Update, March 2013

When I first arrived in the Philippines in 2005, I dove right into studying Tagalog since it is the national language. Soon I realized I should be studying Visayan instead, since no one around me was using Tagalog except on TV. While Tagalog, also known as Pilipino, is the national language, Bisaya would be the national language except for the incidental location of the capital city, Manila, in an area where Tagalog happens to be the "local dialect." Unfortunately, Filipinos have been taught that their languages are just dialects, while their successive national languages—Spanish, English, and Pilipino—are "real" languages. Linguists do not follow this practice; in fact studying the Philippine languages is of great interest to the scientists of language because the languages of the Philippines are so unique.

My first three years in the Philippines were spent researching, studying, and analyzing Bisaya, and writing an early draft of a grammar book which is available on this page by clicking the links. Since then I have spent five more years just listening to people talk and watching babies learn Bisaya ten times faster than I can! I have disciplined myself, during this time, to record nothing of my thoughts on language, trying to just absorb. While there are many dialects of Bisaya, most written resources use the Cebuano dialect—Sugboanon—anglicized as "Cebuano-Visayan."

Because the city of Cebu is the second or third largest city in the Philippines, Cebuano is the dialect of scholars, intellectuals, academics, and religious writers throughout a large part of the Visayan-speaking regions. It is well understood where I live, but there are some differences. Most of my verbal resources are from among the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd generation Ilonggo settlements that I lurk in, in a rural farming district in Mindanao. There are no doubt some Ilonggo or Hiligaynon influences in the dialect of Bisaya spoken here, although Ilonggo is a separate language from Bisaya, since the two are mutually unintelligible. There was a different language being spoken here when the Davao region became a melting pot for immigrants from all over the Philippines. Because Bisaya is so widely understood, it has become the local language here. As if that isn't confusing enough, the terms "Bisaya" and "Visayan" have other uses than what I've already mentioned. The name for the part of the Philippines encompassing all of its 7000+ islands except Mindanao and Luzon is "The Visayas," but that doesn't mean that Visayan is the only language spoken there. Nothing of the sort. Also, there is a language in Borneo called Bisaya which is only distantly related to Philippine Bisaya, if at all. Online debates rage as to how the two languages both got the same name.

What I found when studying Cebuano, along with my wife's closely related Bisaya dialect, is that the rumors about this language being opaque and difficult are completely false! Rumors that its speakers make up the rules as they go along: ridiculous but understandable, since a big part of the language's humanity is its malleability. But its ability to create new versions of itself is due to strict underlying structure, where it counts. Learning any language that is completely foreign to you seems impossible at first, and in my experience the final resolution of this difficulty is that true fluency is an unrealistic goal for many people. It is my goal to rewrite my notes into a format that teaches a spectrum of understandability so that students of Bisaya at any level of interest can choose their own level of mastery to aim for. The grammar books, including the one I stopped working on in 2008, do not reveal the one simple fact that I have to work into the next version: communicating simple concepts in Bisaya requires very little grammar, because maximally grammatical speech in these languages is considered "too deep" by the average person who doesn't bother with all the nuances in most casual conversation.

An enthusiastic grammarian—like someone who writes grammar books and naturally places great value on such things—might pooh-pooh colloquial speech in his own language as baby talk, and this is true in English too, if you take an honest look at how people really talk. I mean outside of the academic environment; just as some religious folk are careful to sound pious in their speech, some academics are careful to sound educated. But in reality, if someone says, in English, "Goin' somewhere?" I don't first think or say, "He left two words out of his sentence, it is ungrammatical." I just answer his question: "Dunno!" We don't always need a lot of grammar in order to be understood and to fit in with the crowd. In fact, if you barrage a native speaker with more grammar than he expects, you might be considered a smarty-pants.

This is the book I wrote while studying Bisaya with every fiber of my being for three years. I am not a conversational person myself, but I like grammar, and I love the orderly nature of Bisaya grammar. So this is a book about grammar. I feel that I came close to replacing earlier grammar books with better information or an easier approach, but this book, or the next one, could still be simplified. A deep enough interest in being able to communicate in Bisaya will take a student to any depth desired. I feel that this grammar book of mine is the right place to start, an improvement on any other book available. I can't yet teach the natural speech of the native speaker, but I can hope to teach a system of thinking about the language that will make it easy to learn the language's nuts and bolts. This is a new framework, and it is needed. This is the framework that made Bisaya sound natural, fluid, and beautiful to my ear.

In my next book, I plan to start with "Dunno!" and expand on that.


I have no professional or academic affiliations with any individual or organization listed on this page.

A Dictionary of Cebuano Visayan John U. Wolff, Cornell University, Southeast Asia Program and Linguistic Society of the Philippines. 1972.

This PDF of Wolff's masterpiece is only partially searchable if you don't use special characters for the accent marks. Over 1200 pages.

Search the full text of John U. Wolff's 1972 Dictionary of Cebuano Visayan.

Better to use the online database which was painstakingly made from Wolff's dictionary, which is on Jeroen Hellingman's website http://bohol.ph. I got this project started by purchasing a copy of the dictionary, removing the binding, and scanning the flat pages for good legibility. Jeroen took over from there, coordinating a multi-stage proofreading procedure conducted by many volunteers over a period of a few years. The dictionary is now searchable instantly for any word, Visayan or English, without typing any special characters. Many thanks to Professor Wolff for generously allowing Distributed Proofreaders and Project Gutenburg to get his work online and maximally usable in the form of a searchable database.

A description of Cebuano Visayan: texts, analysis and vocabulary

Grammar book by John U. Wolff, 1962. Dr. Wolff is Professor Emeritus at Cornell University.

Advanced Bisaya for Beginners by Scott Robertson (draft—2008)

Full-length book on Cebuano grammar. In progress; this is like opening up my filing cabinet and letting you look around.


Four short Cebuano folk tales with English translations.


Out of the many papers I read while researching Advanced Bisaya for Beginners, I chose these because they shine a light beyond status quo descriptions. Beyond Wolff's fantastic contribution to the field of Cebuano studies, it's time for the next genius to come along! These papers are relatively easy to read and understand because they rely on common sense for their arguments.

Dryer, Matthew S and Edward L Keenan. "Passive in the world's languages." 32-page article print sent to me by Prof. Dryer.

This paper takes linguistics to task for using English as the basis for comparison, effectively questioning the common assumption that those voices in the Philippine languages that are not like English active voice should be construed as "Passive Voices."

Hopper, Paul J and Sandra A Thompson. "Transitivity in Grammar and Discourse." Language. Vol 56 No 2 June 1980 p 251 – 299.

This paper helped me develop my picture of how Philippine languages deal with transitivity. All throughout Wolff's dictionary you will find fuzzily-worded definitions like "carry something for someone". The s.t. and s.o. were possibly used to avoid a technical discussion of transitivity. In fact, unlike dictionary writer Rodolfo Cabonce, Wolff never addresses transitivity at all, even in his grammar lessons. This paper, and others that followed by specialists in Philippine languages, set forth some of the issues that Wolff's approach was avoiding. Very important paper.

Katagiri, Masumi. Topicality, ergativity and transitivity in Tagalog: Implications for the Philippine-type system. Okayama University, Okayama, Japan.

This is one of the papers I enjoyed reading as I tried to find the best way to describe the so-called focus system to beginners. Wolff and others used the "active/passive" model, others got embroiled in the question of ergativity which you had best learn from someone other than me. I am now convinced that ordinary role relations as explained in Paul Kroeger's textbooks is the easiest framework for the Philippine voice systems or whatever they are.

McFarland, Curtis D. "Definite objects and subject selection in Philippine languages." Studies in Philippine Linguistics. Vol 2 No 1 1978 p 139 – 182.

This is the most sensible thing ever written about the so-called "focus system" that makes Philippine languages so controversial among linguists, and I intend to incorporate his main points into my book next time I work on it. The "focus system" is wrong and sloppy linguistics. Simple knowledge of semantic roles (doer, doee, and their various manifestations) and grammatical relations (subject, object, indirect object, adjunct) are needed instead.

Naylor, Paz Bueneventura. "Nominal Syntax in Verbal Predications: Reflections in Indonesian."

Professor Naylor tackles the greatest challenge of all: asking questions about our assumptions and our pre-categorized belief systems.

Naylor, Paz B. "On the Stative Predicate: Tagalog Existentials Revisited." Based on a presentation given at Lawrence Reid's Austronesian Symposium in 1977.

Professor Naylor was kind enough to take the time to correspond with me while I was doing my research. She has written many papers, and had a career as a linguistics professor at the University of Michigan, besides raising a family. She grew up in the Philippines where she was born, speaking Tagalog, Cebuano, English and Spanish. She has valuable insights into Philippine languages because she sees their workings from the inside out.

Nolasco, Richard. "What Philippine Ergativity Really Means."" (draft) University of the Philippines (Diliman)

Comparison of some different descriptions of some of the Philippine languages' controversial features.

Reid, Lawrence A. "Determiners, nouns, or what? problems in the analysis of some commonly occurring forms in Philippine languages."

I am fascinated by etymology, how words form from older words, so I included this as an example I enjoyed reading. I feel that this sort of thing throws some light on any language if you really want to feel that you are growing an understanding of it from the inside out, rather than just memorizing vocabulary and rules.

Ross, Malcolm and Stacy Fang-ching Teng. "Formosan Languages and Linguistic Typology." Language and Linguistics. Vol 6 No 4 p 739 to 781. 2005.

A good argument for abandoning the "Philippinist" dogma and "focus system" and redescribing Philippine verb voices with terminology that is consistent with that used to describe other languages. He points out that the Philippine languages are derivational, not inflectional, thus need a unique approach instead of the usual expected paradigms that we get from using Western languages as a basis for comparison.

Saclot, Maureen Joy D. "On the Transitivity of the Actor Focus and Patient Focus Constructions in Tagalog." University of the Philippines, Mindanao (Based on her masters thesis).

This paper adapts the Hopper/Thompson work on transitivity to Philippine languages. Learning that transitivity occurs on a spectrum was very elucidating to me, with the many ways words can be formed in Bisaya.

Starosta, Stanley. "Austronesian 'Focus' as Derivation: Evidence from Nominalization." Language and Linguistics. Vol 3, No 2, pages 427-479, 2002.

This important paper lays out the differences between "inflectional" and "derivational" affixation systems.


Cabonce, Rodolfo. An English – Cebuano Visayan Dictionary. 1983, National Bookstore, Mandaluyong City, Philippines. 1135 pages.

This is a valuable book, and the price is right. New copies sell for about ten to fifteen dollars in the Philippines. You can't do a serious study of Bisaya without this dictionary.

Wolff, John Ulrich. A Dictionary of Cebuano Visayan. 1971, Linguistic Society of the Philippines, Special Monograph Issue No. 4, June 1972.

Wolff's masterpiece, researched with the assistance of over 100 native speakers, has been digitized and is available in searchable format at www.bohol.ph. There is also a pdf online of the whole thing. See links on this page for PDF and online database versions.


(the books by Erlinda Alburo are available for a very reasonable price from the Cebuano Studies Center at the University of San Carlos in Cebu.)

Alburo, Erlinda K, et al. Cebuano Folktales I & II. 1977: U San Carlos, Cebu. Vol 1: 42 pages; Vol 2: 43 pages.

Excellent authentic learning materials, moderately easy to translate for beginners. English translations are included.

Alburo, Erlinda K, et al. Cebuano Folksongs I. 1978: U San Carlos, Cebu. 40 pages.

20 folk songs for children with music, lyrics, and English translations.

Alburo, Erlinda K, et al. Cebuano Riddles and Proverbs. 2002: U San Carlos, Cebu. 43 pages.

Grouped by topic, with English translation.

Alburo, Erlinda K, et al. Cebuano Poetry. Two volumes. 1988: U San Carlos, Cebu.

Vol. 1 goes up to 1940 (232 pages). Vol. 2 covers 1940 to 1988. (204 pages).

Lieban, Richard W. Cebuano Sorcery: Malign Magic in the Philippines. U of California Press, Berkeley, 1967. 163 pages, paperback.

Good idea to read through some of this if planning to live in a rural area of the Philippines. For example, if you praise somebody's baby for being strong, handsome, and healthy, but then things go wrong for the baby, you could be blamed! English.

Maceda, Teresita G. Marcel M Navarra: Mga Piling Kuwentong Sebuwano. U of Philippines Press, Manila, 1986. 291 pages paperback.

Short stories written in Cebuano by Marcel Navarra with English translations by the editor. Excellent. I bought this from the Cebuano Studies Center, U of San Carlos.


Kroeger, Paul R. Analyzing Grammar, an introduction. 2005 Cambridge University Press.

Kroeger, Paul R. Analyzing Syntax, a lexical-functional approach. 2004 Cambridge U. P.

I'm listing Paul Kroeger's textbooks because they are so good that most people who are studying on their own won't need to go much further than this. Also a good starting place or reference work for linguists and anyone who is trying to learn a language well enough to describe it.


Josef Baumgartner Learning Resource Center
University of San Carlos Talamban Campus
Nasipit, Talamban, Cebu City 6000

Phone: +63-32-406-6079
Website: www.cebuanostudiescenter.com

Sa kataposan, dihang gipangapoy na ang mga hayop ug panikad sa hangin, mingdasdas ang mga langgam ug mga pak-an.
—"King Cicada and King Lion," ed. Erlinda K. Alburo