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Number of Speakers: 8 million

Key Dialects: Northern Ilocano, Southern Ilocano

Geographical Center: Philippines (Northern Luzon region)

After Tagalog and English, Ilocano is the third most spoken language in the Philippines. Ilocano is spoken mainly in the northern Luzon region of the country. Within this region, it is spoken most heavily in the provinces of La Union and Ilocos and in the Cagayan Valley. Outside northern Luzon, Ilocano is spoken in the central Philippine regions of Mindoro, Mimaropa, and Palawan, as well as in Muslim Mindanao, which is an autonomous region in the southwestern part of the country. Ilocano is also spoken by a fairly substantial population in the United States, particularly in Hawaii, Alaska, California, and Washington. Growing Ilocano-speaking communities are emerging in other parts of the world, most notably in Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, the Middle East, Europe, and Canada.

Ilocano is a Northern Philippine language of the Malayo-Polynesian branch of the Austronesian language family. It is most closely related to other Northern Luzon languages such as Arta and Agta, as well as central Philippine languages like Tagalog.

Although Ilocano is largely uniform across the various regions in which it is spoken, Ilocano scholars recognize two primary dialects: Northern Ilocano and Southern Ilocano. Variation is primarily phonological. For instance, dialects vary with respect to the pronunciation of the vowel e. This vowel is pronounced in a way similar to the e in English ‘bed’ in Northern Ilocano. Southern Ilocano speakers pronounce the vowel in two ways. In loan words, the vowel is pronounced as it is by speakers of the Northern dialect. In native words, however, it is pronounced as a closed back unrounded vowel, a sound found in other Philippine languages as well as in languages such as Japanese and Turkish. In addition to these dialects, Philippine scholars recognize the existence of an Ilocano Pidgin spoken in the northern Luzon highlands.

Ilocano is written in a Roman orthography. Only a subset of the characters available in the Roman alphabet are employed in writing the language. The set of letters used to write Ilocano are: {a,b,d,g,h,i,k,m,n,p,s,t,u,w,y}. In addition to these letters, the Ilocano alphabet includes the digraph ng. Prior to European colonization in the sixteenth century, Ilocano was written in a syllabic script based on the Brahmi script of India known as Baybayin.

The Ilocano phoneme inventory consists of five vowels and twenty consonants (Hayes and Abad 1989), however, this assessment depends on one’s analysis. All consonants except [f] and [h] may appear as geminates (double consonants). Vowels may surface in short or long form, however, long vowels may only surface in certain phonological circumstances. The location of stress is a lexical (i.e. unpredictable) property of roots. Nonetheless, stress placement obeys certain restrictions. For instance, certain roots are pre-specified for final, penultimate, or antepenultimate stress. Suffixation typically shifts stress one syllable to the right.

The syllable structure of the language is C(C)(C)V(C)(C). Syllable onsets are mandatory, that is, all syllables begin with at least one consonant. Although syllable codas are possible, syllables are typically open, that is, end in a vowel. Consonant clusters are tolerated in Ilocano and typically appear in onset position. Syllable-final clusters are attested solely in loan words and are restricted to consonant-consonant sequences (e.g. [komiks] ‘comics’, [nars] ‘nurse’, [peliks] ‘Felix’). (These examples and those forthcoming are taken from Hayes and Abad 1989. As such, they appear as phonetic representations rather than in Ilocano orthographic form.) Syllable-initial consonant clusters are usually of the form C + glide (e.g. [pwek] ‘kind of owl’, [programa] ‘program’, [pyas] ‘kind of fruit’). C + liquid initial clusters are also attested, but occur only in borrowings (e.g. [emplyado] ‘employee’). Sequences of three consonants are also possible in the language, but are restricted to syllable-initial position. These clusters always take the form C + liquid + glide and with one or two exceptions, occur only in loan words (e.g. emplyado ‘employee’). Hiatus, or vowel-vowel sequences, are not tolerated in the language. A substantial number of loans have been incorporated into the Ilocano lexicon. Most borrowings come from Spanish and English. Additional loans come from Hokkien (Min Nan Chinese), Arabic, and Sanskrit.

Morphologically, Ilocano is quite complex. Prefixation, infixation, suffixation, circumfixation, encliticization, and reduplication are all attested and represent productive morphological operations in the language. Although a number of prefixes and infixes exist, there are only two suffixes in the language. These forms, however, serve multiple functions. Infixes are usually placed before the first vowel of a root morpheme. In some versions of Ilocano orthography, enclitics are written as separate words. Reduplication marks a number of morphological categories. For instance, it marks the progressive and encodes plural action on verbs, it marks plurality on nouns, and it marks the comparative and intensive on adjectives.

Syntactically, Ilocano is a verb-initial language. This property is typical of many Austronesian languages. The base word order of the language is VSO, an order which is also characteristic of languages spoken in the geographic vicinity of the Philippines. Also characteristic of the Austronesian languages, Ilocano has an extensive voice system. In contrast to European languages that contrast active and passive voice, Ilocano distinguishes between six voices. Along with tense, aspect, and mood, voice is expressed on the verb by means of affixation. Regarding case, Ilocano is an Ergative-Absolutive language. Unlike the familiar Accusative languages of Europe, subjects of intransitive verbs and direct objects are both marked with a case (Absolutive) that is distinct from that of subjects of transitive verbs (Ergative). By contrast, the subjects of both intransitive and transitive verbs are marked with Nominative case and direct objects bear Accusative case in Accusative languages such as English, unlike in Ilocano.

Although Ilocano is not an official language of the Philippines, it is a language of wider communication. Roughly eight million people speak the language natively in Northern Luzon, which accounts for roughly 11% of the Philippine population. An addition two million people speak it as a second language in the region, where it serves as a lingua franca for native speakers of Pangasinan, Ibanag, and Ivatan. Ilocano literature can be traced back at least to the early 17th century (1621). In the years following, a vast number of religious documents, poems, riddles, proverbs, epic stories, songs, and other literary works were produced in Ilocano. Today, a sizeable body of Ilocano literature exists. Ilocano newspapers, in particular, represent a significant percentage of these materials. Ilocano is also used in the North Philipines in trade, commerce, and everyday communication. In this region of the Philippines, the use of Ilocano in education is limited to the early elementary grades. A considerable number of Ilocano speakers also speak Tagalog, the official language of the Philippines.

In the USA, Ilocano is taught in some schools in Hawaii and California. In addition to Hawaii and California, Ilocano is spoken by large communities in Washington and Alaska. Ilocano is the native language of most Philippino immigrants residing in the USA, however, Tagalog is used by more Philippino-Americans, given its status as the official language of the Philippines.

According to some Austronesian scholars, Ilocanos are descendents of Austronesian-speaking groups that originated in southern China and Taiwan prior to the 16th century. The linguistic character of Ilocano (with respect to certain aspects of vocabulary and phonology) has also been shaped by the presence of Spanish on the island following the colonization of the Philippines in the sixteenth century.

The earliest written attestation of Ilocano is the Doctrina Cristiana, which dates back to 1621 and was produced in the Philippines. Historically, the Ilocano were a migratory people. During the 18th and 19th centuries, a number of Ilocanos migrated to more fertile land in the Cagayan valley, Apayao mountains, and the Pangasinan plains. In addition, a number of notable migrations took place in the 20th century (the Manong Generation). These included a southerly trek to Mindanao and an extensive emigration to the western coast of the United States.

Buell, William. 1962. A Generative Grammar of the Ilocano Language.

Constantino, Ernesto. 1959. A Generative Grammar of Ilocano. Doctoral dissertation, Indiana University, Bloomington.

Constantino, Ernesto. 1971. Ilokano Reference Grammar. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Gordon, Raymond G., Jr. (Editor). 2005. Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Fifteenth Edition. Dallas: SIL International.

Hayes, Bruce and May Abad. 1989. Reduplication and Syllabification in Ilocano. Lingua 77: 331-374.

Rubino, Carl Ralph Galvez. 2000. Ilocano Dictionary and Grammar: Ilocano-English, English-Ilocano. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Thomas, David D. 1955. Three Analyses of the Ilocano Pronoun System. Word 2: 204-208.

Vanoverbergh, Morice. 1955. Iloko Grammar. Baguio City: Catholic School Press.

Widdoes, H.W. 1950. A Brief Introduction to the Grammar of the Ilocano Language. Manila: Evangelical United Brethren Church.

Wimbish, John. 1987. A Relational Grammar of Ilocano. Masters thesis, University of Texas at Arlington.

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