Why there are no words for green, blue, orange; and praying to my God in English

“Nagasulat ako sa Kinaray-a tungud amo dya ang pulong kang akun mga ginikanan. Amo dya ang pulong nga akun namat-an. Sa pulong nga dya mas mapabutyag ko it klaro kag manami ang mga baratyagun, kaaram, kahadluk, kag damgo kang mga tao sa akun palibot-mga mangingisda, mga mangunguma, mga marinero, mga uripon sa iban nga pungsod, kag mga tawo nga balhas kag dugo ang ginapaturo makakaun lamang tatlo ka beses sangka adlaw. Sa Kinaray-a ako nagahigugma. Sa kinaray-a ako nagadamgo. Kag labaw sa tanan, sa Kinaray-a ako nagadayaw kag nagapangayo kang bugay sa akun Ginuo.”

– J. I. E. Teodoro kiniray-a.com

(I write in Kiniray-a [a language in central Philippines concentrated in the island of Panay; it has roughly a million speakers] because it is the language of my parents. It is the language I was born with. In this language I can clearly evoke good feelings, understanding, fears, and the dreams of the people around me –  fishermen, farmers, sailors, and laborers in foreign countries, and people who have to shed sweat and blood just to eat three times in a day. I love in Kiniray-a. I dream in Kiniray-a. And above all else I worship and ask for graces from my God in Kiniray-a)

blog writer’s translation

I was struck by a realization two days ago that the two local languages that I grew up with – Cebuano and Hiligaynon, both spoken by a majority of people in the Visayas and Mindanao do not have words for yellow, green, blue, orange, brown, and all the other colors of the spectrum except red, white and black (although white and black are not considered part of the spectrum because they are a result of  certain combinations of color).

When I was very young, I used to wonder why every time my father asked me to buy sugar for his afternoon coffee in the nearby retail store we call sari-sari he would say: “‘To bakal to kalamay nga pula.” (‘To, you buy red sugar.) If translated literally. But what he actually meant was for me to buy for him brown sugar. It never occurred to me to question why he didn’t call it brown sugar or why there is no word for brown in our language.

Moreover, when we describe colors in my language, at least in my family, we use the English equivalent, say for example, “Diin na ang kabo nga green?” (Were is the green dipper?) or “Tsk, tsk, gamit niya naman orange niya nga bayo ba” (You’re wearing again your orange shirt.).

I thought that it was possibly because I grew up in a multi-lingual community. My father who was born in Janiuay, Iloilo speaks Kiniray-a; my mother who grew up in La Paz, Iloilo speaks Hiligaynon; my playmates as well as most of my neighbors use Cebuano; I watched prime time news in Filipino (a language based in Tagalog used by the majority of people in Northern Philippines); and the story books, encyclopedias, novels my parents bought for us to read are in English.

Probably, there should be words in the local languages that I grew up with for these colors, but I couldn’t remember using them.

I tried to ask my college friend whom I thought is good in Hiligaynon but he couldn’t think of any. This realization caused me to be flabbergasted. How come?

According to Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis there is a systematic relationship between the grammatical categories of the language a person speaks and how that person both understands the world and behaves in it.

We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native language. The categories and types that we isolate from the world of phenomena we do not find there because they stare every observer in the face; on the contrary, the world is presented in a kaleidoscope flux of impressions which has to be organized by our minds—and this means largely by the linguistic systems of our minds. We cut nature up, organize it into concepts, and ascribe significances as we do, largely because we are parties to an agreement to organize it in this way—an agreement that holds throughout our speech community and is codified in the patterns of our language […] all observers are not led by the same physical evidence to the same picture of the universe, unless their linguistic backgrounds are similar, or can in some way be calibrated.

– Benjamin Whorf

This reminded me of a story that in the Arctic region where Eskimos live they have hundred names for specific kinds of snows because they encounter this crystalline, white precipitate every day of their lives while in Philippines, a tropical country, does not have a local word for snow (niyebe and yelo are both borrowed from Spanish). The same is true with a pastoral tribe in Africa where they have more that four hundred names for cattle.

It posits the impossibility of perfectly representing the world with language since language is limited by the experience of the speakers, and the thoughts of the speakers are limited by the language of the community where they belong. Although this might sound fallacious and begging the question when scrutinized, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis gives a simple (and simplistic) explanation as to why some words are non-existent in a certain language.

But it’s not true for Hiligaynon and Cebuano; it’s not as if our eyes cannot detect green, blue, yellow, etc. But it puzzled me why we do not have words for such simple entities. Probably there is, but because English is too convenient, the local equivalent for these colors might have been lost in favor of the English words.

Too sad, I must say.

Before I could not imagine myself falling in love with a foreigner. The fact that I have to use a foreign language to express myself is just difficult since a language other than the ones I grew up with will never be able to capture the sincerity of my emotion. But for the past years, I’ve been seeing myself dreaming in English.

My Literature professor once told the class that one can only claim ownership to a language if that person  prays to his God using that language. In my case, although the idea of a god is very difficult for me to grasp, it’s even sadder because my thought are in English now, and in case one day I understand my God, then I’ll probably be praying in English.


12 thoughts on “Why there are no words for green, blue, orange; and praying to my God in English”

  1. This is reminiscent of Zulu in South Africa their numbers are crazy long ( they never had a written alphabet until foreign influence ), and very difficult to use, most nowadays just use the english numbers and the Zulu ones will be gone in a few generations i reckon

    1. and i read of one tribe in africa that has only 320++ words in its lexicon but this number of words is capable of expressing all the complexities in a language as complex as english or russian.

  2. can anybody translate this to kiniray-a: “That the church leaders may be blessed with wisdom & holiness in this season of Advent.” thanks…

  3. I was doing research for my cross cultural psychology class and came across this story. I am looking for information about the Philippines, the country I have been assigned. I always think about asking my sister in-law but I don’t want to bother her every week with questions ( must be my Japanese side coming through). She was born in the Phillipines but moved here to Hawaii when she was six years old. I am asuming she speaks more English but I am not sure. I learned about the Sapir-Whorf theorie last week. This is the first story I have heard of someone that experiences their feelings in more than one language. I can, however, see how an emotion can have significant differences in meaning when expressed in different languages. In my childhood I loved seeing my Sensei, I can feel the warm, comforting, sensation even to this day. But translated to English – “teacher” I think of cold, strict, uncomfortable days of schooling. Thank you for sharing.

  4. That, or we can opt for insanity. I suppose in madness, there’s bliss. kidding. Thanks, and welcome back (soon).

  5. we experience the same struggles except that they confront us and we react to them in a totally different ways. i wish you all the best on your job.

    otros dias vendran may be a complicated postmodern film, but our lives as twenty-something in this difficult time is hundred times more complex.

    only the simplicity of our past and origin keeps us sane.

  6. I like this post. Perhaps because I’m from Antique. Or that nostalgia is invading my veins now – very much like the first time I ‘accidentally’ clicked a link leading to this blog. I was searching for the lyrics of ‘Iloilo ang banwa ko’.

    Congratulations on your blog. It’s a very good one. I can relate to most of the entries. The sadness, fears, joys, successes (or for me, seeming lack of it.lol), life, times and thoughts of a twenty-something.

  7. I do not actually personally know him, but i’ve heard him delivered a speech in Kiniray-a that contained this line.

    I hope to find a language that i can truly express what i want to say. Although English works for now, I know something better is waiting for me to discover it and use it with grace and truthfulness.

  8. As long as there are people like J.I.E Teodoro who immortalize the stories of their people through literature, “god” will hear different tongues, praying.

    If you happened to read the whole article, Teodoro is talking about hegemony in literature.

    keep safe. 😀

  9. i’ve read your email just now.you really are going far from here…and all your friends are happy for you. I will not be surprised when someday you are one of the best writers promoting your own book.

    this is your latest article, I’m glad I’m the first to read.keep it up!

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