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The Ibanag Language and Public Signages

Ethnologue, one of the foremost online sources of information on the languages of the world, identifies the domain of use as a gauge in determining a language’s state in terms of the number of its speakers.

Where or in what situation a particular language is used? A language aside from its function as a basic channel for verbal communication at the home, school, workplace, or elsewhere, may also be used in other domains such as literature and music, evangelization, or public administration to name a few.

The lesser the domain of use, the more a language is at risk of endangerment due to declining functionality, importance, and therefore, speakers.

The Cagayan Valley is home to diverse languages, the majority of which are indigenous. Ibanag is among the few native minority languages whose speakers are not only found in a single province. According to some speakers themselves, both in Cagayan and Isabela, the language is often labeled as “dying”, though erroneously. Speakers, nevertheless, have every right to worry, as their observations on the language’s non-transfer to the younger generation are true and valid. Tagalog, as the country’s official language, has acquired a higher prestige among the locals, and therefore, has become the first language of many, if not most of the younger generation.

The proper term for the language’s state of its vitality, however, could be based on the Expanded Graded Intergenerational Disruption Scale or EGIDS– “threatened”. The EGIDS, along with its UNESCO counterpart, is what experts use in determining whether a language is healthy or declining. 

As such, many local government units of towns or cities with sizable Ibanag populations, or where founded by the Ibanag, often utilize their cultural departments in conceiving projects that address the issue of the Ibanag language’s perceived declining vitality.

According to the EGIDS, a language is "threatened? if some of its speakers are not teaching it to their children. The UNESCO describes this as "vulnerable". (infographic by the Ibanag Facebook page)

In the city of Tuguegarao, the Ibanag people respond by placing public signages or texts written in their mother language.  This adds functionality to the language as a means of communicating city regulations apart from public notices issued privately by business establishments or other institutions. 

Public signs not only “revive” and preserve the language among native speakers, but it could tend to encourage the growing population of non-speakers to learn the language, migrants included, but most especially the Ibanag youth who now speak Tagalog exclusively. 

A sign in Ibanag encouraging cleanliness
Another sign in Ibanag promoting environmental cleanliness
A collection of Ibanag proverbs promoting good values

Tuguegarao City, though, is a complex linguistic community. It is a melting pot of ethnicities. Another indigenous language, Itawit, requires similar attention with regard to revitalization and preservation amidst the growing influence of dominant languages. Ibanag’s past prestige over Itawit, though, lingers. Thus, efforts to involve Itawit in providing domains of use similar to Ibanag, remain to be seen.

Multilingual signages, in fact, are a norm in many multilingual communities abroad, in countries and regions such as Scotland, Quebec, Israel, New Zealand and so forth. This mode of language promotion, hitting two birds with one stone, could be adopted by local government units if they so decide. After all, why should only one threatened language be favored over another? Other Cagayan Valley indigenous languages like Malaueg, Yogad, Gaddang, Ilongot, Atta, Kalanguya, Ayangan, the Agta languages, and others, deserve to be protected also.

They can stand side by side with Tagalog, as more numerous Tagalog and English public signages may be; our nation still needs a  unifying national language. 

A sign in a business establishment using multiple languages-- Tagalog, Ilokano, Ibanag, English
"Nadaral" means out of order both in Ibanag and Itawit. Since both languages are closely related, there are many similar vocabulary or linguistic cognates between the two.
This is an example of a sign in Ibanag used for waste segregation. The influence of Tagalog is so significant such that even Ibanag signages show examples of linguistic borrowing. The Ibanag word for metal or iron is "balayang", but it was replaced by the Tagalog "bakal" in the label to the left.

In the end, however, adding this single domain of use for minority languages such as Ibanag or Itawit is and will not be an effective solution on its own. It all comes down to the parents’ preference of what language they teach their children.

If parents do not realize the value and significance of language diversity and ethnic identity, public signages in indigenous languages, how many they are, could lose their meaning, literally perhaps, but also symbolically.

What does it mean to be Filipino, someone who identifies with the Philippines, a country that is home to 180 or more ethno-linguistic groups? We are all rooted in the histories of these ethnic groups. Before declaring ourselves as Filipino, should not we embody our being Ibanag, Itawit, etc.? What other straightforward way to do so besides speaking, writing, using the language of our ethnicities? (OTB/JKC/PIA Region 2)

About the Author

Jan Karl Coballes

Regional Editor; Research and Development Officer; Tuguegarao City and Batanes Information Center Manager

Region 2

Ibanag. Writer. Researcher. Ethnographer. Ethno-historian. Graduate student focusing on linguistic and cultural anthropology.

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