Ilocano language

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Spoken in: Philippines 
Region: Northern Luzon
Total speakers: 7.7 million, est. 2.3 million second language = 10 million total 
Ranking: 75
Language family:
   Northern Philippine
    Northern Luzon
Language codes
ISO 639-1: none
ISO 639-2: ilo
ISO 639-3: ilo

Ilocano (variants: Ilokano, Iluko, Iloco, and Iloko) is the third most-spoken language of the Republic of the Philippines.

Being an Austronesian language, it is related to such languages as Indonesian, Malay, Fijian, Maori (of New Zealand), Hawaiian, Malagasy (of Madagascar), Samoan, Tahitian, Chamorro (of Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands), Tetum (of East Timor), and Paiwan (of Taiwan).



Ilocanos are descendants of Austronesian-speaking people from southern China via Taiwan. Families and clans arrived by viray or bilog, meaning boat. The term Ilokano originated from i-, meaning "from", and looc, meaning "cove or bay", thus "people of the bay." Ilokanos also refer to themselves as Samtoy, a contraction from the Ilokano phrase saö mi ditoy, meaning "our language here".


Ilokano comprises its own branch in the Philippine Cordilleran family of languages. It is spoken as a native language by eight million people.

A lingua franca of the northern region, it is spoken as a secondary language by more than two million people who are native speakers of Pangasinan, Ibanag, Ivatan, and other languages in Northern Luzon.

Geographic distribution

Ilokano population distribution. Enlarge picture to see percent distribution.

Ilocanos occupy the narrow, barren strip of land in the northwestern tip of Luzon, squeezed in between the inhospitable Cordillera mountain range to the east and the South China Sea to the west. This harsh geography molded a people known for their clannishness, tenacious industry and frugality, traits that were vital for survival. It also induced Ilokanos to become a migratory people, always in search for better opportunities and for land to build a life on. Although their homeland constitutes the provinces of Ilocos Norte, Ilocos Sur, La Union and Abra, their population has spread east and south of their original territorial borders. It is also spoken in Philippine areas far from Ilocos region, like Metro Manila, Cebu, and Mindanao (like Davao City).

Ilocano pioneers flocked to the more fertile Cagayan Valley, Apayao mountains and the Pangasinan plains during the 18th and 19th centuries and now constitute a majority in many of these areas. In the 20th century, many Ilokano families moved further south to Mindanao. They became the first Filipino ethnic group to immigrate en masse to North America (the so-called Manong generation), forming sizable communities in the American states of Hawaii, California, Washington and Alaska. Ilokano is the native language of most of the original Filipino immigrants in the United States, but Tagalog is used by more Filipino-Americans because it is the national language of the people of the Philippines.

A large, growing number of Ilocanos can also be found in the Middle East, Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, Canada and Europe.

Writing system


Pre-colonial Ilocanos of all classes wrote in a syllabic system prior to European arrival. They used a system that is termed as an abugida, or an alphasyllabary. It was similar to the Tagalog and Pangasinan scripts, where each character represented a consonant-vowel, or CV, sequence. The Ilocano version, however, was the first to designate coda consonants with a diacritic mark - a cross virama, shown in the Doctrina Cristiana of 1621, one of the earliest surviving Ilocano publications. Before the addition of the virama, writers had no way to designate coda consonants. The reader, on the other hand, had to guess whether the vowel was read or not.

Our Father prayer from Doctrina Cristiana, 1621.


In recent times, there have been two systems in use: The "Spanish" system and the "Tagalog" system. In the Spanish system words of Spanish origin kept their spellings. Native words, on the other hand, conformed to the Spanish rules of spelling. Nowadays, only the older generation of Ilocanos use the Spanish system.

The system based on that of Tagalog is more phonetic. In this system each letter receives one phonetic value, and better reflects the actual pronunciation of the word.<ref name="OandE">The reverse is true for the vowel /u/ where it has two representations in native words. The vowel /u/ is written o when it appears in the last syllable of the word or of the root, for example kitaemonto /ki.ta.e.mun.tu/. In addition, e represents two vowels in the southern dialect: [ɛ] and [ɯ].</ref> The letters ng, however, constitute a digraph and follows the letter n in alphabetization. As a result, numo humility appears before ngalngal to chew in newer dictionaries. Words of foreign origin, most notably those from Spanish, need to be changed in spelling to better reflect Ilocano phonology. The weekly magazine Bannawag is known to use this system.


Ilocano animistic past offers a rich background in folklore, mythology and superstition (see Religion in the Philippines). There are many stories of good and malevolent spirits and beings. Its creation mythology centers on the giants Aran and her husband Angngalo, and Namarsua (the Creator).

The epic story Biag ni Lam-ang (The Life of Lam-ang) is undoubtedly one of the few indigenous stories from the Philippines that survived colonialism, although much of it is now acculturated and shows many foreign elements in the retelling. It reflects values important to traditional Ilocano society; it is a hero’s journey steeped in courage, loyalty, pragmatism, honor, and ancestral and familial bonds.

Ilocano culture revolves around life rituals, festivities and oral history. These were celebrated in songs, dances, poems, riddles, proverbs, literary verbal jousts called bucanegan and epic stories.




Modern Ilocano has a five-vowel system in the North and six-vowel system in the South.

  • North: /a/, /i/, /u/,/ɛ/,/o/
  • South: /a/, /i/, /u/,/ɛ/,/o/,/ɯ/

The letter in bold is the graphic (written) representation of the vowel.

Ilokano Vowel Chart
Height Front Central Back
Close i /i/ e /ɯ/, u/o /u/
Mid e /ɛ/ o /o/
Open a /a/

For a better redition of vowel distribution, please refer to the International Phonetic Alphabet#vowels|IPA Vowel Chart.

Although the modern (Tagalog) writing system is large


Original source

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See also