Culture

Differences and Similarities Among the Chavacano Languages in the Philippines

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This article is available in Spanish.

The Chavacano language is a Spanish creole spoken in the Philippines. It is the only Spanish-based creole language in Asia and one of the oldest creole languages in the world. With majority of its vocabulary stemming from the Spanish language, Chavacano is considered to be the only non-Austronesian language in the Philippines.

There are three major variants of the Chavacano language: Two are found on the shores of Manila Bay, specifically in Cavite city and the town of Ternate in Cavite, and one found in faraway Zamboanga city. Another variant used to exist also along Manila Bay, specifically in Ermita, but it is now thought to have gone extinct when Manila was heavily bombed during the World War II.

As a native speaker of the Chavacano language variant found in Zamboanga city, it is quite a treat for me to discover and analyze the differences and similarities among each variant. Making these comparisons will, hopefully, spur more interest in the Chavacano language as people get a glimpse of the richness and diversity of our culture.

Origins of the Chavacano Language

Much controversy lies on the origins of the Chavacano language, and several theories have been presented by linguists. One of them suggests that the Manila Bay varieties began as a Portuguese creole language in Indonesia, transplanted to Ermita in Manila by the mass migration of its speakers during the 17th century, and from there, branched out into different places including Ternate and Cavite city.

In Zamboanga city, most of us like to subscribe to the more romantic theory of the Chavacano language being born from Spanish soldiers marrying locals. Others like to think that it was a result of necessity when workers from different parts of the Philippines, including Mexico, were imported to Zamboanga for the construction of the Fort Pilar in 1635.

Because of the lack of early documentation on the Chavacano language, its origins remain to be a mystery. In fact, this subject is thought to be the Holy Grail of linguistics.

Number of Speakers

According to the 2010 Census of Population and Housing published by the National Statistics Office, there were more than 807,000 people in Zamboanga city in 2010, and more than 43% speak Chavacano. This equates to more than 350,000 Chavacano speakers in Zamboanga city.

In the same publication, Chavacano speakers in the province of Cavite were estimated to number to more than 5,000 speakers. However, having been categorized into a single language group, it is impossible to tell how many speak the Ternate variant and how many speak the Cavite city variant. Having had the opportunity to visit Cavite city and Ternate in 2018 with a Spanish researcher, I can say that it was much easier to find Chavacano speakers in Ternate than in Cavite city. In fact, my initial impression was that the Cavite city variant could be found in only a few barangays (villages).

Influence of Philippine Languages

Though Spanish is the common lexifier among all three variants of Chavacano, the creole’s grammatical structure is generally the same as that of other Philippine languages.

Tagalog is known to be the complementary language to the Manila Bay Chavacano variants whereas it is Cebuano and/or Hiligaynon that is the substrate language of the Zamboanga Chavacano variant.

In modern times, Tagalog’s influence on the Zamboanga Chavacano variant has been rapidly increasing. This is a result of emigration and non-speakers of Chavacano filling the void left.

Pronouns and Tenses

One of the major hurdles for intelligibility among all three Chavacano language variants are its pronouns and tenses, which are mostly different from one another.

Except for “nisos” (the first-person plural in Caviteño), I find the rest of its pronouns quite understandable. Though the singular pronouns of the Ternate variant are readily understandable, all of its plural pronouns are not.

As for the tenses, it looks like both past and present tense won’t be a problem for speakers of all three variants as they are all the same. The challenge lies in the future tense, which in the Zamboanga variant is marked with an “ay” before the verb and many times not expressed at all. Meanwhile, both Manila Bay Chavacano variants use the word “di” before the verb to express future tense.

According to friends who speak the Manila Bay variants, they are mutually intelligible.

Of all three variants, I personally find the Chavacano Ternate variant the most difficult to understand in written or spoken form. But with some knowledge of Spanish as well as its pronouns and tenses, I imagine it will be quite easy for speakers of the Zamboangueño Chavacano variant to understand the Cavite city variant both in written and spoken form.

Voseo

Voseo exists across all Chavacano language variants.

In a documentary produced by a local television network, an experiment was conducted to check intelligibility between the Manila Bay Chavacano variants. During the course of the experiment, one of the things that they found out was that using the word “vos,” which is similar to the Chavacano in Zamboanga city, is considered very impolite in Cavite. However, the same word is not considered impolite in Ternate.

In fact, my friend told me that when you use “tu” in Ternate, they automatically know that you are either from Zamboanga or Cavite city.

Language Name Preferences

The spelling of the name of their language is a hot debate topic in Zamboanga city, but it is clear that those who prefer to spell the name of their language with a “v” (i.e., Chavacano) is more vocal and appear to outnumber those who prefer to spell it with a “b” (i.e., Chabacano). Meanwhile, Cavite Chavacano variant speakers almost always would spell the name of their language with a “b” (i.e., Chabacano).

In Ternate, Chavacano speakers usually call their language Bahra. This is in reference to the river called Bahra de Maragondon.

Differences in the Verb Endings

One of the more glaring differences between the Zamboanga Chavacano variant and the Manila Bay Chavacano variant is that they pronounce the “e” as an “i” in certain words ending with an “i.” A few examples of this are “pudi” (“pode” or “puede”), “sabi” (“sabe”) and “ustedis” (“ustedes”). Meanwhile, they tend to pronounce the “o” as “u” in certain words such as “nwebu” (“nuevo”), “anyu” (“año”), “impermu” (“enfermo”), etc.

When I showed my friends in Zamboanga a sample of the Chavacano in Ternate and Cavite city, this was one of the first things that they immediately noticed.

Attitudes of Its Speakers

One of the things I found out upon visiting Ternate was the disdain felt for the Chavacano language among some of its speakers. This is the same feeling that is present in many Chavacano speakers in Zamboanga city. In fact, sporting a heavy Chavacano accent is a source of ridicule among speakers of both Chavacano variants.

In Zamboanga city, a heavy Chavacano accent is associated with folks who live in rural areas of the city.

Question Words

Most question words are the same across all three variants, with minor differences in pronunciation such as the word “cuando” in the Zamboanga Chavacano variant being pronounced as “cuandu” in the Manila Bay Chavacano variants.

What makes the Zamboangueño variant unique is that it has three words to say “how,” namely: “que laya” (variations include “quilaya” and “paquilaya”), “que modo” (variations include “paquimodo” and “quimodo”) and “que hechura” (variations include “quichura” and “paquichura”).

Meal Names

Similar to Latin American Spanish and Peninsular Spanish, there are some nuances on the names of our meals in Chavacano.

Old-timers in Zamboanga, most probably having been educated in Spanish, will insist that “breakfast” is “desayuno” in Chavacano while “almuerzo” is “lunch.” In modern Chavacano though, we use the word “almuerzo” for “breakfast” while “lunch” is normally not expressed with a single word but by saying it using other words.

When asking if somebody has already eaten lunch, you can ask this question indirectly.

For example:

“Ya come ya tu?”

“Have you eaten yet?”

Others will say that we use the word “comida” for lunch.

In Cavite, my friend said that “breakfast” is either “desayuno” or “almuerzo.”

Meanwhile, the word for breakfast in Ternate is “almuesu,” and it seems like they don’t have a word for “lunch” either.

Across all variants, the word for “supper” is “cena.”

Swear Words

Though we share many common swear words, there are some that aren’t completely the same. For example, while Ternateños say “konyubusmadre” (“coño de vos madre”), Zamboangueños say “kunyubunana” (“cuño de vos nana”).

Notable Differences in Words Used

Since it is easy to get samples of each Chavacano language variant from the myriad of serious and casual conversations that take place on social media today, we can observe them easily even from a distance.

When asking if somebody speaks a certain language, Spanish speakers use the word “habla” for “speak.” For example:

“¿Hablas español?”

“Do you speak Spanish?”

Most Spanish speakers, however, assume that you can also use the word “habla” in Chavacano, but the Manila Bay Chavacano variants actually require the use of the word “platica.”

For example:

“Buenu ba tu platica Chabacanu?”

“Do you speak Chavacano well?”

In Zamboanga, we use the word “conversa,” which is pronounced as “cumbersa.”

For example:

“Sabe ba tu conversa Chavacano?”

“Do you know how to speak Chavacano?”

Another word that caught my attention is “choku.” Whereas “squid” is “choca” in Zamboanga and Cavite city, it is known as “choku” in Ternate. In Cavite city, they have a dish called “Pansit Choca,” which is a seafood noodle dish.

Online Visibility

Owing to its dwindling number of speakers, the Cavite Chavacano language variant does not figure prominently on social media. However, both the Zamboanga and Ternate Chavacano variants are thriving on the online landscape. On Facebook, for example, there are dozens of groups for Chavacano speakers as well as pages that regularly post memes in Chavacano.

On YouTube, there are also a number of songs and vlogs, though mostly are in the Zamboanga Chavacano language variant.

Religion

Chavacano masses have always been part of the repertoire of most churches in Zamboanga city. These are also broadcast on television and radio, and in recent times, they are livestreamed. In Ternate, efforts are underway to bring back Chavacano masses as well as to stream them live on Facebook.

Commerce, Schools and Workplaces

In recent years, the Chavacano language in Zamboanga city is slowly being replaced by Tagalog as the language of commerce. As for the Manila Bay variants, I don’t believe they ever enjoyed mass adoption as their cousin in Zamboanga city does.

In Zamboanga city, the Chavacano language is taught in schools, and teachers use it as a medium of instruction.

The Chavacano language is truly a rich one, and with the passing of time, it may transform into a more developed and standardized language. Let us hope that the younger Chavacano speakers will learn to appreciate the beauty of their language and will not abandon its usage in favor of major languages.


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Jerome Herrera
Jerome Herrera is the publisher of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s “El Diutay Principe.” He translated and self-published the French classic “Le Petit Prince” (“The Little Prince”) into the Chavacano language in 2018. He is also the author of a blog called Bien Chabacano, touted as the first and only blog dedicated to the Chavacano language.

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