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In Other Words by Paul Morrow


Something fishy about Rizal poem - part 1

Did Jose Rizal really write Sa Aking Mga Kabata?

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Sa aking mga kabata   Kapagka ang baya’y sadyang umiibig sa kaniyang salitang kaloób ng langit, sanlang kalayaan nasà ring masapit katulad ng ibong na sa himpapawíd.   Pagka’t ang salita’y isang kahatulan sa bayan, sa nayo’t mga kaharian, at ang isang tao’y katulad, kabagay ng alin mang likhâ noong kalayaan.   Ang hindî magmahal sa kanyang salitâ mahigít sa hayop at malansang isdâ, kayâ ang marapat pagyamaning kusà na tulad sa ináng tunay na nagpalà.   Ang wikang tagálog tulad din sa latín sa inglés, kastilà at salitang anghel, sa pagka ang Poong maalam tumingín ang siyang naggawad, nagbigay sa atin.   Ang salitâ nati’y huad din sa ibá na may alfabeto at sariling letra, na kayâ nawala’y dinatnán ng sigwâ Ang lunday sa lawà noong dákong una.
The poem as it appeared in its earliest documented form in 1906.
From Kun Sino ang Kumatha ng “Florante” by Hermenegildo Cruz, pp. 187-188.
(Photo: Maureen Justiniano*)  


(translation by Paul Morrow)


  When the people of a nation truly have love
for the gift of their language that heaven bestowed,
so too will they long to gain their pawned liberty
just as birds need to fly in the heavens above.

  For language is a quality weighed in judgement
of all nations, villages and kingdoms alike,
and each citizen in this way is deserving,
like all creatures that are born of this liberty.

  Whoever does not love the language of his birth
is lower than a beast and a foul smelling fish.
Therefore we must preserve and treasure it gladly
Like our mothers who truly blessed and nurtured us.

  The Tagalog language is the same as Latin,
English, Spanish and the language of the angels
because it was the Lord, himself, in his wisdom
and in his care, who bestowed this gift upon us.

  This language of ours is like many others,
it once had an alphabet and its own letters
that vanished as though a tempest had set upon
a boat on a lake in a time now long gone.



Every year in August, students in the Philippines celebrate Buwan ng Wika (Language Month) and, after 75 years of the national language, educators still find it necessary to invoke the finger-wagging admonition against neglecting one’s own language: Ang hindi magmahal sa sariling wika ay higit sa hayop at malansang isda [One who does not love his own language is worse than a beast and a stinking fish].

Calling someone a stinking fish might sound a bit childish, but it could be forgiven since it was supposedly a child who wrote this now-famous accusation. The line is a slightly mangled quote from the poem Sa Aking Mga Kabata [To My Fellow Youth], which, as any Filipino schoolteacher will tell you, was written by the national hero, Jose Rizal, when he was only eight years old.

Even though generations of children have heard this poem hailed as an example of Rizal’s natural genius, a few academics such as Virgilio Almario, Ambeth Ocampo, Nilo Ocampo and others have expressed doubts that young Pepe really wrote the poem. We’ll hear what they had to say later.

Something fishy

I first read this poem many years ago when I was learning the Filipino language. The idea that it might be a hoax never entered my mind, though I doubted that Rizal was so young when he composed it. I thought some zealous biographer might have concocted that part of the story, like George Washington’s cherry tree incident.

Many years later, in 2007, I wanted to use the famous “malansang isda line in an article, 1 but I couldn’t find the official version of the poem. There are a few different versions, each with slight variations in some of the lines and even the title is not consistent; sometimes kabata, sometimes kababata. It seems that there is no “official” version or even an original manuscript to consult.

While re-reading the poem, one word struck me like a thunderbolt: it was kalayaan. The word, which means “freedom” and “liberty,” reminded me of a letter that Jose Rizal wrote to his brother Paciano in 1886. Rizal had written a Tagalog translation of Friedrich Schiller’s German play, Wilhelm Tell and he wanted Paciano to review it. Rizal explained that he found it difficult to translate some of the concepts in the play:

My Dear Brother,

There I’m sending you at last the translation of Wilhelm Tell by Schiller…

I lacked many words, for example, for the word Freiheit or liberty. The Tagalog word kaligtasan cannot be used, because this means that formerly he was in prison, slavery, etc. I found in the translation of Amor Patrio the noun malayà, kalayahan that Marcelo del Pilar uses. In the only Tagalog book I have – Florante – I don’t find an equivalent noun. 2

Evidently, Rizal had not encountered the word kalayaan until he saw it in Marcelo H. del Pilar’s Pag-ibig sa Tinubuang Lupa [Love for the Native Land], which was his Tagalog translation of Rizal’s own Spanish essay, Amor Patrio. Del Pilar’s translation was published four years earlier in Diariong Tagalog on August 20, 1882.

A lapse of memory?

So, why didn’t Rizal know the word kalayaan in 1886 when he had apparently already used it at least twice before in his now-famous poem of 1869? (See the poem above, right.) As it turned out, I was not the first person to ask this question. Nilo Ocampo, a literature professor at the University of the Philippines, wrote in 2002:

Is it possible that Rizal did not think of this [kalayaan] or use it in the 16 years since he wrote his poem at the age of eight and that it just popped into his mind after such a long time? Or was it perhaps because the admiration of the person who held the poem was so excessive that, without any doubt, he declared it was the work of the child genius? 3

In all likelihood, Rizal did not forget the word kalayaan inasmuch as he really didn’t know it until 1886. At that time, kalayaan was apparently a newly minted word that did not exist when Rizal was eight years old. The National Artist for literature, Virgilio Almario, found no documented occurrence of the word laya or kalayaan as meaning “freedom” or “liberty” in any Philippine language before del Pilar used it in 1882. 4 (For more on this, see Laya as an Old Name.) Moreover, Tagalog dictionaries as far back as the San Buenaventura 5 of 1613 list the word maharlica, not calayaan, as the equivalent for the Spanish libertad, and timaua for libre (free). These words were also the names of two non-slave classes in pre-colonial Tagalog society. Kalayaan did not appear in a dictionary until the Serrano Laktaw of 1889. 6 By that time it had become a popular word among Filipino intellectuals.

The origin of kalayaan

Almario related the story of Rizal’s Tagalog translation problems in at least three articles 7 in the early 1990s. He speculated that del Pilar might have created the root of kalayaan by modifying the word layaw [indulgence]. (Note: Virgilio Almario published a new book earlier this month, July 2011, entitled Rizal: Makata, in which he apparently refutes Rizal’s authorship of this poem with some of the same arguments that I have developed independently and present here.)

But in 1998, authors Moises Andrade and Edgar Yanga presented a variation of this theory in their essay, Kalayaan: Its Birth and Growth Among the Secular Clergy in Bulacan. 8 They found the word kalayaan in an 1867 devotional booklet, Flores de Maria o Mariquit na Bulaclac by Fr. Mariano V. Sevilla. They claimed that it was Sevilla who invented the word in 1864 and that del Pilar learned the word from Sevilla when they were housemates in college, between 1870 and 1872.

The historian Zeus Salazar, however, refuted the claims of Andrade and Yanga in his essay Ang Kartilya ni Emilio Jacinto in 1999. He maintained that the word laya and its various conjugations “were already a part of Tagalog vocabulary at that time [and] therefore, could not have been invented by anybody.” 9 However, he also wrote, “Laya/calayaan was not yet needed in writing before 1864 and even later, especially since timawa/catimaoan was still widely used back then as meaning ‘free/freedom.’” 10 Whichever case is true, young Jose’s alleged use of the word kalayaan in 1869 is no less curious.

Moreover, even if kalayaan was a term known to some people in Bulakan, the fact that it did not appear in Florante at Laura, the poem that Rizal consulted, is telling because it was written by the most famous poet of Bulakan, Francisco (Balagtas) Baltazar. He used the terms timaua and mahadlica, not calayaan, which is how he would have spelled it in 1838.

Regardless of the exact origin of the term kalayaan, it was, at best, a very obscure word in 1869 when Sa Aking Mga Kabata was supposedly composed, and it is clear that Rizal did not learn it until 1886. Naturally, if Rizal didn’t know the word kalayaan until he was 25 years old, he could not have written a poem in which the word appears twice when he was only eight years old.

Did Rizal perhaps write the poem when he was older? We’ll look into that possibility and some of the other suspicious aspects of the poem in the next three parts of this series.

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Laya as an old name

The following addendum was not included in the print version of this article.

In his search for the origin of the word kalayaan, Virgilio Almario found the name Laya in an anonymous report as early as April 20, 1572. 11 It was the name of a Luzon datu (chief) who, ironically, surrendered his freedom to the Spaniards quickly and willingly. 12 The report identified Laya as the uncle of Datu Soliman, which means Laya was the datu also known as Raja Matanda, or in Old Tagalog, Ladya Matanda [Old King]. Considering that the author of the report was not a direct witness to the events, but was retelling things he had heard from informants who were there, it is quite probable that someone mistook the datu’s title, Ladya, meaning “king,” as his personal name. From there, an inaccurate transcription or a spelling error could have rendered “ladya” (spelled “laja” in the Spanish of that time) as “laya.” According to the linguist Jean-Paul Potet, there are several occurrences in the San Buenaventura dictionary of 1613 where the letters “j” and “i” are switched. 13

The surnames Laya and Malaya also appear as names in the Catálogo Alfabético de Apellidos 14 [Alphabetical Catalogue of Surnames] of 1849, but this document does not include information on how any names were pronounced or what meanings they might have had. Old dictionaries such as the Noceda & San Lucar of 1754 show other meanings for laya, including “desiccated,” “rubbish,” and a spinning motion of the arm. 15 The old family names Laya and Malaya were likely derived from one of these meanings (or possibly a meaning from another language) and not the relatively new sense of “freedom,” which only appeared in the late 1800s.


1.     Morrow, Paul. “Rizal and the Filipino language,” Pilipino Express News Magazine, Vol. 3 No. 12. June 16, 2007. 070616 Rizal spelling.pdf

2.   Rizal, José. “Leipzig, 12 October 1886,” Letters between Rizal and Family Members. National Historical Institute, Manila, 1993. p.243

3.   Ocampo, Nilo S., May Gawa Na Kaming Natapus Dini: Si Rizal at Ang Wikang Tagalog, 2002. pp. 25-27, 123-124

Posible bang hindi na ito naisip ni Rizal o ginamit sa 16 na taong lumipas pagkasulat niya ng tula sa walong taong gulang at nasumpungan na lang nang lumaon? O baka naman sobra talaga ang paghanga ng may hawak ng tula kung kaya wala nang pagdududang inihayag na akda ito ng batang henyo? p.124 (English translation by P. Morrow.)

4.   Almario, Virgilio S. Panitikan Ng Rebolusyong 1896: Isang Paglingon at Katipunan Ng Mga Akda Nina Bonifacio at Jacinto. Maynila: Sentrong Pangkultura ng Pilipinas, 1993. pp. 207-208

5.   San Buenaventura, Pedro de, and Cayetano Sánchez Fuertes. Vocabulario De Lengua Tagala: El Romance Castellano Puesto Primero: Primera Y Segunda Parte (1613). Valencia: Librerías “París-Valencia”, 1994. p. 389

6.   Serrano Laktaw, Pedro. Diccionario Hispano-Tagálog. 2 vols. Manila, 1889. p.337

7.   Almario, Virgilio S. “Ang Problema ni Rizal” Diyaryo Filipino, 1991. Reprinted in Filipino Ng Mga Filipino: Mga Problema Sa Ispeling, Retorika, at Pagpapayaman Ng Wikang Pambansa. Ikalawa at binagong ed. Manila: Anvil, 2009. p.133

   _____ Kung Sino Ang Kumatha Kina Bagongbanta, Ossorio, Herrera, Aquino De Belen, Balagtas, Atbp.: Mga Imbestigasyon Sa Panitikan Ng Kolonyalismo. 1. ed. Metro Manila: Anvil Pub., 1992. pp. 152-153

   _____ Panitikan Ng Rebolusyong 1896: Isang Paglingon at Katipunan Ng Mga Akda Nina Bonifacio at Jacinto. Maynila: Sentrong Pangkultura ng Pilipinas, 1993. pp. 207-208

8.   Andrade, Moises B., and Edgar S. Yanga. Kalayaan: Its Birth and Growth Among the Secular Clergy in Bulacan. Bocaue, Bulacan: IBMA Print, 1998. Cited by Zeus Salazar in “Ang Kartilya Ni Emilio Jacinto at Ang Diwang Pilipino Sa Agos Ng Kasaysayan.” Bagong Kasaysayan, Lathalain Blg. 6, 1999. p.40

9.   Salazar, Zeus A. “Ang Kartilya Ni Emilio Jacinto at Ang Diwang Pilipino Sa Agos Ng Kasaysayan.” Bagong Kasaysayan, Lathalain Blg. 6, 1999. p. 45

Lahat ng ito’y nagpapatunay na bahagi na ng bokaularyong Tagalog ang “layà” / “layâ” noon pa man; samakatuwid, hindi ito maaaring imbentuhin pa ninuman. (English translation by P. Morrow.)

10.   ibid. p.42

Hindi pa kinakailangan sa pagsulat bago 1864 at lampas pa rito ang “layà” / “calayaan,” laluna’t laganap pa noon ang “timawa” / “catimaoan” sa kahuluhgan ng “laya” / “kalayaan.” (English translation by P. Morrow.)

11. Blair, Emma Helen, James Alexander Robertson, Edward Gaylord Bourne. "Conquest of the Island of Luzon", Anonymous, April 20, 1572. The Philippine Islands, 1493-1803. Vol. 3, 1569-1576. Cleveland, Ohio: A.H. Clark Co., 1903. Accessed through Project Gutenberg.

12. Almario, Virgilio S. Kung Sino Ang Kumatha Kina Bagongbanta, Ossorio, Herrera, Aquino De Belen, Balagtas, Atbp.: Mga Imbestigasyon Sa Panitikan Ng Kolonyalismo. 1. ed. Metro Manila: Anvil Pub., 1992. pp. 152-153

13. Personal e-mail correspondence with Jean-Paul Potet, 14 June 2011

14. Clavería y Zaldúa, Narciso; Domingo Abella & Norman Owen. Catálogo Alfabético De Apellidos (1849). [Manila]: National Archives Publication No. D-3, 1973. pp. 74, 81

15. Noceda, Juan José de, and Pedro de Sanlucar. Vocabulario De La Lengua Tagala. Manila: Ramirez y Giraudier, 1860. p.177

* The photo of the poem is a composite of pages 187 and 188 in Kun Sino ang Kumatha ng “Florante” by Hermenegildo Cruz, 1906.

Many thanks to Maureen Justiniano for providing the original photos and other source materials, as well as her valuable advice. Thanks also to John Paul Sumbillo for editing and enhancing the photos.

Thanks to Jean-Paul Potet for his advice and Zeus Salazar for providing a copy of Bagong Kasaysayan.

Part 2