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What is the meaning of ‘cagayan’?

Elson Elizaga


At the start of the New Millenium I became a member of Alibata, a fiery Yahoo group concerned about Philippine heritage. The owner was a mysterious person named Malachi. Members were argumentative. Eventually, the group self-destructed. But thanks to Malachi, we were able to communicate with the brilliant linguist, Dr. Lawrence A. Reid, Researcher Emeritus of the University of Hawai’i. (He insists on the spelling Hawai’i, not Hawaii.)

It was from Dr. Reid that we learned the meaning of cagayan. Prior to this, I had carried with me the profound suspicion that cagayan might have originated from the Spanish caga, which means manure. Spanish colonizers must have stepped on human excrement – caramba! – on the riverbanks from Luzon to Mindanao because even today, if people dwell on the riverbanks or seashore and they have no septic tank, there we would easily find manure.

The idea was ridiculous, of course, and I was glad it was scholarly corrected. Otherwise, it would be an insult to be called cagayanon, and Kagayan Festival would be a community health issue.

So, Reid told us that cagayan means river – what a refreshing revelation! Using his emails, I then wrote “The meaning of Cagayan” and included it in a promotional CD about Cagayan de Oro. I also placed the article in In an attempt to make it understandable to laymen, I rewrote it several times, and added a data table. In 2016, I revised it further in response to a friend who told me that people in the tourism industry were still confused. But when I showed the draft to Reid, he wrote: “A number of comments that you made suggest that you don’t understand the comments that I sent you earlier!!” So, he corrected the article.

Before I present the revised article, let me say that I understand the meaning of cagayan – and I believe the reader will, too – but I’m still uncertain about the described sounds. I can see the sound symbols, but I cannot hear the sounds themselves. My inability is not Reid’s fault but that of the medium of text. I have no audio files, except for the Wikipedia link. So, here we are confronted with the truth of Marshall MacLuhan’s finding: The medium is the message.

START OF ARTICLE by Dr. Lawrence A. Reid and Elson Elizaga:

What is the meaning of the word cagayan? In a series of emails, Dr. Lawrence A. Reid (Researcher Emeritus of the University of Hawai’i) explains that cagayan or kagayan means ‘river’. Similar words — karayan, kahayan, kayayan, kalayan and kayan — found in different Philippine languages all mean ‘river’ and all evolved from an ancient word with the same meaning. What was that ancient word, and who used it?

Reid says that the term for ‘river’ as used by the early migrants from Taiwan who became Filipino peoples some 4000 years ago, must have been *kaRayan. Reid states that the asterisk in front of the form is a linguistic symbol and is used to show that the form is a reconstructed word, based on the widely accepted methodology of the science of comparative-historical linguistics. He also comments that the methodology is based on the fact that all languages change from generation to generation, and that sounds change regularly over time.

What about the letter R in the middle of the word? Reid states that it stands for a sound that must have occurred in the language at that time. This is a sound that occurred in many words, and regularly developed into the sound g in the languages of the Cagayan Valley as well as Tagalog, Cebuano and the other Central Philippine languages. It developed into the sound r in Ilokano, and into y in Kapampangan and the other Central Luzon languages. Reid notes that the symbol R is used because the symbol for the actual sound was not commonly found on typewriters. Linguists suggest that the sound was what they call a velar fricative, or a fricative g, and it is symbolized in the International Phonetics Alphabet by the Greek letter, ɣ. This is a sound that is not used in most Philippine languages today, but was probably present in the first language spoken by the migrants from Taiwan, since it also occurs in the indigenous languages of Taiwan that are cousins of Philippine languages.

Some sources say that the original word for river is kagay, which, when combined with -an ‘place’, became kagayan ‘river place’. However, according to Reid, this is a folk etymology, and takes no account of the variant forms which have regularly developed in Philippine languages. There is no language that reflects a form kagay. Nor is there any evidence that either the final -an was a suffix, or that the initial ka- was a prefix. At some early stage, it is possible that the -an was a locative suffix, but the whole form now means ‘river’, not ‘the place of a river’.

Reid’s explanations are responses to queries sent by Elson T. Elizaga to Alibata, a Yahoo group. Reid and Elizaga later exchanged emails directly to discuss details about the etymology. More information about Reid is in his website (


P.S. Listen to the sound of the voiced vilar fricative in Beyond this, I have nothing to say. But the reader might find additional information in


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TREND MAKER. Mindanao Gold Star Daily was established in 1989 to set ablaze a new meaning & flame to the local newspaper business. Throughout the years it continued its focus and interest in the rural areas & pioneered the growth of countryside journalism.

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