Ginhawa: Negotiating Well-Being as Expressed in Philippine Languages

by Consuelo J. Paz

In the past editions of the Philippine Arts in Venice Biennale (PAVB), ginhawa was a word that always surfaced, not as the central theme of the exhibitions but as a continuing concept.

In 2017, the 16th Venice Architecture Biennale theme was “Freespace” that the Philippine Pavilion translated in Tagalog as “Pook Ginhawa.”

In 2019, Framework Collaborative, the curators of Structures of Mutual Support, the Philippine Pavilion exhibition at the 17th Venice Architecture Biennale, collaborated with the grassroots community members in Angat, Bulacan who talked about ginhawa as an aspired state for their built environment.

The PAVB wanted to delve more into ginhawa and how this one word, defined in this essay as well-being, reveals the commonalities that bind people, and perhaps the nation, together.

In the essay written by noted academic and linguist Dr. Consuelo J. Paz, readers will also discover how ginhawa is achieved by interaction, both social and spiritual, nurtured in a desirable environment.

We are grateful to Dr. Paz and her family for generously allowing us to publish this essay.

-Philippine Arts in Venice Biennale

Sa karamihan ng mga wikang kinunan ng deyta, kasaganaan o ang maganda/magaan na pakiramdam na naeeksperyens dahil naabot ang hinahangad, ang kahulugan ng ginhawa. Sa ilang wika, “hininga/paghinga” naman ang kahulugan nito. Ipinapakita sa papel na ito na sa kontekstong linggwistik at kultural, mey mga magkaparehong persepyon ang iba’t ibang etnolinggwistikong grupo (EG) tungkol sa konseptong ginhawa kahit magkaiba sa kabuuan ang mga ito. Nakabatay ang ganitong pananaw sa mga kogneyt na nagpapakita ng relasyon ng mga wika na nakabakas sa sinaunang form nito na narekonstrak sa paraan ng pagkokomparang Linggwistiks. Nalaman din ito sa komplikadong relasyong semantik ng mga salita’t expresyon sa deytang nakolekta. Nalaman din na nahahango sa mga materyal na bagay-bagay, naabot sa tulong ng mga tagamundong spiritwal at ng interaksyong sosyal, at napapanatili ng kalikasan o kapaligiran ang kasaganaan. Inaasahang makaambag ang pag-aral na ito sa paglilinaw ng isyung nasyunal-aydentiti na umiiral pa rin sa kasalukuyan at makaktulong sa pagtigil ng diskriminasyon at marginalisesyon na dinadanas pa din nga maraming EG sa bansa.

Undeniably, problems of national identity and cohesiveness still persist in the Philippines, and right off two paramount reasons for these problems can be singled out: the fact that the country was established by colonial fiat and the fact that there are over a hundred ethnolinguistic groups (EGs) speaking distinct languages scattered over the numerous islands that make up the country’s archipelago. Put differently, problems of national identity and cohesiveness persist among these diverse groups– speaking different though related languages and having belief systems which though different, have striking commonalities—forced together as a nation by two foreign powers of entirely different languages and cultures.

“Igorot Village,” Philippine Reservation at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition, St. Louis, Missouri (USA).
Photo source: The City Who Had Two Navels catalogue (citywhohadtwonavels.com)

Yet contrary to this view, it could be said that possibly, the underlying similarities in the languages and cultures of these EGs abetted the efforts of these foreign powers, Spain and later the United States of America, to establish these islands as their colonial territory. This means that elements that run through the belief systems and the languages of these numerous EGs have, in some way, bound them together into what has become to be known as the Philippines.

Knowledge of the indigenous underpinnings, which has brought the nation to its present state and has set it on the trajectory it is taking toward the future, is therefore quite crucial to the progress of the nation.

The Data

Acquiring and analyzing the data on the EGs of the Philippines is presently being done by an on-going research program of the College of Social Sciences and Philosophy, University of the Philippines Diliman, and is now known as Programa sa Pag-aaral ng mga Etnolinggwistikong Grupo (PPEG)1 an initiative started in 1993 to acquire such knowledge.

One valuable feature of the PPEG is its data bank on community life and subsistence activities mainly gathered in situ from the EGs. The data bank has been expanding by way of different research activities that study these groups. In pursuing one of the program’s objectives, the recorded indigenous concepts and perceptions of the different EGs undergo comparative analyses purposely to extract the commonalities, which could be identified as pan-Philippines. Another of its objectives is to study the cultural disruptions and the corresponding response of the groups induced by intervention and change.

An interesting concept revealed by the data collected by the program is the state of well-being as expressed by the different EGs studied. This concept is presently being studied from a multidisciplinary approach in order to capture the different aspects such an approach allows.2

A digital poster of the Inaugural Consuelo J. Paz Lecture organized by the Office of the Vice President for Academic Affairs (OVPAA). Dr. Paz initiated the Programa sa Pag-aaral ng mga Etnolinggwistikong Grupo and is considered the “Grand Dame of Philippine Linguistics.” Photo source: UP Department of Linguistics

It is the aim of this present paper to discuss well-being—Tagalog, kaginhawahan; Ilokano, gin-awa; Kapampangan, masalese; Naga Bikol and Sorsogon, kasanggayahan; Sebwano and Bukidnon, humugaway; Tausug and Badjaw, kasangyangan; Sebwano and Surigawnon, ayahay; Waray, maupay, etc.3—in the context of the cultural and linguistic diversity of certain EGs in the Philippines in an attempt to show that there are commonalities that legitimize their being bound together as a nation.

The first part of this paper will discuss the terms used in expressing this concept and the complex semantic network existing between the diverse languages of the different EGs concerning this. The second part will discuss the views and aspirations of the EGs as found in the data that express the commonalities, which lead to understanding the concept of well-being. This will be an attempt to show how in these EGs well-being is measured by materials things, achieved with the help from the spirit world and by the social interaction within the community and guided or maintained by nature or the environment.

Linguistic Network

Launching of the 10th Bantayog-Wika (Language Monument) in the Philippines honoring the Ibaloi language at the Ibaloi Heritage Park in Baguio City. Photo source: Komisyon sa Wikang Filipino

On studying the words and expressions used in identifying well-being in the collected data, it is apparent that to members of most of the EGs studied, well-being is described as ease or the feeling of lightness one experiences when everything aspired for is in order or easily attainable. The Tagalog word kaginhawahan or the state of being maginhawa, ‘prosperous, peaceful, comfortable and free from want or problems’ may be linked to Hiligaynon, Romblomanon, and Sorsoganon, maginhawa; Sebwano, moginhawa; Aklanon and Waray, guminhawa; Kapampangan, mangisnawa; and Sambal manginanawa—all meaning “to breath.” This indicated that the Tagalog stem ginhawa could have been borrowed from any of the languages just mentioned. Most probably from any of the languages spoken by the EGs on the Visayan Islands –e.g. Sebwano or Hiligaynon– but undergoing semantic change and affixed with ‘ma-,’ descriptive/attributive affix. This is quite plausible considering that the Tagalog describe well-being also by the expression nakakahinga ng maluwag (able to breathe loosely/easily), descriptive of the state of relief from pressures or problems. It should be easy to see that the state of being free from want, pressures, or problems would mean being free from that which could cause anxiety. Therefore, the stem of Tagalog kaginhawahan or ginhawa, meaning “to breath” in other EGs underwent a partial semantic change and took on the figurative meaning of breathing—which could be said is “life” itself—that presently means an easy, comfortable state of life. Another possibility is that the Tagalog stem ginhawa originated or corresponds to an earlier form common to other languages, but, unlike in these, is no longer productive in Tagalog. This means it went into disuse in this language except in the words ginhawa and kaginhawahan.

Another set of cognates that relate to the topic of well-being, likewise meaning absence of want or free from pressures or problems, is that which includes Tausug and Badjaw, kasangyangan (peacefulness, order); Naga Bikol and Sorsogon, kasanggayahan (prosperity, free from pressure/problems); and Tagalog, kasaganahan (prosperity). The initial ka– and final –an/-han are affixes in these contemporary forms. It is proposed here, albeit tentatively, that these words could have come from *(ka)sangyaga(an)4. The g in the earlier form developed in a homorganic velar nasal written as ‘ng’ *sangyanga; then on the affixation of -an, the final -a of the stem and that of the affix underwent complete assimilation or became one, resulting in Tausug and Badjaw kasangyangan. In Bikol and Sorsogon, y and g, underwent metathesis or changed places resulting in kasanggayahan. The Tagalong cognate underwent a more complex change; y developed into a homorganic n5 on assimilation to the nasal ng (sangnaga); metathesis of n and g on the assimilative pull of the homorganic ‘ng’ (*sanggana) then this ng underwent complete assimilation to the following g (saggana), which then simplified into a single g since Tagalog does not have geminate or double consonants, hence kasaganahan.

One other interesting set of cognates descriptive of physical state is Tagalog maalwan (light/easy feeling), Hiligaynon maalwan (absence of want, easy life). This Tagalog adjective, in this sense, is often used with katawan (body) or trabaho (work). So one aspires for maalwan na trabaho which means where one can sit down to work, does not have to exert great physical effort and yet make a good living (e.g. office work). Maalwan ang katawan means light-bodied or free from problems/pressures, hence contented or even happy. In the case of the Ilongo or Hiligaynon speaker, one’s life is maalwan when one has everything he or she needs and does not have to depend on others.

Having to depend on others and, therefore, helpless and without rights is how some informants wished to discuss well-being. Sambal, Pangasinan mairap (difficult, poor) which implies dependence on others is cognate to Tagalog mahirap (difficult, poor). With work or land to till, they would at least be sure of food on the table. Quite interesting too is the set of cognates: Ilokano napanglaw (poor), Tagalag mapanglaw (sad), which shows semantic hangs between cause and effect. Slightly similar is the semantic change between the cognates Ilokano agmimiraut (helpless, no rights, very poor), Sebwano alaut (poor), and Tagalog nagmumuraut (sulking, impatient).


In expanding the study of the network of meaning among the different EGs, it appears that the sense of well-being was at times not specifically defined. For that matter, several of the groups studied did not have a specific term for it. In such cases, the concept was expressed by aspirations identified with it and how these aspirations were used as a measure for it. To the Palawan, life was just right if they had enough food, would not have to sell their possessions or have to steal. To the Yakan, one was dayahan or with much land, a big house and many laborers or helpers. A mark of success, which is aspired for, is the kandit, a thick colorful cloth worn around the waist of a man (poor people wear black shirts). Yet they felt life was all right if they could eat three meals a day. The Subanen differentiates between the kalanghapan (has everything), the dayhop (very wealthy), the dun an (well-to-do), and the gaus (not only rich but also powerful). The Maranaw believing in Islam, knows one’s fortune is determined from birth to death by Allah and therefore a person’s sustenance is provided accordingly. Added to this, they believe in three levels of peaceful existence: the first level, or personal peace, physical and spiritual; the second level, peace with other men and the environment; and the third level, peace with the almighty.

For the Yakan people, a mark of success, which is aspired for, is the kandit, a thick colorful cloth worn around the waist of a man. Photo source: National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA)
A Badjaw family. Photo source: Filipinas Heritage Library

The most common and often paramount aspiration of the EGs was obtaining high or advanced education (tertiary) if not for themselves but certainly for their children. The informants from different EGs expressed the specific benefits this aspiration would bring and consequently contribute to their well-being. To the Badjaw, a seminomadic, seafaring group who make their homes on big bancas (canoes), education was a means to change their present lives for the better. To them, knowledge of things would equip them with the knowledge to make sure that they would not fall prey to cheats. Among the things an education would bring to the Yakan would be mataas ong ungsod or a high bride price for a daughter who finished school. The Malaweg, like other groups, would mortgage their land to send their children to college. The Tausug informant wanted his children to attain a higher education so they could work in an office and would not have to do hard physical work.

Material Things

To various EGs, material goods contributed to the feeling of contentment, and this was expressed in very specific terms such as aspirations for fields to till, and livestock to own. The Palawano informant indicated that about fifty chickens and at least ten pigs would do, while the Yakan aspired to be known as dayahan which, as mentioned earlier, meant land to till, a large house and tenants or people to serve him. The Tausug informant aspired for a wooden house in lieu of his house of bamboo, electricity, and his own artesian well.

Tausug performers dressed in their colorful textile.
Photo source: National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA)

Similarly, the Tausug and Malaweg aspire for a large or well-built house. Besides this, the Malaweg aspire to own jip6 which to them is the symbol of success; owning one is considered even more prestigious than owning a thresher, despite the fact that they belong to a rural agricultural community that plants rice. The Maranaw considers one has tamok (wealth) if one has a mine, followers, livestock, gold and silver. The Badjaw aspires to leave pusaka (inheritance) like an agong (gong), and land, to their children. Members of EGs who believe in Islam aspire to fulfill the pilgrimage to Mecca. 

Food is also perceived as an indicator of well-being. The Subanens measure a person’s state of well-being by the food he or she eats. Having a very rich rice culture, they believe that rice on the table as the main staple indicates a good state of life. If they had to eat rice mixed with corn because of a poor rice harvest, their well-being would suffer. The worst would be if all they could get were root crops such as kamote (sweet potato). But having to eat cooked bananas as their meal indicates extreme hardship. The Malaweg considers rice fuel as the food of the poor. The Tagalog, like other EGs, have the expression nagdidildil ng asin (dip in salt) which literally describes the diet of those who have hardly anything to eat but rice and salt. Figuratively, however, this means the state of want or destitution.

Spirit World

Despite the great influence of Christianity and Islam, different EGs still put in stock the power of spirits which are part of their belief systems. Spirits are greatly involved in ensuring well-being since they are believed to have power over the sources of peace, happiness and order to say nothing of causing mayhem in the present and even in the afterlife. To the Yakan these are spirit counterparts that share the world and are appeased by prayers and rituals. Quite similarly, the Subanens believe that each human being has a twin spirit, the medlangaw. In more structured system, the Maranaw categorize spirits as pat na niyawa or as four types: langit (sky heaven); lopa (land, ground), ig (water) and apoy (fire). Like the Subanen, they believe in the twin spirits that may cause illness or death. For this reason, they perform rituals for every stage of life—from conception to death. The Mandaya believe that man goes to heaven only to the intercession of some heavenly spirit, while the Bagobo believe in the tigbanwa or the spirit that minds man on earth.

 Buklog of the Subanen is a ritual conducted to appease and express gratitude to the spirits for reasons such as bountiful harvest, recovery from sickness or calamity, or acknowledgment of a new leader. Photo source: National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA).

This is similar to the Mansaka belief that everyone was suckled by the ebol before locating on earth. According to the Mansaka one has to make good friends pwanak with the spirits that are present all around us by way of panawaytawag rituals that offer food, bettle nut chew, etc. to ensure the freedom to use the land for farming, hunting, gathering wood and even beehives. Therefore, one has to befriend, for example, the daragpok who watch over vegetation and the gamaw-gamaw who watch over the rivers and fish. They also believe that kalluwa (soul of the dead), kalla in Mandaya, dwells among the living and may cause sickness.

Many EGs—the Tagalog, Ilokano, Sebwano, among them—chant a rhyme to ask permission to pass through areas that are less used or do not have paths or roads: for example in Tagalog, “paraan paraan po, Lelong” (“allow me to pass, grandfather”), or in Ilokano “bari bari” (“allow me to pass”). Failing to do this, sickness which would anything from a skin itch to more serious internal ailments, could befall those insensitive to their surroundings. This could be taken as a strong consciousness of their environment and the awareness that their well-being depended on it.

Social Interaction

A participant at a Maranao wedding ceremony. Photo source: Filipinas Heritage Library

The data from the different EGs indicate that an important means to attaining well-being is by maintaining active interaction within the community. This is still quite true of the communities in rural areas. The activities related to such interaction enhance a position of admiration and respect for those involved. Two of these activities emerge from the data taken from the numerous EGs studied and these are marriage and collective work. In most of the EGs studied, marriage is celebrated not only by members of the families of the parties involved but also by the whole community. In some cases, elaborate rituals are performed and traditional customs are still practiced, starting with those for courtship, on to those for the marriage ceremony. The expenses incurred for the marriage feast are usually beyond the means of the couples’ families but the community helps by voluntary work in preparing the feast. Members of the community may also contribute money or in kind. No invitations are sent out because practically the whole community is involved. Honor and prestige is acquired by the families whose feasts are graced by many participants from within the community and guests from neighboring ones.

Traces of the practice of giving a dowry or bride-price are still found. In the EGs of the north, this is in the form of a few months’ to a year’s service to the future bride’s family by the prospective bridegroom. The EGs found in the southern part of the country still give money, agong, brass gongs, jewelry clothes and other material things such as a dowry: Palawano baryan; Subanen sungguran; Ilokano, sab-ong; Maranaw lawi-an. This being so, daughters can augment the material wealth of the family this contributes to the well-being of the parents, especially of the father who takes pride in the added stature it brings.

The data indicated further that a marriage also binds the community in its collective effort at making the feast a success. The Ilokanos help members of the community who are to be married by what they call komun, for example fishermen set aside the catch for the day for the marriage feast or contribute the sales of the day’s catch to the festivities. Marriage is aspired for and is considered part of a successful life. Though in the extreme, unmarried Subanen couples are fined and blamed for disasters that fall on the community.

The other social activity which indicated a position of respect in the community is reciprocal collective work. The Tagalog call it bayanihan; the Malaweg, illu, the Itawis tannawa/inhwet; the Ibang, unyon; the Palawano, tabang-tabang; the Subanen, dundyug/so; the Ilokano, ammoyol tagnawa; the Ivantan paysidu-sdungan/mayuhu; the Mansaka, palusung—which all mean voluntary, reciprocal and communal work. Members of the community where this is practiced pitch in to help a member with a heavy job, like building a house, planting or harvesting; see through a crisis, like a wake; or celebrate a milestone, like a marriage. A well-liked member of these communities need not feel anxious about getting heavy work done or seeing through what would entail large and unaffordable expenses because he or she can count on the community’s help, thereby enhancing their feeling of well-being.

Environment/ Nature

Members of the different EGs need but to be aware of signs from nature or their environment to maintain their state of well-being. Most the EGs studied were basically agricultural; therefore, a good harvest meant a good life and contentment. In fact, the Yakan expression magpanggani na kite, which means “let’s harvest,” is also a call to festivities and merrymaking.

This image shows a Bagobo food offering. Photo source: Filipinas Heritage Library

Woven into the belief system of several EGs are signs from the heavens. The moon and stars, guides to planting and harvesting, are seriously studied. When three bright stars are aligned, the Yakans take this as a sign to start planting. They, in fact, postpone planting if the heavens are not bright with stars. The Bagobo watch for the palek (north star) surrounded by other stars as if in a basket, for harvest time. It is the duty of the datu (leader, ruler) to watch for this stellar signal. The position of the Big Dipper (balakit in Bagobo, baratik in Mansaka) in the skies indicates the right time to prepare fields and a good harvest. It also signals the time for the annual sacrifice or offerings.

The shapes of the moon as it progresses to full moon are signs to look out for so as to know which crop to plant. The new moon, dalan to the Bagobos, signals the best time to plant rice, vegetables, and bananas. Bamboo planted at this time will be infested with worms. The appearance of taron (half moon) is the best time to plant sweet potatoes, peanuts, and other root crops while two days before the full moon, tibo, is the best for coconuts, corn, pineapple, pomelo and tubers. The full moon, kablas, is the sign to plan round vegetables and fruits such as squash and watermelons. Planting avacado, sugarcane or plants with long stems a day after the full moon will give good crops. To the Mansaka, the kabitay (half moon), signifies the time to plant vegetables and fruits that grow on vines, for example bitter melon, gourds, and such.

Other signs from nature like the cooing of doves are taken as guides to ensure good results. The Mansaka listen for the alimokan bird before they start planting, while the Bagobo considers the cooing of the wild dove limukan in front of him or her as a warning not to plant.


The present study has attempted to show the rich potential of data taken in situ from the diverse EGs and how a greater understanding of this diversity can clear up problems that might be hampering or abetting change towards cohesiveness. At the same time, identifying the common threads that run through the EGs give us significant points that could be capitalized on, or could accelerate efforts at unity. Utilizing such knowledge should help eradicate existing discrimination and or marginalization of EGs or even smaller groups within larger ones, that seem to the highly Westernized Filipinos as backward or should simply be ignored. Presently, EGs are identified as ethnic, indigenous, minor, non-Christian/Muslim groups, thus immediately setting up a discriminatory dichotomy. One must ask: aren’t all the EGs in the Philippines ethnic indigenous and if not, what criteria are used to make the distinction? Does number or largeness cancel out equal rights? Should religion be the distinguishing factor? Finding the common threads that run through the EGs diversities should give us answers, and is a more convincing way to understand the Filipinos who have been politically grouped together and who, considering historical events and time past, should appreciate this fact.


  1. The program has conducted research in the different regions of the country, which was made possible by funding from the UP Foundation for North Eastern Luzon, the National Commission for Culture and the Arts for the Ilokos and Batanes, and the Toyota Foundation for Mindanaw. The results of this research are made available to scholars who might need these data.
  2. The data for this paper was culled from the field research done by the multidisciplinary research cooperation between experienced faculty researchers and the younger members of the faculty. Senior students also participated in the field research.
  3. The EGs mentioned here are the Tagalog and Kapampangan, located in Central Luzon, Ilokano and Malaweg in Northern Luzon; Naga Bikol and Sorsogon in Southern Luzon; Sebuwano, Hiligaynon and Waray in the Visayan Islands and parts of Mindanaw, Tausug and Badjaw in the Sulu Archipelago; Subanen and Maranaw in Eastern Mindanaw, Surigawnon and Bukidnon in Western Mindanaw. The bulk of the data on the EGs studied were collected for the PPEG by the following: Joel Ruma, Melina Magsumbol, Karen Mae Valencia (Malaweg); Nestor Castro (Tausug); Eufracio Abaya (Tausug, Badjaw); Cynthia Zayas (Tausug, Badjaw); Celeste Reyes (Subanen); Rogenen Pepito (Badjaw); Eufracio Abaya, Ariel Agcaoili, Eloisa Verdogla (Ilokano); N. Nagasura (Maranaw); Delia Magaña (Mansaka); Honey Achanzar (Bagobo); Arnold Alamon (Mandaya); Victor Paz, Gayia Beyer (Palawanon); Nestor Castro, Yvonne Malupa, Cynthia Zayas (Ivantan); Melina Magsumbol (Yakan).
  4. The symbol * indicates the form as a theoretical/reconstructed form or one unattested in contemporary languages.
  5. The Tagalog sound system does not have a palatal nasal (ñ) homorganic to ‘y’; nearest to it is ‘n.’
  6. Borrowed from English jitney, this word was originally jipney in Philippine languages, which was later shortened to jip on analogy to the American jeep (small, World War II transport vehicle). These original vehicles were acquired from US Army surplus and converted into passenger vehicles seating 12-16 with a back entry. These often have chrome bodies and are elaborately decked with folk art décor in bright colors.

The essay is taken from the book Ginhawa, Kapalaran, Dalamhati (Essays on Well-Being, Opportunity/Destiny and Anguish), edited by Consuelo J. Paz and published by the University of the Philippines Press Diliman, Quezon City in 2008.

Dr. Paz is said to be the “Grand Dame of Philippine Linguistics.” She is a retired professor of linguistics, was chairperson of the Departmento ng Linggwistiks, and was dean of the College of Social Sciences and Philosophy, UP Diliman (1992-1997). She has written books and articles on Philippine languages and the complicated linguistic situation of the Philippines. She was instrumental in strengthening the connection between the scientific study of languages and other disciplines in the social sciences. She initiated the Programa sa Pag-aaral ng mga Etnolinggwistikong Grupo, which conducted fieldwork in the Philippines in order to gather linguistic and ethnographic data that produced an extensive range of studies on Philippine languages and cultures.