The peculiarity of Filipino Honorifics

One of the first things one notices about the Filipino languages is the proliferation of honorifics used to address family members.As a sign of respect to these relatives one cannot call them by their names, and instead use these terms of address.

In Tagalog, for instance, one has the following common honorifics:

Mama/Inay/Nanay – mother
Papa/Itay/Tatay –  father
Lolo – grandfather
Lola – grandmother
Tito – uncle
Tita – aunt
Kuya – older brother
Ate – older sister
Ninong – godfather
Ninang – godmother

In some families with Chinese roots a more nuanced set of honorifics are also used for first, second, or third sons or daughters. In some families with Spanish roots too, ‘abuelita’ and ‘abuelito’ may still be used to refer to the grandparents. These cases are now rare outside of such families.

It must be noted that ‘tito’ and ‘tita,’ as well as ‘ate’ and ‘kuya’ for younger elders, may also be used for any other person older than one, particularly for family friends or parents or siblings of friends.

These honorifics have generally encroached into the other Filipino languages (a quiet sign of Tagalog imperialism), but distinct honorifics still continue. In Cebuano for instance, ‘kuya’ and ‘ate’ may be used, but the original terms of address may still sometimes be heard:

Mamang – mother
Papang – father
Manong – older brother
Manang – older sister
Dodong – son/any boy
Inday – daughter/any girl
‘Gaw (shortened form of ‘ig-agaw’) – cousin

In Cebuano it is also common to refer to other people who are older with ‘angkol’ or ‘anti,’ corruptions of ‘uncle’ or ‘auntie.’ I speculate this has Chinese roots.

My family is part Ilocano, so I grew up with the word ‘ading’ (younger sibling). In our Kidapawan Tagalog-Cebuano-Ilocano hybrid mother tongue, this is more a referential term than an honorific, although I remember my father sometimes using it for my brother in a cute, patronizing tone (‘ading, saan ka na naman galing ha?’).

Which may lead one to wonder why a father would be calling his son ‘younger sibling.’ But this is not uncommon in Filipino languages – or indeed not surprising in any language, as parents often use the appropriate honorifics their children should be using to give their children examples. Hence a husband may call his wife ‘mama,’ and the wife call him ‘papa’ so the children will learn. In my family too, my mother calls me ‘kuya.’

But this ends up being carried over even to the succeeding generations, and it can be confusing to the unfamiliar. My family demonstrates that best:

(lolo) Papa/ Tatay – my maternal great-grandfathers
(lola) mama/ Nanay – my maternal great-grandmothers
Ninang Ludy – my grandfather’s older sister (my mother’s godmother, other relatives call her ate)
Kuya Chito – my maternal grandfather’s younger brother
Uncle Andres – my paternal grandfather’s younger brother
Mommy Vinia – my maternal grandmother
Mama Mila – my paternal grandfather
Kuya Eric – my uncle
Tita Yayang – his wife
Ate Christie/Ate Yayan – my maternal aunts
Tita Lanie – my paternal aunt

To make it even more confusing language sometimes plays a role in making distinctions: between me and my brother, without specific context ‘ang mama’ would usually refer to our mother, but ‘si mama’ would refer to our paternal grandmother Mama Mila. ‘Ang’ as an identifying article is Tagalog, so it’s not unusual for my mother, but Mama Mila is Bul-anon.

But these honorifics not only so give one a sense of the linguistic diversity in our homes, it also lets us who use it feel closer to otherwise distant ancestors and elders.





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