Filipino VS Tagalog - What's The Difference? (Is It The Same Language?)

avatarMille Larsen
10 mins read

Tagalog and Filipino are two languages of the Philippines of the Austronesian language family.

Or are they actually one and the same? That's an often debated subject that people can't seem to agree on. The reality is that the two languages are practically the same thing. The names are also used interchangeably by most Filipinos and the main difference mostly is a question of perspective.

Filipino is a modern language that builds on Tagalog, which is the regional language spoken on the Luzon island by the Philippines' capital city, Manila by the Taga-Ilog-people, the "river-dwellers"". The Filipino language was created as a national language for the Philippines, a country of over a hundred languages and ethnicities, and the idea was to borrow from all the major languages of the country. In reality, Filipino remains almost identical to Tagalog, only with more foreign loan-words and a few more letters in the alphabet.

The names "Tagalog" and "Filipino" are used almost interchangeably today in the Philippines and many see the Filipino language project as a failed attempt to unify the many ethnicities of the Philippine islands. Some feel as if the plan to create a common language for all of the country ended up resulting in just picking the language spoken in the capital and giving it another name, excluding the rest of the population. Others want to build upon it an evolve it.

To better understand the difference (and similarity) between Tagalog and Filipino, let's have a look at the history of how the language came to be.

The History Of How Tagalog Became Filipino

Before the Philippines became the Philippines, it was an archipelago of many smaller islands with different groups of people who each one spoke their own language. To this day over 182 languages are spoken on the island group.

When the Spanish colonizers arrived in the 16th century, they started introducing the Spanish language to the archipelago as a common Lingua Franca. The Spanish language quickly became common on the islands, but in the same time, the Spaniards began studying the local languages, especially Tagalog.

One reason for the Spanish interest in Tagalog might be that it was the language spoken by the Taga-ilog people who lived by the Pasig River on the Luzon island. This is the location of Manila, the city that the Spanish turned into the new Philippine capital city in 1571.

In 1613 the first Tagalog-Spanish dictionary was published and in the same period, religious texts and different literature was being published in Tagalog, both in the classic Baybayin script, but also in a first attempt of writing Tagalog in the Latin script.

While the Spanish didn't take any specific actions towards making Tagalog an official language in the Philippines, the initial attention to the Tagalog language as well as the perceived preference of Tagalog over other important Philippine languages might have planted the seed for the later importance of the Tagalog language in the country.

In 1898, when the Spanish lost the Spanish-American war, after over 300 years of Spanish dominance, the Philippines changed hands and now came under American rule.

Due to a strong dissatisfaction with the new American dominance, however, in 1935, the Philippine Commonwealth was established as a form of transitional system while the country moved towards independence.

In the same year, it was proposed by the Philippine Assembly that an official, native language should be chosen among the ethnic languages of the Island state. Many people pointed to Tagalog, namely because of its preexisting literature and "sophisticated grammar structure" which was perceived as being a better fit for a national language than other Philippine languages.

Even though Tagalog had a rich history and it being the language of Manila, the capital city, it was far from being the language of the majority. Even today, Tagalog is spoken as a native language by less than a third of Filipinos.

Despite of this, Tagalog was picked for the basis of a new national language and by 1937, it began being taught in schools all over the Philippines.

In 1959 the Tagalog language was officially renamed to "Pilipino". The reason for the spelling with a "P" in stead of an "F" or a "Ph" was that the "F" sound didn't exist in the Tagalog language (as well as a couple of other letters from the Latin alphabet).

The reason for changing the name was an effort to try make the language seem more like a "national" language instead of the ancestral language of the Tagalog people.

In 1987 it was renamed again, this time to Filipino and it was announced that the language was to be developed by including words and structures from the other Philippine languages.

Despite of these intentions, however, Filipino remains very close to Tagalog today. The main difference between the two are that Filipino has adopted a 28-letter alphabet, making it easier to adopt foreign loan-words.

The Tagalog And Filipino Alphabets

While the original script used to write Tagalog was the Baybayin script, a script dating from the 14th century, today, both Tagalog and Filipino are written with variants of the Latin script.

For over 300 years, Tagalog was written using Spanish orthography but in 1940, the "Abakada" alphabet was introduced. Abakada is a 20-letter version of the Latin alphabet, specifically adapted to Filipino and how it's pronounced.

In 1987, however, the Filipino alphabet was officially "updated" to a 28-letter version. One of the main differences between the new and the old alphabet was that the new, 28-letter version had all of the standard 26 letters of the international "ISO" alphabet as well as the specifically Filipino letter, "Ng" and the Spanish "Ñ".

One could say that the 20-letter version of the Filipino alphabet is much more purely Tagalog whereas the 28 letter version is adapted for borrowing words from other languages, which is more in line with the ambitions of the Filipino language.

So in the following I'm going to compare the 20-letter alphabet and the modern 20-letter version as a "Tagalog" alphabet and a "Filipino" alphabet.

20-Letter, TagalogEnglish28-Letter, FilipinoEnglish
A a"A" as in "cat"A a"A" as in "cat"
B b"B"B b"B" or "V"
C c"K" or "S"
D d"D"D d"D"
E e"E" as in "element"E e"E" as in "element"
F f"F" or "P"
G g"G"G g"G" as in "good" or "giraffe" or as "H"
H h"H"H h"H"
I i"EE"I i"EE"
J j"J" as in "Jack" or "H" as in "hello"
K k"K"K k"K"
L l"L"L l"L"
M m"M"M m"M"
N n"N"N n"N"
Ñ ñ"nj" as in "Niño" (nin-yo)
Ng ng"Ng" as in "wrong"Ng ng"Ng" as in "wrong"
O o"O"O o"O"
P p"P"P p"P"
Q q"K"
R r"thrilled R"
R r"thrilled R"
S s"S"S s"S" or "Z"
T t"T"T t"T"
U u"OO"U u"OO"
V v"V" or "B"
W w"W"W w"W"
X x"Ks"
Y y"Y"Y y"Y"
Z z"S" or "Z"

As seen in the above table, there are more sounds in the modern Filipino alphabet than in the 1940 20-letter version.

In the 1987 28-letter alphabet, the following letters were introduced:

  • C which can be pronounced both as "k" or as "s" which is the case for many Spanish and English loan-words.
  • F which is normally pronounced like the English "F" but also often as "P" which is the letter that used to replace the "F" sound in Tagalog.
  • J which can be pronounced like the English "J" in "Jack" or as in Spanish where it's either a "H" sound, or a more guttural "cleaning-your-throat" sound.
  • Ñ which is pronounced as "ny" like in "niño" or "Español" and only in Spanish loan-words
  • Q which is pronounced like "K" in foreign loan-words.
  • V which is normally pronounced like the English "V", but sometimes like "B" because this is the letter that used to replace the "V" sound in Tagalog.
  • X which is pronounced "KS" in loan-words.
  • Z which is pronounced either as an English "Z" or as "S" because the "Z" sound didn't use to exist in pure Tagalog.

Other differences in pronunciation include:

  • G - which is "pure" Tagalog is pronounced like the "G" in "good", but when including foreign loan-words, it can be pronounced like the "G" in "giraffe" as well as like "H" which is often the case with Spanish loan-words.
  • S - which in "pure" Tagalog is pronounced only as an "S" sound, but in many modern loan-words as a "Z" sound.

As it might be more or less clear from the above, although modern Filipino has 28 letters in the alphabet, the 8 new letters aren't always treated like new sounds, but are often pronounced like already existing sounds from "pure" Tagalog.

Many who argue that modern Filipino is a different language from Tagalog might not take into consideration that the language, despite its new letters, is pronounced almost exactly as it has always been.

Differences In Vocabulary Between Tagalog And Filipino

When speaking of the distinction between Filipino and Tagalog, many often bring up the fact that Filipino is less conservative in its acceptance and inclusion of foreign loan-words and new vocaculary.

One of the ambitions in the 1987 Philippine constitution was, in fact, to allow for both foreign languages, but also local Philippine languages such as Cebuano and Ilocano to influence the new Filipino language with new words and structures.

This doesn't seem to have happened in a very high extent, however.

It is true that Filipino has a high degree of foreign loan-words that are used on an everyday basis. But this is also the case for the Tagalog language that used to be spoken on the Luzon island in the Philippines. In fact, some sources point out that 33% of Tagalog words are actually of Spanish origin.

Tagalog, traditionally, also has loan-words from Arabic, Chinese, Malay, English and a large variety of other languages from a wide array of different language families.

Add to this that the people of the Philippines often don't distinguish between Tagalog and Filipino as two different languages. This means that if new loan-words start being used, they aren't limited to being used formally in one of the two languages.

Conclusion - Is Filipino Actually A Language?

The task to compare two languages is in fact very difficult when it isn't entirely sure what distinguishes the two languages from one another.

Filipino, or at least the idea behind Filipino, was created as an attempt to make a common language that all of the Philippines could agree on. Preliminary work was done, so the alphabet could better include foreign words and the name was changed so it didn't refer to a specific group of people.

In reality, however, it seems like it's the same thing only in new packaging. To turn Filipino into a language apart from Tagalog, much more work needs to be done and it might take a long time.

And it doesn't seem like an easy feat at all.

Languages are largely organic, meaning that they change over time and in accordance with how they're used. While you can certainly appoint a board of linguists to sit down and develop grammar and vocabulary, it also needs to make sense.

How would you make people change the way they already speak? And is the national narrative a strong enough argument to make it happen?

Only time can tell, and the national language of the Philippines surely hasn't found its final form yet.