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Paul Morrow

   The basics of Filipino pronunciation

      Part 2 of 3 • accent marks




Last time we talked about how to pronounce the Filipino vowels and consonants. Getting them right goes a long way to at least sounding like we’re fluent in the language. Another important aspect of pronunciation is the rhythm of the words; knowing which syllables should be stressed and which should not. This is important since the meanings of many words can change depending on which syllable is stressed.

There was a brief time, from the 1940s to about the 1960s, when accent marks were a standard part of written Filipino (then known as Pilipino) but they gradually fell out of fashion. Fortunately, we can still turn to dictionaries to learn the stress patterns of words. A good Filipino dictionary should show accent marks – some of the cheap ones don’t. Knowing what each of the accent marks signifies is a necessity for learning correct pronunciation, but we don’t need to know a lot of complex grammatical terms if we just want to pick up a dictionary and find out how to pronounce a word we have never heard before.

Accent names

O.K., I lied. Here are a few little technical terms that will help us in this discussion. These are the three basic accent marks (mga tuldík) that we’ll see in a Filipino dictionary:

Pahilís – Acute

Paiwà – Grave

Pakupyâ – Circumflex

These marks are only placed above vowels but they don’t change the sound of the vowels like they do in other languages such as French. They only mark which syllables should be stressed, or if a vowel should be clipped short with a glottal stop or both. Notice that the name of each tuldík contains the very accent mark that it describes.


The pahilís accent mark is the most common tuldík (hilís means slanted). It simply shows which syllable or syllables in a word should be stressed. The stress placement can make a big difference in the meaning of a word, as the following English examples illustrate.

  • An object is a thing, but if we find that thing disagreeable, then we may object to it.
  • A subject can be a citizen of a monarchy, but a tyrant may subject his citizens to cruel oppression.
  • A compound is something made up of several parts but if we compound a problem, we make it worse.

Stress placement is even more important in Filipino because there are many more words with double or even triple meanings depending on which syllable is stressed. The pahilis mark shows where the stress should be placed in the following examples.

  • báon (bag lunch, savings) – baón (buried)
  • báta (bathrobe) – batá (suffer)
  • gáling (come from) – galíng (skill, luck)
  • hápon (afternoon) – Hapón (Japanese)
  • samantála (meanwhile) – samantalá (take advantage)
No accent mark?

Many words in Filipino dictionaries don’t have accent marks but this does not mean that they are unstressed. Most dictionaries omit the pahilís mark when it falls on the second to last syllable because this is the most commonly stressed syllable in Filipino words. So, when we see an unaccented word in a Filipino dictionary, we pronounce it as if there were a pahilís mark above the second last syllable. For example, babae is the same as babáe and lalaki is the same as laláki. Also:

  • mabuhay = mabúhay
  • mabuti = mabúti
  • umaga = umága
  • hapon = hápon, etc.

The paiwà mark is only found at the ends of words. It does not mark a stress on that syllable. Instead, it signifies that the vowel sound should be clipped short in the throat. (Iwà means slash, as with a knife.) The technical term for this is a glottal stop or glottal catch. Anglophones can compare this to the common exclamation that signifies shock or dread, “uh-oh!” where the first part, “uh-” is clipped and separated from the “oh”. If there are no other accent marks in the word, we must stress the second last syllable. Here are more homonyms that have the paiwà tuldik:

  • bata (bathrobe) – batà (child)
  • baga (ember) – bagà (lung)
  • suka (vomit) – sukà (vinegar)

The pakupyâ mark mimics a kind of Filipino hat called a kupyâ. It looks like a combination of the pahilís and the paiwà marks and, indeed, it combines the functions of the two marks. This symbol signifies both a stress on the marked syllable and a glottal stop on the vowel. It is also found only on the final syllable of a word. For example:

  • basa (read) – basâ (wet)
  • Hindi (an Indian language) – hindî (no, not)
Accent marks and conjugation

Accent marks not only tell us how to pronounce words but they also give us a clue about how to conjugate words so that we can change their meanings.

Using our example of basa (read) and basâ (wet), let's say we want to tell someone to read this article: "Basahin mo ito." (Read this.) We might know that in this case we need the "in" affix to give the command, "read this." This affix can be confusing for some students because sometimes it's "in" and sometimes it's "hin." How do we know which one to use? Well, we just need to remember that if a root word does not have a glottal stop at the end (marked with a ` paiwà or a ˆ pakupyâ), it needs the H to flow into the next syllable. Without the H, "basahin ito" would acquire a glottal stop and become "basaín ito," which means, "Wet this." It could be embarrassing.

  • basa - basahin
  • basâ - basaín

It works the same way with the "an/han" affix:

  • sama (root word meaning "companion") - samahan (to accompany someone)
  • samâ (bad) - kasamaán (the concept of evil)

So, with all that we know now – the vowels, the consonants and the accent marks – we should be able to read any word in a dictionary and pronounce it just like a real Pinoy, right? Well, almost. Common Filipino speech has a few idiosyncrasies that are not apparent in most dictionaries. We’ll talk about them next time.

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