Essays on the Ilokano Language (1)

Rethinking Ilokano Conceptualizations of Familiar Relationships

A. Solver Agcaoili

When we deal with the familiar and the familial from one language to another, so much is lost. So much goes away.

The intricate connection between one’s understanding of the universe of her relationships and the universe of her language is simply this: inextricably linked. One demands—requires—the other, the relational requiring language, language requiring the relational to make sense of what is the family story, the bloodline, the social fabric of what one is.

Take the idea of being siblings.

The English language proves to be a disaster here, with its penchant—as in all Romance languages—for the gendered way of looking at the world, the world outside and the world inside.

During my seminary days, I had problems—always—when I would be assigned to prepare a little talk on brotherhood, and—of course—sisterhood. Or is the billing just fine, with an unnecessary entitlement accorded to the male?

You begin with your little English sermon with something like this: ‘Brothers and sisters, the readings today talk of our brotherhood and sisterhood in Christ.’

First off the bat, it is awkward. Why the distinction?

Second: why the sexed—well, gendered—reference to the familial relationship?

So when we look at the world with gendered eyes—with the gaze of the male—we have these problems surreptitiously getting in into our everyday language. That everyday language, in the end, becomes compromised, whether we realize this each time or not.

We are left with something close to a bundle of contradictions here: we need language to open up a world for us, to understand what is within and what is out there.

At the same time, language imprisons us. The imprisonment is real; it is not simply imagined. For when we start off with the mediation process like this one, we either have to acknowledge that the world out there is sexed—gendered—or it is not.

The Ilokano language does not have this problem.

For all the simplicity of the Ilokano mind as some westernized people tend to say, the Ilokano mind is a mine of information, and a minefield of remedies to make us get out of the rut of this gendered world.

For the Ilokano, the reference for fraternity and sorority—the brotherhood and sisterhood concepts that we need to account a world that is just and fair—is kabsat.

Kabsat is simple, and yet it is not.

It comes from kabessat, from a root word, bessat.

But here is the shot: it tells you of a variant: kapessat, from the root pessat.

And there here is more: kabagis, sometimes popularly abbreviated as ‘bagis’.

The connections are complex and complicated—but are simple enough for us to understand perfectly well that the world of our relationships need not be understood in terms of biological endowment, anatomical possession, or sex.

Initially, we have bessat, or its variant, pessat. Both simple mean: of the same cut. Push that further: of the same length, of the same mold, of the same source. We can think of a fabric here, like the curtain fabric Sister Maria turned into dress for the Von Trapp children like a uniform, the fabric gay with its bright colors and flowery designs.

Or it is a cut from the same abel or inabel to make those patadiong, or saya, or barong Ilokano that a group uses to make our days happier in a cultural performance at a town fiesta, one rite that gels a community each time it is held in honor of a town’s founding, or in celebrating the day of its patron saint, whose name is always from the west, and whose story of holiness is always framed by that calculated gesture to honor a western god.

The magic of the Ilokano language is this: its complex affixal system that turns concepts into magic, seducing us to go inside its conceptual offerings each time we are lured to get into its world.

We have a taste of this—and we can never go back out and say, Enough! We always say, More!

So we have: kabessat, ka+ (indicating ‘sameness,’ ‘similarity,’ ‘same source’) and bessat (cut).

The same holds for pessat.

Bessat and pessat are exactly the same. Both spring from a labial source of the ‘b’ and ‘p’ beginning. The labial sounds are a child’s sound, springing forth from a play of the lips, perhaps unconsciously originally.

In light of this wordplay—the play of language in a more Wittgensteinian term, and here we allude to the mature philosopher twenty-five years after when he began to talk about use, not usage—we have two sides of the same coin, one side the bessat, the other pessat.

We continue to extent the same logic, and we have kabessat for one side, and kapessat for the other side.

Now we need the economy of expression—and we need the ease of speaking. We drop a vowel that makes the speaking glide and flow, and we have kabsat, or kapsat.

In contemporary Ilokano, the ‘b’ sound won out over the ‘p’ and the contemporary linguistic datum says ‘kabsat’ holding out.

How does this link to the idea of ‘kabagis’ as a reference to sexed references to fraternal relationship (as brotherhood and sisterhood)?

The sense of bagis—an allusion to idea of progress, gut, the primal, the primal—is an allusion to the very notion of life itself.

Bagis, in human anatomy and physiology refers to food, life, nutrition, and the sustenance and maintenance of life. Life here is understood both in the concrete (in individual form) and in the transcendent (in the social and more abstract form).

It is a reference to the gut where life begins, the gut that speaks of progress and development, the gut that refers to a god that is now forgotten by the contemporary Ilokanos: lung-aw.

Or its Hispanicized form: Lung-ao.

When there is food in the gut, life is assured.

When the gut is it should be—is filled up and working to sustain the body and the four souls of the Ilokano—life continues, and continues in the eternity of time, even when time, as it is, is provisional, contingent, impermanent.

The movement, thus, from the kabessat/kabsat dynamic is the movement from the concept of sharing a meal, sharing the food of the family, sharing lung-aw/Lung-ao.

We come from the same gut, from the same vision of life, from the same vision of progress, from the same source of life, life as concrete, life as eternal, life as Life.

In fine, we have kabessat/kapessat/kabagis as one and the same time, with kabagis revealing that one’s gut is the same as the other’s, one sharing the same gut, the same life, the same source of life.

So here: when we affirm our connections both concrete and transcendent, no gender is necessary, no sexual reference is needed.

We simply are this: of the same cut, of the same mold, of the same source.

Lecture Notes, ‘On the Morphophonemic Possibilities of the Ilokano Language,’ The Structure of Ilokano, July 2007; from Notes for Ilokano Philosophy of Language, Christ the King Seminary Graduate School of Philosophy, July 2000.

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