‘Wang Wang’: The Siren Call of the Philippines

The sign saying ‘this is a no wang wang zone’ can be puzzling for foreign visitors to Manila International Airport in the Philippines.

It’s written in English, one of the two official languages of the country (the other being Filipino, a standardised form of Tagalog), but what does it mean?

Well, ‘wang wang’ is used to mean the sounds that sirens make and – like in an excerpt from a comedy film – some Filipinos put fake police sirens on their cars to ‘wang wang’ or cut through heavy traffic.

This practice has led to the phrase ‘wang wang’ entering popular culture as a shorthand for queue-jumping or other ‘me first’ abuses of power. So much so that Filipino politicians campaigning against corruption typically pledge to put a stop to the ‘wang wang mentality’.

Languages across the Philippines

Language is an interesting topic in the Philippines – which are a collection of 7,641 islands (only 2,000 of which are inhabited) – because alongside the two official languages there are estimated to be more than 180 other languages or dialects

Chief among these is Cebuano (also called Bisaya) which has around 20,000,000 speakers compared to Filipino’s 25,000,000.

What they all have in common, however, are subtle and not-so-subtle influences from historic Spanish and American presences on the islands.

From 1521-1898, the Philippines was a Spanish colony named after King Philip II of Spain – a name it’s kept, although now it’s officially called The Republic of the Philippines.

So, it’s no surprise that many Spanish words – including the days of the week – have been absorbed into the Filipino and Cebuano languages.

For instance, in Spanish the words for Monday to Sunday are: lunes, martes, miércoles, jueves, viernes, sábado and domingo.

While in both Cebuano and Filipino, the words for Monday to Saturday are: Lunes, Martes, Miyerkules, Huwebes, Biyernes and Sabado.

The only small difference comes with the word for Sunday which in Cebuano is Dominggo and in Filipino it is Linggo.

The words for hello in Cebuano – kumusta – and Filipino – kamusta – are also related to the Spanish for how are you? – cómo estás.

Once you know to look, it’s fun to see how many other Spanish derivations you can spot!

Influence of English in the Philippines

But Spanish rule in the country came to an end in 1898 when Spain ceded the Philippines to the United States. The Philippines then became a US colony until 1946 when the US formally recognised its independence. (It’s no coincidence the date chosen was July 4, the day America celebrates its independence from British rule!)

One of the legacies of the Americans is that after World War II they left behind military jeeps which were then put to good use as a local public transport service.  These types of long vehicles, now colourfully painted, are still in use on the roads there today and called ‘jeepneys’. The word ‘jeepneys’ is thought to come from the fact that travellers are often squashed in the jeep ‘knee to knee’!

Other popular words which are universally used in the country are ‘tricycle’ (traysikel) used to describe a motorbike with a sidecar attached to carry passengers like a taxi. There’s also a ‘pedicab’ which is a pushbike with a sidecar attached, which is used for shorter distances.

In fact, there’s lots of Americanisms scattered across the native languages. For instance, Cebuano uses the word babay for ‘goodbye’, brislit is ‘bracelet’, drayiber is ‘driver’ and hayiskul is ‘high school’.

While Tagalog uses biskuwit for ‘biscuit’, pulis for ‘police’ and tin-edyer for ‘teenager’.

And just to make things difficult for us foreigners, Tagalog speakers love using slang. One common way to make a word ‘cool’ is to reverse the syllables. So a Tagalog-speaking teenager might talk about his lodi – idol – to his ermat – mother – and his erpat – father!

Interestingly, it was thanks to America that the Filipinos also came up with a new, informal name to describe their nationality: Pinoy (sometimes called Pinay to refer to women).

The word was originally coined by ex-pat Filipino Americans during the 1920s and later adopted by Filipinos in the Philippines.  

The Filipinos also came up with the perfect colloquial word to express that moment in a conversation with English-speaking foreigners when the less linguistically able can’t keep up. They use the word ‘nosebleed’ as in ‘wait, nosebleed!’. There’s no nosebleed, though, it’s just a funny way of saying they’re out of their depth in English and their heads are in a spin!

The perfect way, of course, to boost your command of English, Tagalog or Cebuano is to try uTalk. With around 2,500 words in each language, all voiced by native speakers, you’ll never be at a loss for words. But before you go to explore new languages (or the ‘biskuwit’ tin) here’s a few more fun facts about the Philippines and its people.

  • Social media: people in the Philippines top the league for time spent on social media sites, especially Facebook, and have a reputation for being prolific texters. To cap it all off, Time magazine named the Philippines’s Makati City the selfie-taking capital of the world.
  • Karaoke: this is a big deal in the Philippines and almost every home has a karaoke machine. And, although the world’s first karaoke machine was invented by a Japanese musician, it is the Filipino Roberto del Rosario who holds the machine’s patent. (The word karaoke in Japanese literally means ‘empty orchestra’ i.e. no vocalists to accompany the music.)
  • Unlucky 13: some Filipinos are wary of the number 13 and so high-rise buildings often don’t have a 13th floor and jump from numbers 12 to 14 instead. It makes for a confusing ride in their lifts!
  • Flag: the Filipino flag is the only one in the world which can show at a glance whether the country is at war or peace. When it’s displayed with its blue border at the top, it means peace. With the blue at the bottom, it means war!

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