Feb 23, 2011

Why do Filipinos use "F" and why do they confuse their "fees" and "epps"?

Dear Filipino,

Why is "Filipino" spelled with an "F" when there is not even an "F" in the Pilipino alphabet? And why do many Filipinos pronounce their F's as P's?

Rene Astudillo

Dear Rene,
The Filipino admiring St. Stephen's
Basilica with his daughter.

For several days in the last week, I was with my wife (and the kids as well) in Budapest, Hungary to celebrate our 12th wedding anniversary.  But it was a special trip for my wife and I for two other reasons: The country was the 26th we've visited (we are aiming for 50 before age 50) and the city proved to be a traveler's must-see -- i.e., it has lots of fantastic sights and a history so colorful I wish we had a real historian as a local guide.

But ask my two kids (one is almost 8 and the other is 5 1/2) what stuck to them the most about the trip and you'll likely get a version of this: "Wow! The Hungarian language uses lots of Z's!" 

And it's true -- the letter "Z" is indeed everywhere in Budapest, from the street signs to the ads to the names of places and things (and also, apparently, in lots of Hungarian verbs).  That's because, of the 44 letters in the "greater" Hungarian alphabet (which is really an extension of the Latin language even though it's used to write the Hungarian language which is a member of the Finno-Ugric language family), 4 have the "Z" as an integral part (a glyph) of the particular letter -- i.e., Dz, Dzs, Sz and Zs -- on top of the stand-alone Z.  (In orthography, the Hungarian letters Dz, Sz and Zs are called digraphs while the letter Dzs is called a trigraph. )

The bus lane in Budapest which prompted The Filipino's
son to ponder the question: "If bus is spelled as busz in
Hungarian, how do you spell chess in Hungarian?"
I placed the word greater in quotation marks because the Hungarian alphabet also includes the letters Q, W, X and Y which are only found in words considered foreign to Hungarians.  In other words, there is what's referred to as a "smaller" Hungarian alphabet which contains only 40 letters.

Like the Hungarians, the Japanese has an orthography which uses a comparable, albeit more complex, way of writing their language.  I'm talking here of course of the three Japanese writing systems: Kanji, which is actually composed of traditional Chinese characters which have Japanese translations; the Hiragana which is used to write Japanese words not covered by Kanji; and the Katakana which is used primarily for transcription of foreign language, loan words, as well as technical and scientific terms.

Ooppss!  Somebody forgot the Z!
By now, you're probably thinking: "Arigatō for all these info, but what the 'epp' are you talking about and how is this intro even related to my question?"

Well, allow me to explain further. 

I don't know about you, but when it comes to understanding my Filipino-ness, it has been my experience that I just understand things better when I look for explanation outside the Philippines, and, though difficult sometimes, search for clues and parallels beyond my very Filipino frame of mind.

For instance, the very premise of your question is that the "Pilipino alphabet" does not have "F" in it.  But the premise is only correct if you're approaching it from a perspective which uses pre-Hispanic phonemes as basis.  In other words, we don't have the "F" if you're thinking of the "smaller" Filipino alphabet which had only 20 "letters" -- i.e., the old "Abakada" as created by Lope K. Santos in 1940 which he supposedly patterned after the Baybayin despite the fact that the latter is actually technically a syllabary, not an alphabet, and in any case is written very differently from Latin-based alphabets.

But as a matter of fact, like the Hungarians, we also have had a "greater" alphabet, which at various times had either 28, 29, 31 or 32 letters because we were using the Spanish orthography which had digraphs like the Ch, Ll and Rr and because we were also using all the letters in the English orthography following the take-over of the Americans as our new colonizers.  And actually, we could easily have had more if, like the Hungarians, we considered the vowels which use diacritical marks like the acute, the grave and the circumflex as separate letters.  And it would actually have made sense because we pronounce vowels very, very differently depending on the words used.  For instance, the "o" in guro (Tagalog for "teacher") should be written with the circumflex (as in gurô) because it is pronounced very differently from the "o" in siguro (etymologically Spanish but is now also the Tagalog word for "maybe"). 

In any case, the understandable confusion around our alphabet finally stopped in 1987 when we adopted what is now known as the "Modern Filipino Alphabet."  This alphabet is made up of 28 letters and includes the entire 26-letter set of the Basic Modern Latin alphabet, the Tagalog digraph Ng, and the letter Ñ which was bequeathed to us by the Spaniards.

And speaking of the Spaniards, the word "Filipino" is itself -- it should come as no surprise -- actually Spanish ("efe" is one of the 27 letters in the Spanish alfabeto).  The term, derived from the name given to the country by our Spanish colonizers to honor their king, was originally used to refer to Spaniards born in the Philippines (also called the insulares) and to distinguish them from Spaniards born in Europe (the peninsulares).  However, according to historian Ambeth Ocampo, our national hero José Rizal appropriated it for all of us and was the first to call the indigenous inhabitants of the islands Filipinos.  Thus, because of Rizal, the term Filipino began to be widely used to refer to the natives by the end of the 19th century.

But if the country is called the Philippines, why are we not called Philippinos instead?  According to Daniel Engber of Slate:
The Philippines have only been called the Philippines (with a "Ph") since the United States bought the country from Spain around the turn of the 20th century, after the Spanish-American War. Under Spanish colonial rule -- which extended back to the 16th century -- the country had been called "Las Islas Filipinas," after King Felipe II. For Americans, Felipe was Phillip, so Las Filipinas became the Philippines. While the name of the country changed, the name of the nationality did not. Those who lived in the renamed Philippines were still called Filipinos.
But where did the word "Pilipino" come from?  Engber further explains that:
The term "Pilipino" derives from the convoluted story of how the Philippines got its national language. There was no official, native language under Spanish and American control. Those living on the islands could be divided into as many as 120 different groups, each with its own way of talking [175 actually, according to Ethnologue]. The desire to create a mother tongue increased when the United States pulled out of the country and the Philippines became a commonwealth in the 1930s. A national institute was given the task of making one of the native languages official.
In 1936, this institute, the Institute of National Language, selected Tagalog as the basis of the national language but incorporated elements of the country's other native languages.  The Abakada alphabet created by Santos in 1940 was also officially adopted to "indigenize" the writing system.  However, because of the almost 400 years of combined Spanish and American influence, the newly adopted alphabet was seen as inadequate and impractical because many consonants used regularly by locals were missing in the Abakada. 

Moreover, because speakers of the other Philippine languages were upset and felt marginalized, the government saw it fit to rename the national language into "Pilipino" instead in 1959.  But why "Pilipino" and not "Filipino"?  As already alluded to above and further expounded on by Engber:
The developers of the mother tongue looked back to the alphabet that was used before the Spaniards took over (and in the early years of Spanish rule). The native script, called "Baybayin," had fewer than two dozen letters and didn't include the sound for "F." Though the letter "F" had been incorporated into the language during the centuries of Spanish influence, the country's post-colonial leadership chose to return to the original alphabet. [NOTE: Here, I think Engber also made the mistake of thinking Baybayin is an alphabet rather than a syllabary.]  Foreign words that used "non-native" sounds were respelled to fit the Baybayin-based alphabet. C's became K's, X's turned into SK's, and the letter F became a P. [NOTE: This is akin to the Japanese way of transcribing foreign words using Katakana.]  Filipinos who spoke Tagalog became Pilipinos who spoke Pilipino.

The debate over the national language continued for decades. A constitution written in the early 1970s (drawn up as Ferdinand Marcos instituted an eight-year stretch of martial law) promised to create a new national language called "Filipino." The next constitution, from 1987, made the change official, designating Filipino -- which uses a larger alphabet and incorporates foreign sounds -- as the national language. With the letter "F" restored, presumably those who speak the national language are now, once again, Filipinos.
Now, onto your other question: Why do many Filipinos confuse their F's and P's? 

Indeed, many of us do and I know for a fact that this "pronunciation confusion" has also been a source of jokes, to say the least.  Worse, it has also been a source of prejudice and disdainful elitism.  I've personally seen it many times that Filipinos with a more Americanized way of speaking English go way beyond teasing and look down with an unwarranted sense of superiority upon those who speak the language with a "Filipino accent."

And for many of us who grew up in the provinces, the teasing and the condescension cause, at the very least, a lot of hurt "peelings." ;-)  In fact, for the typical provinciano, speaking English with a strong Filipino accent can be costly because it can mean less career opportunities and even alienation in an environment (say, a top school or a business organization) which prizes fluency in spoken English. 

And when you think about it, it's really quite unfair considering, for provincianos like myself, English is really our third language. After all, we have our provincial language as our first and native tongue, and then we are forced to learn Tagalog and English too!  Now, compare us to the elitist folks who come mostly from Manila and who only needed to master English as a foreign language, and I say, if anything, we're supposed to be the ones "peeling" superior here, right?

But to go back to the crux of the topic, what's the real reason behind this Philippine phonological confusion involving the pronunciation of "F"? Well, it's simple really: Because, quite literally, our native Filipino tongues are still generally Malayo-Polynesian even if we've already adopted a more expansive alphabet as a country, even if we've undergone almost 400 years of colonization.  So, if you're a typical provinciano who, as I've said earlier, has had to learn not only the local language (most likely Malayo-Polynesian) but also Tagalog (definitely Malayo-Polynesian), your tongue -- in fact, your entire vocal tract -- is just not naturally hard-wired for words with the "F" phoneme (or for that matter, the "V" phoneme).  So unless you're exposed to English regularly (i.e., you're from a rich Filipino family or you were educated in top schools), or you are, say, an Ibaloi from Northern Luzon whose indigenous language contains the "F" phoneme, it's really not that easy to pick up the phonetic ability to pronounce "F" properly.

The vocal tract and places of articulation.
(Source: Wikipedia.)
And in fairness, pronouncing foreign words is really not easy for almost everyone, especially if the sound that needs to be produced is non-existent or has no comparables in one's native language.  That's why for the Anglicized ear, the French can't seem to pronounce "H" quite properly and the Germans and the Dutch appear to mistake "V" for "W" quite regularly when these people speak English.  That's also why the Brits can't quite produce the rolling "R" perfected by the Spaniards.  That's why learning to read Scandinavian languages is easier than learning to speak them because they use a lot of glottal stops and what-not.  That's why the Arabs, whose words are pronounced more throatily, will find learning a language like Vietnamese or Chinese, which are very nasal, very, very difficult.  That's why the Japanese, who don't really use "L" and "V" in their language, will pronounce "I love you" as "I rob you"!

Personally, I always have fun making my Western friends try to pronounce the word "ngayon" (Tagalog for "now") because it uses the digraph "ng" which is a velar nasal, a type of consonantal phoneme which most Westerners, try as they might, just seem unable to make.  Unfazed, they would try pronouncing the word many times and I would usually end up laughing even though I try not to.  Fortunately, my friends know I'm just having fun.  And to write it in Hungarian, I think they know I'm really juszt amuszed by their szilly attemptsz which yield nothing but erroneousz szoundsz.

Got a question for The Filipino?  Email him now at askthepinoy@gmail.com.


Rene Astudillo said...

Zhank you, dear Filipino. As always, your responses are very comprehensive and fun! Now it got me thinking if I should call myself Ilocano or Ilokano. . .

The Filipino said...

Szalamat din for your kind wordsz, Rene! If you're a Fil-Am sztud, I suggest you call yourself IloKanô. Note that my spelling uses two different O's: the first is a regular "o" while the second has the circumflex because the "o" in Kanô is actually supposed to be "maragsa".

Fogi said...

Great answers!
We should rename this blog to askafinoy !

JayRizzle said...

Great answer - thank you for sharing all the research and insight. I have to question the "organic-structural" hypothesis that forming the "f" is difficult. I say this because of the Filipino vocalists who sing many "f" word with no trouble. I cede that they are parroting because their off stage accents bear that out. Nevertheless they are forming the "f" with apparent ease.

bitiks said...

wow..this is a very detailed explanation....if i was asked by this question, my answer would be that it depends on what language we use when we speak "Filipino" or "Pilipino". Like when I say in Filipino, "Ako ay isang pilipino na marunong magsalita ng wikang pilipino.". So, if translated to English, would be something like this, "I am one Filipino who can speak the Filipino language.". For me, it is just so weird to say "I am a Pilipino" or "Ako ay Filipino", although the latter can be acceptable. By default, I think (and as explained by TF) we Filipinos don't have or speak the "efe" sound in our native language. So we usually localize or "Filipinize" the (foreign) words either intentionally or unintentionally, consciously or unconsciously during our day to day (Filipino) conversations. An example to this is "Pahingi naman ng pamplet.". In most cases, the "efe" is used to accommodate foreign words that have already been incorporated in our language culture like when we say "Hindi ko feel maglakad.".

The Filipino said...


Let's keef the blog name as is, flease. AskAFilipino is ferpect!

The vocalists you've observed have to be better at pronouncing the lyrics of the songs because they have to memorize and repeat the words many times.

Very good points & examples. It's actually amazing that many among us effortlessly shift from Tagalog to English even if, phonologically, the two languages are really very different.

Unknown said...

Good article! I used to remember my Tagalog teacher would not use the "f" sounds even if she is talking naturally out of class. She would always use "p" in every "f" sounding word.

Also, I ask even Westernize friends as well to pronounce "ngayon" but I always tell them to say "sing" first and then join the "ngayon" like "singayon" and then just drop the "si" and they seem to get it almost every time. Well, almost. :)

Rene Astudillo said...

I just found this YouTube post on this very subject. Bery puny!

Unknown said...

@Rene I was going to post the same thing! That video is very popular now in Facebook, as well (where I share the like to TheFilipino). :)

Here's the same one in Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/video/video.php?v=10150412452475268

Anonymous said...

You did it so good...you explained it so profoundly that anybody asking the same question again will be stumped.
Learning Scandinavian is like learning Filipino. There's a lot of glottal stops...but reading also our language is not easy for any one who does not speak our language. My husband says so. My husband had a hard time pronouncing the "ng" sound and he sometimes sounds so nasal articulating that combination. He also pointed out my difficulty in enunciating the "th" sound w/c most Filipinos have a hard time saying too----mispronouncing it as the "d" sound.

Unknown said...

@I Love-Hate: I know what you're saying about the "th"! My Caucasian husband always makes fun of me when I unconsciously say "NorTwest" instead of "NorTHwest". :)

filfrank said...

In Arabic, the letter 'P' is being pronounced as 'B' and the letter 'B' is likewise pronounced 'P'; i.e.: Papa(english- Baba(arabic); Push(english)- Bush(arabic). If a colleague of mine at work yelled or calll me by my family name, it sounded like the family name of the 'AFP whistle-blower'..(i feel uneasy huuh..), but thank heaven my workplace is in saudi arabia. There are quite a number of tagalog words associated in arabic words, like: Salamat-in arabic it is a way to convey a person's concern to a sick person or if a person get hurt; Basura-in arabic it is a collective way to call a child or children.

Mr.C E Fisk said...

I am the grandson of Native American Indians and have recently been introducted to some of the most kind, sweet, and good hearted people I have ever met. Yes they are Filipino. I cannot express in words the enjoyment I now have in living life, all because of my observations and interacions with Filipino.

Anonymous said...

I think they just do not know how to pronounce the words.

Anonymous said...

Very detailed explanation about the F and the P confusion! and yeah you nail it when you notice how Hungarians like the SZ syllables. Actually you have to pronounced it as a long s.

Unknown said...

hello, i'm from qc. i used to be too concerned about pronunciation, and i too looked down (just a bit) on our kababayans who can't pronounce their english sounds properly. it's a little bit bipolar since our cultural values have taught me to be courteous, polite and humble. i don't know something went haywired. hehehe! but i think it could be a reflection of what's going on at home because although my parents, grandparents and uncles and aunts taught me those values, they regularly poked fun at the way our local newscasters spoke english. ewan. haha!
but anyhoohoo, ever since my two visits in indonesia, my points of view have actually changed. i really don't know what exactly happened, but i'm happy to say that i now think that all these english pronunciation "problems" we have are reasons to celebrate. they are unique to us and i firmly stand on the truth that there is absolutely nothing wrong with the way we pronounce foreign words. when speaking any language, the goal after is all to be understood, and not to sound like a native speaker. however, i do have issues about grammar. i believe that we need to be fluent in our local languages and english separately. hearing those patched-together tagalog and english phrases and sentences feels like needles being jabbed into my ear drums. even worse are those english sentences that sound like literal translations of filipino sentences. i also feel mortified about those incorrectly conjugated verbs. aba, e inaaral natin 'yon sa grade school pa lang a. 'kainis!
even more horrifying are those pharisaic souls who glorify the filipino people's english "proficiency", along the way insult other nationalities whose command of the language is worse, but whose own grammar is making suntuk-suntukan. lol!
anyhoo, i'm an overnight fan of your blog. i consider myself an amateur hobbyist of linguistics and culture, and reading all your posts feels like reading my own thoughts (an amped up version).
party on!

Anonymous said...

Please don't forget what's right under our noses: our cousins and fellow ex colonies in Latin America and even Spain. They tend to replace or cheat by saying Vs like Bs, and at times Fs like Ps. The difference with theirs is that they are speaking ESPAÑOL, so it depends on where the location of that letter is in the word. It also depends on what word it is.


Unknown said...

^ The letters B and V in Spanish have inherently the same sounds, therefore no replacements take place between the two letters. As for the P sound replacing the F, I believe that's the first time I've heard of it. Could you please provide examples?

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