The Ilokano Language:
History, Culture, and Structure
Series 3, Sorting out the ‘loko/luko/look/luco’ controversy
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.)
The question on where does the term ‘Ilocos’—the basis of my proposed contemporary rendering of ‘Ilokano’ to mean both the people and their language—come from had doggedly resulted in some confusion on the part of the Ilokanos themselves and scholars and cultural researchers.
In my search on the origin of the word, I have come across a variety of interpretations and the more popular ones are: (a) the riu-kiu/ryu-kiu/liukiu theory that refers to the Ilocos as the ‘island adjacent to the Mainland’, with this Mainland presumably referring to China; and (b) the usual culprits, the Spaniards, who, in their ignorance, and then the equal ignorance of those whom they asked what the place they were in was and the response was the word ‘looc/look’ which meant the cove; the usual Spanish interpretation of the lay of the Ilocos land, the lay revealing a riverine system which has its roots in ‘iloc’, a Tagalog word for river, ‘ilog’, with the terminal contoid ‘g’ beyond the pronunciation ability of the Spaniards, hence, its phonetic rendering into ‘iloc’, from which it came the glorious name, ‘Ilocos’.
Theory (a) was popularized by Resurreccion Calip when in 1957 he wrote his doctoral dissertation on the Epic of Lam-ang for the University of Santo Tomas, “The Iloko Epic—Lam-ang: A Critico-Anthropological Analysis.” In his treatise, Calip came across the possibility that ‘Ilokos’ could have come from ‘I-riu-kiu’ and its other renderings based on some characters. He argued that since the Ilokanos have had long history of contact with the Chinese traders, the existence of such characters in the Chinese accounts prove the fact that the Ilokos could have been thought of as part of the idea of a China as a huge land, a huge kingdom with islands adjacent to it.
In 1958, George Kerr came up with his study of the Okinawan people, “Okinawa, the History of an Island People.” In this book, he talks about the Ryukyus or the Ryukyu Islands, now known by its new Japanese name Okinawa, although in the earlier times, Okinawa was merely a part of the Kingdom of Ryukyu.
Kerr talks of the characters that could be rendered in several ways, mainly Japanese and Chinese but transliterated by historical sources from the West as well: ‘Ryukyu’ for the Japanese and ‘Liu Ch’iu’ for the Chinese. The Western transliterations, one of which was used by the United States in its treaty it entered into with that kingdom in 1854, “Compact between the United States and the Kingdom of Lewchew,” are numerous: ‘Reoo Keoo,’ ‘Likiwu,’ ‘Liquii,’ ‘Liquea,’ and ‘Leung-Khieou.’ And an Okinawan dialect, Kerr reports, had also rendered it ‘Doo Choo.’
From this Kerr account, the Calip interpretation now self-destructs: it is not the Ilokos being referred to but the Kingdom of Ryukyu which is now administratively known in Japan, as Okinawa. Another point that makes the Calip account a mere wild guess and therefore, does not admit of urgency and immediacy of ownership—and hence, invalid—is the fact that when a people name themselves, would they get their name—their very identity from some other extraneous, outside, strange source and use that to account who they are, or were, as was the case of the early Ilokanos?
This then brings us to the point of the whole scale account of Spanish ignorance of the Ilokano people and who they are. We must remember at this point that the colonial project of the Spaniards—a project blessed by a Vatican pope, through a bull, no less—was not simply an innocent act of ‘announcing’ the Good News to the heathens, the pagans, the unbaptized, and the uncivilized, categories that the West used to prop up their claim of having gotten a message from their white God, and that this white God was commanding them to go to other nations and make them nations of Christianity. We must remember that when the Spanish colonizer came, he brought along with him two kinds of sinister foot soldiers: one kind, to show his earthly might and power through the gun-toting mercenaries; and the other, the soldier of the faith, the bible-wielding know-it-all soutaned messenger of salvation who had the power to baptize in the name of the white God they brought with them.
No, we cannot accept the Calip account and neither can we accept the ignorance of the Spanish chroniclers.
This leaves us with no other option except to figure out from what we have got: to understand, on the basis of our own language, on the basis of our own unique history, on the basis of our ecology, on the basis of our own self-understanding of our world and our relationships. In short, we need to go back to the tradition of giving a name to our land, to our homes, to ourselves. Before the coming of the colonizers, we were named in so many ways, one of which was through the acknowledgement of the kind of virtue and gift and promise and talent we could offer, in oblation, to our communities. This is why Calip missed the point altogether when he missed the clue that Lam-ang, himself, named himself, and that he did not need other people to name him.
From the traces of the term ‘Iloko’, we can truly break it down into simpler parts: the prefix ‘i’, meaning from, and the root, ‘loko’, which by the virtue of some linguistic transposition, could refer to ‘lokong,’ the lowland, the low point of the lay of the land. This is a most plausible account in many ways: (a) the intercultural and transcommunal relationship between the upland peoples and the lowlanders, with the linguistic clue on the upland, now Cordillerans, another one of those misnomers courtesy of the Spaniards: Igorot or Igorot can be broken down into: ‘i’, to mean ‘from’, and ‘gorot/golot’, to mean mountain.
We must understand that in those times, as it is now, people are defined by their places, by their origins, by their ancestral beginnings—in effect, by the very land that sustains them. That itself serves as the main marker for self-identity and the kind of dynamic that is involved in it. From that linguistic sleuthing comes a broad view of a cosmos that the Ilokano and the Igorot people shared since time immemorial: that the Ilokanos were people of the ‘lukong,’ the slopes, the plains, the places that lead to the sea and that the Igorots were people of the hills, the mountains, the uplands and that these references are as tentative as the movement of the ‘amianan’ wind—that wind that brings in all the freshness of the sea, the rain, the fecundity of both the earth of these two peoples who are two only by reason of their residential accidents but not two in the end but one because they share a life-giving nexus, a living connexion with each other, an intersection of their lives in language, rites, rituals, technology, stories, and knowledge in general.
The Epic of Lam-ang it itself a living proof: Lam-ang was an Ilokano because he came from the ‘lukong’ but Ines Kannoyan was an Igorot because she came from the ‘gulot/gulod’. The beautiful but tragic life and love of Diego Silang and Gabriela Silang is another proof: Diego was from the ‘lukong’, Gabriela was from the uplands.
The lesson we learn from here is simple: we name ourselves and we do not allow others to do that to us. That, I think, is contrary to our ‘panagbuniag’ tradition, with our reference to the god Buni. This is why we acknowledge progress with the allusion to the god of progress, Lung-aw, which is why we say, “Nakalung-aw met bassiten, apo!—We have already progressed a bit, my lord!” This is why we do the ‘ayab’—“Umaykan, umaykan, diak agbatbati!” This is why we do the ‘sirok-ti-latok’, the ritual of naming under a platter.
It is this resisting the naming by other that spells the difference between self-redemption that we can do to ourselves and the kind of redemption that colonizers offer us for a fee: our very souls, our very lands, our very names, our very riches—in short, ourselves and who we are.
In short, the Ilokano is plain and simple ‘taga-lukong.’ Indeed, ‘ilukong’.
(To be continued)