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In Other Words by Paul Morrow

Media War!

New letters spell trouble

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  Isabelo de los Reyes
Isabelo de los Reyes in 1912
  T.H. Pardo de Tavera
T.H. Pardo de Tavera did the earliest and most extensive work on the new spelling
  Jose RIzal
Jose Rizal was a champion of spelling reform
  Pascual Poblete
Pascual Poblete in 1922
  Pablo Tecson
Pablo Tecson in the early 1900s
  Francisco Baltazar aka Balagtas
A highly romanticized portrait of the 19th century Tagalog poet Francisco Baltazar (Balagtas). His spelling was the standard model for Tagalog until Jose Rizal and other reformers improved it

Are you Kapuso, Kapamilya or Kapatid? Does it really matter which side you choose in the ongoing battle between the TV network giants, GMA, ABS-CBN and TV5? Over one hundred years ago there was another media war that probably nobody remembers. It only lasted a few months but it was the opening skirmish in a revolution that would eventually shape the modern Filipino nation.

In 1889 two unusual newspapers appeared at almost the same time in Manila. What made them remarkable was that they were not written exclusively in Spanish – they both included some content in Tagalog. During the colonial period, newspapers were not written for ordinary Filipinos. Their target audience was the ruling minority of Spaniards, who lived mainly in Manila, as well as foreigners and the few well-educated mestizos and natives. The vast majority of the population did not speak Spanish and the authorities were not inclined to teach it to them. This made it easier to censor “radical” foreign ideas like liberty, justice and human rights.

The first of these new publications was the conservative Revista Católica de Filipinas (Catholic Review of the Philippines) in early 1889 followed in July by a bilingual edition of the more progressive and secular La España Oriental (Eastern Spain), which had started as a Spanish-only newspaper the year before.

The content of Revista Católica, for the most part, was religious, while the stated aims of La España Oriental were to provide Tagalog readers with practical information about science, agriculture, industry, commerce and dealing with government bureaucracy. In an era that was dominated by a Church authority that some people have likened to a “Catholic Taliban,” there were plenty of ways for La España Oriental to get into trouble. Surprisingly, it was not religion or politics that sparked the war between the two newspapers. Instead, it was the seemingly small matter of spelling.

La España Oriental had chosen to use a new method for spelling Tagalog words that had recently been developed. In a footnote of their first Tagalog edition, the publisher, Isabelo de los Reyes, explained that they would “use the orthography [spelling] recently introduced by… learned Orientalists… believing that it better composes and represents the words of the Tagalog language.”

Old way of spelling

Up until that time, Tagalog spelling followed the rules of the Spanish alphabet, which does not use the letters k and w except in foreign words. Spelling all the k syllables was a bit complicated – ka, ke, ki, ko, ku were spelled ca, que, qui, co, cu. Similarly, the g syllables were spelled ga, gue, gui, go gu. Words like kain (to eat) and gawa (to do) were spelled cain and gaua but in their past tense forms these looked like completely different words – quinain and guinaua.

In the old spelling, the sound of w was represented by either o or u but in no particularly logical way. The word gawa was spelled gaua but araw (sun or day) was spelled arao. Irregularities abounded involving other letters such as y and the vowels e and i. It all made learning to read and write much more difficult than necessary for Tagalogs and other Filipinos. The new spelling would be easier and more logical.

The mudslinging begins

The publisher of La España Oriental probably expected some resistance to the new spelling. De los Reyes wrote in the first Tagalog edition that if enough readers objected to it, the newspaper would switch back to the old way of spelling. He probably did not expect the savage campaign of scornful and malicious attacks that his rivals at Revista Católica launched as soon as his paper hit the streets.

Pascual H. Poblete of Revista Católica ridiculed the new spelling, saying that Tagalogs would not know how to pronounce the letter w and he supplied several bogus examples of how the letter would be misread.

Another writer, Pablo Tecson, accused the new spelling advocates of tampering with the Tagalog language, saying that if they thought Tagalog spelling was illogical and inferior, then they were accusing the language of the same thing and therefore La España Oriental was essentially insulting its Tagalog readers and maligning the late great Tagalog poet Francisco Baltazar (a.k.a. Balagtas).

La España Oriental defended its position with arguments that emphasized the technical merits of the new spelling and its value in advancing literacy. However, Revista Católica’s attacks quickly moved from the matter of language to a barrage of mudslinging that practically accused the new spelling advocates of being traitors to Spain. They called the letters k and w “German” letters – a charge that pandered to the xenophobia of the time because Germany was looking to start its own empire in Asia, and Spain was feeling threatened, especially in the Caroline group of islands, east of the Philippines.

“If our religion, our laws, our customs and our entire mode of being are Spanish,” wrote Pascual Poblete, “why do we have to use some letters that are not genuinely Spanish, and why do we have to pronounce the syllables ge and gi like the Germans do and not like our brothers across the seas? Are the letters that have been taught to us not enough for us to express our ideas and thoughts?”

Poblete also attacked the qualifications of the new system’s advocates, saying that none of them was a pure Tagalog. Isabelo de los Reyes, was an Ilokano who wrote fluently in Spanish and Tagalog. The person who did the most extensive work developing the new spelling, T.H. Pardo de Tavera, was a mestizo Spanish-Tagalog. He was also a friend of Ferdinand Blumentritt, the German speaking Austro- Hungarian expert on Filipino culture. And although he was not mentioned by name, the future national hero, Jose Rizal, was a Tagalog with some Chinese in his background. Rizal was known to be a big fan of German culture and he actively promoted the new spelling.

Thus Revista Católica had turned the issue into one of slander and breast-beating patriotism worthy of today’s Fox News. Their condescending articles reached the depths of silliness that is comparable to the farce of 2003 when some Americans decided to call French fries and French toast “Freedom fries” and “Freedom toast” after France had refused to support the US invasion of Iraq.

The rise of a new alphabet

But for all their bluster, Revista Católica could not keep a good idea down. While the spelling debate raged in 1889, Filipino lexicographer Pedro Serrano Laktaw (formerly Lactao) published his monumental Spanish-Tagalog dictionary using the new spelling. That same year, Filipino expatriates in Spain established the reformist newspaper La Solidaridad (Solidarity) in which Jose Rizal published a decisive article (in 1890) that clearly explained and defended the new spelling and also refuted the slanderous attacks of Poblete and Tecson.

In January 1890, after only a few months in competition, it became apparent that the market was still too small for two Tagalog newspapers in Manila. So, putting the cause of Tagalog literacy above their differences, La España Oriental and Revista Católica merged to form a single independent newspaper called La Lectura Popular (Popular Reading). Isabelo de los Reyes became its editor-in-chief and his former rivals, Poblete and Tecson, also contributed and helped in the editing. They continued a series of articles criticizing the new spelling but it was soon abandoned and left incomplete. The matter of Tagalog spelling within the pages of La Lectura Popular itself was also left unsettled with some writers using the new spelling and others using the old.

Meanwhile, as unrest grew in the 1890s, the new spelling became a symbol of Filipino independence from Spain. Members of the Propaganda movement including Mariano Ponce and Marcelo H. del Pilar y Gatmaytan (formerly Gatmaitan) were early converts to the new spelling. It was also integral to the identity of the revolutionary Katipunan society that was formed in 1892. The k was prominent in the group’s name, Kataastaasang, Kagalang-galangang Katipunan ng mga Anak ng Bayan (Supreme and Venerable Society of the Children of the Nation) and in the name of their newspaper, Kalayaan (Freedom). And like La España Oriental before them, Katipunan documents also suffered from a short- age of k’s and w’s in their type sets and often had to substitute these letters with bold or italic versions. The letter k was also featured in several Katipunan flags, both in its Roman form and as the ancient baybayin character, ka.

After the wars

Pascual Poblete continued to write after the wars against Spain and the United States. He was the first person to translate the Bible and Jose Rizal’s Noli me tangere into Tagalog. He also wrote a biography of Rizal in Tagalog and he even accepted some of the spelling reforms that Rizal had helped to establish – some but not all. Poblete used the letters w and y according to the new spelling but he didn’t let go of gue and gui, and he only used the letter k in place of qu; everywhere else he continued to use the letter c.

Today we can see that the new spelling eventually won the media war, even though remnants of Spanish spelling can still be found in some native words – mainly in personal names like Catacutan and Lacanilao, and place names such as Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao. In some places the tug-o-war continues, as in Kalookan or Caloocan in Metro Manila.

Other Philippine language groups adopted the spelling reforms too, but without strong institutions to implement them, the old traditions still linger. The two spelling systems still compete in the Kapampangan literary community. Spanish spelling persists in the Bacolor camp where, ironically, it is called Tutûng Ca- pampáñgan (True Kapampangan) while Súlat Wáwâ (Wawa writing), based in Guagua, follows the Filipino abakada. (Notice that both towns retain the Spanish spellings of their names.) But for most Kapampangans, the choice of spelling methods is seen as generational, with only traditional churches and the oldest generation still using the Spanish way of spelling.

As more generations of students throughout the Philippines learn the national language, the colonial mentality is gradually fading – in spelling, at least.


  • Thomas, Megan C. 2007, K is for De-Kolonization: Anti-colonial Nationalism & Orthographic Reform
  • Pangilinan, Michael R.M. 2006, Kapampángan or Capampáñgan: Settling the Dispute on the Kapampángan Romanized Orthography.

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