Tuesday, October 4, 2011


Whenever I travel far away from Lianga these days, it is always a pleasant surprise for me to suddenly catch by ear, even from a distance and in the midst of the babble of languages and dialects that are spoken in the many crowded places all over this country, that peculiar yet familiar cadence of spoken words, that specific pattern and style of vocalization that immediately tells me that someone in the vicinity is speaking Kamayo.

Kamayo, of course, is the the language spoken by the residents of a clearly defined geographical area in eastern Mindanao which includes parts of the provinces of Surigao del Sur, Davao del Norte, Davao Oriental and the Agusan provinces.  Only about one and a half million people are said to use it but even this number is misleading since the language has its variations in the way it is spoken depending on the specific location within this general area.

The Kamayo used in in Lianga, for example, has marked differences in vocabulary, accentuation and intonation from the version used farther south in Lingig and the Davao provinces.  But both clearly belong to the same language classification and share the same linguistic roots.

Language experts usually classify Kamayo as belonging to the Malayan-Polynesian sub-group of languages and the Austronesian language family to which most Malay languages are grouped.  It is closely linked to Surigaonon and Butuanon as well as Cebuano and has been heavily influenced by these other languages as well as Tagalog and even English in more contemporary times.

Many linguistic experts also link it to the so called Mandaya or Kamayo people, a non-Islamic, non-Christian ethnic group in eastern Mindanao particularly in the Davao and Surigao provinces which retain many of its own traditional customs and traditions as well as religious beliefs.  But modern Kamayo is mostly spoken today by the descendants of the many waves of immigrants from the Visayas and Luzon who settled in that part of Mindanao in the last century.

I have always been dismayed at the fact that there is no known recorded body of native literature in the Kamayo language,  Perhaps the very people who first used it never had the inclination to record their experiences in either prose or poetry.  Perhaps it may have originated as a wholly oral language and no written form ever evolved. It may also have been discredited in the past as a marginal dialect and even today suffers in comparison to Bisaya which is considered to be more "refined" and less provincial.

I can, of course, speak only about the Kamayo I know but it is clear that the nature of the language itself is reflective of the character of the people who use it in their daily lives.  It is loud, intensely sparse and utilitarian, seemingly disdainful of the lyrical frills, bells and whistles that passes for what is beautiful and pleasing to the ear and, in written form, to the eye in other tongues.  Yet it is, at the same time, a deeply emotional language that can more than adequately express the emotions of love, tenderness, anger and hate most succinctly if not sublimely.

It is when used as a weapon that Kamayo brings out the best of the combative, warlike qualities of its speakers.  In the Lianga area, hearing two people angrily going at each other verbally can be a fascinating experience.  Kamayo natives use the language not just to make their point clear or justify their anger but wield it figuratively like slashing broadswords to symbolically wound and kill their opponents.

When used to effectively hurl contempt, disdain or overpowering rage, it can rise to heights few languages can reach.  Which is perhaps why many here prefer to use it for verbal combat and retreat to using Bisaya for wooing, courtship and for expressing the softer emotions of love, tenderness and longing.

This is not, of course, to say that the Kamayo (if we are to call the those who speak the language that) are a bloodthirsty and quarrelsome lot but they are a deeply emotional and proud people who are deeply protective of what they see as their own and instantly suspicious if not resentful of those who may seek to exploit them and their land.

Many native Kamayo speakers fear for the future survival of the language.  Many Lianga residents, for example, especially those who have children studying or working in other parts of the country are aware that many of the next generation of their descendants either do not know Kamayo anymore or have virtually stop using it.  In our family in particular, not one of my mother's grandchildren is a Kamayo speaker.  They do understand the language yet are more comfortable using Bisaya or Cebuano at home and among themselves.

Much of the old Kamayo that I use to know as a child is already gone or evolving.  The sometimes loud and jarring yet often lilting, musical intonation I was used to as a child I seldom hear today except when talking with the older generation in the remote barrios and villages around Lianga and San Agustin towns.  Modern Kamayo is now heavily borrowing words and phrases from Bisaya and even Tagalog.

Since Kamayo use is practically confined to a specific geographical area, most native Kamayo speakers are essentially multilingual and are able to converse easily not only in Kamayo and Bisaya but also in Tagalog and English.  This exposes the original tongue to a multitude of influences that does not bode well for any attempts towards the preservation of the original  language.

My hope is that a distinct Kamayo tongue will continue to exist if not flourish in the future.  After all, nothing identifies a people and a culture more than the language that binds them together.

This is why I relish the rare cases where I do encounter Kamayo being spoken in places far from its birthplace.  It reminds me that the world may be so big and the universe so vast yet there is always that small yet tangible chance, remote and minuscule it may be, that even in faraway places and distant shores there is always that possibility of finding a kindred soul, a kababayan if you will, and the surprise discovery of a totally unexpected, sentimental  link to home.


  1. A very informative post, Benjie. During my time in Lianga I was struck by the pride the people had in their Kamayo identity. I noticed in many faculty rooms in schools I visited that the 'tribu' of the teachers appeared after their names on lists I saw. Most belonged to the Kamayo Tribe.

    I wasn't aware that so many people speak Kamayo. Im happ too to see that, unlike many Filipinos with college degrees, you don't dismiss as 'dialects' what are distinct languages, most of them having local dialects, just as English has, for example, in countries where it is the mother-tongue of the majority. However,in England itself, as in other countries, the dialects are gradually disappearing but new ones are emerging. I read a couple of years ago that the Cockney dialect of the East End of London is evolving in some areas into a Bangladeshi-Cockney dialect.

    I used some of your photos in my latest blog post, which features Lianga: http://bangortobobbio.blogspot.com/2011/10/to-caesar-what-belongs-to-caesar-sunday.html

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  3. I personally think that much of the published statistics on the number of Kamayo-speaking people in the Caraga region is inaccurate. The true number is probably much lower since the language has so many variations (dialects, if you will) which makes getting a more accurate count difficult.

    There is indeed much local pride in being labelled a Kamayo here but I doubt if there are actually many in Lianga particularly who can really say that they are of the Kamayo tribe. It is my hope though that this pride in being Kamayo will help in the preservation of the language and what remains of the local culture.

    Please feel free to use the photos on this blog. Thank you for the comment and I hope you can visit Lianga again soon.

  4. Anonymous8:33 PM

    im happy that there r still people who are concern with our other tongue. actually i was raised and born in Barobo, I speak the language and I can understand even the deepest words but d ko xa magamit dahil mga kausap ay mga modern barobohanons na...sana may kamayo kababayan group here in SG

    1. Anonymous8:19 PM

      Barobo pud ko :) I can also speak the Kamayo dialect, but not as much as the native speakers do ..

  5. Anonymous6:34 PM

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  6. madayaw na pag tagad sa kanami dialect! i am proud to be Kamayo sa Ban-as, Lianga Surigao del Sur.

  7. The ancient hindu balinese high caste priestly language has hundreds of words and phrases that are almost the same as kamayo. There are just slight accent variations on the words...but still essentially the same words. I know this because my wife (a kamayo) has lived in Bali these past 4 years and the shock she had when she heard the ancient rituals here has never lessened.
    Stunningly, Surigao for instance, pronounced shoor ga means paradise in old balinese.
    Something to ponder here i am sure