On untranslatable words from Philippine languages

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A writer from the Bangsamoro explains how we are yet to find words for things we still do not understand, and how Filipino can sometimes offer only an approximation at best. Illustration by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — With words come recognition, a sense of certainty. I grew up in a place where learning words in two languages — Tagalog and English — was enough. I took pride at how familiar I was with the grammar of both, and how effortless it was for me to shift from one to the other.

That was until five years ago, when I moved to the Bangsamoro. Here I have an officemate who can speak six languages — Tausug, Sama, Chavacano, Hiligaynon, English, and Tagalog. Here, many, if not all, of my friends can speak a third language apart from English and Tagalog, mainly because they belong to one of the thirteen ethnolinguistic groups, each with a language all their own.

Soon the two languages that were once enough to help me navigate my communications job in Manila proved to be inadequate. The pace of my interviews changed, especially when I had to rely on a translator. Within a few weeks, I started to recognize Maguindanaon and Tausug expressions here and there, but I still had to depend heavily on tone and facial expressions to approximate context.

Back in Manila, I was a good writer. Here, suddenly, I wasn’t so sure.

The feeling reminded me of the Tagalog word “talipa,” which I once found funny because it was so oddly specific. It meant having your shoe or a slipper on the wrong foot, or simply being out of step.

***

It was 2013 and I was in our hometown in Catanduanes, on leave from work. I was talking to a cousin whom I met for the first time. Back then, I already developed the habit of asking for words unique to the local language, and my cousin eagerly taught me the Bikol words ”subangan” and “sulnopan,”  which refer to the points on the horizon where the sun rises and sets. They are also sometimes used to mean the more generic directional words, “east” and “west.”

A friend in the Bangsa would eventually teach me that these words have Maguindanaon equivalents, “sebangan” and “sudopan.” There was an ease in talking to my newfound cousin, and at some point she ended up asking me how it was like to move from Manila to Mindanao. It had only been a few months since I moved, but a strange feeling already began to plant itself in my heart. It was a kind of sadness borne out of distance, one that I struggled to name, and I tried my best to explain to her how I felt.

Kalipungawan.jpg "Kalipungawan" means loneliness in an isolated place. It was the local Catanduanon name for Benham Rise, a ridge located east of the island group of Luzon.

“I think you mean kalipungawan,” she said. “It means loneliness in an isolated place. The men in Caramoran call their fishing grounds “kalipungawan”; maybe because it gets lonely when you’re out there fishing for days in the open sea.”

I fell in love with the word instantly. It gave my sadness a name, a name that made the feeling easier to own.

“Kalipungawan,” I would soon learn, was the local Catanduanon name for Benham Rise (now Philippine Rise), a ridge located east of the island group of Luzon.

On the other side of Luzon one can find Bajo de Masinloc, a coral atoll near Zambales that was once drawn as three reefs in an 18th century map of the Philippines. One of the reefs was named “lumbay,” the Tagalog word for loneliness.

This place that was once similarly named after loneliness is now also known as Scarborough Shoal.

***

A few months later, a Maguindanaon colleague called me “tayan” as she began to ask me for work updates. On that day, I knew I was no longer the outsider I once was in our office.

“Tayan” is short for “papadtayan,” a word reserved for someone dear, someone beloved. In Maguindanao, it is a commonly used term of endearment used among friends or between lovers. When I first heard of it, I asked for its equivalent in Tagalog, but my friends weren’t sure if there was even a word for it in any other language.

The Tausug “patay in suratan" is used to describe someone “having no luck in getting married.” It literally translates to “fate is dead.” As a single woman who is often asked about when I plan to get married, I found the word amusing when I found it in a Tausug dictionary.

My friends taught me other Maguindanaon words such as “lilini” and “pagkiog,” both of which are closer to “like” than “love,” and are nowhere close to the sound of “tayan.” Other Maguindanaon words I have learned all have direct translations — “manisan” for “pretty,” “malalas"  for “spicy,” “mapiya” for “good” — save for “tayan,” which can practically take the place of every other endearment.

But being called “tayan” after months of working with Maguindanaons just wasn’t the same as being called by any other endearment. It felt like a rite of passage, a moment when I knew I was no longer a stranger, no longer out of step. It felt like I have finally found my rightful place.

***

I would usually spend my weekends off elsewhere in Mindanao, mostly in Davao where I learned the sometimes playful, sometimes pained “mirisi,” a Cebuano word that finds security in karmic justice and roughly translates to “serves you right.”

Months later, a friend from Bicol taught me the Rinconada word “paligsot,” which means tempting bad luck by mocking something you’re better off avoiding. “Paligsot” is when you laugh and say you surely won’t be hurt the next time someone betrays you; it’s as if you’re tempting fate, which is why you’ll probably be betrayed again soon.

papadtayan.jpg “Papadtayan" is a word reserved for someone dear, someone beloved. In Maguindanao, it is a commonly used term of endearment used among friends or between lovers.

When I first learned of it, “mirisi” seemed to me a word that could have interesting conversations with “paligsot.”

In my years of working in the Bangsamoro, I’ve learned other unique words that have no English or Tagalog equivalent. The Maguindanaons have “buyag buyag” which has no literal translation, but is usually said in place of “pwera usog” or “knock on wood.”

And then there is the Tausug “patay in suratan,” which is used to describe someone “having no luck in getting married.” It literally translates to “fate is dead.” As a single woman who is often asked about when I plan to get married, I found the word amusing when I found it in a Tausug dictionary.

“Maray’ patay in suratan aku,”  I thought, followed by a quick “buyag buyag” as I knocked on wood.

Of all the hard-to-translate words I have learned in the Bangsa, among the most striking is “maratabat,” a word often associated with Meranaos and is used to refer to an immense feeling of honor or pride. With “maratabat” comes an unspoken code of conduct that must be observed in order to preserve the one’s honor and that of his family.

It wasn’t until I moved to Mindanao that my knowledge of Filipino was actually enriched by other local languages, with the false equivalence I used to assume between Filipino and Tagalog fading into nothingness.

The ongoing siege in Marawi has not only caused suffering among Meranaos, but also continues to be a test of “maratabat.” Many of those who are displaced speak of their experiences with a strong sense of self and dignity, and take great care not to be viewed as weak and helpless. “Maratabat” is also the constant reassurance that Marawi City will rise again because the Meranao people will not allow their home and history be taken away from them.

***

The law of the land shows there is a difference between Filipino and Tagalog, the former being a constantly evolving language largely based on the latter. Filipino, says the law, is a language “further developed and enriched on the basis of existing Philippine and other languages.”

But it wasn’t until I moved to Mindanao that my knowledge of Filipino was actually enriched by other local languages, with the false equivalence I used to assume between Filipino and Tagalog fading into nothingness. When called upon by my name, I now instinctively answer, “unsa ni?” and whenever I hear of good news I would sometimes say “Alhamdulillah” as quickly as I would say “thank God.”

Of all the hard-to-translate words I have learned in the Bangsa, among the most striking is “maratabat,” a word often associated with Meranaos and is used to refer to an immense feeling of honor or pride.

My birth certificate affirms my Filipino citizenship, and I have always imagined myself as someone fluent in Filipino. But after relocating far from Manila, it didn’t take long for me to realize that my idea of Filipino — both as a language and an identity — is more construct than reality, and is far from being whole. Living in the Bangsamoro and struggling to speak in languages I am yet to learn has taught me that there was so much more to learn about myself and my country.

Speaking in Filipino comes a lifelong process of learning and becoming, and it can only be limited by our refusal to embrace the life and language of people and places still unknown to us. Being Filipino is ultimately the same, especially in times like these — when we constantly hear of people we do not know being killed and cities we have not visited being bombed, as fear and suspicion threaten to drive us further apart.

These days, we need to go beyond the familiar, beyond the Filipino we know. There is a need for us to recognize that maybe, just maybe, our Filipino can sometimes only offer an approximation at best, and we are yet to find words for things we still do not know and may never understand.