A Brief Guide to Filipino Pronunciation
by Paul Morrow
Many people who study the Filipino language outside the Philippines do not have access to formal lessons and must resort to a "teach-yourself" method. One can learn a lot this way but there is no substitute for listening to and conversing with real Pinoys when it comes to pronunciation. Even then, they can't be expected to have the patience to answer every single question that a student may have. So, to get the most from your reading material you must be able to determine the proper pronunciation of a word just by reading it on the page.
There are only five vowel sounds in the Filipino national language. (Some of the provincial languages have other vowel sounds that are unique to themselves but that is beyond the scope of this article.) In short, if you are familiar with the vowel sounds of Spanish or Italian, you already know how to pronounce the Filipino vowels.
The vowels are pronounced as follows:
It is important to remember that the vowels should be pronounced in a very pure, clean way. A vowel should not change while it is being voiced. For example, in English we tend to close our lips to form a w sound when we finish the vowel o. Words like “go”, “no” and “so” are pronounced to rhyme with “owe”. To avoid this problem, practise saying the vowels one by one and remember that once you have shaped your mouth for a particular vowel sound, no part of your mouth should move while you are voicing the vowel. Do not move your lips, teeth, tongue or jaw. This is the key to sounding like a real Filipino.
Also, the Filipino vowel letters are never combined to create a different vowel sound (except in foreign words). Each vowel indicates a separate syllable. So, the number of vowels in a word matches the number of syllables. However, there are a few exceptions (see Irregularities below).
Most of the consonant letters in Filipino are pronounced the same way as in English. As a foreigner you can easily be understood if you pronounce them all this way but to really get the Filipino sound you must make some adjustments.
K, P & T
In English we aspirate the letters k, p and, t. That means that we tend to release some air when we pronounce these sounds. These letters are not as explosive in Filipino. This light Filipino sound can be heard in English words where these letters follow an s. For example, “skate”, “spare” and, “stand”.
D, L, N & T
The letters d, l, n, and, t are pronounced in a slightly different way too. In English we place the tip of the tongue against the back of the upper front teeth for these sounds but in Filipino the tip of the tongue is placed lightly on the edge of the upper front teeth. Again, it is a lighter sound than the English equivalents.
The Letter R
The Filipino r is very different from the English r. It is sounded by flicking the tip of the tongue against the back of the upper front teeth. (Once you get the hang of it, you will understand the special relationship between the Filipino letters r and d.) This r sound can be compared to the double d in "ladder" but only if the word is not over-enunciated. Some Filipinos, especially in the north, really roll their r's by rapidly repeating this action in a machine gun fashion. Others roll their r’s from the back of the throat. However, these variations are not important to a student and may even seem like an affectation when sounded by a non-Filipino. Only a single flick of the tongue is necessary.
The Letter NG
This is a single letter in the Filipino alphabet and its sound is not at all foreign to the English speaker. It can be found in words such as “sing” and “hang” etc. The difficulty for non-Filipinos is that the ng sound is often at the beginning of a word or a syllable. Here is a trick to learn this sound. It works as long as you don’t pronounce the word “sing” with a hard g.
The Accent Marks (Mga Tuldík)
The handiest tool for learning any language is a dictionary. All good Filipino dictionaries include accent marks or mga tuldík for each entry. It is important for any non-Filipino, and non-Tagalog too, to know what each of the tuldík marks signify. Once you know these marks and the Filipino vowels and consonants, you can pronounce almost any word properly without ever hearing it spoken by a Filipino.
If you have ever studied Filipino pronunciation before, you may have been bewildered by terms such as malumay, malumì, mabilís, maragsâ or mariín. These terms are used mainly by grammarians to classify words based on how they are pronounced. The good news is that you don’t need to know any of these terms if you just want to pick up a dictionary and find out how to pronounce a word. (However, we will discuss these terms later for those who are interested.) Let’s begin.
There are three basic accent marks (mga tuldík) in Filipino dictionaries. These are:
These marks are placed above vowels only and they do not change the sound of the vowels as they do in other languages such as French. They merely mark which syllables should be stressed or if a vowel should be clipped short with a glottal stop or both. Notice that the name of each tuldík contains the very accent mark it describes.
The pahilís is the most common tuldík. It simply shows which syllable or syllables should be accented or stressed in a word. (Hilís simply means slanted.) To demonstrate what is meant by stress, here are some examples in English:
As you can see, the placement of the stress can make a big difference in the meaning of a word. This is especially true in Filipino. For example:
The paiwà mark is found only at the ends of words. It does not mark a stress on that syllable. Instead, it signifies that the vowel sound should be clipped short in the throat. (Iwà means slash as with a knife.) The technical term for this is a glottal stop or glottal catch. Speakers of English can compare this to the common exclamation that signifies shock or dread, “uh-oh!” where the first part, “uh-” is clipped and separated from the "oh". If there are no other accent marks in the word, stress the second last syllable. Here are more homonyms that involve the paiwà tuldik:
The pakupyâ mark is a combination of the pahilís and the paiwà marks. It signifies a stress on the marked syllable and a glottal stop on the vowel. (A kupyâ is a Filipino hat or long ago, a helmet.) It is also found only on the final syllable of a word. Example:
Stress classifications of Filipino words
Filipino grammarians classify words according to how they are pronounced. Each pattern of stresses and glottal stops has a name. As stated earlier, these terms are not crucial for a student to learn Filipino pronunciation but they are useful as a kind of shorthand to describe the different types of words. These terms become more important when you study the mechanics of Filipino grammar. (For a few more important pronunciation tips you may want to skip down to Irregularities.)
Malumay or Banayad
Malumay words have no accent marks but there is a stress on the second last syllable. This class of word is so common that most dictionaries do not mark them with a pahilís tuldík. Examples:
Malumì words are pronounced the same way as malumay, with the stress on the second last syllable, but they also have a glottal stop on the final vowel. This is marked with the paiwà tuldík. Examples:
Mabilís or quick words have a single stress on the final syllable which is signified by a pahilís tuldík. Examples:
A maragsâ word is quick like a mabilís word with the stress on the final syllable but it also has a final glottal stop like a malumì word. Examples:
A mariín or “stressed” word can contain the same stress pattern as any of the four types mentioned above but with an extra stressed syllable. Therefore there are four types of mariín words. Examples:
Malaw-aw is a very rare type of pronunciation that was more common in the days before the Spanish language influenced Filipino speech. It is marked with a hyphen or gitlíng instead of a tuldík. The gitling represents a glottal stop before the vowel of the final syllable. Examples:
The current name of the national language of the Philippines is Filipino. It was formerly known as Pilipino and before that it was called the National Language. All of these incarnations were based mainly on the Tagalog language. There was a general rule in the old Pilipino language which stated that a word was written the way it was pronounced and it was pronounced the way it was written. Even so, there were some exceptions.
The Word Ng
The first obstacle for a student of Filipino is often the word "ng". It is roughly the equivalent of the English word "of". It is pronounced nang but it is always abbreviated because it is used so often in Filipino speech and writing. There is another word which is spelled "nang" and pronounced the same way. It has several meanings such as a conditional "when" and "in order to" etc. Ng is also a letter in the Filipino alphabet but when it is recited as part of the alphabet, it is pronounced nga.
The Word Mga
"Mga" is another very common Filipino abbreviation which is pronounced mangá. It makes nouns plural just like the letter s does in English and it takes on the meaning of "approximate" when dealing with numbers.
Words with DIY
In the Pilipino language the letters d, i and y were used in combination to approximate the sound of the English letter j before it was added to the new Filipino alphabet. So words like "janitor", "generator", "jeep", and "junior" were spelled diyanitor, diyenereytor, diyip and diyunyor. This j sound became so familiar that some people began to pronounce it even in Tagalog and Spanish words that happened to contain the letters diy or dia. Words such as "diyan", "diyabetes", "diyamante", "diyaryo", "diyes", "diyeta", and "diyos" are sometimes pronounced jan, jabetes, jamante, jaryo, jes, jeta, and jos.
Words with SIY
The letters siy are used to approximate the sh sound in foreign words and just as in the case of the letters diy, this sound is often used indiscriminately, even in words that originally didn't have the sh sound. Words such as "siya", "kasiya", "pasiya", "siyete", "siyam" and "siyopaw" are often pronounced sha, kasha, pashya, shete, sham, shopaw.
Kauntî & Saulì
These words are both formed by the connection of a prefix to a root word: ka+untî and sa+ulì. Kauntî means "a small amount" and saulì means "returning something". In common slang the a and u are often mixed together so that these words are actually pronounced konti and soli respectively. They are even spelled that way in comic books.
Last updated: 10 May 2003