Excerpt from: 

Chabacano de Zamboanga Handbook and Chabacano-English-Spanish Dictionary

By: Bernardino S. Camins

Second Edition Copyright 1999 Office of the City Mayor, Zamboanga City


Is This How It Began?

History is unclear on how Chabacano de Zamboanga, the dialect of Zamboanga City and some of its environs, actually began. It is however vivid in its account as to when the Spanish colonizers first settled in Cavite, a province in Luzon, before 1635, and how they influenced the dialect of Cavite as well as the dialects of the other sitios of the province with the Spanish language. Parenthetically, 1635 is a very consequential year in the history of Zamboanga because it was when the construction of the city's most famous shrine - the Fort Pilar - actually started.

One of the areas in Cavite that was greatly influenced by the Spanish language, naturally, was the place where most of the Spanish soldiers often converge - the Cavite Spanish naval station. The locals conversed with the Spanish in an admixture of the dialects and Spanish. Sometime later, this admixture became known as the Chabacano. Chabacano is a Spanish adjective meaning clumsy, awkward, or lacking in good taste. What is to be remembered, however, is that the Chabacano of Cavite was a combination of only Tagalog and other Luzon dialects and Spanish. It had its own style of sentence construction and its own set of word meanings - totally different from that of the Chabacano of Zamboanga.

On the same year, however, the Spanish authorities started to feel the pestering of the Moro Insurectos in Mindanao, and saw the imperativeness of constructing in Zamboanga a military fortification to ward these insurectos off. But, the construction of the fort was not going to be easy as it was at first thought of. Despite the availability of construction materials, Zamboanga was short of the required skilled labor. To resolve this, the Spanish authorities decided to import labor from Luzon and the Visayas. Cavite was to be the main source of this type of labor. But not all of them can be transplanted to Zamboanga, as there was the Cavite naval installation to be maintained. Workers from the other parts of the country then had to be taken in. thus, the construction work force eventually consisted of some Spanish soldiers, and the majority were masons from Cavite, sacadas from Cebu, Iloilo, and Dapitan, Zamboanga del Norte, Samals or Samas (as they prefer to be called) who lived on the seashores adjacent to the construction site and Subanens from Zamboanga del Sur. Each of these tribes brought in its own dialect. Although conversations were restricted intra-tribe and in its own dialect, work instructions were issued in Spanish. Majority of the workers was unschooled and therefore did not understand Spanish. What they did was to simply parrot the language of the colonizers, disregarding the language's grammar and pronunciation. But, inasmuch as the Chabacano de Cavite already had a tinge of Spanish, it became the sort of unofficial lingua francaof the construction site. Mistakenly, it was thought then, as it still today, to be the Spanish language. As this was continually spoken, it was enriched with the inclusion of Cebuano, Ilongo, Sama and Subanen words.

Education during the Spanish era was considered a privilege. It was reserved only for those whose families were rated as "acceptable" to the Spanish authorities, and those who had the means to finance their own education. For the unprivileged, the only education available to them was the Cartilla offered by parochial schools. The Cartilla was buttressed by the Sunday catechism classes. This system of education resulted into the emergence of two types of people: the Illustrados or the educated, who spoke and wrote in Spanish, and the unschooled, who spoke only the city's lingua franca, the Chabacano de Cavite, which by now had already been further enriched with the assimilation of Tausog, Maranao and Chinese words. But at this time, it must be borne in mind, that the original Chabacano de Cavite's influence began to fade as the city's own lingua franca started to develop. The Chabacano de Zamboanga, as it started to be called now, commenced to acquire its own linguistic styles, forms and word meanings. It had began to develop its own set of formal, familiar, common, and even coarse (bastus) styles and forms.

And so, the Chabacano de Zamboanga, which unofficially was born in 1635, began to flourish; and today its is by no means a dead dialect: it is a living dialect which had been enriched by foreign and local cultures of the past as it is being continually enriched with the injection of more words from other foreign and local sub-cultures of today.

Under the past free universal elementary education system of the American regime, and even under the short Japanese occupation, the dialect burgeoned with the introduction of some American and Nippongo words. During the turbulent martial law years there came an influx of hundreds of soldiers from the Tagalog-speaking regions of Luzon and thousands of refugees from the Cebuano- and Tausog-speaking provinces of Western Mindanao to the city of Zamboanga. As a result, more Tagalog, Cebuano and Tausog words were added to the dialect. And today, with the proliferation of "komiks", and radio and television shows in Tagalog, Tagalog words seem to predominate in the new Chabacano de Zamboanga. However, a semblance of the original Chabacano de Zamboanga, which is laden with Spanish words and expressions, is still being spoken by old-timers in some remote areas of the city where foreign languages and sub-cultural dialects and cultures failed to influence.

Despite the incursions of foreign languages and local dialects, Chabacano de Zamboanga retains a very distinct characteristic: it is a very pervasive dialect. Those who have settled in the city learned it with ease. But, their dialects, although for a time had influenced the Chabacano, were gradually re-affected by the Chabacano and their words were selectively swallowed in the process.

Chabacano de Zamboanga has been, and still is, a very unique dialect.



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