Cebuano: The Language and The People

Living in Norway for over 2 years, I have often encountered questions about the languages I speak. I usually answered I speak Norwegian, English and two Filipino languages. Then, people start asking if the second Filipino language is a dialect of the other. Given my mother tongue is Cebuano, the second language referred, I abruptly debunk the misconcept that it is a mere dialect. My most common explanation is that all Filipinos speak the Filipino language, but those who only learn to speak Filipino have difficult time understanding or communicating with one speaking Cebuano.

Throughout the span of my childhood, I got to grasp the political and cultural differences of Filipinos speaking Filipino language or Tagalog as referred by most, and those coming from the Southern Philippines speaking Cebuano. The language in itself has become the boundary between the two groups of people. Due to their innate differences, misunderstandings result, not because of mere language confusion, but of cultural reasons. So, there is a need to recognize these differences to aid everyone in avoiding bias and social judgment. This is the focus of this blogpost.

1. Cebuano is identified mother tongue of one-fourth of the Filipino nation.

Interestingly, Cebuano is actually the most widely-spoken Philippine language before Tagalog-descent Commonwealth President Quezon declared Tagalog as the nation's official language for everyone to learn. From then on, all Filipinos were obliged to learn Tagalog, shadowing Cebuano to become the second most spoken Philippine language. Moreover, the language is spoken in daily conversation in Central Visayas islands and the second Philippine largest island Mindanao. There are also dialect versions of Cebuano, such that learning the language means also learning other Philippine languages as well influencing Cebuano.

2. Cebuano is phonetically and linguistically different from the Filipino language.

Before the Spaniards came, the region where Cebuano is currently widely spoken is referred to as the Pintados Islands (Cebu, Bohol and Eastern Visayas) and Mindanao. These islands were considered to be the most resistant to Spanish rule, so when Spanish colonizers got hold of Cebu, they studied and even wrote about the language. They changed the alphabet to Latin and mixed with Spanish words. This is the reason why many Cebuanos learn Spanish faster than their Northern counterparts. Noticeably, the ancient Cebuano language had only three vowels, which is considerably the reason why those, who speak Tagalog notices Cebuanos have very hard accents and vowels when they try to speak Tagalog.

3. Cebuano people are considered to be socio-cultural inferior compared to the Filipino language.

After Spanish colonizers designated Manila as the capital of Manila, away from the risk of invasion of Moro and hostile tribal south, all resources were directed towards the Philippine capital. This has resulted to long-term disparity in social and economic distribution of resources, leaving many Cebuano communities impoverished despite its rich natural resources. This has led to an internal migration of Cebuano people to the Metropolitan Manila to attempt to have better lives. They are perhaps considered the first ethnic Filipino group of overseas workers. Many of them worked as domestic helpers and blue-collar job workers in households of rich Tagalog families. Thereafter, Cebuano brain drain has resulted when Cebuano educated elites needed to migrate to Manila to get higher paying jobs, as well as many Cebuano families sending their children to Manila for them to finish education. Unfortunately, given Cebuanos are relatively new in Manila, at first most of these migrants are at disadvantage position when competing with the city locals. In the long run, this disadvantage has weakened over time, as the demographics of Manila has changed as well, as more and more Cebuanos live in the area.

4. Cebuano has unique straight-forward culture and philosophy.

Due to a long-term misrepresentation of the Cebuano-speaking people, many are left with few opportunities. This has given rise to factions in the area, as a cooperation of people to survive. In order to gain social acceptance, one must adhere to social norms and customs of a certain group of people. The rule is simply easy to comprehend. It is either one belongs or not. Nothing in between. This state of mentality has led to a more straight-forward culture. A yes is a yes. A no is an ultimate no, unless there is compelling reason for  change. Cebuanos could either be very vocal to what they mean or silent about it, but the black-white mentality has lingered through time. Unfortunately, this kind of thinking may serve disadvantageous in terms of morality, flexibility in decision-making and conflict-resolution. It is therefore quite safe to say that when a Cebuano says something, he or she really means it, unless he or she intentionally wants to hide or insinuate something.

5. Cebuano people love sarcasm and play of words of multiple meanings.

The popular joke and expression, °I will kill you" is statement with multiple cultural implication. This could either be a threat, or a joke, or just plain statement, or a combination of two or three. A phrase could mean a lot, but those who fluently speak and understand the language and Cebuano society could distinguish accurately what the phrase could mean. Being a more spoken language, Cebuano is highly contextual language. The content may not necessarily be the same with the context of a statement. Asking a Cebuano what they actually meant with a phrase is a proper way of addressing miscommunication. Being direct helps better than going around the n bush. This way a Cebuano-speaking person would recognize easily the real intention also of the speaker. So if one is not certain, just ask.

6. Cebuanos have a strong sense of religiosity, fanaticism and communal identity.

Because of a pervasive socio-cultural oppression from the colonization to American commonwealth era to the current misrepresentation of the Cebuano people in the Filipino society, the Cebuanos have learned to rely from each other and identify with a supreme authority. This could either be God, dieties, personalities or group of people. Naturally, the more vulnerable people are loyal to their so-called superiors. They say nothing bad or anything that will hurt or do bad with the authority. This has resulted to an obedient subclass among the Cebuano people. This phenomenon also could be traced back to colonialization and Tagalog superiority, as well as direct result of the difficultues arising from natural disasters and calamities, which frequently hit the Cebuano regions. Therefore, there is a strong sense of attachment within social groups among Cebuanos, while this allegiance also means fighting with all means and might for the aspirations, existence and survival of the social faction. This is the reason many thinks that Cebuanos are quite barbaric and uncivilized, given they are not afraid to fight for a struggle that means a lot to them risking everything, including their lives in the end.

Lastly, it is not good to create a generalization of Cebuanos I admit. However, there are commonalities in shared virtues of the Cebuano people. There are, however, secession movements in the Southern Philippines. However, personally, I identify myself as a Cebuano Filipino. I could not be a Cebuano, without being a Filipino and vice versa. I am proud of my Cebuano roots and language. I use Cebuano language everyday, more than the Filipino language. I prefer Cebuano comedy and entertainment. I am inclined to learn Spanish, given its influence to the language. I like speaking with Cebuano-speaking individuals, who are objective enough to know what is right and wrong. Furthermore, I like others to know about the people and language behind Cebuanos. This is the reason I am writing this.


  1. Hello! I'm really interested in this topic. Would you mind if I ask your basis of your post? Like do you have sources for this? Or is it just an opinion? (Sorry, I'd like to include this in a research I'm doing, and I need proper citations). Thank you.

  2. Salamat Sir. I'm a Cebuano learning Spanish and this article gave me more motivation.


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