How the pandemic is shaping language 


Patricia B. Mirasol

Pandemic-related words kept in their original English form are now a part of the Filipino language, according to

the Commission on the Filipino Language


Komisyon sa Wikang Filipino

or KWF). The commission also acknowledged that mobilizing people necessitated getting messages across in a language they understand.

“We, the KWF, and other government agencies, initially struggled with words such as ‘PUI’ [person under investigation], ‘frontliner,’ and ‘physical distancing,’” said John Enrico C. Torralba, chief language researcher of KWF’s translation division. “There are no indigenous equivalents for them,” he told


in the vernacular, “so they were retained in their original form.”

Citing Bicol poet and cultural advocate

Victor Dennis T. Nierva

, Mr. Torralba said many individuals who have translated

materials from the Department of Health

into their local languages practiced keeping these technical terms as well.

Institutions like the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have similarly retained

medical concepts like “spike protein” (which protrude from the outside of coronaviruses and allow them to infect cells)

in its Filipino-translated resources.

“Medical practitioners, language scholars, and translators need to work together to translate ideas into their respective languages,” said Mr. Torralba, adding that the KWF is developing a registry of technical word translations and building a network of translators. “They also need to be open to modifying translations that aren’t understood by the target audience.”

Public understanding of a concept is an important factor for mobilizing individuals to follow official policy, such as evacuating during a storm.

This need was highlighted during 2013’s super Typhoon Haiyan, Mr. Torralba told


: “A local citizen said he didn’t understand what a ‘storm surge’ meant. Had the authorities used the word


, he would’ve immediately understood what to do.”

Communicating in international lingua francas or national languages makes marginalized people more vulnerable,

according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs


“People need to be more careful [about translations] because people’s lives are at stake,” Mr. Torralba said.


Living languages


Buwan ng Wika

(or Language Month) theme for 2021 is “

Filipino and native tongues in Filipino decolonization

.” The theme promotes the use of native languages to better reflect Filipino perspectives. It is in line with

the 2021 Quincentennial Commemorations in the Philippines

(2021 QCP), which commemorates significant events over the nation’s past 500 years.

According to language resource Ethnologue, there are

183 living languages

spoken in the Philippines, the majority of which are indigenous tongues. The most utilized languages — according to their order of use — are Tagalog, Cebuano, Pangasinan, Bicol, Hiligaynon, Waray, Kapampangan, Maranao, and Maguindanao, said Patrocinio V. Villafuerte, a poet, author, and retired professor,

in an Aug. 12 webinar


Republic Act No. 7104

, which created the KWF, refers to Philippine languages as “the indigenous languages of the Philippines, including the national language and the regional and local languages.”