The basics of Filipino pronunciation
Part 1 of 3 • vowels & consonants
In this three-part series we’ll turn our attention to one aspect of learning the Filipino language – pronunciation. This is probably the first challenge for non-Filipino students, or even Canadian-born Filipinos. Mastering pronunciation is especially difficult if we don’t have access to formal lessons. There is some information on the Internet that can help us with pronunciation but most of it is in written form. And even where there is audio content, it can’t tell us how to pronounce every word that we want to know.
There is no substitute for listening to and conversing with actual Filipino speakers. When I was learning the language I pestered many friends with my questions – I still do, in fact. But, our friends can’t be expected to answer all of our questions. So, to get the most from our reading material, we must be able to determine the proper pronunciation of a word just by reading it from the page. Here are some tips to help us do that.
Getting the vowels right is the key to sounding like a real Pinoy. There are only five vowel sounds in the Filipino national language, also known as Tagalog. Some of the other regional languages have their own unique vowel sounds, but that is beyond the scope of this article. In short, anyone who is familiar with the vowel sounds of Spanish or Italian already knows the Filipino vowels. They are pronounced as follows:
One sound per letter
One of the most important things to remember is that the Filipino vowel letters only represent their basic vowel sounds. None of the letters are so-called diphthongs, which is just a fancy word for those vowels that change their sound while they are being spoken. For example, the English letter and word, I, is a diphthong. It starts with an ah sound, then it changes to an ee sound. Likewise, the English o, in words such as go, no and so, is pronounced rhyming with owe – after the initial o sound, we close our lips and almost make an oo sound. In Filipino, however, a single vowel letter does not change its sound while it is being voiced.
Practise saying the vowel letters in the list above, one by one, and remember that once you have shaped your mouth for a particular vowel sound, no part of your mouth should move while you are voicing the vowel. Do not move your lips, teeth, tongue or jaw.
One vowel letter, one syllable
When it comes to reading Filipino, remember that two vowel letters are never combined to make a different vowel sound that is not among the five basic vowels. For example A + U does not make the ah sound as in caught. As a rule, each vowel letter indicates a separate syllable. There are exceptions to this rule but they are almost always proper names that have retained their Spanish spelling, like Quezon and Mindanao. The exceptions among indigenous words are very rare, such as kaunti and sauli, which most people pronounce as “konti” and “soli.” Here the AU combination is pronounced the same as the Filipino O.
Just like the vowels, Filipino consonants have only one sound each. The G, for example, is always hard as in good, and not soft as in general. The S never takes on a Z sound as it does in English words like is, was and dogs.
Mind you, this rule applies only to indigenous words. The letters C, F, J, Q, V, X and Z are used for spelling foreign words, so they follow the rules of a given word’s original language. And, of course, foreign names break the rule for almost any letter – as in the case of the letters G and J, which can both sound like an H in Spanish names.
Actually, apart from Spanish names, we could simply pronounce Filipino words with the same hard consonant sounds as in English and we would still be understood. But to get the real Filipino sound, we must make some adjustments. A lighter touch is required.
A light touch
Compared to Filipinos speakers, we anglophones tend to blow out more air when we pronounce the letters K, P and T. These letters are not so explosive in Filipino. This light Filipino sound can be heard in English words where these letters follow an S. For example, skate, spare and stand.
The letters D, L, N, and T also have a different sound. This is due to the placement of the tongue. In English we tend to place the tip of the tongue against the back of our upper front teeth, but in Filipino the tip of the tongue is placed lightly on the edge of the upper front teeth. Again, these sounds are lighter than their English equivalents.
R is for rapid
The Filipino R is very different from the English R. It is sounded by flicking the tip of the tongue against the back of the upper front teeth. This R sound can be compared to the double D in “ladder” – but only if we don’t over-enunciate the word. Some Filipinos really like to roll their R’s by rapidly repeating this action in a machine gun fashion. Others roll their R’s from the back of the throat. However, these variations are not important to a student and may even seem like an affectation (being maarte) when sounded by a non-Filipino. Only a single flick of the tongue is necessary. Once you get the hang of it, you will understand why the R and the D are often switched in Filipino words.
Getting the hang of NG
The NG is considered a single letter in the Filipino alphabet, not to be confused with either N or G alone. This is likely the most intimidating letter for the English speaker, but its sound is not at all foreign to our tongues. It’s the same sound that is in words like sing and hang, etc. The difficulty for non-Filipinos is that the NG sound is often at the beginning of a word or a syllable.
Here is a trick to learn this sound. It works if you don’t happen to pronounce the word sing with a hard G. First, repeat the words sing-along several times together in a continuous flow: sing-along, sing-along, sing-along. Then, remove the last syllable, long and repeat several times: singa, singa, singa. Now remove the first two letters, si, and repeat several times. Make sure that you don’t let it slide into a kind of ya sound: Nga, nga, nga. Got it? Now, try to say the words ngayon, ngipin and ngunit.
So now that we have the basic sounds of Filipino – the vowels and the consonants – we need to know how to put them together to pronounce words that we might have never heard before. For that, we need to know the rhythm of each word. For example, is it MAganda, maGANda or maganDA? That’s where stresses and accent marks come in. We’ll leave that for next time.
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