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Paul Morrow

   The basics of Filipino pronunciation

      Part 3 of 3 • everyday speech




In part one of this series I said that to learn proper Filipino pronunciation, there is no substitute for listening to and conversing with real Pinoys. That is how I learned and now I’d like to share some of the things I have picked up that are not very obvious in written Filipino.

Spelling and pronunciation

In most languages, the written word is only an approximation of how people really speak. In some languages, like Chinese, the writing has almost nothing to do with pronunciation at all. But, compared to most languages, Filipino spelling does an excellent job of describing how a word should be pronounced. Back when the national language of the Philippines was called Pilipino, not Filipino, there was a rule that said a word should be spelled the way it is pronounced and it should be pronounced the way it is spelled. Even so, there were some exceptions, which remain today.

The word ng

I remember when I started to study Filipino; one of my first big problems was the word ng. How the heck should I pronounce that? It’s just two consonants! Where is the vowel? As I later discovered, ng is actually an abbreviation of a word that is similar to the English word of. It is pronounced nang but it is always abbreviated because it is used so frequently in Filipino speech and writing. There is another word that is actually spelled nang and pronounced the same way. It has several meanings such as when and in order to, etc.

NG is also a letter in the Filipino alphabet. It used to be called nga in the former Pilipino alphabet (regardless of Florante’s Abakada song); consistent with all the other consonants (Ba, Ka, Da, etc.), which were all pronounced with the A vowel. Unfortunately, the current Filipino alphabet has abandoned all the Filipino names for the letters in favour of the English and Spanish names. NG is now called N.G., as in English.

The word mga

Mga is another very common Filipino abbreviation, which is pronounced mangá. You’ll never see it written in full, except in very old books. It is the plural form of ang, which is similar to the English article the. Mga makes nouns plural just like the letter S does in English and it takes on the meaning of "approximately" when dealing with numbers.

The English sounds of J and SH

It is not clear if Tagalog originally had the sounds of J or SH like in English. The ancient Tagalog baybayin script had no J, and the letters S and H were never combined in the English fashion. When the Tagalogs switched from the baybayin to writing with the Spanish alphabet, there was still no way to write these sounds. The Spaniards had no SH sound and the sound of their letter J was different from the English J.

The J sound

Before the current Filipino alphabet adopted the letter J, the old Pilipino spelling method combined the letters D, I and Y to approximate the sound of the English J. Words like janitor, generator, jeep and junior used to be spelled diyanitor, diyenereytor, diyip and diyunyor. This might have caused some confusion or perhaps it sparked a fad for applying the English J sound to all Tagalog and Spanish words that just happen to contain the letters DIY or DIA. Many people now pronounce words such as diyan, diyabetes, diyamante, diyaryo, diyes, diyeta, and diyos as jan, jabetes, jamante, jaryo, jes, jeta, and jos.

So, which sound should we use, J or DIY? It depends on the word, the context, and the impression you want to make. If you always choose the J sound, it may sound too slangy in some formal situations. On the other hand, if you are too strict about the use of the DIY sound, you may sound like a snob. Listen to how Filipinos around you use these sounds and then assess the context.

The SH sound

The letters S, I and Y are used to approximate the SH sound of English, and just as in the case of DIY, this sound is often used indiscriminately – even in words that perhaps did not have the SH sound before. Words such as siya, kasiya, pasiya, siyete, siyam and siyopaw are often pronounced sha, kasha, pashya, shete, sham and shopaw. Again, listen to Pinoys and let your ears be your guide.

AU becomes O

In part one of this series, I mentioned the words kaunti and sauli where two vowels are pronounced as one. Both words are formed by the connection of a prefix to a root word: ka+untî (a small amount) and sa+ulì (return something). In ordinary speech the A and U in these two particular words are often mixed together so that most people usually pronounced them as konti and soli respectively. They are even spelled that way in comic books.

My last tip for learning Filipino pronunciation is to have courage. Learning any new language can be frustrating and embarrassing at the start because we are forced to speak a kind of baby talk. But, if we let our pride stop our tongues, we’ll never speak a new language. So now, grab a dictionary – and a patient Filipino friend – and start practising.

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