tagalog people have lost much of their Tagalog identity in favor of a national, Filipino identity. This paper describes the preliminary outcomes of a survey that was conducted with the aim of examining the current identity of people in traditionally ethnic Tagalog areas.

The Survey2

The original aims in creating the survey were threefold:

  1. Examining the definition of the terms Tagalog and Filipino as understood by native speakers and the correlation of this definition with the Philippine state"s
  2. Examining the priorities with which people in traditional ethnic Tagalog areas rank different identity markers (e.g. language identity, national identity, regional identity)
  3. Examining correlations between these data

To answer these questions, Filipino classes in high schools were identified as the best possible place for conducting the survey. As determined by the Rizal Law of 1956, the novels Noli me Tangere and El Filibusterismo, written by José Rizal, are to be read and studied in high schools. Today, they are commonly read in the ninth and tenth grade respectively. It may thus be assumed that the stories are roughly familiar to every student in tenth grade, and as there are very old translations of the texts to Tagalog available, the level of proficiency students have in old Tagalog can relatively easily be examined.3 Consequently, the survey was to be handed out to students in the tenth grade (fourth year of high school).

Choosing schools as the place of conducting the survey brought a number of advantages, but also set limitations on the survey. Advantages include the high availability of participants to fill out the survey and the relatively consistent sample. On the other hand it restricted the possible duration of answering the survey. To resume classes as quickly as possible, it had to be assured that the survey was short and quickly answerable. Questions thus had to be made as simple as possible.

After asking for basic personal information (grade in school, age, gender), the first question aims to determine whether the respondents have a non-Tagalog family background. In the next two questions, students are asked which identity marker - language, region, ethnicity, adjacent metropolitan area4 or other - they rank most important for themselves and how they perceive the importance of the question of identity overall. Questions four and five directly ask about the native language of the participants and their definition of what the terms Tagalog and Filipino mean.

Whereas all these questions were consciously formulated to be as straightforward as possible, the following three questions deal with the language use and perceived proficiency of participants less overtly. The sixth question asks about the perceived frequency of the participant"s use of loanwords, data which needs to be collected when discussing the state"s narrative on the language. The seventh and eighth question use an excerpt from Pascual H. Poblete"s translation of Noli me Tangere, which was the first translation of the novel into Tagalog in 1909, and accordingly uses a very old variant of the language with barely any loanwords, to examine the participants" perceived skill in understanding this old, now uncommon variant of Tagalog.

After the initial creation, the questions were translated into Tagalog and the survey was finally conducted in July 2014 among tenth grade high school students in Cavite.5 138 participants answered the survey.

Preliminary Results


Among the 138 participants of the survey, there was an even gender distribution at 70 females (50.72 per cent) and 68 males (49.28 per cent). The age range was much more diverse, given that all participants were in the same grade of high school. The youngest single participant was 13 years old while the oldest were 19. The average age was 15.46 years.

Out of these, a total of 70 participants (50.72 per cent) had at least one parent from Cavite, reflecting that the survey was conducted in a relocation area. The others had parents coming from all over Luzon and the Visayas. In contrast, none had a mother language other than Tagalog/Filipino.

In ranking their identity markers participants mostly ranked national identity highest. 72 out of the 138 participants answered Filipino (52.17 per cent). Second highest ranks regional identity with 40 identifying themselves primarily as Caviteño (28.99 per cent) and another 10 (7.25 per cent) answering with other regions. Finally, 16 primarily identified themselves as Tagalog (11.59 per cent).

127 participants answered that they perceived thinking about identity as important (92.03 per cent). The remaining 11 did not answer the question (7.97 per cent).

Regarding the term they use for their native language, an overwhelming majority answered that they called it Tagalog (101 participants, 73.19 per cent). Only 29 participants answered "Filipino" or "Pilipino" (21.01 per cent). The remaining eight participants answered in a way expressing that for them Tagalog and Filipino were one and the same thing (5.80 per cent).

The next question, in which participants were asked to name the differences between Tagalog and Filipino was formulated as an open question. Consequently, the answers were grouped based on the statement made by the participant for the analysis. A majority of 81 participants (58.70 per cent) saw no difference at all. Only 26 (18.84 per cent) students gave answers following parts of the official definition of the Filipino language. Out of these, 16 students answered the question in reference to the issue of loanwords (11.59 per cent), and 8 described Tagalog as a regional language unrelated to Filipino as a national language (5.80 per cent), while another two referred to the level of speech, describing Tagalog as a polite form of Filipino (1.45 per cent). A third major group were those 21 participants describing Tagalog as a language while, according to them, Filipino referred to all the Filipino people and not a language (15.22 per cent). The remaining 8 participants answered in less informative ways such as choosing to not answer, answering that Filipino was a school subject or simply answering with yes (5.80 per cent).

Somewhat astonishing answers were given for the last three questions, where the answers showed a much higher perceived proficiency in "traditional" Tagalog than may be expected.

Answering how they assessed their use of loanwords, a majority of 89 participants (64.49 per cent) noted that they used these sometimes. 35 participants answered that they used them more frequently (25.36 per cent), with 9 answering that they used loanwords "always" (6.52 per cent) and 26 answering that they used them often (18.84 per cent). 13 per cent answered that they used them rarely (6.52 per cent).

Finally, in accessing the text sample from Pascual H. Poblete"s translation of Noli me Tangere, astonishingly few participants noted having difficulties. 10 participants wrote that the sample was clear and easy to understand (7.25 per cent), while 88 participants noted having had only few difficulties in reading it (63.77 per cent). On the other hand, 34 described it as hard to understand (24.64 per cent) and another 5 as very hard (3.62 per cent).


The most obvious result of the survey are surely, that it gives strong evidence of the little importance of Tagalog, be it the language or the ethnicity, as an identity marker (Question 2) and the low level of recognition of the official definition of Filipino vis-à-vis Tagalog enjoys among the Filipino people (Question 4, 5).

The answers to question 2 point to another remarkable result: the high value attributed to regional identity, especially Caviteño identity even among participants with parents from other places. Since the participants came from a relocation area, the strong regional identity usually attributed to Caviteños (Constantino 1981, 183-185) appears unlikely to be a reason. A further analysis based on Carsten"s (1995) observation, that there is a very fast process of adjusting one"s regional identity by "strategically forgetting" about one"s family background may offer a much more plausible explanation.6

The descriptions of perceived differences between Tagalog and Filipino give evidence of the low level of success the state has in making students follow its definition. Many, if not most, Filipinos identify as Filipino, but their definition of what identifying as such often remains diffuse. As Mulder (2013) points out, there is a large difference between identifying with the Philippines as a nation and identifying with "Filipinoness" (58). Instead of identifying with Filipino or the Philippines" history, there is a strong identification with Filipino culture and unpoliticized symbols of it. This, according to Mulder, is a result of the "hollow ring [nationalism in the Philippines has] to it" (57) due to curricula not offering a coherent, causal history of the country and focusing on insignia rather than content, and the anti-social role model the political elites present.

Participants" frequent use of loanwords reflects both the development the Tagalog/Filipino language has taken in the last decades as well as the strong influence of nearby Metro Manila and, most likely, labor migration on the region.7 A notable correlation can be found between the answers to question 4 and 6: 11 of the 29 participants who named their native language Filipino or Pilipino answered, that they used loanwords either "often" or "always" (37.93 per cent; 7.91 per cent of the complete sample), whereas only 21 of the 101 participants to name their native language Tagalog answered such (20.79 per cent; 15.22 per cent of the complete sample). This may hint at a partial success of the state"s narrative, since those who followed it in identifying their native language accordingly also identified their use of loanwords as more frequent and thus more consistent with the state"s definitions.

Finally, the test of student"s perceived proficiency in old Tagalog offered astonishing results. On the one hand, the high number of participants who answered that they had little to no problems hints at further difficulties in drawing any line between old Tagalog and modern Tagalog/Filipino in terms of speakers. Second, this data may be useful in evaluating theses such as that of "hollow nationalism" (Mulder 2013) according to which Filipinos supposedly do not understand their national symbols such as the presented text. Arguing along similar lines, Joaquin asserts that Rizal"s novels were read as a duty, a tribal duty" (1965, 39-40) and not appreciated, understood or remembered. This assertion, too, may have strong regional differences in its correctness.

Prospects for Further Research

To follow the original aim of the research, the survey will have to be handed out at other schools in traditional Tagalog areas. Additionally other areas should ideally also be included in the future to diversify the sample and collect data regarding differences to other ethnic groups.

This initial sample also shows possible adjustments to the survey. Questions certainly missing with the given survey are those about the concrete form of identification participants have with the Philippines or being Filipino.

Finally, conducting the initial survey in a relocation area adds new, not originally planned aspects to the study. It may be worthwhile to change the focus of the study towards an analysis of identity formation in relocation areas in the Philippines.



Following this narrative, to give an example, the question marker ba is not a Tagalog word anymore. Instead the outdated, now only regionally used, and longer form baga is supposedly the real Tagalog term and will remain so. Pers. com. with Virgilio S. Almario, Komisyon sa Wikang Filipino.


For raw data, please contact me through mail.


Given the state"s definition of Filipino and the distinctness of Tagalog and also the popularity of "Taglish" (A mix of Tagalog and English), it would be likely that students have massive problems understanding these. Rizal originally published his novels in Spanish.


This was included due to the geographical proximity of Metro Manila and the strong influence the megacity holds in the area where the survey was conducted.


The municipality where the survey was conducted is not given to protect the privacy of the participants. Apparently, the school is located in a relocation area (mostly populated during the Marcos Era), which greatly influenced the results. See below.


Carsten decidedly restricts her conclusions to "the periphery of the Southeast Asian State." In this case, the subjects of research are geographically located almost at the heart of power and yet evidence hints at a confirmation of her observation.


At the time approximately 10 per cent of the Philippines" population are working abroad. As described by Aguilar et al. (2009) and Lauser (2005), cultural exchange is largely facilitated through the exchange of goods. It is most likely to assume, that common words from areas to which migrants move are also taken over, especially in light of chain migration of many migrants from the same areas to the same host country.