Dr José Rizal and the making of a modern linguistic Messiah

Piers Kelly
Australian National University

Describing the preeminent Filipino national hero Dr. Jose Rizal as a linguist is a little like referring to Thomas Jefferson as a horticulturalist. The statement may be true, but the many other talents that Rizal developed in his short life have tended to overshadow his extraordinary flair for language. After all, it was not for his linguistic achievements that his statue stands in every town plaza of the Philippines, nor was it the motive for his execution at the hands of Spanish authorities in 1896. Rizal is renowned as a legendary defender of civil and democratic rights, and parenthetically as a political scientist, historian, novelist, poet, sculptor, journalist, linguist and eye surgeon. It is for this last accomplishment that he is always conventionally known as Doctor Jose Rizal (a distinction he shares with another great civil rights leader, Dr Martin Luther King).

Dr José Rizal

Dr José Rizal. Source: Pinoy Etchetera

Born in 1861 to wealthy Tagalog-speaking parents in Calamba, a town situated 50 kilometres south of Manila, Rizal was to be educated in Spanish—a language that less than ten percent of native Filipinos would have access to in his lifetime.[1] In fact, it was only as late as 1863 that a royal decree mandated the establishment of a universal primary school system with Spanish as the sole medium of instruction.[2] In the linguistically diverse Philippines it was the policy of Spanish missionaries to communicate in the language of the region in which they were stationed. Educational reforms issuing from the motherland were ignored, resisted or poorly implemented since universal literacy and linguistic competence in Spanish threatened the mediating role of the friar orders.[3] For this reason, among others, the Spanish language was never to diffuse widely across the Filipino population in the same way that it did in Latin America.[4]

For elites like Rizal, Spanish was the language of power and a necessary stepping-stone to other opportunities. As a secondary student at Ateneo de Manila he would also study Latin and Ancient Greek before pursuing law and medicine at the University of Santo Tomas, an institution that is incidentally older than Harvard. In the 1880s, he left for Madrid to complete a Licentiate in Medicine and then to Heidelberg to undertake a specialisation in ophthamology. It was in Germany that he completed writing Noli me tangere (Latin: ‘Touch me not’) in 1887, a Spanish-language novel that exposed and satirised the abuses of the Catholic orders in the Philippines.[5] Of the many injustices that Rizal fought, monastic corruption was his cause célèbre. The Spanish crown had granted a handful of Catholic orders extraordinary governance powers in the Philippines, and they exerted the full extent of their influence to protect their interests against reformists. Rizal’s novel, and its 1891 sequel, was to incite more popular support for Filipino self-determination than any of his substantial political prose.[6]

After practising eye surgery in Hong Kong he returned the Philippines to found La Liga Filipina in 1892, a progressive reformist movement and mutual-aid society. An increasing aggravation to the authorities, Rizal was first exiled to the southern island of Mindanao and later arrested en route to Cuba, on charges of rebellion, sedition and conspiracy. He was to be executed by firing squad on 30 December 1896. The execution instantly became a landmark event in the Revolution that Rizal would never witness. In the final years of the century, an armed nationalist movement with assistance from US forces removed the Spanish from power. But despite having declared independence, the nationalists would have to wait another 47 years before the US administration released its grip on the islands.

Rizal’s linguistic legacy

It is easy to forget that the concept of the ‘nation’—a sovereign geographical entity whose citizens have a shared history and destiny—is a relatively new notion that only began to achieve widespread popularity in the second half of the 19th century.[7] The ideology of nationhood has been widely theorised but one of its signature innovations is the idea of a monocultural national identity, or as a slogan of the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco put it: ‘One flag, one nation, one language’. For this formula to make sense national languages needed to be codified, standardised and elevated above competing varieties, allowing the multi-dialectal populations of Europe to be recast as the French-speaking French or the German-speaking Germans, and so on. Within Rizal’s lifetime, for example, there was no such thing as the ‘Italian’ language—this linguistic fiction would first need to be constructed from a minority dialect of Tuscany.

From this perspective, Rizal’s celebrated multilingualism and cosmopolitanism make him an unlikely figure of national unity. In fact, Rizal was never an advocate of Philippine independence from Spain, demanding only autonomy and fair representation in the Spanish court. What he desired most for his people was recognition. Rizal took the prevailing European narrative that Spain had brought enlightenment to a a benighted and barbaric population and turned it on its head. In his scholarship on Philippine pre-history—based largely on the chronicles of early Spanish visitors—he argued that Spain had, on the contrary, interrupted the development of a thriving network of trade and cultural exchange.[8] And while the Spanish friars considered linguistic diversity and multilingualism to be evidence of political disunity—and one among many justifications for Spanish rule—Rizal was inclined to see it as a blessing. “Man is multiplied by the number of languages he possesses and speaks,” he wrote in 1888 and he himself was a fine examplar of this ideal.[9] It is typically claimed that he was conversant in as many as twenty-two languages, namely: Spanish, French, Latin, Greek, German, Portuguese, Italian, English, Dutch, Japanese, Arabic, Swedish, Russian, Chinese, Greek, Hebrew and Sanskrit; and the local languages Malay, Chavacano, Visayan, Ilocano and Subanun. In his home town of Calamba a monument in his honour was constructed to stand twenty-two feet tall, symbolising each of these languages, but like much of the mythology surrounding Rizal, the true extent of his linguistic mastery is debatable and subject to a certain amount of inflation over time. Although he was an undeniably skilled translator of German into Tagalog, and his letters and diaries are replete with switches between languages, he himself was quick to acknowledge the limits of his own linguistic expertise.[10]

Rizal’s published linguistic scholarship makes up a small proportion of his overall oeuvre. In his political writings he used linguistic analysis to support hypotheses about the past migrations of Malay peoples and to advance revisionist historical arguments. For example, in order to challenge a recurrent Spanish claim that gambling was an indigenous vice that early Christian missions took pains to eradicate he noted that the many Tagalog terms within the semantic domain of gambling were all Spanish borrowings and were unlikely to have replaced native equivalents, suggesting that gambling was a direct Spanish import.[11] Though his inductive approach might demand more rigour from linguists today, Rizal’s treatment of borrowed vocabulary as a source of historical evidence was innovative in the Philippines at the turn of the 19th century.

Biding his time as an exile in Dapitan, on the southern island of Mindanao, Rizal wrote a sketch-grammar of Tagalog, becoming perhaps the first Filipino to produce a grammatical description of a native Philippine language.[12] Like earlier grammars of Tagalog published by missionary priests, Rizal relied on the grammatical categories of European languages to explain Tagalog structures, and his text includes multiple comparisons to Spanish, English, Latin and German. As a work of grammatical description it is unremarkable, and his cross-linguistic comparisons sometimes demonstrate a shaky analysis of European languages. However, Rizal’s accurate inventory of Tagalog phonemes and his use of a feature-based orthography of Tagalog was both groundbreaking and controversial. A few years earlier, in 1890, Rizal was already advocating the abandonment of the irregular Hispanic spelling conventions for Tagalog in which certain consistent sounds were represented with a variety of different letters depending on their adjacent vowels. Following the Spanish spelling system, /k/ might be represented with either a ‘c’ or a ‘qu’, the sound /s/ with an ‘s’ or a ‘c’, the sound /h/ with an ‘h’, ‘g’ or a ‘j’, the sound /w/ with an ‘o’ or a ‘u’ and the sound /y/ with a ‘y’ or an ‘i’. Vowels were also variable with the sound /i/ represented with ‘i’ or ‘e’ and /u/ with ‘o’ or ‘u’. Today, the old Spanish-style spellings are still seen in placenames like Cantuandes, Marinduque and Bicol, and in the titles of popular legends such as Hari-sa-Boqued (hari sa bukid, ‘The King in the Mountain’).[13]

To demonstrate just how ill-suited Spanish orthography was for writing Tagalog words, Rizal took the word katay (‘to butcher’) as an example. Using the Spanish system this would need to be spelled catai, but in its past-tense form the word was wholly recomposed as quinatai (‘butchered’). In effect, Spanish spelling rules had ‘butchered’ the morphology of Tagalog. Rizal proposed the introduction of the letters ‘k’ and ‘w’ into the Tagalog alphabet, and outlined a more consistent representation of Tagalog sounds. Thus the verb catai would be spelled katay while its past form would become kinatay, faithfully revealing the morphological structure of the word.[14]

Rizal was not the first to recommend reforms to Tagalog spelling. By his own admission he had taken inspiration from the prominent Filipino intellectuals Trinidad Pardo de Tavera and Pedro Serrano Laktaw who were already using elements of this new system. Indeed, the latter had gone so far as to revise the spelling of his own family name from ‘Lactao’ to ‘Laktaw’. But it was Rizal’s scientific formalisation of the new rules, and his existing fame as a novelist, that helped advance the reformist agenda. He was not without his opponents. While his new orthography had the effect of clarifying the sound system of Tagalog, it also disguised and indigenised Spanish loanwords. Critics writing for the Catholic Review considered the foreign letter ‘k’ to be an unpatriotically ‘German’ imposition and an affront to mother Spain. One went so far as to sign an article with the provocative pseudonym hindí aleman (Tagalog: ‘not German’).[15] Ironically perhaps, the so-called ‘foreign’ letter ‘k’ was soon to become a powerful symbol of a national and distinctly Filipino identity. The letter was emphasised in the name of the armed revolutionary movement that swept the north of the country following Rizal’s execution: the Kataas-taasan, Kagalang-galangang Katipunan ng mga Anak ng Bayan (Tagalog: ‘Highest and Most Honorable Society of the Children of the Nation’), or KKK. Among the various flags flown by the revolutionaries some displayed the letter K; others bore the symbol ‹ka›, resurrected from the indigenous baybayin writing system widely used in the north of the Philippines until the 18th century. Recently, the Filipino communist insurgent group known as the New People’s Army celebrated its 45th anniversary with a lightning demonstration in Quezon City, Manila, wearing bandana masks with this symbol.[16] The distinctive letter ‘k’ also found favour with a staunch nativist community of Bohol that developed its own unique writing system for recording local folklore in the early twentieth century. In the ‘Eskaya script’, as it is now known, many syllable characters ending in a /-k/ sound, bear a resemblance to that infamous ‘German’ letter.[17]

baybayin letter

baybayin letter ‹ka›. Source: Wikipedia


New Peoples Army activists with bandanas showing the baybayin letter ‹ka›. Source: ABS-CBNnews


Eskaya letter ‹kik›, featuring ‘k’ shape. Source: Piers Kelly.

Had he lived, Rizal may well have been ambivalent about the nation-building project of creating the Tagalog-based ‘Pilipino’ language, developed and redeveloped between 1937 and 1973. As a non-nationalist cosmopolitan sympathetic to Spain, who wrote almost all of his work in Spanish, there is every reason to believe that Rizal would have preferred Spanish to live on in the Philippines and to fulfill its expected destiny as an islands-wide lingua franca.

But for all his fame as a linguist, it was Rizal’s reformulation of writing, as opposed to language, that had the most lasting influence. His new orthography of Tagalog gradually took hold in the two decades following his execution, and its basic principals have been extended to all other major languages of the Philippines. Efforts have occasionally been made to improve the orthography further, by, for example, eliminating ‘e’ and ‘o’, but these changes have not found wide acceptance. Another curious venture has been creation of the Rizalian Alphabet or ‘Abakadang Rizaleo’, by Marius V Diaz in 1994.[18] A scholar of Church history, Diaz was inspired by the writings of Rizal to establish an institute for the promotion of indigenous Filipino knowledge and spirituality. On the face of it, his Abakadang Rizaleo appears to be an imitation of the native baybayin script, a syllabic system which makes use of an inherent vowel. In reality, Diaz created a one-to-one cipher for a Roman alphabet, taking cues from the shapes of baybayin syllables and introducing new symbols to represent alphabetic letters, including stand-alone vowel characters for ‘a’, ‘e’, ‘i’, ‘o’ and ‘u’, the non-native consonants ‘f’, ‘r’, ‘v’, ‘x’ and ‘z’, the digraphs ‘sh’ and ‘th’, and common Tagalog lexemes like ang (determiner) and mga (plural marker).


The Abakadang Rizaleo in various typefaces. Source: Kristian Kabuay

The many meanings of Rizal

It is something of a cliché to assert that Dr José Rizal’s thought is as relevant as ever to the Philippine nation, but it can hardly be denied. His brilliant essay ‘On the indolence of the Filipino’, can be read as a devastatingly witty rebuke to every foreign tourist who complains about poor service or a lack of initiative amongst locals, unaware of the long shadow of colonialism they are projecting.[19] But it was his unflinching critique of the friar orders and their oppressive governance of the Philippines that continues to resonate with such force, despite the freedoms won by the Rizal-inspired independence movement. Today, outsiders may have difficulty making sense of the extraordinary interference of the Catholic church in contemporary Philippine politics, especially if they are unfamiliar with the long history of friar dominance in the islands. Although the powerful landholding monastic orders, or ‘friarocracy’ as they became known, were officially divested of their authority by the Revolution and US occupation, the Catholic church has continued to be a strong presence in civil political life. In 1956, the Church even attempted to block the teaching of Rizal’s life and works in the Philippine national curriculum, going so far as to argue against the reading, owning, selling, translation or republication of his novels.[20] More recent tensions arose on 30 September 2010 when the activist Carlos Celdran dressed himself in Rizal’s signature overcoat and hat and raised a sign with single word ‘Damaso’ during Mass in Manila Cathedral. The protest, calculated to invite a comparison between the autocratic priest Fr Damaso from Noli me tángere with the present obstructionist attitude of the Church — particularly in matters of reproductive health reform — led to his arrest on charges of “offending religious feelings”, something that Rizal was notorious for.[21]


Carlos Celdran as Dr José Rizal. Source: Filipino Scribbles.

As a non-violent moderate, Rizal is a complex figure lending himself to multiple and contradictory interpretations. It is ironic that his very moderation was to exploited by both the US authorities and the dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who appealed to Rizal’s peaceful example to warn against armed resistance to their own tyranny. A confirmed secularist and advocate of science over faith, he has been reinvented as a secret Catholic by eager Filipino historians disappointed with Rizal’s apparent lack of deference to religious authority.[22] A fascinating parallel can be drawn here with the recent efforts of US conservative politicians to reinvent America’s founding fathers as uncompromising Christians, as opposed to the secular humanists they actually professed to be.

It is the fate of all great historical actors to yield to the popular imagination and to live on in alternative histories. Perhaps the greatest paradox of Rizal’s legacy is his elevation as a mystical folk hero and the agent of countless miraculous events. There are those who maintain that he is an immortal who survived his execution and is still alive and among us today.[23] Numerous religious sects, collectively known as Rizalistas or Rizalians, claim him as the incarnation of Christ.[24] One can only imagine what Rizal—whose most famous sculpture is titled ‘The Triumph of Science over Death’—would have made of his mystical mythologisation. For Rizal, the friarocracy was to be destroyed not by force of arms, but with knowledge. Access to literacy and the languages of power was a weapon against Church obscurantism and ignorance. But mystery has many applications, whether it is used as a veil to protect the interests of the powerful, or a talisman to embolden the downtrodden. Among the Filipino peasantry, who could not easily conceive of the social empowerment of universal education, Rizal’s literacy and multilingualism had other meanings. One folk story tells of how Rizal rescued a gigantic bird who rewarded him by placing a small white stone in his mouth. The stone made him instantly conversant in twenty-two languages and also granted him the ability to understand animals, the songs of birds and the hum of bees. Rizal’s magical literacy is memorialised in another tale of a miraculous book that could guide anyone in the role of a doctor: upon opening this book the written words transformed into a moving image of Dr. Rizal who issued medical advice to the reader.

Dr José Rizal still speaks to us from the page, but the content of his message will resonate in different ways depending on the spirit of the times and the needs of the reader. After all, to be “multiplied by languages” means to resist the  orthodoxy of a single view, and to enjoy the blessing of human diversity.

With thanks to the baybayinista Kristian ‘Special K’ Kabuay for access to a rare copy of the Aklat Sanayan ng Abakadang Rizaleo.


[1] United States Philippine Commission. 1905. Census of the Philippine Islands, 1903, 3 vols. Washington: Government Printing Office.

[2] Caroline S Hau and Victoria L Tinto. 2003. Language policy and ethnic relations in the Philippines. In Fighting words: Language, policy and ethnic relations in Asia, edited by M. E. Brown and Š. Ganguly. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press. 339

[3] Rafael, Vicente L. 1988. Contracting colonialism: Translation and Christian conversion in Tagalog society under early Spanish rule. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press.

[4] Ernest J Frei. 1959. The historical development of the Philippine National Language. Manila: Institute of National Language.

[5] José Rizal. [1886] 2008. Noli me tangere. Barcelona: Linkgua ediciones S.L.

[6] Megan C Thomas. 2012. Orientals, propagandists and ilustrados: Filipino scholarship and the end of Spanish colonialism. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press.

[7] Benedict Anderson. [1991] 2003. Imagined communities: reflections on the origins and spread of nationalism. Pasig City: Anvil Publishing.

[8] José Rizal. 1972. Political and historical writings, vol. 7, Encarnación Alzona (trans.). Manila: National Historical Institute.

[9] José Rizal. 1889. ‘Los viajes’, La Solidaridad, 15 May.

[10] See for example, José Rizal. [1888] 1972. Ma-Yi. In Encarnación Alzona (trans.), Political and historical writings, vol. 7. Manila: National Historical Institute.

[11] José Rizal. [1890] 1972. On the indolence of the Filipinos [Sobre la indolencia de los filipinos]. In Encarnación Alzona (trans.), Political and historical writings, vol. 7. Manila: National Historical Institute.

[12] José Rizal. [1893] 1961. Nueva ortografía del lenguaje Tagalog. In Elmer Wolfenden (ed.). A re-statment of Tagalog grammar. Manila: Summer Institute of Linguistics and Institute of National Language.

[13] Resil B. Mojares. 1974. The myth of the sleeping hero: Three Philippine cases. Philippine Quarterly of Culture and Society. (2) 3: 156-162

[14] Paul Morrow. 2010. ‘José Rizal and the Filipino language‘, Pilipino Express, 1 June.

[15] Op. cit. Meghan C Thomas. 2012.

[16] LLanesca T. Panti. 2014. ‘Government asks NDF for clear sign on talks‘. The Manila Times, 29 March.

[17] Piers Kelly. 2012. The word made flesh: An ethnographic history of Eskayan, a utopian language and script in the southern Philippines. Canberra: The Australian National University PhD dissertation.

[18] Marius V Diaz. 1994. Aklat sanayan ng Abakadang Rizaleo. Manila: Katipunan Gatrizal.

[19] Op. cit.

[20] John Nery. 2011. Revolutionary spirit: José Rizal in Southeast Asia. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

[21] Mark Merueñas. 2013. Church critic Carlos Celdran convicted for raising Damaso sign in cathedral. GMA News Online, 28 January.

[22] Op. cit. John Nery. 2011.

[23] Alfonso P Santos (ed.). 1974. Rizal in life and legends. Quezon City: National Book Store.

[24] Ruth Ailene Roland. 1969. The Rizalista cult in Philippine nationalism: a case history of the uses of a national hero. Michigan: New York University PhD dissertation.

How to cite this post:

Kelly, Piers. 2014. Dr José Rizal and the making of a modern linguistic Messiah. History and Philosophy of the Language Sciences. https://hiphilangsci.net/2014/04/23/dr-jose-rizal-and-the-making-of-a-modern-linguistic-messiah

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Posted in 19th century, Article, History, Linguistics, Philippines, Phonology
5 comments on “Dr José Rizal and the making of a modern linguistic Messiah
  1. […] article on my intellectual hero Dr José Rizal is out now in History and Philosophy of the Language Sciences. A shorter version of it has been published in […]

  2. jose says:

    This problem with alphabet comes when you try to write with signs that were intended for different sounds. The problem is compounded when sounds evolve in time -like any other human activity- but the written signs remain (as they should because they are fixed in writing ). The main example is English.
    The Latin letter c comes directly from the old Greek K (all Latin letters come from Greek ). They are a simplification. Still Romans used the k letter to write Greek word loans. Qu is Latin and probably had a particular meaning (I am not a linguistic but it is plain that when somebody makes a difference is for something).
    In Spanish, an old written language of Latin origin, there was no unificated spelling until XIX century -like the other European Languages-. When this was done, because the enormous prestige of the Latin language in Western culture and because this was a mean to trace the real meaning words (that is, trough the Latin or Greek words and roots you could distinguish the real meaning when the sound is similar or homophonous).
    When you start to write a new language with the Latin alphabet, you must use one different sign for each different sound. So, in Tagalog, you could use either K or C or Q (without “u”), for the same sound, but it is not rational to use the three of them at the same time and for the same sound. This is what happens with English, which is madness.
    Probably the Spaniards noticed the change and probably some tagalog nationalistics did it on purpose, but still tagalog is not a Latin language and writing has a useful purpose: communication through writing.
    In short: c, K and qu are not Spanish, they are Latin. C and K comes from Old Greek.
    Latin alphabet is very useful not because was impose by colonial powers, but because it works -provided that the sounds that represents are not much more from those twenty something letters of the Latin alphabet. Naturally, it works because the Greek alphabet came directly from the Phenician one, which was made as a help for merchants. Different thing would had been if the aim was to help scholars (like the Chinese one ) or priests (like the Egiptian one).
    Some words about German: What you learn when you study German is an artificial language, just like Italian. Actually this German is called in Germany the Language of the Theater o the Language of Television. The German script, in use until the defeat of Hitler, is Latin, but disguised as a manuscript writing (the kind of fonts that were use when Bibles was printed, like non German countries before fonts inspired in the Latin ones were in use ). The K, that in German replaces the c letter, comes because they transcribe German words, no Latin words. Until XIX most printed works were in Latin. Greek and other national languages were an exception. In this case, German was a “foreigner language” for a German scholar (before the arrival of nationalism )
    We write kilo -with k and not with c or qu- because is a Greek word, not because is German or Tagalog.

  3. Caiden says:

    Thhank you for this

  4. Akshat Goswami says:

    Couldn’t he just replace Qu with C and use C only for hard?

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