It`s always fascinating and exciting when I first start studying a new language, because that`s when I discover so many of the language`s unique peculiarities, as well as its similarities with other languages. You get an introduction into the personality of the language and culture.
It`s been about 12 days since I began studying Tagalog, and while I`m still a beginner I`m at the point where I can make simple sentences and have a simple vocabulary to draw from, and have an awareness of the basic grammar of the language. Tagalog really is a fun language. In some ways it seems very simple (like in terms of pronunciation), and in others it is not necessarily difficult but just quite unusual (like in sentence structure/grammar). In this post I won`t attempt to describe the Tagalog language overall, because I`m not at the level where I can do that. But I`ll talk about some of the things I`ve noticed and found interesting about the language.
Tagalog Sentence Structure
Tagalog`s sentence structure is unlike any other language I`ve studied. Apart from Biblical Hebrew and Literary Arabic (ie. languages that written and not really spoken) I have never encountered a language that has a VSO (verb-subject-object) word order.
For example: Kakain ako ng isda. (Will eat + I + object marker + fish)
It turns out that this is common in the Austronesian language family, but the only other language I have studied from that family is Indonesian/Malay, and it is SVO.
OK, I thought, so it`s VSO. I can get used to that. But it`s not always VSO. If the sentence is negative, then it becomes SVO with the negative at the beginning.
For example: Hindi ako kakain ng isda. (not + I + will eat + fish)
Also, if you move something to the front of the sentence to emphasize it, like the time, then it becomes SVO.
For example: Mga alas nuebe ako kakain ng isda. (At about 8 o`clock + I + will eat + fish)
There may be some other cases where it`s SVO that I haven`t learned yet. So it`s a challenge to keep my thinking flexible and be able to switch up my word order depending on the type of sentence. But that`s part of the fun!
Tagalog Verbal System
Tagalog verbs are odd, because the verb changes depending on whether the focus of the sentence is the actor or the patient.
For example: Gusto kong kumain ng isda. (I want to eat fish)
But: isda ang gusto kong kaiin. (I want to eat fish) ** Fish (the patient) is the emphasized part, and the verb has a different form to reflect that.
The challenge with that, is that the two forms look and sound quite different to a non-native, even though they both come from the same word root kain. So it`s like you`re learning two different verbs for each action.
Tagalog is an agglutinative language. Tagalog verbs are all based on word roots, to which prefixes, suffixes, or infixes are added to show difference in tense/aspect. So from the root kain (eat) we get these forms:
infinitive/past tense: kumain (kain + mu infix)
future: kakain (kain + double the first syllable)
present: kumakain (kain + double first syllable + um infix)
This is not so hard to get used to, I`ve found. But as I look ahead I see that this is only the beginning of the verb forms I will have to learn. I guess I have to get ready for adventure time!
Overlap With Other Languages
All languages are a product of their geography and history, and Tagalog is no different. The Philippines used to be a Spanish colony, so predictably there is some Spanish influence on the language. For example, Spanish numbers are used when telling the time. The everyday greeting kumusta? comes from cómo estás. The word pwede meaning “can” comes from puede in Spanish. I have read that as much as 40% of conversational Tagalog vocabulary comes from Spanish! There are far more Spanish words used in Tagalog than English words, which puts the Taglish debate into perspective a bit.
I`ve also noticed similarities between Tagalog and Indonesian/Malay (I`ll just say Malay for now). Malay and Tagalog come from the same Austronesian roots, but Malay also became the lingua franca for trade in the area before the Spanish arrived. I`ve noticed a good number of words that are the same or clearly related to Malay words. The word Mahal meaning expensive, mura meaning “cheap” (murah in Malay) the word anak meaning “child”, some of the numbers, some of the personal pronouns, and so on. I notice more Spanish words, but many of the Malay words are exactly the same in Tagalog so they stand out when I see them.
The verb system of roots and affixes is also similar. However, whereas Tagalog has a complicated collection of affixes for tense and aspect, Malay verbs are magically simple. That`s one of the awesome things about studying Malay that I fondly reflect on when I glance at Tagalog verb tables.
It`s been a fun beginning to my journey so far! I`m looking forward to further discoveries and epiphanies.