I’ve talked a lot about Tagalog, and Tagalog songs, on the blogs, so it’s a bit of a big deal for me.
- My first post, Colorful, is structured around Ang Bandang Shirley’s “Maginhawa”. Other song-centered posts are on friends / minsan, about Eraserheads’s “Minsan”, and soulsearching / naubos na, about Oh Flamingo’s “Naubos Na”.
- The post Rain by any other name is about The difference between Tagalog and Filipino is like the difference between Mandarin and Chinese. The standardized version of Tagalog is Filipino, which in theory includes vocabulary from other Philippine languages, but in practice is more like a synonym for Tagalog. The words mentioned in the post are all Tagalog words, but they're shared between many other Philippine languages, so I think it's more suited to use <em>Filipino</em> here. words related to rain.
- dear kuya is about Ebe Dancel’s “Dear Kuya”, and talks about my relationship with the Tagalog language.
- Similarly, On identity talks about parts of my identity, like Tagalog. In the post, I also mention OPM, an acronym for Original Pilipino Music. It’s a catchall term for Philippine pop music, although it’s rather dated.
- I draw on Tagalog to show similarities or differences with English, like in Dissecting emotion, on body image or It’s cool to care.
Despite this, I think I still haven’t done enough justice to Tagalog. Especially since I One of the graduation requirements in MIT is the <a href="https://registrar.mit.edu/registration-academics/academic-requirements/hass-requirement/hass-concentrations">HASS Concentration</a>, a group of related subjects, like economics, linguistics, history, music, writing. in linguistics, I thought it’d be suitable to talk about some things I’ve learned in linguistics applied to Tagalog.
Phonology is the study of a language’s speech sounds—its phonemes—and the patterns in which they appear in a language’s words. This semester, I’m taking 24.901 Introduction to Phonology, so it’s on my mind. In this post, we’ll look at some facts about Tagalog phonology, through the lens of wordplay in Tagalog songs.
I mentioned the word phonemes, a language’s speech sounds. But what, exactly, is a phoneme? There’s substance to this question. For example, when do you say two consonants are different? Consider the p sound in the beginning of “pill” and the middle of “spill”. If you’re a native English speaker, and hold your fingertips near your lips and say the two words, you’ll feel an extra release of air for “pill” but not for “spill”. We say these two sounds differ in aspiration. Does the different aspiration make these different phonemes?
If the answer was “yes”, consider the fact that, in English, there’s no two words that differ only in aspiration. In fact, a p sound is aspirated only if it’s in the beginning of a stressed syllable. If there isn’t a word that can tell them apart, are they different?
What if the answer was “no”? Then consider Thai. The words ปัด “to stir fry” and ผัด “to wipe” are almost the same, except one has a p sound with air and the other doesn’t. If there is a word that can tell them apart, are they the same?
A pair of words that differs only by a single sound in the same position is called a minimal pair. In Thai, we have a minimal pair for aspiration, so we can call those different phonemes. In English, we don’t, so we shouldn’t count them as different phonemes.
By using minimal pairs, we can count the number of consonants and vowels in a language. An excellent resource called WALS has data points for many languages. English has around 24 consonants, while Tagalog has around 16. For the vowels, English has around 12 vowels, while Tagalog has 5 vowels. In general, Tagalog has less phonemes than English.
There’s some correlations between the number of a language’s phonemes and features like syllable size and word length. The one that’ll interest us is the kind of word play that a smaller inventory allows, in the form of having larger minimal pairs to play with.
For example, All song links go to YouTube, at the beginning of the excerpted part. begins with:
Hanggang dito na lamang
Ang ’yong mga luha
Here, we get the minimal pair tama na and tahan na. This is a bit hard to translate. A literal translation, that preserves none of the tone, would be:
It ends here
The actual tone is more sweet, like a parent hushing their crying child. The verb tahan means to stop someone from crying, by consoling them. I always find it cool to observe which ideas are shorter to express in some languages than others.
Tahan na is also a The phrase <em>near-minimal pair</em> isn't well-defined. with tahanan “home”, the title of the song. Near-minimal pairs are more common, and can also sound nice together. As another example, consider another song from Munimuni, “Bukas Makalawa”, whose chorus goes:
Sana bukas makawala
Sa eksenang nakabisa
Sana bukas makawala
I want to get away soon
From the memorized scene
I want to get away soon
Notice that the near-minimal pairs here aren’t perfect rhymes, which are a pair of words whose phonemes are the same after the stressed vowel. In both makalawa and makawala the stressed syllable is the second one. It’s technically an imperfect rhyme, but it can sound better than a perfect rhyme in the right context.
The word makalawa means “twice”, but it’s often used to mean “the day after tomorrow”. The phrase bukas makalawa is idiomatic, often meaning “soon”. And makawala means “to get away”, formed from the prefix maka- “the ability to” and wala “nothing”. Again, makawala is an idiomatic word.
As an example not from Munimuni is a band that uses a lot of idiomatic Tagalog, which is part of why I love them! But I want to use a variety of sources. here’s Moira Dela Torre’s “Titibo-tibo”:
Kahit ako’y titibo-tibo
Puso ko ay titibok-tibok pa rin sa’yo
This is an interesting one to translate. Tibo is slang for “lesbian”, but in this context, titibo-tibo means something like “to act boyishly”. In a Philippine context, sexuality and gender expression are more closely bound than in the US. The word bakla “gay” carries a connotation of acting effeminate, and tibo is derived from tomboy, which carries a connotation of acting masculine.
The noun tibok means “heartbeat”. It figuratively carries the same connotation as in English; the heart is the center of emotions, so tibok also refers to one’s feelings.
Even if I act boyishly
My heart still beats for you
The words titibo-tibo and titibok-tibok are formed in the same way: repeating the first syllable of the word, then repeating the word. This turns a noun to a verb related to the noun. In linguistics, repeating a word is called reduplication, and Tagalog makes great use of it.
While Think <em>no-no</em>, <em>zig-zag</em>, or <em>fifty-fifty</em>. are reduplicated, it’s not productive in English. That means we can’t generalize the reduplication to new words. If I invented a new verb, like to frob, it’s unlikely that you can reduplicate it to mean something. Compared to Tagalog, where reduplication is productive: if frob was a verb, nagfrofrob would be its present tense.
I bring up reduplication because it’s a pretty common phenomenon across languages; see the WALS map. It’s Western European languages that are weird for not having productive reduplication. One of the things I’ve learned about studying linguistics is how strange English is!
Primary and secondary stress
We now move onto stress, something that makes a syllable more emphasized. Changing the stress in a word can be a form of wordplay, as in TV Tropes’s AcCENT upon the Wrong SylLABle, but here we’ll look at how stress distinguishes otherwise identical words or phrases.
In English, the words incite and insight differ only in where the stress is. I’m not aware of many cases in English where this distinction is used for wordplay, though. In Tagalog, I can think of at least two, both from songs. The first one is from Cheats’s “Tawid”:
Sana ’yan ang ’yong mabatid
Sanayan lang ang paghatid
Here, sana ’yan and sanayan contrast only in stress. The first, sana ’yan, has stress on the first syllable, and comes from sana “hope”, and iyan “that (thing)”. The second, sanayan, means something like “practice” or “experience”. Its stress is on the second syllable. It’s formed from sanay “experienced”, and -an, a suffix turning an adjective to a noun.
Hope you realize that
Delivery is all about practice
Unlike English, Tagalog has mostly fixed stress. That means that “most” words have stress in a predictable place. In Tagalog, most words have stress on the penultimate syllable, the syllable that’s the second from the end, although there are many exceptions. Of Not all languages have stress. Most examples of languages without stress come from tonal languages. about half have fixed stress, and half don’t, like English.
Although Tagalog has fixed primary stress, many words have secondary stress, which can distinguish words that are otherwise identical. Primary stress refers to the main stress of the root, while secondary stress is any other nonprimary stress. In English, pronunciation has primary stress at the fourth syllable, and secondary stress on the second syllable.
Stress patterns across languages share some surprising similarities. A common pattern is preventing clash, which is when A saying in linguistics is that "phonology cannot count past two." The claim is <a href="https://radical.cnrs.fr/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/Paster2019_FINAL.pdf">disputed</a>, but it sure feels like it’s true. are both stressed. Another is preventing lapse, which is when two consecutive syllables are both unstressed. It’s generally true that languages prevent clash and lapse. The word pronunciation, for example, has neither clash nor lapse. The full story is a bit more complicated, but for some languages, it’s understood enough that we can predict where the primary and secondary stresses go.
In Tagalog, however, it’s not clear whether There are certainly patterns in Tagalog secondary stress. Like English, Tagalog has <a href="https://wals.info/chapter/17">trochaic rhythm</a>, for example. One reason to believe it might not be is that there are pairs of words that differ only in secondary stress, like lalagyan “container” and lalagyan “will place (in something)”. These both have primary stress on the last syllable, but the latter has secondary stress on the first syllable.
This brings us to our next example, Coeli’s “Magkaibigan o Magka-ibigan”:
Magkaibigan o magka-ibigan?
Ano nga ba talaga sa dalawa?
The first word, magkaibigan “to be friends”, has primary stress on the fourth syllable. The second word, magka-ibigan “to be lovers”, has primary stress on the last syllable, and secondary stress on the second syllable.
Friends or lovers?
Which of the two, really?
Both magkaibigan and magka-ibigan have lapse, but the first one has two cases of lapse, while the second only has one. Counting violations is a tenet of optimality theory, one of my favorite phonological theories, that I won’t talk about too much.
Syllable structure and assonance
Another thing that makes languages sound different, apart from having different consonants and vowels, is how those come together to form syllables. If you listen to Hindi sapat ang sampung libong kilometro, you might hear what I mean. In my mind Tagalog sounds “rounder” than English, and I think this comes from how Tagalog has a lower ratio of consonants to vowels.
I’m not talking about the ratio of the total number of consonants and vowels there are in the language, something WALS calls the As mentioned earlier, English has around 24 consonants and 12 vowels, for a ratio of around 2, while Tagalog has around 16 consonants and 5 vowels, for a ratio of around 3. What I mean is the ratio of consonants to vowels in speech. There aren’t any good statistics for this, but my estimates are 1.2 for Tagalog and 1.6 for English.
Even if we don’t have the statistics for this, we know something related: the syllable structure of each language. Speech, after all, is composed of syllables. If we can study the consonants and vowels in a syllable, it’s like studying the consonants and vowels of speech in general.
By syllable structure, I mean the pattern of how consonants and vowels can come together to form a syllable. We represent these with Cs and Vs, like the syllable cat being a CVC syllable, for consonant-vowel-consonant. In Tagalog, syllables are Caveats. Sometimes you have CCVC, like <em>buwan</em> "month", which is sometimes pronounced without the <em>u</em> sound, but the root form is still CVCVC. Loanwords also have more complex syllable structures, like the direct borrowing <em>charge</em>, which is CCVCC. In English, syllables can be as complicated as CCCVCCC, like strengths.
This difference in syllable structure makes some forms of wordplay easier in English than Tagalog, or vice-versa. English poets sometimes use consonance, which is repetition of similar consonant sounds. The first two lines of William Blake’s “The Tyger” have a noticeable amount of r sounds.
Consonance is less common in Tagalog, where assonance, the repetition of vowel sounds, is more common. English has some examples, like in “the squeaky wheel gets the grease”, but they’re less common and often subtler. It kinda makes sense, then, that as Tagalog has more vowels, it’d be more common to have wordplay surrounding vowels.
Let’s look at two examples, both from Autotelic. The first is from “Laro”:
Here we have some strong assonance, with two words sharing a decent number of sounds. The most common sound in Tagalog is the a sound, by far, so it’s not too surprising that’s what we see here. The root words here are daya “cheat” and kaya “can”, leading to dayain “to cheat (at something)” and kayanin “to be able to (do something)”. The reduplication puts it in the future tense, giving us:
Be able to
I’ll be able to
The second example’s from “Languyin”. I’ll cite both the pre-chorus and the chorus:
Mundo ko’y baliktarin
Babalik-balik ka rin
Tila ’di nauubusan ng hangin at ng paraan
Lamunin man ng alon
Tangayin man ng hangin
Maligaw, handa akong
Note how, in the pre-chorus, we have baliktarin and babalik-balik ka rin, which have similar vowels and stress patterns, with only minor differences in consonants. The chorus contrasts languyin and lakbayin, which have a similar relationship, and less closely tangayin and lamunin. To take a stab at translating:
Throw my world upside-down
You’ll return again and again
Won’t run out of wind and ways
Waves may swallow me
To swim, to swim
Winds may sweep me away
Or get me lost, but I’m ready
To travel, to travel
All the phonology’s real, but I wouldn’t take any of the analysis too seriously.
Here’s a Spotify playlist:
Go study linguistics, kids!
- The difference between Tagalog and Filipino is like the difference between Mandarin and Chinese. The standardized version of Tagalog is Filipino, which in theory includes vocabulary from other Philippine languages, but in practice is more like a synonym for Tagalog. The words mentioned in the post are all Tagalog words, but they're shared between many other Philippine languages, so I think it's more suited to use Filipino here. back to text ↑
- One of the graduation requirements in MIT is the HASS Concentration, a group of related subjects, like economics, linguistics, history, music, writing. back to text ↑
- All song links go to YouTube, at the beginning of the excerpted part. back to text ↑
- The phrase near-minimal pair isn't well-defined. back to text ↑
- Munimuni is a band that uses a lot of idiomatic Tagalog, which is part of why I love them! But I want to use a variety of sources. back to text ↑
- Think no-no, zig-zag, or fifty-fifty. back to text ↑
- Not all languages have stress. Most examples of languages without stress come from tonal languages. back to text ↑
- A saying in linguistics is that "phonology cannot count past two." The claim is disputed, but it sure feels like it’s true. back to text ↑
- There are certainly patterns in Tagalog secondary stress. Like English, Tagalog has trochaic rhythm, for example. back to text ↑
- As mentioned earlier, English has around 24 consonants and 12 vowels, for a ratio of around 2, while Tagalog has around 16 consonants and 5 vowels, for a ratio of around 3. back to text ↑
- Caveats. Sometimes you have CCVC, like buwan "month", which is sometimes pronounced without the u sound, but the root form is still CVCVC. Loanwords also have more complex syllable structures, like the direct borrowing charge, which is CCVCC. back to text ↑