The many ways Filipinos say “I love you”

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How is language capable of expressing concepts and emotions that are at the very core of our being human? Illustration by MICH CERVANTES

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — It has always bothered me why there seems to be no exact word for the emotion associated with missing someone in Filipino. In Hiligaynon, my native language, we have hidlaw to refer to this feeling as when one says “Nahidlaw ko sa imo,” which tells us of a desire to be within close proximity to the addressee of such a remark.

The closest I could think of was pangungulila, but the force of forlornness in ulila is too strong of a word and does not quite capture the tenderness of hidlaw. Maybe pangungulila finds its analogue in Hiligaynon (and even in Bisaya) in mingaw, a feeling of longing. But mingaw evokes melancholy, whereas pangungulila exacts misery.

Language is a curious thing because it not only forms the bedrock of understanding the complexities of the human condition, it is our very window to see and understand the world we are in. However, language is complex, with all of the words available and the many possible combinations one can make with these words, such that describing the world through words is not as easy as one thinks.

Some languages have a variety of words for a particular thing that is specific to their culture where others only have one. Think of the many words in Filipino to talk about rice: kanin, palay, bahaw, tutong, sinangag. This means that for a Filipino speaker, the word “rice” does not merely refer to a single object in reality because a Filipino experiences the concept of the word “rice” in a variety of ways. In this sense, language is not just merely a tool that one uses to describe the things around us. In short, reality does not create a language. Rather, it is language that creates reality because it constantly shapes the way we perceive, interact, and experience the world.

What about realities that are universally shared? How is language capable of expressing concepts and emotions that are at the very core of our being human? If language is the one that creates reality, what does that mean if we take a look at how a particular word is translated into different languages?

I cannot help but think of the beginning and end of missing someone, the source and salve of hidlaw, a feeling that is universally shared across cultures: love. Would this mean, then, that people have different ways of loving because the word is what defines their reality? It is with this curiosity that I began looking at the different ways in which the word “love” is rendered in the many languages here in the Philippines.

Love as palangga and calilinian is a haptic gesture of gentleness that values the beloved as perpetually present, as a perpetual present.

We usually say “Palangga ta ka” in Hiligaynon to mean “I love you.” In Alonso de Mentrida’s “Diccionario de la lengua Bisaya–Hiligueyna y Haría de las islas de Panay y Sugbu, y para las demás islas” (1841), langga and angga are defined as “gift, or to be the gift that is given and caressed.” Palangga is therefore to take care of someone because they are understood as the gift that reveals itself to the lover. The tenderness in one’s loving caress is also found in Jacinto Juanmartí’s “Diccionario moro-maguindanao-español” (1892) as calilinian where it is defined as acariciar (to caress). In this sense, love as palangga and calilinian is a haptic gesture of gentleness that values the beloved as perpetually present, as a perpetual present.

Love is also translated as gugma in Hiligaynon and Bisaya. The Diccionario gives several definitions: as that which dictates the trajectory of love, darse a amar (given to love); that which fuels desire itself, querer le amen (to want love); and that which remains after love itself is fulfilled, dejarle amen (to let love). It is in these permutations of gugma as something else other than love/amar, as one that precedes and succeeds love/amar, as one that ultimately endures.

Both langga and gugma are also found in Antonio Sánchez de la Rosa’s “Diccionario español-bisaya para las provincias de Sámar y Leyte” (1914), but of note is pinaora, which is defined as querido (from querer, to want) and estimado, apreciadio (valued). Querer as wanting or desiring is also found in Bikol as boot, but this word also carries with it a sense of inner goodness (hombre prudente). Love, as boot, can be understood as an outward emanation of one’s own goodness, because love itself is a principle of goodness. This is why in the Ilokano ayat, love is alegria: a feeling of happiness. Ay-ayaten ka is what one exclaims when the heart finds happiness and contentment precisely in the beloved’s presence.

However, in Waray, pinaaro can also mean predilecto (one that is chosen, favorite). The concept of love here is that it might be given to all, but there is a gradation to how one loves. In Juan de Noceda and Pedro de Sanlucar’s “Vocabulario de la Lengua Tagala” (1860) hirang is defined as escoger (to select, choose) and entresacar (to pick out, to choose). However, hirang may not be necessarily about romantic love, as in “Lupang Hinirang.” Filipino scholar Florentino Hornedo, in his essay “Pagmamahal and Pagmumura,” notes that while hirang brings to mind this careful selection of the receiver of love, there are words that indicate “the general concept of affectionate attraction,” such as ibig and sinta, and as “valuation of the other’s worth” as mahal.

For Noceda and Sanlucar, mahal is caro, de mucho valor, precioso, noble (expensive, precious, noble), whereas ibig is querer, amar, gusto, antojo, apetecer (to want love, to crave for love), respectively. Mahal is economic and transactional, while Ibig is desire proper: it seeks to consume and possess entirely. However, ibig, as all-consuming, ensures the metaphorical death of the beloved because it needs to be satiated. The fiery temper of ibig finds resonance in the Kapampangan lugud, as pasion and afecto: passionate affection.   

This is where sinta comes in, as not merely valuation nor satiation, but intimation. Sinta as amor, deseo, afición interior (love, inner desire), as one that heralds the other as the object of love is that which denies the death of the desired subject because it speaks of a continuity that preserves the beloved by the retardation of desire itself. It is in this sense that sinisinta and ginahigugma share a common feature of giving in to love, but extends beyond it by way of preservation. It is what solves the riddle of missing someone.

In these traversals in translations, in twists of the tongue, one sees that the reality of love cannot be tied to a single experience: it can only be understood in its multiplicity. The more we become aware of the plurality of meaning, the richer the experience. As such, in language, the tongue ultimately untangles itself to utter the most intimate desire of the human condition: to love and to be loved.