The Ilokano Language:
History, Culture, and Structure
Series 1, The Search for Roots—or the meaning of ‘Ilokano’
By Aurelio S. Agcaoili, Ph.D.
Program Coordinator, Ilokano and Philippine Drama and Film
University of Hawai’i at Manoa
(This is a series of essays on the Ilokano language. The series—to number 54—hopes to explore, together with the creative writers, the readers, and the Ilokano language and culture teachers, some of the productive ways by which we can explain the structure of the Ilokano language, and the history and culture of the Ilokano people that are embedded in that language. In this age of renewed calls for a Philippine discourse on diversity and multiculturalism as framework for nation building and development, a critical reflection on the Ilokano language is not only urgent but also necessary. This version does away with the scientific format but uses instead the popular version, but with references included within the text so that those who would like to verify the data may have a clue where to look for them. A parallel series in Ilokano is being prepared and will be made available for dissemination by the end of 2008.)
Why the need to study Ilokano?
Why not, indeed?
In the Philippines, Ilokano is spoken natively by millions of people especially those coming from the Amianan. Some estimates put the native speakers of Ilokano in the Philippines at roughly 12 percent of the Philippine population of 89 million. This does not include the Ilokanos abroad and those who speak Ilokano as their second or third language. In 1989, an estimate by Carl Rubino put the speakers of Ilokano at 9 million. Another estimate that includes those who speak the language as a second, third, or foreign language in and outside the Philippines such as the one done by Professor Prescila Espiritu, a retired professor of the University of Hawai’i at Manoa and former coordinator of the Ilokano and Philippine Drama and Film Program of that University, puts the speakers at about 20 million.
In the United States, Ilokano is historically the language of the diaspora. This means that those who brought it upon themselves to go abroad to seek better opportunities the Ilocos would not afford them brought with them their language and culture and these people have been found in the plantations of Hawai’i, in the canneries of Alaska, in the corporate farms of California, and in the service and health sectors of the United States. Some accounts even antedate 1906 as the coming of the first Ilokanos, with 1906 the historical mark for the coming of the first fifteen plantation workers via a ship ride, on S.S. Doric from Port Salomague and then off to the camps in Hawai’i.
And if there are languages that continue to resist the onslaught of internal and neocolonization happening rampantly and without our knowing in the Philippines, Ilokano is certainly one of them. We must understand that this internal colonization is happening before our very eyes under the guise of a concept of a ‘national language’, which is as ambiguous as the concept of ‘nation’, with its proponents using a concept that they inherited from Europe and fundamentally Quezonian in perspective in what a national language is supposed to be. A Quezonian perspective of what a ‘national language’ is all about is this: (a) an insertion of a provision of the fundamental law of the land, the Philippine Constitution of 1935 to be precise that says that the ‘national language’, contrary to the spirit of the deliberations and consensus of the delegates of that constitutional convention, shall be based on “one of the existing” native language on not on the proviso that was agreed upon which was rendered as a national language “based on the existing languages” of the country; (b) a presidential perspective that reveals a laziness of the mind and a flawed character that does not make any attempt to speak with the Ilokanos in their own language and if he did want to speak with them, the Ilokanos should speak with him in his language, the heavenly and Manila-powered Tagalog, which leads us to the next point: (c) that for practical purposes, we ought to talk about see the constraints of looking to a national language other than Tagalog, as what Benilda Santos has reportedly sad as her complimentary position to the shanghaiing mechanisms of the WIKA proponents of the Tagalog language as the constitutionally mandated language of all peoples of the Philippines, because, it is the language of Manila, the economic center of the country. Here we see the flaws of this decades-old argument of people who have benefited from their monolingualism at the expense of all the peoples of the Philippines. Of course, as in my previous exposes, Claro M. Recto, that once-touted ‘father’ of all our nationalist sentiments, worked with then Commonwealth President Manuel Luis Quezon to effect their notion of what a national language should be. Today, that partnership is now going on its eight decades and if we are to go back to that letter of Quezon to the Akademiya ng Wikang Tagalog in 1930, we are going to be hitting the 78th year of systematic rendering of all the other ethnic groups of the Philippines into invisibility. The fact that this action is state sanctioned, with the blessings of the cultural, political, and economic institutions, this act renders it more atrocious and its violence on the consciousness of our peoples is incalculable.
But why this long history of taking it in stride, this taking it as a matter of fact of this violence inflicted upon us? But why this absence of wit and wisdom pertinent to the active recognition that this country is a homeland of many ethnolinguistic groups—legitimately ‘nations’—before the Propaganda Movement ever thought of seizing the concept of ‘nacion’ from the Spanish colonizers?
But why this long history of resistance and struggle of the Ilokano language against all forms of colonial incursions and against all forms of linguistic and cultural oppression? But why this learned silences from the ranks of all other ethnolinguistic groups of the Philippines such as the Bisayans, the Ilonggos, the Warays, the Pangasinenses, the Bikols, the Kapampangans, and the like?
Where does that seemingly endless capacity to resist come from?
Where does that capacity to remain faithful to that collective memory embedded in the language come from?
Where does the term ‘Ilokano’—the term being used at the University of Hawai’i to account its own language and literature program dedicated to recognize the contribution of the Ilokanos in the history of the State of Hawai’i and in training the future Ilokano and Ilokano-descended leaders of this State and this country of destination of many peoples of the Philippines particularly those coming from the Amianan?
There are conflicting and complementary theories on how the word ‘Ilokano’ and its variants came about.
Depending on who you talk to, the terms can come in many also-known-as ways that run the gamut from Iloko, Iluko, Ilokano, Ilocano, Yluco, Yloco, Y-liukiu to Ilocan.
The lexicographic work done by Fray Andres Carro, O.S.A. and reedited by Fray Mariano Garcia, O.S.A. in 1888 that is at the San Augustine Museum in Intramuros, Manila, had the title Vocabulario Iloco-Espanol. The work done by Fr. Morice Vanoverbergh, C.I.C.M. and published in 1957 had for its title: Iloko-English Dictionary, Rev. Andres Carro’s Vocabulario Iloco-Espanol, translated, augmented and revised by Morice Vanoverbergh, cicm.
In these titles, we see a shift in the use of the ‘c’ in Iloco in Carro and in the ‘k’ and ‘c’ use in Vanoverbergh, but both were using ‘Iloco/Iloko’ as understood still by many of the Ilokanos to account their language. The revised version of the Vanoverbergh version published by the CICM Missionaries in 1993 and authored by another CICM missionary priest, the Rev. George P. Gelade and entitled Ilokano-English Dictionary. Here we see that the Carro and Vanoverbergh terminology has been dropped to account a latter-day meaning-in-context of the term ‘Ilokano’ to account both the language and the people speaking it.
In another lexicographic work published in 1993, Gregorio C. Laconsay’s work, Iluko-English-Tagalog, also based on Vanoververgh’s work but was written initially as installment pieces for Bannawag, supplies us with yet another rendition of the Ilokano self-knowledge with the term ‘Iluko.’
M. Jacobo Enriquez and J. Ben Quimba in 1989 came up with their own pocket dictionary, English-Tagalog-Ilocano.
In 1980, another trilingual dictionary by B. Barlahan-Dagdagan and translated into Pilipino by Jose O. Bautista has this for its title: Trilingual Dictionary: Iloko-English-Pilipino.
Carl Galvez Rubino consistently uses the term ‘Ilocano’ in two of his major works on the Ilokano language: Ilocano-English/English-Ilocano Dictionary and Phrasebook published in 1989 and the Ilocano Dictionary and Grammar: Ilocano-English, English-Ilocano published in 2000.
In all these accounts, we see a varying terminology but always, there is a certain consistency in the root of all these: loco/luko/liu-kiu. From these roots come theories that run the gamut of the outsider looking in, as in the case of the concept of ‘liu-kiu’ which roughly translated into the ‘islands adjacent to the mainland’ which obviously refers to the description and accounting of the Ilokano people by other people particularly that theoretical ‘mainlander’ whatever this term implies.
There is, of course, that usual Spanish act of mishearing the term used by the native when asked about the name of the place, such as that rendition of the ‘looc’, which roughly translates into ‘cove’.
How these and other names got into the popular consciousness of many Ilokanos is something—but all these require scrutiny.
One account even talks of that bastardized version, Samtoy, which, unwittingly, valorizes the perspective of the colonizer and dehumanizes the experience of the colonized, a term that until this day, has yet to be criticized for what it is and yet still being swallowed hook, line, and sinker by many writers and cultural workers.
One popular version that remains entrenched in the minds of the older generation of creative writers such as Jose Bragado of the Philippines and Pacita Saludes of Hawai’i talk of the distinction of Iloko from Ilokano, with Iloko to refer to the language and Ilokano to refer to the people.
In one of the seminars held by GUMIL Hawai’i, for instance, Saludes articulated this distinction and insisted on it. In that seminar as some of the speakers were Prescila Espiritu and myself.
The issue of the distinction was raised and Espiritu asked me to answer the issue and which I told in frankness that today, I do not buy the distinction between the Ilokano language and the speaker of that language in much the same way that I do not see the difference between the English language and the English people, even if certainly, there are other peoples speaking in English but are not themselves English people.
My take on the distinction is more for economy of thought and expression. Why belabor the obvious—that obvious fact that we can logically lump the language and the people together because a people, by cultural parameters, are known first and foremost by the common language they speak natively?
The exchange Saludes and I had stirred some minds, and I had to be tactful and firm in saying my piece without losing sight of the fact that that is one way we can look at the Ilokano language with a dynamic view to how we can make it evolve and adapt to the changing human condition of Ilokanos in the Ilokos, in the Philippines, and in other Ilokano communities in the diaspora.
For the purpose of this series, therefore, Ilokano is a term that is both for the language and the people, and the culture that these people socially produce and practice.
There are many ways, however, by which we can account the Ilokano language’s history and culture; some of the accounts do tell us so many things with plausibility, some with dubious merits, and some with questionable premises and/or conclusions.
(To be continued)