Introduction to Philippine English

Introduction to Philippine English

The Philippines is home to over 100 million people spread across 7,107 islands in Southeast Asia. Among the more than 100 mostly Austronesian languages spoken in this densely populated archipelago is English, making the country one of the largest Anglophone nations in the world. 

Unlike most postcolonial nations, the Philippines did not inherit English from the British but from the Americans. When the Philippine-American War ended in 1902 and the islands officially became an unincorporated territory of the United States, the new colonial administration quickly introduced English as the primary language of government, business, and education. It established a new public school system and sent American English-language teachers all over the country. These American teachers were called Thomasites after the name of the ship they arrived in, the USS Thomas. 

So effective were American efforts to make English the second language of the Philippines that within a few years, Filipino schoolchildren were learning it from Filipino teachers. By the 1920s Filipino writers such as Paz Marquez Benitez and Jose Garcia Villa had begun producing literary works in English. Within a few decades, English had been woven into the fabric of Philippine society, and not even independence from the United States in 1946 could unravel the threads of linguistic assimilation. 

Today, English is constitutionally named as one of the Philippines’ official languages, and it continues to be an integral part of local life and culture. English is the language of business, science, technology, government, education, and international communication. It is present in the country’s print and broadcast media, and in its vibrant artistic and literary scene. Filipino proficiency in English drives a thriving, world-leading outsourcing industry, as well as a rapidly growing education sector that is attracting increasing numbers of international students. 

The Philippine variety of English has evolved beyond the American standard, having developed distinctive features of pronunciation, vocabulary, grammar, and discourse determined by the native languages and culture of its Filipino speakers.   

It is clear that what once a completely foreign language has been embraced by Filipinos and made their own. It is also true that the continuing presence of English in the Philippines gives rise to a number of very thorny issues related to national and regional identity, educational policy, and language politics. But no matter how these issues are addressed, it cannot be denied that in the little over a century that it has remained in their islands, Filipinos—with their rich indigenous heritage, colourful colonial history, and multiplicity of languages—have made an indelible mark on English. As Filipino writer Gemino Abad famously put it, ‘English is ours. We have colonized it too’. 


Philippine culture is a complex, colourful mosaic combining indigenous Asian features with varied Western influences. The country’s rich diversity is reflected in its languages, including Philippine English, whose vocabulary is abounding in words and phrases that are uniquely Pinoy. 

The first Philippine additions to the English lexicon came in the form of plant and animal names borrowed from local languages. The following are just a few of the words that can be found in the OED with quotations dating back to the 18th century, before English came to the Philippines but right when English-speaking authors began writing about the region’s flora and fauna:  

  • abaca, n. (first attested 1751) – a kind of banana plant, Musa textilis, native to the Philippines, the petioles of which yield a strong fibre; the fibre itself, used for making paper, ropes, matting, etc.; Manila hemp. 
  • taclobo, n. (1885) – A bivalve mollusc, of great size, the Giant Clam (Tridacna gigas) of the Indian and China seas.  
  • tamarau, n. (1898) – A diminutive black buffalo, Bubalus mindorensis, peculiar to the island Mindoro, in the Philippines.  
  • ylang-ylang, n. (1876) – an anonaceous tree (Canangium odoratum) of Malaysia, the Philippines, etc., with fragrant greenish-yellow flowers from which a perfume is distilled; hence, the perfume itself.  

However, it did not take long for even more creative coinages to make it into Philippine English vocabulary. Filipinos primarily acquire English as a second or even third language alongside local vernaculars, a situation that places English in constant contact with other languages, and makes borrowing a particularly productive means of lexical innovation. Philippine English is characterized by a host of words borrowed from a variety of linguistic sources, the main ones being Filipino, the Tagalog-based national language, and Spanish, the colonial tongue that preceded English. Loan words and loan blends such as the following form part of the everyday vocabulary of Philippine English: 

  • balikbayan box, n. (1984) – a carton shipped or brought to the Philippines from another country by a Filipino who has been living overseas, typically containing items such as food, clothing, toys, and household products. 
  • barangay, n. (1840) – a village, suburb, or other demarcated neighbourhood; a small territorial and administrative district forming the most local level of government; from Tagalog. 
  • barkada, n. (1965) – a group of friends; from Tagalog, ultimately from Spanish barcada ‘boat-load’. 
  • despedida party, n. (1929) – a social event honouring someone who is about to depart on a journey or leave an organization; a going-away party; a blend of Spanish and English. 
  • estafa, n. (1903) – criminal deception, fraud; dishonest dealing; from Spanish.  
  • kikay kit, n. (2002) – a soft case in which a woman’s toiletries and cosmetics are stored; blend of Tagalog and English. 
  • pan de sal, n. (1910) – a yeast-raised bread roll made of flour, eggs, sugar and salt, widely consumed in the Philippines, especially for breakfast; partly from Tagalog, partly from Spanish.  
  • pasalubong, n. (1933) – a gift or souvenir given to a friend or relative by a person who has returned from a trip or arrived for a visit; from Tagalog. 
  • sari-sari store, n. (1925) – a small neighbourhood store selling a variety of goods; blend of Tagalog and English. 
  • sisig, n. (1987) – a dish consisting of chopped pork, onions, and chillies; from Kapampangan. 
  • suki, n. (1941) – a buyer or seller involved in an arrangement whereby a customer regularly purchases products or services from the same provider in exchange for favourable treatment; also the arrangement itself; from Tagalog.  

Aside from direct borrowing, Filipinos employ a range of other methods to create new words, such as adding derivational affixes, creating new compounds, shortening and blending of words, inventing new initialisms: 

  • batchmate, n. (1918) – a member of the same graduation class as another; a classmate; formed by combining batch, n. with mate, n. 
  • KKB, int. (and adj.) (1987) – ‘Kaniya-kaniyang bayad’, lit. ‘each one pays their own’, used esp. to indicate that the cost of a meal is to be shared. 
  • mani-pedi, n. (1972) – a beauty treatment comprising both a manicure and a pedicure; formed by clipping and blending the words manicure, n. and pedicure, n. 
  • presidentiable, n. (1840) – a person who is a likely or confirmed candidate for president; formed by adding the –able suffix to president, n. 

Philippine English speakers also translate directly from their other languages, change the function of words, coin neologisms based on analogy with existing English formations, maintain words that have fallen out of use in American English, and even totally transform the meaning of words:  

  • carnapper, n. (1945) – a person who steals a motor vehicle; a car thief; formed following the model of kidnapper, n.  
  • comfort room, n. (1886) – a toilet; an old-fashioned American euphemism that continues to be widely used in the Philippines. 
  • high blood, adj. (1997) – angry, agitated (e.g., I am so high blood because of this traffic jam!); use of a noun phrase as an adjective. 
  • to go down, phrasal v. (1993) – to alight from a vehicle; to get off a bus, train, etc., esp. at a specified stop; a translation of the Filipino verb bumaba
  • salvage, v. (1980) – to apprehend and execute (a suspected criminal) without trial; complete semantic change from the original English meaning ‘to rescue’. 


Some of the grammatical features peculiar to Philippine English include:  

Use of the plural verb form with a singular subject, especially when a phrase comes in between the subject and the verb 

  • One of my friends live here. 

Use of the present perfect tense in cases where the simple past is expected  

  • have done it last week.  

Use of the past perfect in sentences that usually call for the present perfect  

  • They had already left. 

The use of the present continuous instead of the simple present to express habitual aspect 

  • She is driving to work every day. 

Article usage  

  • He is going to United Kingdom to study at the Oxford University.  

Intransitive use of typically transitive verbs  

  • We will enjoy
  • They cannot afford. 
  • Do you like? 

Some of the characteristics that we describe here as grammatical features of Philippine English may seem like simple grammatical errors, of the type that English teachers try to drill out of their students. Indeed, these features have developed thanks in large part to imperfect learning of the morphological and syntactic principles of English by Filipinos, the majority of whom do not acquire the language at home but in the classroom. 

This does not mean that Filipino speakers of English who do not always adhere to the prescribed rules of standard British or American English are careless, unconscientious, and simply unable to completely master the language. In fact, having to learn English as a second or even third or fourth language in school makes Filipinos even more aware of grammar, as the learning process they go through requires a lot of conscious linguistic analysis. Their acquisition of English is dependent on the adherence to established precepts and patterns, and often their grammatical innovations result from their attempts to rationalize English and fit new structures into templates they have previously learned. 

This tendency can be easily observed in the junction between lexis and grammar, such as in the use of particle verbs. The complementation of verbs in English is highly arbitrary, and learning which verb goes with what poses difficulties that second-language speakers try to overcome through analogy. Filipinos, for instance, say cope up with instead of cope with, because it follows the pattern of keep up with. Filipinos also generally opt for result to instead of result in, given that other verbs that introduce an outcome go with the preposition to (e.g., lead to, give rise to). If you must ask for things, Filipinos reason, then surely you must also demand for and request for them, instead of just demanding and requesting. 

New grammatical features in Philippine English can also result from second-language speakers’ efforts to simplify particularly complex aspects of English grammar. One good example is the modal would. The system of modals in English is complicated in terms of both syntax and semantics: the verbs will, would, can, could, may, might, shall, and should can be used to express permission as well as possibility, and the choice between present and past forms are not only important for tense harmony but also for conveying varying degrees of politeness or certainty.  

In the case of would, Filipinos are usually taught this verb as the past form of will in reported speech, as part of polite formulas such as I would like to, and as the modal used in the unreal or hypothetical conditional of the type If I were … I would. Being accustomed to the use of would in contexts that require indirectness, politeness, and tentativeness, Filipinos habitually turn to this modal every time they wish to come across as courteous, formal, or unsure, even in cases where a British or American speaker would choose a different verb form. They tend to construct sentences like:  

  • would visit you tomorrow. (instead of I may visit you tomorrow to express uncertain future) 
  • Classes would be suspended next week. (instead of Classes will be suspended next week to make a formal announcement) 

This more generalized use of would could also be fulfilling an expressive need in Filipino speakers to sound less assertive, especially when stating personal opinions, intentions, and suggestions: 

  • I think that due to global warming, there would come a time that the world would not experience snow anymore. (instead of There will/may come a time…the world will/may not experience snow to convey personal opinion) 
  • She would be a teacher after graduation. (instead of She will be a teacher… to express intention) 
  • We would have to leave early. (instead of We will have to leave early to make a suggestion) 

Some grammatical tendencies in Philippine English also reflect the type of English that Filipinos are usually exposed to. Filipino speech and writing tend to emulate the conventions of the formal, academic English Filipinos are used to hearing. This can be seen in the regular use of such redundant constructions as I will be the one who will go instead of simply I will go, or of the formal relative adverb wherein even in informal speech. 

These examples of grammatical features of Philippine English reveal how differences in grammar, just like those in vocabulary, grow out of second-language speakers’ need to change and adapt English according to how they learn the language and use it to communicate. 


View the OED’s pronunciation model and key to pronunciation for Philippine English. 

View the OED's Philippine English resources

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