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Butuaton Talk. Butuan Vice Mayor Lawrence Fortun (left) converses in pure Butuanon with an 84-year-old woman in Barangay Babag, Butuan City.

22.05.2024 Featured A Community in the Northeastern Philippines Works to Save Butuanon Language as It Nears Extinction

Published 22nd May, 2024

By Ivy Marie Mangadlao

Groups sound the alarm as the Butuanon language faces the threat of extinction, raising fears of a future where the echoes of Butuan’s linguistic legacy may fade into silence.


BUTUAN, Philippines – The catchphrase “Ato ini, kadyawon ta!” can be seen on tricycles in Butuan. It means “This is ours, let’s take care of it!” and is distinctly Butuanon.

Butuaton Talk. Butuan Vice Mayor Lawrence Fortun (left) converses in pure Butuanon with an 84-year-old woman in Barangay Babag, Butuan City.
Butuaton Talk. Butuan Vice Mayor Lawrence Fortun (left) converses in pure Butuanon with an 84-year-old woman in Barangay Babag, Butuan City. Foto: Ivy Marie Mangadlao.

Butuan, a city in the northeastern Philippines, has its unique linguistic heritage, but concerns loom over the gradual decline of its cherished lingua franca.

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The distinct Butuanon vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation once echoed through the streets of the regional center of the Caraga region. This city has remained a bastion of cultural richness within the area.

However, amid its bustling urban landscape, officials and conservationists sounded the alarm as the once-flourishing language faces the threat of extinction, raising fears of a future where the echoes of Butuan’s linguistic legacy may fade into silence.

According to a journal published in the University of the Philippines-Diliman Journals Online, Butuanon is a South Visayan language spoken in northeastern Mindanao, particularly in the provinces of Agusan del Norte and Agusan del Sur. It is classified as one of the Visayan languages, part of the larger Austronesian language family. Today, Babag stands out as the only one of Butuan’s 86 barangays (boroughs) where most residents still speak Butuanon fluently.

Jorge Navarra, a trustee at the Butuan Global Forum Incorporated, said Babag is the only community in Butuan where most villagers still use Butuanon as their lingua franca.

Butuan Vice Mayor Lawrence Lemuel Fortun said he was worried because only about 5% of the city’s population know how to speak Butuanon, and those who can speak it are people aged 45 and older, indicating a decline among younger generations.

“If nothing concrete and aggressive is done in the next 10 to 15 years, the language might become extinct,” Fortun said.

Shella Torralba, director of Sentro sa Wika at Kultura ng Komisyon sa Wikang Filipino of Caraga State University, said, “Butuanon is among the endangered languages that are at risk of extinction.”

She said Butuan teachers needed to immerse themselves in a Butuanon-speaking community such as Babag and learn from those who speak the language fluently. “Through this, we can also help the community preserve their language,” she said.

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Participants from the Philippine Science High School-Caraga read the program written in the Butuanon language on Friday, 26 April 2024, during the first day of the Butuanon Language Camp. MindaNews
Participants from the Philippine Science High School-Caraga read the program written in the Butuanon language on Friday, 26 April 2024, during the first day of the Butuanon Language Camp. MindaNews Photo by Ivy Marie Mangadlao

Navarra’s group, a community-based civil society organization, has started working and has been collaborating with the Butuan chapter of Save Our Languages through Federalism (SOLFED) to preserve the Butuanon lingua franca.

They have been working to preserve and revitalize the endangered language, organizing language camps for days of immersion in Butuanon-speaking Babag. One was held from April 26 to 28, and a second one was organized from May 3 to 5, especially for Butuanons visiting from other countries in time for the annual Balangay Festival. A third Butuanon language camp is scheduled for June.

About 40 people participated in last month’s language camp in Babag, including city council employees, academics from Caraga State University, and students from the Philippine Science High School in Caraga.

Navarra called on the city government to invest in activities to preserve and promote the Butuanon language.

The language camps, he said, are privately funded and cover all expenses for selected participants.

The initiative started in 2006 and 2007 and resumed in 2011 and 2012, but was not sustained due to funding issues.

Navarra said there was an increased public interest in preserving the Butuanon language, and there were more participants now. He said they would organize similar activities and was optimistic they would be able to sustain the momentum for their cause.

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The initiative follows a journal published in the University of the Philippines-Diliman Journals Online, illustrating the Bisayan dialects’ genetic relationships.
The initiative follows a journal published in the University of the Philippines-Diliman Journals Online, illustrating the Bisayan dialects’ genetic relationships.

Fortun, who participated in the April language camp, called collaboration a critical part of advocacy for preserving the language.

“You don’t expect to learn the language in two or three days, right? But what you’ll appreciate to do so. You’ll realize and feel for yourself that Butuanon is indeed a true and living language, as seen in communities like Babag,” Fortun said.

Preservation efforts face challenges, but Fortun expressed hope, citing Babag as an example that the language is still alive and that efforts should extend to other barangays.

Al Jan Cagmat, a Butuanon who works at City Hall, said, “I can’t exactly speak the language fluently after just three days of being immersed in a community speaking it, but I am willing to continue learning and using it as much as possible. A language is too precious to die. With it are stories of generations and communities who strove and lived for centuries even before our existence.”

This story was originally published in Rappler (Philipines) and is republished within the Human Journalism Network program, supported by the ICFJ, International Center for Journalists.

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Published 22nd May, 2024

By Ivy Marie Mangadlao

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