ZAMBOANGA, Philippines – Considered to be a coarse and vernacular language, a broken form of Spanish spoken incorrectly in the southern Philippines, Chabacano aspires to refine itself with rules and a defined script to become a language which resists the growing influence of Tagalog and English.
Although it was spoken in the different regions of the Philippines, it is still going strong in Zamboanga – where it took root – a city in the southern island of Mindanao founded by the Spaniards in 1634 when they built Fort Pilar, a military defense fortress to gain protection from tribes, mainly Muslims, in the area.
“The natives needed to understand the ‘capataz,’ the Spanish colonizers, and they started what we call the ‘pidgin,’ they parroted the Spanish words to speak like parrots, imitating the Spaniards, though it was not correct,” Professor Bert Torres from Western Mindanao State University.
This language, which took shape by “parroting” became their form of communication, allowing them to engage with the Spaniards and among themselves, said Torres, one of the academicians who seeks to conserve and dignify the Chabacano, one of the oldest creole languages that shaped up nearly four centuries ago.
Subanan, Tausug, Yakan and Badjao population were present in Zamboanga before the arrival of the Spaniards and were tribes with their own customs, traditions and languages which lacked a common language, a void which was filled by the Chabacano that was already spoken by the racially mixed population.
In the Latin city of Asia, the Hispanic imprint is palpable in its architecture and Hispanic speakers can understand the majority of the conversations between the people of Zamboanga as well as signboards and its typonomy: Zaragoza, Barcelona, Cervantes and Virgen de Pilar are some of its most important roads.
“When it comes to official means of communication, everything is still written in English. The instruction in schools is still in English. However, the social communication, from market, to malls, to airports, to church, you will hear everybody is still speaking in Chabacano,” said Torres, who believes that this language, invariably oral would soon have printed word and a cultural creation.
Around 80% of the nearly million habitants of Zamboanga speak the Chabacano – which took 85% of its vocabulary from Spanish – although it has lost purity and is now mixed with Tagalog, English, Bisaya, Ilongo and dialects of the Muslim tribes and thus now contains only 60% of its lexicon derived from Spanish.
“Only about 14 percent of people above 16 years old, they are speaking the real and correct chabacano, the original,” Torres said.
Televisions and local radios broadcast programs in the language and since 2016 and rules of the language are taught at basic levels so that the new generation do not lose the Chabacano, which is nearly forgotten among those born after the ‘80s.
“Kids below 15 years old, they do not speak Chabacano yet because their young parents in the house communicate with their children either in English or Tagalog, the reference languages in the Philippines nowadays,” he added.
Unlike other minority languages in the Philippines, the Chabacano today, has the support of a large group of academicians committed in dignifying it just like Torres, who prepared the first alphabet of the language – which includes ‘ñ’ as in the Spanish language – and published its first dictionary five years ago.
The extended use of English and Tagalog – indigenous to Luzon island (largest island in the country) – which have been adapted as a national language, has been undermining the use of more than 170 minority languages of the country, “consigned to working classes, older people and family level,” University of Santo Tomas’ Spanish professor Marco Joven Romero told EFE.
“But this nowadays distinguishes Chabacano, which although is losing speakers, still enjoys certain social status. It is no more seen as a vernacular language because it is Spanish creole, inherited from the classical cultural elite,” said Joven Romero.
The Chabacano simplifies the verb conjugations, gender markers and number, something which the Spanish cultural elite of the colony perceived as language corruption and lower-class due to local influences on the language. However, this perception is changing now.
Joven said that the Chabacano language is in fact a variant of other languages such as Zamboangueño and Chabacano of Zamboanga – most widely spoken – but there are others such as Cotabateño of Cotabato and the Akbay language in Davao, which are extinct varieties in these cities of Mindanao.
On Luzon island, the variants of the Chabacano are the Caviteño – in the city of Cavite – the Ternateño – in Ternate – and the Ermiteño – in Ermita, a Manila neighborhood – whose last speaker died in the early 2000s.
“Linguists do not agree whether the speakers of the different variants of the Chabacanos can understand each other. My impression is that they can understand, but surely, they are more comfortable speaking other common language,” Joven Romero said.
It is believed that the first variant of Chabacano was born in the Spanish naval base of Cavite – near Manila – in the beginning of the 17th century, among the workers brought from Mexico and other parts of the Philippines who mixed their language with the Spanish of the colonizers. Many of them later moved to Zamboanga to build the fort.
There are only 300 odd speakers of the Caviteño language in the localities of San Roque and La Caridad – the old town of Cavite – although the language enjoys a good reputation and is integral to the cultural identity of the city.