Pilipino (or Iluko) for willow tree, anyone?
March 20, 2010, 7:42 pm
Filed under: essay, language | Tags: , , , , ,


I took a break from the haiku that I usually post in and wrote this reply to someone who got to the site searching for the word willow in Pilipino.
I don’t think we have one like we don’t have a Pilipino word for snow–we call it yelo (hielo), which means ice in Spanish (Pilipino and some other Filipino dialects have a lot of Spanish words, understandably imprints of 300 years of colonization). Kaskas yelo is how Filipinos look at fresh-driven snow the first time as they scoop it to taste, recalling or wishing for a glass of halo-halo in hand.

Citing the absence of Pilipino (or Iluko) words for willow tree and snow demonstrates how language is deeply entrenched in culture: the totality of one’s being layered over by influences of earth, air, water, living things, language whispered, sang, murmured, chanted, stated, shouted, screamed, written for one to read under fluorescent light, Coleman light-flood, moonlight, candle light–how we whine and laugh and cuddle up wordless or word-full, with what flowers we offer our sighs, what trees we carve arrow-pierced hearts, from what looming shadows we scamper away, what wings we shoot down, from what edges of cliffs we plunge off to get to our dreams.

Borrowed language, borrowed tongues often entangle the mind. Take how words to describe autumn turn into phantom leaves in tropical groves narra trees crown and how the red and gold in song that trail sorrow are mimed on plastered walls in made-up nooks while out on a window in constant blaze, a row of arboles de fuego (fire trees).

In languages like mine born of life, a borrowed word–just one, say cry or sob–fails to bring out how anug-og in Iluko (the dialect I was born with of the 87, one of which is Tagalog out of which Pilipino is derived) pictures a bent figure broken in grief, shaking with spasms of pain, sobbing an animal cry that escapes from the depth of caves. Iyak in Pilipino (Tagalog) is less descriptive in my mind because it is a dialect I learned not one I was born with.

Dung-aw, simply translates as lament in English but in Iluko, unravels a dirge a man or a woman unleashes during a wake. An Ilokano says dung-aw and instantly pictures how a woman or man, not necessarily a kin of the deceased but known to the family (who isn’t family in a neighborhood or town, even, anyway?) veiled in black sadness has wrinkled, creeps to the dead, kneels and beating breasts, relates a life story now a dirge on the footmarks which those attending the wake follow in sorrowful steps, sniffling, but some chuckling, too, with humor thrown in–what life is ever without it?

Or saning-i, one of my favorite words, portrays someone–usually a woman in a dark corner splayed on the basar (suelo in Tagalog, floor in English), propped by a teddek (wooden post), the neckline of her dress naka-tallay (off shoulder in a careless way), the hem of her dress, nakayamukom (gathered)—deeply hurt, flayed in spirit, melting in helplessness, too enfeebled to even scream or sob, simply shaking with sorrow in what sounds like staccato coughing broken by wet sniffles. Saning-i is also the cry of a child suffering from chronic hunger pain as in children whipped into living skeletons due to kwashiorkor, or a baby burning with fever.

My sister came home once with news of how her boss shared the first laughter of his daughter on the speaker of his cell phone. The baby gurgled and laughed. Garakgak instantly came to my sister’s mind but could she tell her boss how garakgak actually describes the sound that thrilled him—how it describes how the baby’s laughter first cracks like a branch and screeches before it bursts into short squeals? Garakgak even illustrates how the mouth opens to let off three syllables coming off the cave of the mouth, hurtling from the base of the tongue. The baby must be half-bending from the stomach if she were standing or half-curled with legs up flailing if in bed that the Iluko word also pictures.

Language is as mysterious as the spirit, indeed.

Yes, I recall willow trees during Imelda Marcos’ time (said to have given orders to plant them) along a highway that beribboned a short stretch the buses to Bacarra, my hometown, pass through in San Nicolas, Ilocos Norte. (In pre-colonial times, according to notes on history, willow trees from Asia possibly brought by Chinese traders grew along river banks in some Philippine towns. These possibly exist to this day.) I named them but they didn’t seem to root in my spirit. When I came to North America and have walked by them through the four seasons, their name, willow, took on a breath and began to weave into my being, my writings as in one of my sequences published in The Cortland Review, Issue 39, May 2008 (New York, USA) and the haiku pieces I had posted at jornales.

No, dear friend who’s asking if there is a translation of willow tree in Pilipino, there’s none I’m aware of because unlike guijo, narra, bayabas (bayawas), algarrubo (acacia), mangga or lomboy (duhat) that spread luxuriantly under perpetual summer skies, a willow tree grows under other skies, skies that turn crystal blue in freezing winter against which weeping willow branches turn into a bundle of women whose dried thin hair hang like those of witches under the moon. None of our trees have looked as sinister—under Philippine skies that stars perforate, crowns of mangoes and some other trees sparkle. No, nothing that does not belong can be a match, can be translated.

Also posted  in its shorter version at

Copyright (c) by Alegria Imperial

13 Comments so far
Leave a comment

This great essay deserves to be published more elsewhere and I hope that happens.
It’s sad but century old trees in Manila are being mowed down because of urbanization.

Comment by pochp

Thanks again, Poch, for your kind compliment!

I agree how too many of our memories of what made life meaningful with things as simple as trees are disappearing. Shortly before I left for Canada, the hundred-year old mulberry trees along Roxas Blvd. were threatened with the saw. Do I remember right that protesters did save them?

Urbanization has been a generic excuse to hack trees in Manila as if the city has too many. In as tiny a city as it is, Manila to my mind, is groaning to save its spirit, which thrives in history, memories–where not only trees figure. But like anything intangible, the spirit of a city hardly bothers planners and leaders whose idea of accomplishment has nothing to do with valuing that which endures.

Comment by filipineses09

Language is a beautiful thing. I remember Tagalog written in the old phonetic abecedria!

Comment by De AnDA

De Anda –
Language is beautiful indeed because it’s an art. It’s language which fuels the minds of writers. It’s sad though that I see the Ilocano dialect dying before my eyes in Zambales – all children there are speaking tagalog now!

Comment by pochp

Thanks for this follow-up, comment! I have started a reply for De Anda but thanking him didn’t seem enough and I began to write another lengthy post on language–this time triggered by his mention of the ‘abcederia’! And I’m still working on it for you both!

Comment by filipineses09

Salamat sa pagdalaw mo, kaibigang De AnDA. Do you know that your mention of the ‘abecederia like I also mentioned below, has triggered a lengthy piece that’s no longer just a reply but some kind of memoir on learning abc and language? I’m still working on it as so many memories have started flying out of the ‘baul’!!!

Comment by Alegria Imperial

I can’t wait to read it!

I’ve added your site to my blog. Salamat sa mga visita mo sa aking blog, napakaganda ng mga iniiwan mong kumentaryo. Salamat po.


Comment by De AnDA

I stumbled upon your blog and wondered that if the willow tree were ever translated into Tagalog, the closest term (and simultaneously a pun) would be the word: “panaghoy” which literally means “to lament” or “to wail.”

I say it also as a pun because tree is supposedly “punongkahoy”.

I’ve always thought that “nyebe” was our Filipinized word for the Spanish original “nieve” or the English “snow”. Because language is so attached to culture, our ancestors who have not seen a willow tree nor snow had no linguistic concept of it.

The pursuit of the pure Filipino tongue is worth the search, as it reflects where we come from and to appreciate how far we have become. This blog entry made me think.

Comment by Teki

I’m glad you stumbled into this space, Teki. I like the pun you make of the translation for “willow”–physically, it does fit how the tree wails and moans in the wind, and oh, how defeaning sometimes as if “nananaghoy”. This rediscovery or more precisely, awakening of my native tongue, has been for me quite an exhilarating although sometimes angst-ridden journey. Here’s what I once wrote the editor of LYNX, an online journal of haiku and the other forms of the short poem where some of my works have been published:

“This theme of duality has transformed me into a spirit these past few months. I felt invincible as I walked through walls. Finding my dialect has empowered me or so I thought.

Recently panic has stricken me. I seem unable to write anything that makes sense. Could it be a paralysis I contracted as I kept switching thought from the language I was born with but never really learned and the one I borrowed but would always be foreign to it?”

Yes, we call snow, “niebe”, the exact Spanish word for it. And like “willow” has no translation in either Iluko or Pilipino (as our national language should be always called) because like I said, neither of them belong to our culture, our world–or the world I now live only in memories, that is.

Thanks again, Teki. Please do continue with this conversation.

Comment by filipineses09

That is just why I tend to avoid writing in tagalog. If the setting is our Philippines and you write in english, some words aren’t just available. Ang hirap! lol

Comment by pochp

I also stumbled on your website while googling capiz window for a house renovation. Like you I long for home, and your childhood memories seem to be just like mine, growing up in Candon, Ilocos Sur, studying in Manila, and finally leaving for this country I call my 2nd home. Every night I tell stories of my childhood to my daughter, stories of my apong , bathing in the karayan, snacks of “su-a” from APo Lawags house, and tagging with my dad to the health center and to the various Operation Salun -at then. I feel sad that my daughtere never have the merry childhood I had.

It is almost 1AM here in Pittsburgh, but I cant stop reading your Ilokano poems. My Dad use to read us poetry both in Ilocano and English. His first gift to us, 6 kids was a Dictionary he bought in Vigan during one of the medical missions there. Like you Dad, he was always testing our vocab. He passed away 10 years ago, but whenever I hear any deep Ilocano words I remember and missed him so much.

One IIocano word my daughter has learned is “pasug-not”. Whenever she thinks I am not in my best mood, she says”Oy Pasug-not” and it melts my heart.

Please keep writing.


Comment by Marievic Manrique

Thank you so much for your kind words about my blog, Marie. That my memories have drawn out of you the same ‘iliw’ (remember this Iluko word for longing or nostalgia?) is an achievement for me.

I’m sharing my memories with anyone willing to read or listen because at the rate the world is spinning toward change I believe recording our past, reliving them in words is our only hope of preserving our heritage. As I had written here, the awakening of Iluko in me, the language I was born with but buried and heaped on with Tagalog (even some Bisaya and Kapampangan) and English in my adulthood, has been an exhilarating journey; I’ve been using that word because it’s the only apt one I can think of to express my bouts of joy each time I can compose a poem or a story in Iluko. I’m sure you feel the same when you remember an Iluko word.

If you wish to read more Ilokano pieces, there’s a lot of websites and blogs you can find. I also post my writing in, a website that has a number of very well written stories and even novels in Iluko.

Yes, do introduce your daughter to Ilokano words and culture. I’m sure she’ll appreciate it someday.

Thanks again.


Comment by filipineses09

amazing and nice looking site please love it and make more effective… keep it up

Comment by belleparas

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: