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About Chavacano Language

Chavacano, also Chabacano, is a Spanish-based creole language spoken in the Philippines. It is the common name for the six dialects of what is formally known in Linguistics as Philippine Creole Spanish. The word "Chavacano" is derived from the Spanish language meaning "poor taste," "vulgar," "common," "of low quality," "tacky," or "coarse".

Linguistical significance

The Chavacano language is the only Spanish-based creole in Asia. It has survived for more than 400 years, making it one of the oldest creole languages in the world. It is the only language to have developed in the Philippines (a member of Philippine languages) which does not belong to the family of Austronesian languages, although it shows a characteristic common to the sub-classification of Malayo-Polynesian languages, the reduplication.


This creole has six dialects. Their classification is based on their substrate languages and the regions where they are commonly spoken. The three known dialects of Chabacano which have Tagalog as their substrate language are the Luzon-based creoles of which are Caviteño (spoken in Cavite City), Ternateño (spoken in Ternate, Cavite) and Ermiteño (once spoken in the old district of Ermita in Manila and is now extinct). The other dialects of Chavacano which have, primarily, Cebuano as their substrate language are the Mindanao-based creoles of which are Zamboangueño (spoken in Zamboanga City, Basilan Province, parts of Sulu Province and Tawi-Tawi Province, and in Semporna-Sabah, Malaysia and the rest of the Zamboanga del Sur, Zamboanga Sibugay and Zamboanga del Norte), Davaoeño (spoken in some areas of Davao) and Cotabateño (spoken in Cotabato City).


Much of the words in the Chavacano vocabulary are mostly derived from the Spanish language, while its grammar is mostly based on other Philippine languages primarily, Tagalog and Cebuano. Its vocabulary, especially the Zamboangueño dialect, has some minor influences from the Italian language, Portuguese and several Native American languages. The vocabulary of the Ternateño variety, in particular, has a major influence from the Portuguese language and the language of Ternate in Indonesia since the speakers of the said dialect are the descendants of the Indonesian soldiers brought by the Spaniards in the area.

In contrast with the Luzon-based creoles, the Zamboangueño dialect has the most borrowings from other Philippine languages including Hiligaynon, Subanen/Subanon, Sama-Banguingui, Tausug, Yakan, Tagalog and Ilocano. Portuguese, Italian and some words of Nahuatl, Quechua, Mexican-Indian and Taino origin are present in Zamboangueño.


The highest number of Chavacano speakers are found in Zamboanga City and in the island province of Basilan. A significant number of Chavacano speakers are found in Cavite City and Ternate. There are also speakers in some areas in the provinces of Zamboanga del Sur, Zamboanga Sibugay, Zamboanga del Norte, Davao, and in Cotabato City. According to the official 2000 Philippine census, there were altogether 607,200 Chavacano speakers in the Philippines in that same year. The exact figure could be higher as the 2000 population of Zamboanga City, whose main language is Chavacano, far exceeded that census figure. Also, the figure does not include Chavacano speakers of the Filipino diaspora. Notwithstanding, Zamboangueño is the dialect with the most number of speakers, being the main language of Zamboanga City whose population is now believed to be over a million.

Speakers can also be found in the town of Semporna in the eastern coast of Sabah, Malaysia—not surprisingly—because this northern part of Borneo is close to the Sulu islands and the Zamboanga Peninsula. This region was once part of Spanish Philippines until the late 19th century.

A small number of Zamboanga's indigenous peoples, such as the Tausugs, the Samals, and of Basilan such as the Yakans also speak the language. In the close provinces of Sulu and Tawi-Tawi areas, there are Muslim speakers of the Chavacano de Zamboanga.

Social significance

Chavacano has been primarily and practically a spoken language. In the past, its use in literature was limited and chiefly local to the geographical location where the particular variety of the language was spoken. Its use as a spoken language far exceeds than its use in literary work in comparison to the use of Spanish in the Philippines which was more successful as a written language than a spoken language. In recent years, there have been efforts to encourage the use of Chavacano as a written language, but the attempts were mostly minor attempts in folklore and religious literature and few pieces of written materials by the print media. In Zamboanga City, while the language is used by the mass media, the Catholic Church, education, and the local government, there have been few literary work written in Zamboangueño and access to these resources by the general public is not readily available.

While the Luzon-based creoles, Davaoeño, and Cotabateño are believed to be in danger of extinction, the Zamboangueño dialect has been constantly evolving especially during half of the past century until the present. Zamboangueño has been experiencing an infusion of English and more Tagalog words in its vocabulary and there have been debates and discussions among older Chavacano speakers, new generation of Chavacano speakers, scholars, linguists, sociologists, historians, and educators regarding its preservation, cultivation, standardization, and its future as a Spanish-based creole. In 2000, The Instituto Cervantes in Manila hosted a conference entitled "Shedding Light on the Chabacano Language" at the Ateneo de Manila University.

Because of the grammatical structures, Castillian usage, and archaic Spanish words and phrases that Chavacano (especially Zamboangueño) uses, between speakers of both contemporary Spanish and Chavacano who are uninitiated, both languages appear to be non-intelligible to a large extent. For the initiated speakers, Chavacano can be intelligible to some Spanish speakers, and while most Spanish words can easily be understood by Chavacano speakers, many would struggle to understand a complete Spanish sentence.

Today, Chavacano in Zamboanga City is gradually becoming to be both a spoken and written language. It is used in local government, education, print media, television, radio, film, visual media, the Catholic Church and in popular music. Zamboangueños are woking hard to revive and prolifirate the language that an online Chavacano collaborative dictionary was created.


Chavacano or Chabacano originated from the Spanish word chabacano which literally means "poor taste", "vulgar", "common", "of low quality", "tacky", or "coarse". During the Spanish colonial period, it was called by the Spanish-speaking population as the "lenguaje del calle", "lenguaje de parian" (language of the street), or "lenguaje de cocina" (kitchen Spanish to refer to the Chabacano spoken by Chinese-Filipinos of Manila, particularly in Ermita) to distinguish it from the Spanish language spoken by the peninsulares, insulares, mestizos, or the elite class called the ilustrados. This common name has evolved into a word of its own in different spellings with no negative connotation, but to simply mean as the name of the language with that distinct Spanish flavor.


Zamboangueños usually, though not always, spell the name of the language as Chavacano to refer to their language or even to themselves as Chavacanos, and they spell the word as chabacano referring to the original Spanish meaning of the word or as Chabacano referring also to the language itself. Thus, Zamboangueños generally spell the name of the language in two different ways.

Caviteños, Ternateños, and Ermitaños spell the word as it is spelled originally in the Spanish language - as Chabacano. Davaoeños, Cotabateños, and especially those from Basilan province tend to lean more on the Zamboangueño spellings. The dialects of the language are geographically-related: Ermitaño, Caviteño, and Ternateño are similar to each other having Tagalog as their substrate language while Zamboangueño, Abakay Spanish, and Cotabateñ are similar having Visayan (mostly Cebuano) as their substrate language(s). A Zamboangueño would call his dialect Zamboangueño, Zamboangueño Chavacano or formally as Chavacano de Zamboanga, a Caviteño would call his dialect Caviteño or Chabacano de Cavite, and etc. to emphasize the difference from one another using their own geographical location as point of reference.

There are also other alternative names and spellings for this language depending on the dialects and context (whether hispanized or native). Zamboangueños sometimes spell their dialect as Chabakano, Zamboangenyo, or Zamboangenio. Caviteño is also known as Caviten, Linguaje di Niso, or sometimes spell their dialect as Tsabakano. Ermitaño is also known as Ermiteño while Ternateño is also known as Ternateño Chabacano, Bahra, or Linguaje di Bahra. Davaoeño is also Davaweño, Davawenyo, Davawenyo Zamboangenyo, Abakay Spanish, or Davao Chabacano/Chavacano. Cotabateño is also known as Cotabato Chabacano/Chavacano.

Speakers from Basilan consider their Chavacano as Zamboangueño or formally as Chavacano de Zamboanga.

Forms and style

Chavacano (especially Zamboangueño) has two levels of usage for words: The common or familiar form and the formal form.

In the common or familiar form, words of local origin or a mixture of local and Spanish words predominate. The common or familiar form is used ordinarily when conversing with people of equal or lower status in society. It is also used more commonly in the family, with friends and acquaintances. Its use is of general acceptance and usage.

In the formal form, words of Spanish origin or Spanish words predominate. The formal form is used especially when conversing with people of higher status in society. It is also used when conversing with elders (especially in the family and with older relatives) and those in authority. It is more commonly used by older generations, by Zamboangueño mestizos, and in the barrios. It is the form used in speeches, education, media, and writing.

Writing system

Chavacano words of Spanish origin are written using the Latin alphabet with some special characters from the Spanish alphabet: the vowels with the acute accent (á, é, í, ó, ú), the vowel u with diaeresis (ü), and ñ.

Chavacano words of local origin are also written using the Latin alphabet and are spelled in the manner according to their origin. Thus, the letter k appear mostly in words of Austronesian origin or in loanwords from other Philippine languages (words such as kame, kita, kanamon, kaninyo).

Some additional characters like the ñ (eñe, representing the phoneme /ɲ/, a letter distinct from n, although typographically composed of an n with a tilde), the digraph ch (che, representing the phoneme /tʃ/), the ll (elle, representing the phoneme /ʎ/), and the digraph rr (erre with strong r) exist in Chavacano writing.

As a general rule, words of Spanish origin are written and spelled using Spanish orthography (ie. fiesta, casa). Words of local (Philippine languages) origin are written and spelled using local orthography, but only when those words are pronounced in the local manner (ie. manok, kanon). Otherwise, words of local origin are written and spelled in the native manner along Spanish spelling rules (ie. jendeh, cogon).

In the old times, all Chavacano words, regardless of origin, were written according to the Spanish orthography (kita = quita, kame = came). Furthermore, some letters were orthographically interchanged because they represented the same phonetic values. (i.e. gente = jente, cerveza = serbesa)

It is uncommon in modern Chavacano writings to include acute accent and the diaeresis in writing and usually these marks are only used in linguistic or higly formalized text. Also, the letters ñ and ll are sometimes replaced by ny and ly in informal texts.

The use of inverted punctuations (¡! and ¿?) as well as the accent marks, diaeresis, and circumflex have become obsolete even in standard texts among modern dialects.


The Chavacano alphabet has 29 letters including /ch/, /ll/ & /ñ/:

  • a, b, c, ch, d, e, f, g, h, i, j, k, l, ll, m, n, ñ, o, p, q, r, s, t, u, v, w, x, y, z


Chavacano is a language with the Verb Subject Object sentence order. This is because it follows the Tagalog and Cebuano grammatical structures. However, the Subject Verb Object order does exist in Chavacano but only for emphasis purposes (see below). New generations have been slowly and vigorously using the S-V-O pattern mainly because of the influence of the English language. These recent practices have been most prevalent and evident in the mass media particularly among Chavacano newswriters who translate news leads from English or Tagalog to Chavacano where the "who" is emphasized more than the "what". Because the mass media represent "legitimacy", it is understood by Chavacano speakers (particularly Zamboangueños) that the S-V-O sentence structure used by Chavacano journalists is standardized.


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