(The following is the first installment in a series of weekly updates from the WikiHistories summer research fellows, who will be studying the history of different non-English Wikipedia editing communities and publishing their findings over the course of the summer. Community members and translators: please see the project page on Meta if you’re interested in helping out!)

Less than two days after arriving in the Philippines, I found myself at the Wikimedia Philippines headquarters in Makati, Metro Manila on June 18 with members of its Board of Trustees and two representatives from the Komisyon sa Wikang Filipino (Commission on Philippine Language), Cherry Mae Tadeo and Jomar Cañega, to observe a meeting that was largely aimed at determining whether Tagalog Wikipedia’s language policies meet with the commission’s approval.

Board Members and Language Commission Hard at Work: (L to R) Current and Former Board Members Butch Baustria, Roel Balingit, Josh Lim, Eric Andrada-Calica, and Jojit Ballesteros

Wikimedia Philippines and Language Commission Hard at Work: (L to R) Officers and Members Butch Bustria, Roel Balingit, Josh Lim, Eric Andrada-Calica, and Jojit Ballesteros; Commission Representatives Jomar Cañega and Cherry Mae Tadeo.

I myself have not had a long history with Wikipedia. But from what I gathered at a three-day workshop at Wikimedia Headquarters in San Francisco right before my trip, English Wikipedians may find this unusual. Wikimedia Philippines, of their own accord and without pressure from the commission, was essentially asking for government approval of Tagalog Wikipedia’s language policies. This signals a greater tendency not only for collaboration at least among the Wikimedia Philippines top brass, but also for that body to take cues from established entities such as the government, universities, as well as other Wikipedia and Wikimedia projects.

Another key difference between the English and Tagaog Wikipedia movements is that there is significant overlap between Wikimedians and Wikipedians in this context. Josh Lim and Jojit Ballesteros, President and Vice-President of Wikimedia Philippines respectively, are also two of Tagalog Wikipedia’s most active editors. Eric Andrada-Calica, Tagalog Wikipedia’s first administrator, is a Wikimedia Philippines member and was also present at the meeting.

Thus, what would traditionally be a separation between a Wikimedia issue of whether Tagalog Wikipedia’s language policies conforms to government standards easily overlaps with the Wikipedia question of how those policies can be improved to best serve the needs of Tagalog Wikipedia readers. As much as Wikimedia Philippines has absorbed the rhetoric of English Wikimedia and says that it does not involve itself with the content of Tagalog Wikipedia, it is certainly clear that it involves itself with the forms of language that are used to render that content, which arguably overlaps with the content itself.

For readers unfamiliar with the Philippine language debate, a good place to start is the English Wikipedia entry on Filipino language, which details the history of Filipino and its distinction from Tagalog. The crux of the debate over language purity stems from the country’s history of double-colonization, first by the Spanish and then by the Americans. The use of loanwords from Spanish and English are therefore discouraged by some sectors of Philippine society, because it signals a continued dependence on that colonial past. However, new technologies and the teaching of English in schools tends to make loanwords more readily available to many Filipinos than purer terms. One example discussed at the meeting is the use of “seatbelt” rather than the Tagalog term “sinturong pangkaligtasan” (belt for safety), used by airlines in official announcements but not in daily speech.*

Cañega makes a particularly impassioned point.

Cañega makes a particularly impassioned point.

In a Western context, language commissions most immediately recall governing bodies that try to preserve language purity, so it was ironic to hear that Tagalog Wikipedia’s language policies are actually more rather than less pure than what the commission recommends. As Cañeda noted during the meeting: “It is not linguists who determine how language is used. It is the people who do.” Thus, when Cañeda reviewed Tagalog Wikipedia’s language policies, he noted that they were in relative keeping with the commission’s guidelines — not because they maintained Tagalog language purity, but because they include a policy that provides more common terms in parenthesis whenever a more obscure or “purer” term is used.

This was not always the case for Tagalog Wikipedia, which started out significantly less formally, with many English loanwords peppering even its front page and basic terms. As an example, the term for editing a page used to be “i-edit,” a combination of a Tagalog prefix and an English verb, before it was changed to “baguhin,” a word that is purely Tagalog but may be less comprehensible to many Filipinos whose language of school instruction is English. Between 2006-2007, a period that I plan to investigate more closely, more stringent and uniform language policies were implemented. There were a number of references during the meeting to contributors who were alienated when their articles were edited into “purer” Tagalog, which I also plan to follow up on as I conduct interviews and research Tagalog Wikipedia pages.

Wikimedia Philippines President Josh Lim, with Vice-President Jojit Ballesteros in the mirror behind him.

Wikimedia Philippines President Josh Lim, with Vice-President Jojit Ballesteros in the mirror behind him.

In response to the question of why these language policies were adopted, Wikimedia Philippines president Josh Lim expressed a need for Tagalog Wikipedia to be seen as reputable especially by academic institutions, once again signaling a concern that departs from English Wikipedia. For better or for worse, Tagalog Wikipedia seems less inclined to establish its own autonomous and independent policies and parameters, and is more likely to collaborate with other entities or look at other established sources for guidance.

However, there is also support within the organization for more liberal language policies. This feeling was articulated most assertively during the meeting by Wikimedia Philippines Treasurer Roel Balingit, who expressed concern that the more academic and purist tone the site currently leans towards risks intimidating and alienating potential editors and contributors.

This comment points to an important research direction in relation to Tagalog Wikipedia, of determining if there have been any changes in editor and contributor activity since the stricter language policies were adopted, which points to a broader question of whether stricter policies in general have a tendency to alienate potential editors and contributors. Regardless, there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight in terms of the debate regarding Tagalog Wikipedia’s language policies, which itself mirrors the  indefinite discussion of language in the Philippines in general.

Meredith Ramirez Talusan
Wikimedia Summer Fellow and
PhD Candidate, Comparative Literature, Cornell University


* Attentive readers may note that “sinturon” itself comes from the Spanish “cinturon,” which signals another language complication in the Philippines since Spanish tends to be prioritized over English when the use of a loanword becomes necessary. This is perceived as an aesthetic issue, because Spanish more easily adapts to Tagalog/Filipino spelling norms and its vowel system also integrates well with the indigenous language compared to English.