Tag Archives: Kakaiba ang Tagalog

The Mystery Of The Missing IS: Or, Had John Duns Scotus Been An Ordinary-Language Philosopher Working In Tagalog

Below, I have tried to start incubating the suspicion that there is something fishy about treating ‘is’ as a predicate with two parameters accepting one argument each, i.e., a two-place relation.

Tagalog doesn’t have a verb ‘is’, no verb ‘to be’.  Given that more literal translations of Tagalog sentences often display the phrase ang noun phrase structure as:


phrase [is] ang noun phrase

For example:

Titser ang babae.

Maganda ang lalaki.

Umalis ang babae.

gets rendered as:

Teacher [is] the woman.

Beautiful [is] the man.

Having left [is] the woman.

or as I prefer (see my attempt below at eliciting the ‘aha erlebniss’):

Some teacher one  [is] the woman.

Some beautiful one [is] the man.

Some having left one [is] the woman.

…given that, one might think that, always, the suspect verb aka predicate aka relation is implicitly in effect in sentences with that structure.  The lack of a verb ‘to be’, of an ‘is’ in Tagalog that so perplexed the first Spanish grammarians of the language (so that, in their total confusion and lack of understanding, they tried to interpret the Tagalog inversion marker ‘ay‘ as the verb ‘is’, a confusion and misinterpretation that has had hilarious consequences lasting to this day), is always there, just unpronounced (or unwritten).  The space between ‘maganda‘ and ‘ang lalaki‘ in the written sentence, or the lack of interruption in the string of sounds (if that is how maganda ang lalaki gets pronounced — I am not strong enough presently in Tagalog to know) or the glottal interruption (if one exists between the ‘maganda‘ and ‘ang lalaki‘)  … the space, or lack of interruption in the continuous stream of sound, or the glottal, these are, as the case may be, an implicit sign of the two-place relation ‘is’.

Following Naylor, Schachter, and my own intuition, I have been treating the space, the lack of interruption in the continuous stream of sound, the glottal as an implicit equals.  For example, I prefer to translate the above three Tagalog sentences as:

Some teacher one  = the woman.

Some beautiful one = the man.

Some having left one = the woman.

Unlike ‘is’, however, which is (if there is such a critter) a two-place relation, ‘equals’ (alternatively, ‘=’ ) is, as I am about to show, a one place relation.  It is not just that the sign corresponding to ‘is’ is lacking in Tagalog:  the (real or putative) semantics of ‘is’ is lacking in Tagalog as well.  Tagalog is working with something completely different.

Clearly the ‘equals’ that is in play here is not given by the ‘equals’ in the following two-place relation:



Morning Star Evening Star
3 3
Rose With Barcode 3185321 Rose With Barcode 3185321
Clifford Wirt Clifford Wirt
The murderer of Jones The butler

…because in sentences such as Maganda si Taylor Lautner, the word ‘Maganda’  does not, at the moment of its utterance, specify, identify, locate, expose, or pick out any one particular thing.   ‘Maganda’ is equivalent to ‘Some beautiful one’, or the part of the formal sentence below that occurs before the ‘=’:

∃x ∈ MAGANDA: x = si Taylor Lautner.

The x that belongs to the set MAGANDA is left unspecified, unidentified, unlocated, unexposed, un-picked-out at the start:  Maganda … though it does get specified at the end:  …si Taylor Lautner.  But a two-place relation requires two identified, specified arguments for its two attributes.

Let me try to capture in D the sentence ‘∃x ∈ MAGANDA: x = si Taylor Lautner’.  Let me posit the following 1-place relation:

Taylor Lautner
Sunset at time t and place p
Rose With Barcode 3185321
Wine Red
The Taj Mahal
Haendel’s Umbra Mai Fu

Taking this relation as my springboard, I capture ∃x ∈ MAGANDA as MAGANDA{} (which gives us TABLE_DEE, or TRUE, or YES), then do a CARTESIAN PRODUCT of that with a restriction of MAGANDA:

MAGANDA{} as t_sub_0,
MAGANDA{MAGANDANG_BAGAY} where   MAGANDANG_BAGAY= ‘Taylor    Lautner’ as t_sub_1:
t_sub_0 X t_sub_1

CARTESIAN PRODUCT is a special case of JOIN.  TABLE_DEE JOIN r, where r is any relation, yields r.  So the D statement above yields:

Taylor Lautner

which expresses the semantics of the sentence ‘Maganda si Taylor Lautner’.  In this way, we get rid of the doubtful (I think) verb aka two-place relation ‘is’.

To sum up, a bit impishly:  the semantics of ‘is’ is different in Tagalog than in English because Tagalog really doesn’t have an ‘is’.  Later, I will try to develop this into part of an argument that Tagalog lacks a subject.  Tagalog’s lacking a verb ‘to be’ is related to its lacking a subject.

To stray back for a moment to philosophy:  were Duns Scotus an ordinary-language philosopher working in Tagalog, it may never have occurred to him to try to find a single relation (e.g. ‘contracts’ ) between the entity Beauty, as the argument on one side of the predicate ‘is’, and Taylor Lautner as the argument on the other side of the predicate, and so on for every other proposition formed by supplying arguments to the parameters x and y in the predicate x is y.

11/10/2012:  Updated to make a point a bit more clearly.

11/10/2012:  Updated to parenthetically add some snark about the first Spanish grammarians of the Tagalog language in the 1600’s.


Update:  11/25/2012:  Post grayed-out because I am dissatisfied with it.


Naylor’s Argument That Tagalog Lacks A Subject

The most persuasive and clearest argument I’ve found for the claim that Tagalog lacks a subject is Paz Buenaventura Naylor’s in her contribution to SUBJECT, VOICE AND ERGATIVITY (ed. Bennett, Bynon, Hewitt).  The majority so far of the posts in this blog have been attempts to wrap my head around this argument and to state the argument in my own words; I am placing this set of arguments in the category ‘Wrapping My Mind Around The Argument That Tagalog Lacks A Subject.’ In trying to gain a maximal grasp on this argument, I’ve learned a tiny bit of linguistics; but any illusion I may have produced (not likely anyway) of having any authoritative voice at all on the subject is just that, an illusion.  I am writing to learn, not to force-feed the world from my <this is meant ironically>vast store of knowledge</this is meant ironically>.

What follows is Naylor’s argument in a nutshell.  Further posts will be going into the details and articulating some disagreements.  I reserve the right to go back to her article and find out I have horribly misrepresented her position.

1)  A verb is a relation whose relata are (in the case of 2-place relations) subject and direct object and (in the case of 3-place relations) subject, direct object, and indirect object.  Conversely, a subject and object (direct and indirect) are always relata in a verb.

2)  Tagalog doesn’t have verbs.  What look like verbs are really something else:  They are names of actions rather than syntactical verbs.  We know that Tagalog doesn’t have verbs because ‘ng‘ is always a genitive.

3)  Since Tagalog doesn’t have verbs, and since subjects and objects are relata of those relations that are verbs, Tagalog does not have subjects.  (Neither does it have objects, direct or indirect.)

4)  This should be enough to show that Tagalog does not have a subject, but one can’t resist pounding in an additional nail in the coffin by pointing out the claims about syntax made by linguists such as Paul Kroeger are just wrong.

Many of my further posts in the blog will be elaborations on and criticisms of the above outline of an argument.


In The Afterglow Of A Dazzling Light. The Gentle Lapping Of Waves Onto the Beach At Subic Bay. “Some Linguists Claim That Tagalog Lacks A Subject.”

I am in Subic Bay, in the Philippines.  I am inside a beach house, whose unglassed (but protected by iron bars) windows open out to the beach on Subic bay.  I am spending a pleasant (( but also, for reasons I won’t go into here, anxiety-filled (and yes, the two can go together) ) afternoon working through a sliver of a LEARN FILIPINO book.  I hear the gentle lapping of the waves onto the beach.  The light outside is dazzling, brilliant; inside I am in its afterglow.  Quite a few cats and kittens prowl about, not exactly starved but also clearly not completely confident they know where their next meal is coming from.

“Do Tagalog sentences have subjects?” the book’s author asks in a footnote.  “Some linguists say yes, others say no.”  A bit more accurately, the question should be “Does Tagalog have a subject construction at all, in any sentence,” since many perfectly functional and common Tagalog sentences plainly lack a subject construction, e.g., kaka logoff ko lang sa trabaho, and umuulan.  

Later, the author does insist that Tagalog does have a subject.  His insistence struck me (maybe unfairly) as having a bit of a tone of ‘Now shut up!  I am not going to discuss this any further!”

Kakaiba ang Tagalog!  What strange language is this whose weirdness makes some authorities think it lacks a subject?  What is a subject anyway?

So as part of my effort to learn Tagalog, I started to try to wrap my mind around the controversy.  Many of the posts here are attempts to learn about the controversy (‘does Tagalog have a subject construction?’) by writing about it.