It’s Englishes, plural.

June 13, 2022

Linguistics Professor Daniel Davis’ latest Fulbright project is looking to tell untold chapters of English’s fascinating story in the Philippines.

An American teacher stand and about 30 young Filipino girl students stand for a class portrait in a historical photo from the early 1900s.
Girls at the Kabayan school stand for a class portrait with their teacher, Mr. Mass, circa early 1900s, in Benguet, Luzon, The Philippines. Courtesy: Library of Congress

For linguist Daniel Davis, English is a language that’s traveled the world and evolved in surprising ways in every place it's found a home. Like other sociolinguists, he often speaks of Englishes, plural, or otherwise precedes the term with a modifier to designate which variety he’s talking about, e.g. American English, Scottish English, Indian English or Philippine English. It’s not just a language nerd thing. For him, the plural better reflects how the language has actually evolved historically and been shaped by all the people who have encountered, adopted and put their own spin on it. It also helps chip away at the persistent idea that there’s just one correct English. “I taught English and linguistics in Hong Kong for eight years, and some of the students would almost tease me that they spoke the correct English, because they spoke British English,” Davis says. “And in the late-1800s, New England English was held up as a model in the U.S. So with language, what’s interesting to me isn’t models or correctness, it’s variation and cultural identity.”

Davis’ own work in this discipline of world Englishes has centered on three distinct geographic areas: the various forms of English spoken in the British Isles and Europe, North American Englishes, and those that have found a home in the Pacific countries, like Hong Kong and the Philippines. The latter is the subject of Davis’ most recent research, which he's renewing now in a second Fulbright fellowship, after his 2020 Fulbright got interrupted by the pandemic. The story of English in the Philippines, where, along with Filipino, the language has official status, is a rich story, indeed. From the mid-1500s until 1898, the Philippines was a colony of Spain, but following the U.S. victory in the Spanish-American War, it became a territory of the United States. A prominent feature of that new period of American colonialism was American English, which, along with other subjects, was taught at hundreds of new public schools that were built in the early 20th century. As a consequence, Davis says, English spread quickly throughout the country. He says records indicate that within 50 years, about one third of people in the Philippines reported speaking English.

So why did English take root so quickly in the Philippines? Davis says there are a number of factors. Some scholars argue that people in the Philippines embraced English as a symbol of 20-century modernity. English also provided access to education within the new American-run public school system, and knowledge of English was increasingly a gateway to new business opportunities across Asia. But he says another part of the story may be that the Philippines, historically, has always been a place where language diversity has thrived. Well before the American (or even Spanish) presence there, the Philippines was already extremely multilingual. Owing to its geography (the Philippines consists of more than 7,000 islands), the country is home to approximately 180 different languages. “Everybody speaks two, three, four languages — on a daily basis, depending on the social environment,” Davis says. “For example, at the university where I was, a departmental administrator might speak fluent English at the university. But out in the street, if she’s hailing a minibus, that’s all going to be in Tagalog, which is the main language spoken around Manila. But then calling her relatives back in northern Luzon, she’d talk with them in the local language, which is Ilocano. That kind of constant language switching is almost impossible for many Americans to imagine, but it’s a routine part of life in the Philippines.”

Davis poses for a photo with some high school students he met in Manila
Davis poses for a photo with some high school students from Manila. They approached him for a school assignment that tasked them with interviewing someone from another country. Davis was happy to oblige. He said their English was excellent, evidence that the language is still an important part of high school curriculums in The Philippines.

All those languages not only coexist, but intermingle, and this is where the story of English in the Philippines gets really interesting, Davis says. Because of its roots, Philippine English, which has been recognized by linguists as a distinct form for decades, is grammatically very similar to American English. But pronunciations are different and its vocabulary is more expansive, owing to words borrowed from the Philippines’ rich language ecosystem. During his time in Manila in early 2020, before the pandemic put his Fulbright fellowship on pause, Davis got to experience all sorts of Philippine English words and phrases first hand. At the university cafeteria, for example, everyone uses reusable containers called baunan, which are sort of like divided reusable lunch boxes you bring from home and then put your food into to take back to your table. When he returns in January, he’ll be packing pasalubong, small gifts that you bring back from a trip for your friends and colleagues. At the post office near the university, the sign indicating where to form a line reads “Fall in,” a phrase owing to the U.S. military’s long presence in the country. The day someone referred to him as “kuya Daniel,” attaching the term of brotherly affection to his own name, was definitely a highlight.

Without a doubt, how to go about telling the complex story of English in the Philippines, as Davis hopes his research can help do, definitely poses one of those where-do-you-even-start challenges. So Davis says he’ll be tackling the work from two directions: starting in the present and working backwards, and then from the past and tracing the story forward in time. For the former, he’ll be making lots of observations about how English is used in daily life and what social and cultural currency it has. From the historical side, he plans to dig deep into the unique collections at the Rizal Library at Ateneo de Manila University, which houses the American Historical Collection consisting of tens of thousands of documents, photographs and records chronicling the history of the pre- and post-independence American involvement in the Philippines. Additionally, the university has important archives relating to the early teaching of English in the Philippines, including things like textbooks that Filipino children would have been using in the early 1900s. 

“For example, I was looking at an education report from 1925, and educators were already becoming aware of the need for culturally appropriate materials, possibly as early as 1907,” Davis says. "The very first textbooks for English were imported from the U.S., but almost immediately the American teachers there went about adapting the books to refer to the flora and fauna of Philippine life, and very soon a new variety of English — Philippine English — began to develop. And I just found that fascinating that they were trying to rework the curriculum. On the one hand, it’s an expression of resistance. But it’s also an expression of people finding utility in the language, and clearly wanting to make it their own.”


Linguistics Professor Daniel Davis is returning to the Philippines for a second Fulbright fellowship January through May 2023. Story by Lou Blouin