Language Adoption Project

Written for an Applied Linguistics Master’s Course: Introduction to Linguistics


Introduction to Cuyonon

     Cuyonon is a language spoken in the Philippines and is part of the Austronesian language family. It is one of two languages within the Kuyan subgroup of this language family, and the other language, Ratagnon, is said to be closely related to Cuyonon though not an official dialect of it (“Cuyonon,” n.d.).  Cuyonon was the lingua franca in Palawan province until the late 1980s: 43% of the population on Palawan Island spoke Cuyonon, and as Tagalog migrated there from the Southern Tagalog regions of Luzon, it resulted in Tagalog replacing Cuyonon as the lingua franca (“Cuyonon: Language, Alphabet,” n.d.; “Cuyonon Language,” n.d.). Cuyonon is a primarily spoken language with little written evidence of it available, though increasing efforts are now being made to document the language and to publish works related to its linguistic features and cultural significance (“Cuyonon: Language, Alphabet,” n.d.; Dangan, 2006; Fernandez-Legazpi & Tria-Fernandez, 2006; San Juan, 2006). In 1982, the most significant work for a written record of Cuyonon was published – a Cuyonon translation of the New Testament due to Christian missionary work done in the Philippines (“Cuyonon: Language, Alphabet,” n.d.).

     Cuyonon is not an official language of the Philippines as the main languages in this country are Filipino, Tagalog and English (“Philippines,” n.d.). Its speakers are located in the northeastern area of Palawan Island and on the Cuyo Islands, which are between Northern Palawan and Panay Islands (“Cuyonon: Language, Alphabet, ” n.d. ; “Cuyonon,” n.d.). According to a 1990 census, there are approximately 123,000 people who speak the language with approximately 2,000 of Cuyonon speakers also using Calamian Tagbanwa as a second language as a result of intermarriage and close proximity to the Tagbanwa people (“Cuyonon,” n.d.). Cuyonon is also the second language for the Agutaynen, Central Tagbanwa and Kagayanen people as they are also closely located to the Cuyo people on Palawan Island (“Cuyonon,” n.d.).

     Though the language is more isolated from others on the Cuyo islands and though approximately 98% of Cuyonon speakers are still monolingual, Cuyonon does exist in a multi-lingual society as it speakers have shifted, integrated and interacted more closely with the aforementioned cultural groups on Palawan Island through marriage with the Tagbanwa people and through its proximity to other languages there (“Cuyonon,” n.d.). Because of this increasing interaction of languages with the Cuyo people, we can infer that language exchange will only continue and possibly expand to other cultures on Palawan Island, which will ultimately affect how and what language(s) are used amongst the Cuyo people over time. However, because of the stronger influences of English, Filipino and Tagalog across the Philippines, Cuyonon is mostly spoken in the more rural areas of Palawan (San Juan, 2006, p. 2).

     The Cuyonon language is neither endangered nor extinct. According to Ethnologue (n.d.), it is a Level 5 developing language in the Philippines, meaning that, “[t]he language is in vigorous use, with literature in a standardized form being used by some though…not yet widespread or sustainable (“Language Status,” n.d.). From this we can assume that, in some ways, efforts are being made to maintain the language through communicative uses, through publication and preservation of written records and through education. This assumption has been evidenced by the efforts that have been made since the early 1980s with the publishing of the New Testament in Cuyonon, with an ongoing project to create a Cuyonon dictionary that aims to establish an orthographic system for Cuyonon, and with Cuyonon natives publishing more work to detail the linguistic features of the language (“Cuyonon: Language, Alphabet,” n.d.; Dangan, 2006; San Juan, 2006). Additionally, more efforts are being made to preserve the significance of Cuyonon culture through existing  and newly created folk songs that reflect important aspects of the culture: death rituals, occupations, fiestas, etc. (Fernandez-Legazpi & Tria-Fernandez, 2006). From these folk songs, we can see how Cuyonon, though still lacking standardized literature for education, is used as a platform for children to learn the language and to connect to the culture because there are many songs specifically created for them. Overall, the language seems to be thriving because of these efforts made to document the Cuyonon language.

Phonology: Graphemes/Phonemes, Diphthongs and Cognates

     Cuyonon shares most of the same graphemes and phonemes in the English alphabet. It differs in that it lacks certain graphemes present in English (C, F, J, K, Q and U), and the correlation between a phonetic sound and its graphemic representation, unlike English, remains the same in any word constructed (“Cuyonon: Language, Alphabet,” n.d.). Additionally, the velar nasal /ŋ/, represented by the grapheme <Ng> or <ng>, and the glottal stop /ʔ/, represented by the grapheme <’> also exist in the Cuyonon alphabet (“Cuyonon: Letters, Alphabet,” n.d.). The presence of the velar nasal /ŋ/ and the glottal stop /ʔ/ may be due to the influence of immigrant languages that also possess these phonemes: English, Vietnamese, Korean, Japanese, Indonesian and Arabic, to name a few (“Cuyonon,” n.d.). Additionally, Cuyonon has ten diphthongs, far exceeding the diphthongs present in the English language (“Cuyonon: Language, Alphabet,” n.d.). It only shares the diphthong /ai/ with English. The remaining diphthongs in Cuyonon are created by (“Cuyonon: Language, Alphabet,” n.d.):

(1) Falls from higher to lower vowels: /ǝa/, /oa/, /iǝ/, /ia/, /io/ (e.g. Tio, “Dog/s”)

(2) Shorter rises from lower to higher vowels: /aǝ/, /ao/, /oi/ (e.g. Ingdaeg, “Lost”)

(3) Doubling lower vowels: /aa/ (e.g. Nagaagoanta, “Still Suffering”)

     In her work done on the true and false cognates of Filipino and Cuyonon1, Dangan (2006) revealed some of the most interesting phonetic features of the language. She found eleven phonetic changes that occurred between the true cognates of Filipino and Cuyonon which detailed some of the following observations2 (Dangan, 2006):

(1)  /ʔ/ replaces /h/ in final sounds (Ash: /ʔboh/ to /ʔabuʔ/)

(2) /h/ deletion in initial sounds (Unripe/Uncooked: /hilaw/ to /ilaw/)

(3) /i/, /o/ and/u/ replacement with the schwa /ǝ/ (Hunger: /gutom/ to /gǝtǝm/)

     It is important to note that though these phonemic changes are evident in comparing true cognates in Filipino and Cuyonon, the phonemic changes observed do not occur in all contexts.

Morphology: Morphemes for the Cuyonon Case System

     Cuyonon is a synthetic, fusional language with morphemes working as case makers to indicate the grammatical, syntactic and semantic changes that occur within the language which is best illustrated using Fillmore’s Case Grammar (San Juan, 2006, p. 1). Though prefixation (with nouns and verbs) and circumfixation (with verbs) are evident, the most significant function of morphemes in Cuyonon relates to the case system of the language. Both noun and verb phrases are marked with specific morphemes, or case markers, to determine the relationship between the verb and its “focus noun” (San Juan, 2006, p. 4). Eight out of the ten cases in Cuyonon have correlating case markers, or specific morphemic structures, that occur when constructing verb and/or noun phrases in order to give clear semantic meaning for which noun phrase (focus noun) will function as the sentence topic. Those cases are: agentive, objective, directional, locative, benefactive, instrumental, causative and associative (San Juan, 2006).

     There are various nominal markers (ang, ng, sa, y, etc.), or morphemes, used to mark the case of the noun phrase and to show its relationship to the verb phrase and to other noun phrases in the sentence. However, the nominal markers used can change in more complex ways, depending on which noun phrase functions as the topic or focus noun of the sentence. For example, the morphemes si (for proper nouns) and ang (for common nouns), which are nominal markers typically used for the agentive case, must be used for any noun phrase that becomes the topic or focus noun of the construction, regardless of its case. For example, in the following sentence (Mother cooked pancit for the children.), the agentive case marker for the “performer, doer or agent of the action” is clearly the mother (San Juan, 2006, p.4):

Nagloto                    y pansit                                si nanay           para sa mga bata.
(cooked)     (pansit, a Filipino noodle dish)     (mother)          (for the children)

     We can see the morpheme si used to indicate the topic or focus noun in the construction. However, if pancit becomes the topic or focus noun of the construction (Mother cooked the pansit.), the sentence would change and use the morpheme ang to indicate the new topic, despite the fact that nanay (mother) can still be described as the performer of the action (San Juan, 2006, p. 4):

Ingloto       ni nanay             ang pansit.
(cooked)    (by mother)        (the pansit)

     Additionally, we see a change in morphemes with the verb loto (cook): when nanay (mother) in the agentive case is the focus noun, the morpheme Nag– (originally Mag-) is used to correlate the relationship between the verb and the focus noun. However, as the topic of the sentence changes in the second example to pansit, we see the necessary change from Nag– to Ing– for the verb loto (cook), so that it corresponds grammatically and semantically to the new focus noun. The original case for pancit was objective, so the morpheme for the verb utilizes an affix which correlates to that original case (Ing-, or Ingan) to denote the topicalization of pancit in the second construction, regardless of the new morpheme ang, primarily an agentive case marker, being used instead of an objective case marker for pancit. We will explore in more detail how and when verbs change within the case system in the following section.

Syntax: Case Grammar and the Cuyonon Verb System

     There are two basic sentence constructions in Cuyonon: non-verbal constructions, which consist of a topic and a nominal, adjectival or adverbial predicate, and verbal constructions, which consist of a verb and “one or more nominal phrases” (San Juan, 2006, p. 2). San Juan (2006) focuses her work solely on verbal sentence constructions which will also be the focus of this section. A verbal sentence in Cuyonon does not follow a strict syntactic order outside of the verb always beginning the sentence. In this regard, verbal sentences follow a VSO or VOS order with no “change in meaning [or] loss of grammaticality” (San Juan, 2006, p. 2). For example, the sentence, “My mother cooked pancit for the children,” can be written in the following ways and still retain the same meaning:

          (1) Nagloto   y pansit   si nanay   para sa mga bata.

          (2) Nagloto   si nanay   y pansit   para sa mga bata.

          (3) Nagloto   para sa mga bata   si nanay   y pansit.

     Within both noun and verb phrases, the language seems to be uniformly head-initial as nouns and verbs precede their compliments within phrases. For the noun phrase, it is not as straightforward as the case markers (agentive, objective, directional, etc.) in the phrase always precede the noun. However, in this instance it seems that noun phrases are still technically head-initial as nouns still precede their compliments within any given phrase. Though the use of auxiliaries is present in verb phrases, they seem to be implied through the coordinating affixes of verb and noun phrases within the case grammar system of Cuyonon as opposed to the explicit presence of an auxiliary within the construction. Consider the sentence, “The people are united with Mitra,” (San Juan, 2006, p. 5):

Nagaboroniog-boniog        ang mga tao                           ki Mitra.
(are united                        (the people)                            (with Mitra)

     Nagaboroniog-boniog correlates to the “auxiliary + lexical verb” phrase construction, “are united.” However, only the marker Nag– is connected to the lexical verb boroniog-boniog (united). Further, Nag– is used to coordinate with the agentive case marker ang for the focus noun in the topicalized noun phrase ang mga tao (the people). From this we can see how the presence of auxiliary verbs are not explicitly seen in the construction of verb phrases in Cuyonon. Rather, it is an understanding of how case markers implicate the focus noun that determines the verb construction and meaning. From what we can see in San Juan’s (2006) work, specific markers for tense are also not explicitly present and, again, rely solely on the use of case markers to indicate when an event took place. Additionally, though San Juan (2006) alludes to the use of perfective and imperfective aspects in verbal case markers in Cuyonon (San Juan, 2006, p. 2), because credible, published work on Cuyonon syntax is not widely available, no clear examples of these aspects in use could be found.

     We do see evidence of prepositional adpositions similar to English constructions, with the preposition implied using the directional case marker ki in the above example. Prepositions can be implied in a number of ways with different case markers (ni, si, y, etc.) which all depend on the case of the given noun phrase. Determiners appear in the same way in noun phrases, as exemplified with auxiliaries and prepositions: the case marker works to give meaning without the explicit presence of what we consider determiners in English (a, the, that, etc.). From the examples in San Juan’s (2006) work, there always seems to be a subject for the verb or action. However, the subject is not always found directly after the verb phrase, but can appear in any order within the construction. Again, it is the case marker that points the hearer/reader to the focused noun (subject/topic) which correlates to the affixation used on the verb as in the following examples from San Juan’s (2006) work:

Agentive: Nag-ada si Amy y anang liksion. (Amy studied her lessons.)

Objective: Ingtimes ko ang koarta. (I saved my money.)

Locative: Ingkatorogan ko ang katri. (I slept on the bed.)

     Again, we see here that though ang and si are primarily used to mark the agentive case, they are used here to direct the reader/hearer to the subject, topic or focus noun of the sentence.

Conclusion: The Future of Cuyonon

     Based on our current, albeit limited, knowledge of the language, we can already see that Cuyonon is a highly complex language. It is clear that the interest in documenting and preserving this language will only continue to grow in light of its historical significance to the Cuyo people and the people in surrounding areas on Palawan Island. Though Tagalog, Filipino and English will most likely continue to be the lingua franca for education, communication, business, etc. across the Philippines, Cuyonon does not seem to be under any threat of becoming endangered or extinct. Hopefully, with continued study, analysis and publication of the linguistic features and cultural significances of the language, we will delve more deeply into our understanding and knowledge of Cuyonon over time.


Cuyonon. (n.d.). In Ethnologue: Languages of the world. Retrieved April 20, 2015, from

Cuyonon: Language, Alphabet and Writing. (n.d.). In Omniglot: The online encyclopedia of writing systems and languages. Retrieved April 20, 2015, from

Cuyonon Language. (n.d.). In Wikipedia. Retrieved April 20, 2015, from

Dangan, F. V. (2006). Contrastive analysis of true and false cognates in filipino and cuyonon. Retrieved from

Fernandez-Legazpi, E. I. & Tria-Fernandez, F. (2006). The sociological and educational significance of selected cuyono folk songs. Retrieved from

Language Status. (n.d.). In Ethnologue: Languages of the world. Retrieved April 20, 2015, from

Philippines. (n.d.). In Ethnologue: Languages of the world. Retrieved April 20, 2015, from

San Juan, E. (2006). The cuyonon verb system: A first approximation. Retrieved from


     1 Dangan (2006) uses different symbols in the transcriptions in her paper when detailing the phonetic shifts between the true and false cognates in Filipino and Cuyonon. The examples used from her work in this paper have solely used IPA symbols in transcriptions.

     2 For the sake of space, only a few phonetic changes were exemplified in this paper. To see all eleven examples of phonetic shifts between the true and false cognates of Filipino and Cuyonon, please refer to Dangan (2006).

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