Preserving the Chabacano Language of Zamboanga


Chabacano or chavacano language is often referred as “espaƱol de cocina” or “lenguaje del calle” according to history books and  research papers of international linguists in their studies. It is composed of 60% Spanish words but the grammar rule is based on the remaining 40% which is a combination of words from local dialects such as Visaya, Tagalog, Pampangueno, Cebuano etc. The “chabacano” word in Spanish literally means “broken, vulgar or street”. It is one of the oldest Spanish-based creole (a language derived from two or more languages or dialects combined) in the world. Chabacano language was born in many parts of the Philippines like in Ternate, Cavite, Cavite, Basilan, Jolo, Cotabato etc. because of the long presence of the people from Spain and Mexico before. Zamboanga is the most noted place since this is the place where the language is best preserved. 

Dr. Roberto Torres, professor from Western Mindanao State University in Zamboanga confirms that Chabacano language is very much widely spoken up to now but very much less used in written form. There are very few books written in Chabacano language so the National Historic Commission and a group of professionals in Zamboanga formed the Consejo de Lenguaje Chabacano. This group meets twice per month to discuss ideas on how to preserve the language. They want to formulate an official written form following a grammar standard using the Chabacano alphabet. Two books are now published and given free by the local government for students from Kindergarten, Grade 1, 2 and 3. These are the El Primer Alfabeto Chabacano book that provides meaning of each letter and the Aprende Sillabicacion y Formulation de Maga Palabra Chabacano book on how to form syllables from a combination of letters.

There is also a local ordinance to officially celebrate the lenguaje de Chabacano every June 23rd. The widespread use of the gay lingo poses a big threat aside from different media like the TV, Radio and Internet that uses mainly Tagalog and English languages.

Dr. John Lipski an expert linguist from The Pennysylvania State University who first came here in 1985 to study Chabacano language says up to now its origin is still uncertain. The first noted Chabacano language speaker was mentioned in 17th century. He said this is a corrupt form of Spanish developed out of necessity to communicate between the Spanish people and the locals during the colonization period or even earlier.

When asked given a chance a Spanish native and a Chabacano native converse to each other if they can fully understand each other Dr. Lipski said: “No. Not even half- way because the grammars of both language are entirely different. But this needs to be scientifically studied and approved. “ Dr. Torres however contradicted his statement. He said “It is an advantage and a very good beginning for a Chabacano speaker to learn the actual Spanish language.” But they both agreed that as long as there is one native speaker of the language is alive, it is never too late to teach it. Dr. Lipski also pointed out that the word “chabacano” in Mexico is the apricot fruit. It is sweet, desirable and it is bought in a very good price. Remember that the people collectively called as “Spanish” who came here are also from Mexico. We should rather refer the meaning of “Chabacano” from the Mexicans given its positive meaning then.

Note: This is a review on "El chabacano de Zamboanga: lengua y literatura" discussion at Instituto Cervantes last June 30, 2012

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