On Friday, the president of the Philippines declared a state of emergency to thwart an attempted coup against her regime. Thousands of Filipinos took to the streets in defiance of the emergency order; riot police deployed water cannons to quell the protests. Why aren’t people who live in the Philippines called Philippinos? And sometimes they’re called Pilipinos—what’s the deal with that?
The Philippines have only been called the Philippines (with a “Ph”) since the United States bought the country from Spain around the turn of the 20th century, after the Spanish-American War. Under Spanish colonial rule—which extended back to the 16th century—the country had been called “Las Islas Filipinas,” after King Felipe II. For Americans, Felipe was Phillip, so LasFilipinas became the Philippines. While the name of the country changed, the name of the nationality did not. Those who lived in the renamed Philippines were still called Filipinos.
The term “Pilipino” derives from the convoluted story of how the Philippines got its national language. There was no official, native language under Spanish and American control. Those living on the islands could be divided into as many as 120 different groups, each with its own way of talking. The desire to create a mother tongue increased when the United States pulled out of the country and the Philippines became a commonwealth in the 1930s. A national institute was given the task of making one of the native languages official.
The institute eventually decided on Tagalog. Speakers of the other languages felt marginalized, and the national language was renamed Pilipino in 1959. Although officially based on Tagalog, Pilipino incorporated elements of the country’s other native languages. (The question of whether it’s too much like Tagalog is still a source of controversy.)
Why “Pilipino” and not “Filipino”? The developers of the mother tongue looked back to the alphabet that was used before the Spaniards took over (and in the early years of Spanish rule). The native script, called “Baybayin,” had fewer than two dozen letters and didn’t include the sound for “F.” Though the letter “F” had been incorporated into the language during the centuries of Spanish influence, the country’s post-colonial leadership chose to return to the original alphabet. Foreign words that used “non-native” sounds were respelled to fit the Baybayin-based alphabet. C’s became K’s, X’s turned into SK’s, and the letter F became a P. Filipinos who spoke Tagalog became Pilipinos who spoke Pilipino.
The debate over the national language continued for decades. A constitution written in the early 1970s (drawn up as Ferdinand Marcos instituted an eight-year stretch of martial law) promised to create a new national language called “Filipino.” The next constitution, from 1987, made the change official, designating Filipino—which uses a larger alphabet and incorporates foreign sounds—as the national language. With the letter “F” restored, presumably those who speak the national language are now, once again, Filipinos.
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Explainer thanks Paz Buenaventura Naylor and Adelwisa Agas Weller of the University of Michigan.