Notes & Essays

"Language's Evolution Has No Respect for Nationalist Deadlines"

Gémino Abad on Tagalog-Filipino as the national language, and the futility of trying to legislate literature.

Language is my obsession. When E.E. Cummings speaks of the rain as having “such small hands... somewhere I have never travelled, gladly beyond experience,” I think, apart from the poem itself, of a paradox at the heart of communication and expression: that it may be we reap gladness of meaning only after we have passed beyond the experience, but that the words of any language have, like the rain, little grasp of it.

Our Constitution asserts that “Filipino is the national language,” but almost unsays it at once with (1) “As it evolves, it shall be further developed and enriched on the basis of existing Philippine and other languages,” and (2) “for purposes of communication and instruction,” both English and Filipino are “the official languages ... until otherwise provided by law.”

“National” and/or “official”—such is language’s chicanery; as to “basis,” the main one is Tagalog. And as to the law “providing” the reality—that is a legislator’s illusion. Our Constitution only contemplates an ideal that is perfected by action. Thus it recognizes the evolutionary nature of any language. A long time is, since we are short-lived, what we most resent. Yet time is language’s native element, and there the rain falls to shape those fertile clods of our seeing. Such small hands indeed by which we take hold of that we call “our reality.”


"For a national language is not simply a 'working language' or medium of communication between speakers of different regional languages; it is above all a medium of expression."


From its basis or provenance, Manila Tagalog as lingua franca to Filipino as national language—that, it seems to me, is the evolutionary pace that our Constitution recognizes. As lingua franca, Tagalog is essentially oral, a linguistic chameleon differing from region to region in various “working” ways and evolving with rambunctious vigor in the street and marketplace, through mass media and the movies. It is what we have ready to tongue for simple and ordinary conversation, but its written form or literature will take much longer to evolve.


Nothing is ever wrong with a lingua franca; what may go wrong is only our attitude toward language whose chief legislators are really its speakers and, most especially, its writers—for so long as their readers then produce their literature and so create the standards and values of their language. Only then does a national language, inchoate in lingua franca, take on more definite shape.

For a national language is not simply a “working language,” or medium of communication between speakers of different regional languages; it is above all a medium of expression. This is a crucial distinction. Communication is the community’s speech, its oral culture with little memory. Expression is the individual’s voice, somehow above language, for it first invents its words and then makes a clearing within the community’s language. I say, invent, because the writer finds his words, not in any dictionary but within himself as he lives his life in his community; thus, he gives form and voice to the community’s image and memory of itself.

It is the individual then who fathers his people’s literature; I should have said, its deepest letters. It isn’t language that gives rise to literature; it’s rather literature that forms a people’s tongue, the language of their blood. The genius of the language itself seeks out those whom it shall master; they in turn will write its masterpieces by which we learn to speak the language of our blood. Without a strong literature, there can be no national language; without that racial memory its literature secretes, no people endures.

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This is what most needs to be done—for writers to write their great works, and for our people to read them and create their literature. No legislation can make this happen, only love—but how does love for one’s country, pride in one’s regional culture, joy in the language of one’s childhood, come about? ... Yet that love must move our writers and their readers.

Without a strong literature, there can be no national language; without that racial memory its literature secretes, no people endures.

In the 12th century, says the poet William Durbin, “Latin began to break up as the language of Europe [and] a new language grew up—a Latin of the place—the vernacular. This new language became so individual that people had trouble talking even with people from the next town down the road. But the poets put together a style built on the old Latin but also adjusted to the vernacular which had the freshness of the local places.” And so, through the great poets, Dante, Cervantes, Shakespeare, Goethe, there came about those national languages.

I see no other route for Filipino arising over time from Tagalog as the lingua franca adjusted to the local places. Every shortcut would only be a short circuit. Gradually, then, without definite time-frame, for language’s evolution has no respect for nationalist deadlines; and without coercion, for freedom itself is language’s joie de vivre.

It would be silly to jettison any language—in our case, Spanish and English; in fact, our Philippine languages have assimilated and recolonized them. Our college graduates too must have more than a rain’s hold on English; they must travel gladly beyond the island of their experience.


We must deal with Tagalog-Filipino both as medium of communication and medium of expression. Communication, for we need to understand each other across the straits of our diverse cultures and speeches; expression, for we need to make clearings within our accepted ways of feeling and customary habits of perception. Where the written word as forger and shaper of our perception and sensibility becomes our scripture, there our writers create our sense of country. For one’s country is what one’s imagination owes its allegiance to.


This article originally appeared in Esquire Philippines' September 2013 issue.

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Gemino Abad
Gémino Abad is a university professor, poet, and literary critic.
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