“Potang bengi” is not a deaf prostitute (and other oddities in the Philippine language)

Among all the countries in the world conquered and colonized by Spain, the Philippines is the only one that retained its spoken languages. Argentina, Cuba, Ecuador, Mexico and most of the other Central and South American countries became Spanish speaking and lost their native tongues.

The nearest thing to Spanish in our country is the pidgin corruption called Chavacano whose vestiges can still be found in some areas in Cavite and Zamboanga. Tagalog endured, as well as Ilocano, Pangasinan, Bicol, Cebuano, Hiligaynon, Waray and probably sixty more indigenous languages. (An anthropologist friend refuses to call them dialects because they are distinct from one another despite many similarities. Even the Encyclopedia Britannica agrees.)

Also Read: 30 Filipino Words With No English Equivalent

Day-to-day conversation continues to be carried out in the different native tongues of the country. Is it because the Filipino was too stubborn and too proud to speak Spanish? Or is it possible the Spaniards suppressed the teaching of the language to Filipinos because they were afraid that if the natives were united, speaking a single common language, they would not be able to subjugate them, you know, the “divide and conquer” maxim?

Although most of these major languages have assimilated many Spanish, Chinese and Sanskrit words into their vocabulary, they have retained their individual characteristics and thus have continued to exist until now.

But if you want to become an amateur Filipino linguist, do not ever attempt to intermix these Filipino languages or you’ll get into trouble.

For example, “face” in Kapampangan is “lupa,” but the Tagalog “lupa” (earth, land) is “daga” in Ilokano, and “daga” is “mouse” in Tagalog. “Mouse” is “bau” in Ilocano; “bao” in Waray and Cebuano is “turtle” and in Pangasinan, “bau” is “female genital organ” but in Kapampangan it is “odorous” (the word “bau,” of course) but that is not why the other word for “mouse” in Ilocano is “utot.”

Panggalato, the other term for the Pangsinenses’ tongue, is one of the most difficult to learn. There is this guttural vowel sound that is in between short “e” and short “u” that marks you as a stranger immediately if you cannot pronounce it correctly. Pronouncing this vowel is something like articulating the schwa sound with the tongue retracted backward, the teeth clenched and the lips not rounded.

Also Read: 100 English Words Commonly Mispronounced By Filipinos

Aside from this, there are words from Pangasinan that are absolutely outrageous. Did you know that the Panggalato word “wala” means “meron?” (“Anggapu” is the translation of the Tagalog “wala”).

If Panggalato sounds guttural because of the difficult vowel sound mentioned, Ilocano is very onomatopoeic. Pardon the following example but it is the most graphic one could come across: “LBM” is “buris” in Ilocano while the hard one is called “tabbel”—which sounds like the constipated one truly has a difficult time defecating.

We were once recording a public service commercial enjoining the citizenry to participate in the elections. The radio advertisement in Ilocano involved two male characters in a barbershop. One of them complains that it is taking the other too long to have a haircut and the precincts were about to close. So the guy says, “Nagbayag ka nga agpapukis!” (“Ang tagal mong magpagupit!”) Even if it was a public service commercial, it would be have been banned in Metro Manila.

If you ever go to Ilocandia, don’t get shocked if you hear some words being bandied about like “puki-puki” (poqui-poqui) which is an Ilocano concoction of an eggplant delicacy; or “kabatiti” which is the fruit vegetable “patola.”

By the way, “vote” in Ilocano has to be always in the plural form, “botos,” to satisfy prudish ears (“boto” is “penis”). And still talking politics, the former senatorial candidate with the nickname of Obet probably lost in the Ilocandia region because “obet” in Ilocano means “puwit.” 

Ilocano probably has the most number of words to describe every possible kind of odor and they all start with the prefix “ang-.” “Angseg”–for the smell of urine; “anglit”–underarm odor; “angdod”--heady smell of humans, animals; “angtem”–stench of burning resin, tar, etc.; “angpep”–odor of fermenting fish, meat, etc.; “anglem”–smell of burning paper, cloth, etc.; and “angri”–for fish, bats.

The word for “bird” in Ilocano is “billit” which is similar to the sound of a twittering bird. Curiously, “bird” is “langgam” in Cebuano and “bayong” in Bicol. “Langgam” is “ant” in Tagalog. In Pampanga, “ebon” is just an egg; and “bird” is “ayup.” In Tagalog, “ibon” is “bird.”

Pampango is another Luzon language that is quite amusing. It has this delightful sing-song intonation, and use words that are quite different from most. If Germans invariably pronounce “W” as “V” and vice versa, many Pampangos do the same with the letters “F” and “P.” And similar to the French, Pampangueños add an “H” before every word that starts with a vowel and remove the “H” when it starts the word. My Tagalog teacher used to ridicule my Pampango classmates by spelling the word “coffee” as “see, ho, hep, hep, hee, hee” although he, too, was a pull-vlooded Kafamfangan. 

We once had a taping session at a forest near Porac, Pampanga where I think the hungriest mosquitoes in the world are found. Thus our leading lady sent her driver down to buy “Off” (a brand of mosquito repellent) at a big sari-sari cum drug store in town. “Meron po ba kayong Off?” asked the driver. The girl at the store answered “Sorry, po ‘ala kaming Op. Meron lang kaming Pilip.”

“Kuko ko keka, keka keku, keku keka, kukuku ko.” In Kapampangan, this is translated as “My fingernails are yours, yours is mine, mine is yours, I am coughing.”

“Potang bengi” is not a deaf prostitute; it means “tonight” in Pampango. Try asking a Kapampangan to translate “I caught it under the bridge,” and you’ll be appalled at such vulgarity (“Na sapu ke sa lalam nen tete.”) “Kapa mo” doesn’t mean “to fondle” either; it means “wait a minute.” The Tagalog for “pubic hair” is “bulbol” but in Kapampangan, this is just the feather or fur of animals. “Pasbul” has nothing to do with “fast” or “ball” nor does it describe Django Bustamante’s terrific breaks; this is simply “door.”

“Lintik” may be the powerful and fearsome “lightning” in Tagalog, but it is only “light shower” in Pampango; what’s more, “ambon” dissipates to a mere “fog or mist” in Hiligaynon.

Hiligaynon is what the Ilonggos call their language. Aside from being extra malambing in their manner of speaking, Ilonggos may also be considered too advanced when it comes to language. “Paa” in Tagalog becomes “hita” in Ilonggo; “hita” is “singit” and “titi” means “nipples”. In Ilonggo, “pating” is nothing to be afraid of—it means “dove.” But in Cebu, they call a shark “iho.”

Also Read: 11 Filipino Slang Words With Surprising Origins

Now let me spill the beans, I mean, let’s talk about beans. Did you know that “utong,” meaning nipples in Tagalog, is “string beans” in Ilocano…which is “balatong” in Bicol? But “balatong” is “munggo” in Ilocano and several other Filipino languages?

Still speaking of food, not just one Ilongga housemaid, I am sure, has been scolded by their masters for adding soy sauce instead of patis on a dish being cooked. “Patis” means “toyo” in Hiligaynon since fish sauce is not generally used in the Ilonggo cuisine. In Waray, “lasuna” means “garlic” but in Ilocano, it means “onions”.

How about this amusing roundelay: the Tagalog “saan” (“where”) is actually “no” in Ilocano; but “where” is “sitaw” in Ibanag; “sitaw” is string beans in Tagalog but also means “kamangyan” in Pampanga which, to Tagalogs, is the gum resin used in incense. Confusing, isn’t it?

If we usually refrain from calling someone “tanga” in Tagalog (which is the derogatory word “stupid”), it may be worse in Hiligaynon. You would be calling that person a “cockroach”; and in Cebuano, a “scorpion”, and that’s much worse. In Bicol, however, you would just be calling him or her an “ant”.

Oddities in Philippine Language

Bicolano is the language that may be said to be the nearest relative of Tagalog. There are two Bicol dialects—Bicol-Naga and Bicol-Legaspi. The more common is Bicol-Naga because it contains many Hispanic loanwords and Bicol-Legaspi is more like a close cousin of Waray. But whether it is Naga or Legaspi, do not ever mention the Bicol word for “drunk” in polite company because it is another term for “the male penis” (“burat”) in Tagalog.

The Bicol word for “borrow” is “subli,” but in Ilocano and Kapampangan it means the exact opposite–“to return”; but in Ilonggo, it only means “to substitute.”

Not so long ago, a civic group for women was organized in Metro Manila and was expanding its membership to other places in the Philippines. It was called “Sambayan” which meant “one nation” in Tagalog. Espousing highly nationalistic concerns and the empowerment of womanhood, they were quick to establish sections in other areas of the country but were stymied when they got to Bicolandia. “Sambay” in Bicol means “mistress.” Tell me, who in her right mind would join and be mistaken to be one in a group of “queridas”?

Here’s another merry-go-round of local words: “putik” means “mud” in Tagalog but it also means “genital organ” in Waray. “Lagay,” the Tagalog term for “put or position” is another word for “mud” in Waray but “lagay” can also mean “testicles” in Hiligaynon (Ilonggo).

Also Read: 11 Shapes You Didn’t Know Had Filipino Names

Waray is spoken only in two provinces—Samar and Leyte, and their inhabitants were speaking the language long before the construction of the magnificent San Juanico Bridge connecting the two big provinces. The Waray-waray women are noted for their ferocity—“hindi tatakas hanggang matodas” as the song goes.

Samareño, as the language is also known, contains a lot of short words starting with the letter “h” that would leave one panting for breath after voicing a Waray hard-sell radio commercial. This Visayan language is a close cousin of Bicol-Legaspi and Cebuano.

To Tagalogs, “bangka” is a “boat” but to Warays it is a “cockroach.” “Kokua” is not the pleasant tasting chocolate powder to a Samareño; it is the bitter “ampalaya.”

“Kiki” (“female genital” in Tagalog) is nothing vulgar in Waray. It is just food particles lodged in one’s teeth. “Kiki” in Panggalato and Iloko means “tickle” and if there’s any relation to the Tagalog word, it’s only in your green mind.

“Lansa” has nothing to do with “fishy smell or taste” in Ilocano; it simply means “nail.” Although it is doubtful if the frugal Ilocanos use alarm clocks to wake themselves up in the morning, the term used for “wake up” sounds like one—“riing.”

Would you believe, “to follow” is “surot” in Ilocano, while bedbug” is “kuting” in Cebuano?

A Cebuano should never ask an Ilocano to be the one to take a photograph because the Cebuano would invariably say “maniyut” (to shoot) which the Ilocano might take to mean “to copulate” (“iyut” in Iloko).

If Tagalog was not selected as the base for our national language, Cebuano would have been the next best choice being the second most spoken language in our country—about one fourth of the total population of the Philippines or a little more than 25 million Filipinos. It lost out to Tagalog because Sugbuhanon, as it is called in their region, did not have a deep enough literary reserve.

“Lust” is “libog” in Tagalog but “libog” is “confused” in Cebuano. And “kantutan” is not a bad word—it is the pink flowering plant we call periwinkle or “sitsirika.” “Titi” in Cebuano is not a four-letter word—it means “uncle.” “I can’t understand” in Cebuano actually means “I don’t have pubic hair” in Hiligaynon. Careful about “libang” also, it may be “amusement or distraction” in Tagalog but in Cebuano it is “moving the bowels.”

Also Read: 16 Colors And Their Beautiful Names In The Philippine Language

Aside from “kuto” and “asin,” “anak” is the only other word  that is common to almost all languages in the country. Except for Waray which calls a mother “iroy,” and Kapampangan, where she is “ima,” the word for mother in almost all Filipino languages is “ina.”“Ama,” meanwhile, is “father” in most of the Filipino languages except in Hiligaynon and Waray where they add “y” at the end and in Pampanga, they use the other father word “tatang.”

With all the confusing terms mentioned, it is often the inappropriate use of hazardous words that gets one into trouble. In the Philippine setting, knowing the correct meaning of these words may save you from black eyes or embarrassment or maybe even violent death. So here’s a friendly warning,… ingat! (By the way “ingat” in Ilocano is “toothpick”.)


About the Author: Ernie Zarate is an architect, amateur etymologist, former newscaster of The Big News in the now defunct ABC 5, and author of the three-volume book “Malictionary,” a compilation of some of the most amusing trivia about Filipino language.


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