Pinoy Slang Sakalam
Tracing the roots and exploring the power of Filipino slang
“Sakalam,” “werpa,” “lodi” — you may have encountered these “tadbaliks” on your news feed. These reversed words continue to trend on social media. Classified as Filipino slang, they have been acknowledged by many linguists as a manifestation of the dynamism of our language, and how this runs parallel to changes in society over time. It is a way to establish a language that speaks to people’s wants and needs within the zeitgeist, one that is not bound by traditional grammatical rules.
Over 180 languages exist in the Philippines and continue to give birth to dialects across the archipelago. We continue to witness the emergence of “salitang balbal,” or language that is casually spoken in the streets. And as Filipinos spend more time on the internet, this informal language continues to find a home in cyberspace, as it rapidly evolves.
In the earliest Tagalog dictionary Vocabulario de la Lengua Tagala, no entry for the word “balbal” exists, making it hard to pinpoint its etymology. Nevertheless, language experts still attempt to make sense of its origins as it continues to flourish among the many existing Filipino languages today.
The Origins of Pinoy Slang
Feorillo Demeterio, a Filipino professor at De La Salle University, notes that Filipino slang is an extension of two of our inherent cultural traits: cheerfulness and innovativeness.
“Napakahilig natin makipag-interact sa isa’t isa. Hindi mo siguro makikita ‘yan sa ibang bansa. Kaya nga tayo kilala na mahilig sa text, Facebook, at sa social media. Hindi lang dahil nag-aaksaya tayo ng panahon kung hindi dahil marami tayong kausap at natutuwa tayo na may kausap tayo at maraming bagong pag-uusapan. Siguro ‘yun ang dahilan kung bakit marami tayong balbal na salita,” Demeterio says.
(We like to interact with one another. You may not be able to see this in other countries. This is why we are known for texting, and using Facebook and social media. It’s not to waste time but because we always have people to talk to, we feel happy doing so, and we have a lot of new things to talk about. This may also be the reason behind the many existing forms of slang.)
Because of the perpetuation of regional languages and the rise of globalization, Filipinos became exposed to different cultures inside and outside the country. This also encouraged them to borrow words from our local dialects and from the English language.
To count certain words as slang, UP Department of Linguistics Chair Jem Javier explains that they should serve a function.
“May iba’t ibang function na ginagampanan ang wika at sa konteksto na kinalalagyan niya ay nag-iiba yung anyo niya. Mas matingkad pa sa pagpili ng salita o yung tinatawag natin na kaakmaan o “kaangkupan.” [Nakikita ito] mula doon sa syllables, sa affixes na gagamitin, doon sa morphology sa pagbuo mo ng salita hanggang sa mismong sitwasyon,” Javier explains.
(Language fulfills different functions and takes on new forms in different contexts. This is highlighted in the case of word choice or what we call “appropriateness.” [This can be observed] in syllables, in affixes used, from morphology, to how you create words up in a situation.)
Creating wordplay, reversing or reducing letters, or mixing two different words are what prompted the birth of Filipino slang. When the meanings of words differed from how they were normally conveyed, new words were created, adding even more color to our already colorful lexicon.
Dude… Pare… Chong, Are U Belong?
Filipino slang lives on after certain words are used, modified, and adopted by social groups. It becomes a secret code known only to them.
“Kung nandoon ka sa isang group, clique, barkada or organization, para ma-identify mo yung sarili mo belonging to that group, language nila yung madalas na ginagamit. Most likely, ganoon ang paglaganap ng balbal. Kapag napa-uso mo na ‘yan, para siyang virus na may mahahawa tapos dadami yung gagamit to the point na taken for granted na yung salitang balbal,” Javier further explains.
(If you are part of a particular group, clique, friend group, or organization, you can identify yourself as part of that group, by often using their language. That is also most likely how slang became prevalent. If you’re able to popularize that language, it becomes like a virus, to the point that slang is taken for granted.)
Filipino slang is a vessel of subculture. But inasmuch as it gives communities an “inside language,” slang can also alienate and widen gaps between generations and socio-cultural classes. One example is perception of those who speak in conyo versus those who speak in jejemon.
Conyo is a Spanish word referring to female genitalia that has a vulgar connotation. After decades, it has taken on a new meaning and form, and now refers to mixing up Tagalog and English words, often by those who are socially and economically privileged. Because of this, conyo is perceived to be the superior language. Meanwhile, jejemon is a term that describes the lower classes, and is often used in a derogatory manner. In terms of language, it is generally stigmatized because it is deemed “unsophisticated.”
Demeterio agrees that Filipino slang will always be linked to negative developments in the power dynamics of different social groups: “Dito sa bansa natin, ang idyoma ng high class ay kolonisado ng wikang Ingles. Kahit Filipino ‘yong wika, sa pandinig nila ay sosyal kasi maraming English words na nakahalo.”
(Here in our country, the words of the privileged class are colonized by the English language. Even if the language they speak is Filipino, they perceive it as sophisticated since there are many English words mixed in.)
Javier notes that these implications are related to the duality of language, as well as to the sociolect or dialect of a particular class. These coded languages add up to the creation of subcultures and define membership into those subcultures.
“Una, na-veil mo ‘yong identity, culture, or experience mo pero at the same time, ‘yon din ang dahilan kung bakit nagkakaroon ng misunderstanding or judgement or prejudice ‘yong mga tagalabas doon sa “in group,” he explains.
(First, you are able to veil your identity, culture, or experience but at the same time, this can also be the source of misunderstanding, or judgment, or prejudice for those who are not part of the “in group.”)
Still, Filipino slang captures the lived experiences and stories of Filipinos. It also reflects modern beliefs, creates new meanings, and helps dismantle archaic notions.
How Sakalam is Pinoy Slang
One may think of language as a single structure with a set of fixed rules that need to be followed in order to convey meaning. But Filipino slang challenges this monolithic view and shows it to be a complex and layered system that will further develop as it is used. Perhaps what is most important about it is that it helps us describe what we are feeling when we cannot find the words.
For Javier, Filipino slang is a sign that our language is alive. He notes that some words may be changed or lost, but this does not mean that the quality of our language is deteriorating.
“Yung salitang balbal ay isa lamang sa napakalawak na representasyon sa kaalaman ng tao na may kinalaman sa wika. Hindi ito nagpapa-atras kundi nagpapaunlad dahil naipapakita nito ang pagiging malikhain sa pahayag,” Javier shares.
(Slang is only part of a broad representation of human knowledge in relation to language. It does not mean language is declining but that it is progressing, as it shows creativity of expression.)
Along with many colorful native dialects, Filipino slang is another form of expression that makes our language “sakalam.” It showcases Filipino creativity as we seek to express our unique identities, personalities, and experiences. Moreover, Filipino slang articulates the hopes and dreams of many diverse communities, something that can help them thrive and find inspiration in today’s increasingly global world. — with research by Roace Alfonso/COMMONER
Jhona Vitor is pursuing her undergraduate degree in Journalism at the University of Santo Tomas. When she is not trying to beat deadlines or volunteering for organizations, she enjoys reading or drinking too much coffee.