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

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