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Home » Historical Geography, Linguistic Geography, Southeast Asia

Chavacano: A Spanish-Based Creole Language of the Philippines

Submitted by on January 29, 2016 – 9:17 am 12 Comments |  
Language FamiliesLanguage-family maps, like the one posted here, generally show Austronesian languages blanketing the entire Philippine archipelago. But such a depiction is not accurate, as the mother tongue of the majority of the inhabitants of the tip of the Zamboanga Peninsula on the island of Mindanao is definitely not Austronesian. Perhaps as many as 700,000 people here speak Chavacano (alternatively, Zamboangueño or Chabacano* de Zamboanga), a Spanish-based creole language that has been influenced by a number of Philippine languages. Zamboangueño speakers are, moreover, scattered in minority communities across much of the southwestern Philippines and even into northeastern Borneo (in the Malaysian state of Sabah).

Language Families of the Philippines MapOther Chavacano dialects are found elsewhere in the Philippines, counting several hundred thousand speakers among them. The most important of these is Caviteño (or Chabacano de Cavite), found in the city of Cavite on Manila Bay, near the capital of the Philippines. Before World War II, Cavacano also dominated an important neighborhood in Manila itself, but this dialect, Ermiteño (named after the Ermita district), is apparently extinct.

 

 

Chavacano Language MapChavacano is interesting from both linguistic and historical-geographical perspectives. To begin with, it is widely considered to be one of the world’s oldest creole tongues, with a history dating back some 400 years. It is clearly based on Spanish, which is quite a rarity; although many creole language are Portuguese-based and many have been influenced by Spanish, the only other Spanish-based creole tongue is Palenquero, spoken by only a few thousand persons in a small area of Colombia. (See John McWhorter’s The Missing Spanish Creoles for an extended exploration of this topic.) The presence of words borrowed from Nahuatl indicate that Chavacano derives more from Mexican Spanish than from pure Castilian. Different dialects of the language show distinctive borrowing patterns from various Philippine languages. Other languages have contributed vocabulary elements as well. In the Chavacano dialects of southeastern Mindanao (Davao), the influence of Chinese and Japanese is marked, giving rise to “two sub-dialects, namely Castellano Abakay Chino and Castellano Abakay Japón.”

As mentioned above, one Chavacano dialect is extinct, and others may be diminishing. (Not surprisingly, the number of speakers and the current status of the different dialects is hotly disputed.) But Chabacano de Zamboanga is a healthy language, forming both the main mother tongue and the lingua franca of Zamboanga, the sixth largest city in the Philippines, with more than 800,000 residents. Efforts are being made to ensure the health of the Cavacano media. A recent article in the Philippine Inquirer, for example, highlights a Chavavano radio drama produced locally by a Canadian Catholic priest. As Christopher Sundita, writing a comment on a 2011 Language Hat post, claims:

[T]he Zamboanga variety is the healthiest variety of Chavacano. It has experienced exponential growth since the 1940s with Keith Whinnom (1957) reporting 1,300 speakers to the 2000 Census reporting around 380,000 (with the usual caveats). There is ample media in Zamboanga Chavacano and its local prestige ensures its survival. The future doesn’t look too great for the Cavite & Ternate varieties. And Ermita Chavacano is already gone, if its sole speaker hasn’t passed away yet.

 

The linguist John M. Lipski goes further than Sundita, dismissing the low estimate of Whinnon. He argues strongly against:

[T]he mistaken notion among creolists (beginning with Whinnom 1956) that the largest Chabacano-speaking population, that of Zamboanga City, is small and moribund, when in fact it is a thriving first- and second-language speech community of perhaps half a million speakers. Frake (1971) was the first to provide more accurate information on Zamboangueño, but to this day many scholars in the Philippines and abroad are unaware of the true strength of the Zamboanga Chabacano community.

 

The geographical distribution of Chavacano sheds light on the distinctive historical geography of the Philippines. Although Spain ruled the Philippines for more than 300 years, Spaniards never settled in large numbers and did not seek to impose their language on people of the archipelago. The two most important places of Chavacano development were of particular military significance to Spain, and thus housed many soldiers and other Spanish-speaking personnel. One of these was Cavite, located on Manila Bay, which housed the all-important shipyard (the Astillero de Rivera) in which most of the storied Manila galleons, which sailed annually to Acapulco Mexico, were constructed. After the galleon trade was discontinued in 1815, the shipyard was transformed into the Spanish Arsenal.

Zamboanga, quite in contrast to Cavite, was situated at the far extremity of the Spanish imperial possessions in the Philippines. But that gave it great significance in the never-ending war between the Spanish Empire and the Muslim sultanates of southwestern Mindanao and the Sulu archipelago. Fort Pilar in Zamboanga long served as the bulwark of Spanish power in the region, albeit an insecure one that demanded constant reinforcement. Mexican soldiers, masons and other workers from Cavite, and laborers from the Visayas Islands in the central Philippines rubbed shoulders in the fort and adjoining town. In due time, the creole language of Chabacano de Zamboanga emerged, allowing these disparate groups to easily communicate with each other.

 

Philippine Languages MapThe map that I constructed to illustrate this post shows not merely the two main area of the Chavacano language in Zamboanga and Cavite, but also the main divisions of the indigenous languages of the Philippines. Several of these groupings are, however, controversial, particularly when it comes to the Batanic languages of the extreme north. But there is wide consensus that virtually all languages of the archipelago belong to the Philippine sub-family, a linguistic group that extends into a small slice of northeastern Borneo in Malaysia and a significantly larger swath of northern Sulawesi in Indonesia. The languages in this family are relatively closely related to each other, leading some scholars to suggest that they all derived from a language that spread long after the original Austronesian settlers reached the archipelago. As to Wikipedia puts it, “Although the Philippines is near the center of Austronesian expansion from Formosa, there is little linguistic diversity among the approximately 150 Philippine languages, suggesting that earlier diversity has been erased by the spread of the ancestor of the modern Philippine languages.”

 

Langauges of the Philippines Diagram MapFinally, I have posted an interesting hybrid map-diagram of the languages of the Philippines made by, “a physicist who is in dire need of a stress reliever.” I would be interested in comments on this map from professional linguists.

* Controversies arise over the use of “Chabacano” versus “Chavacano.” As the author of one article notes, “In Zamboanga City, the old-timers will be offended if you tell them that their language is chabacano instead of chavacano. To the new generation the words chabacano and chavacano are interchangeable.” The Wikipedia explains the origin of the word in this manner:

Chavacano or Chabacano originated from the Spanish word chabacano which literally means “poor taste”, “vulgar”, “common”, “of low quality”, or “coarse”. During the Spanish colonial period, it was called by the Spanish-speaking population as the “lenguaje de la calle“, “lenguaje de parian” (language of the street), or “lenguaje de cocina” (kitchen Spanish to refer to the Chabacano spoken by Chinese-Filipinos of Manila, particularly in Ermita) to distinguish it from the Spanish language spoken by the peninsulares, insulares, mestizos, or the elite class called the ilustrados. This common name has evolved into a word of its own in different spellings with no negative connotation, but to simply mean as the name of the language with that distinct Spanish flavour. However, most of its earlier speakers were born of mixed parentage – Hispanized urban natives, Chinese migrants and Spanish or Latin American soldiers and civil servants during the Spanish colonial period.

 

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  • LarrySiegel

    Fascinating… but I didn’t really think a professional linguist would write “there is ample media” for “there are ample media.”

    • As a professional linguist, here’s what I can say on the issue. A quick Google search reveals that “media is” is 3 times more common than “media are” (across the board, without looking at specific meanings and usages, but I am not inclined to do a more detailed study of marked corpora). This use of “media” as a (singular) mass noun is also documented in Merriam-Webster’s:

      http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/media

      “The singular media and its plural medias seem to have
      originated in the field of advertising over 70 years ago; they are still
      so used without stigma in that specialized field. In most other
      applications media is used as a plural of medium. The
      popularity of the word in references to the agencies of mass
      communication is leading to the formation of a mass noun, construed as a
      singular”

    • Pete

      Linguists study language… but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they know how to use it 😉 (I’m a linguist btw)

      • Linguists know how language *is* used, but we don’t care about prescriptivism (how language *should* be used).

  • Jeronimo Constantina

    The spelling “Chavacano” is usually associated with Zamboanga, although “Chabacano” is also used there. It is generally not used for Cavite Chabacano.

    Cavite’s Chabacano Dialect

    http://www.angelfire.com/art2/roger_santos/

    Incidentally, here’s a TV station that broadcasts in Zamboanga Chavacano:

    TV Patrol Chavacano

    http://www.abs-cbnnews.com/tvpatrol/zamboanga

  • Nakashchit

    Hello Professor Lewis, The writer above who makes the sharp distinction between chavacano and Chavacano – existing it would appear is the pronunciation – is quite interesting. In spoken Spanish the b and are pronounced identically. I once had a colleague from Asturias who insisted that there was a difference, but I cannot say that I heard it in his speech except when he made a point of emphasising the supposed difference. The Spanish language article on Spanish says that there is no difference except occasionally in Chile – where it is regarded as an affectation. Is it actually the case that Chavacano preserves an older Spanish pronunciation, or is there perhaps an influence from English? The answer may be found in the pronunciation of Ladino. I had a client in Canada from Turkey who spoke fluent Ladino. I am pretty sure that he distinguished between the letters. Perhaps another reader can answer this question. By the way, the Spanish Wikipedia says that Catalan, Occitan and Sardinian also pronounce these two letters as one sound. This is true of Catalan in Catalonia, but not of Valencian.

    • Many thanks for the interesting comments.

    • Which two letters are you talking about? B and what? I might be able to shed some light on this if I knew what you’re talking about…

      • Nakashchit

        Yes, it would be helpful, would it not? I see that I made 2 errors which reinforce one another. I mean the B and the V. Cheers

        • Yes, thank you.

          As far as I can tell, the “b” is realized intervocalically as a bilabial approximant or fricative (marked in IPA with a Greek letter “beta”). It sounds similar enough to the labio-dental fricative ([v]), so that a speaker of a language that does not make the distinction would unsurprisingly hear them as the same. The name of the language, Chavacano or Chabacano is pronounced with the bilabial approximant in the language itself, as the [v] sound in it is mostly from the English loanwords.

          (In an interesting twist, the /v/ phoneme in English developed because of the loanwords from Norman French!)

          • Áron

            We pronounce ‘Chavacano’ as ‘chaBacano’ even though we write it as ‘ChaVacano’.

            Though this case is only for us Zamboangueño Ethnic.

  • Áron

    Ethnolinguistically I am a Zamboangueño Ethnic and Chavacano is our Ethnic’s native language. Though specifically we speak a dialect of Chavacano called ‘Zamboangueño’ or ‘Zamboangueño Chavacano’ or ‘Chavacano de Zamboanga’.