Cagayan means 'river'
By Dr. Lawrence A. Reid and Elson T. Elizaga
Houses, dike, and children at Cagayan River

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.

Form Meaning Region Sample speakers
karayan river   Ilokano
kagayan river Northern Cordillera, Tagalog, Central Philippines Ibanag, Itawis (also kayan)
kahayan river Central Cagayan Agta
kayayan river   Batanic, Kapampangan, Bolinao
kalayan river Central and Southern Cordillera, and Southern Philippines Kalinga, Bontok, Ifugaw, Inibaloi and Pangasinan; Tboli and Blaan
kayan river    

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’.

Dr. Lawrence ReidReid's explanations are responses to queries sent by webmaster 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.

The anthropologist and historian Dr. Antonio J. Montalvan II, who was also a member of Alibata, wrote an email to Elizaga in August 2017: "Of all conclusions on the origin of the name Cagayan, Reid's is the most scientific linguistically, that is, that the name is proto-Philippine and that it has a possible relationship to its northern Luzon forms: karayan, kahayan and others." Black square indicates end of article.

Email from Dr. Lawrence Reid

"The word 'cagayan' is reconstructible, possibly, to one of the early proto-languages of the Philippines if not for Proto-Philippines itself, as *kaRayan "river", where *R represents the proto-phoneme with g reflexes in the Northern Cordilleran languages, such as Ibanag and Itawis, as well as in Tagalog and other Central Philippine languages, as r in Ilokano, as y in Batanic languages, Kapampangan and Bolinao, and as l in Central and Southern Cordilleran languages such as Kalinga, Bontok, Ifugaw, Inibaloi and Pangasinan, and in the southern Philippine languages, Tboli and Blaan. Of course the term *kaRayan is not reflected in all of these languages.

"... In Proto-Philippines there were two words for 'water'. The term for 'fresh water' was *wa'iR, hence Bontok, etc, wa'il 'stream'; Manobo languages wayig, and similar forms; T'boli 'el; Maguindanao 'ig 'water', all of which reflect the reconstructed term faithfully, according to the phonological developments of each language. The general term for 'water' was *Danum, hence Bontok, etc., danum; Sambalic languages lanom 'water'. There are no languages in the Philippines that reflect a term 'ag'. Lists of terms for 'water' and also 'river' from around 50 Philippine languages can be found in my 1971 book, Philippine Minor Languages: Word Lists and Phonologies (Oceanic Linguistics Special Publication No. 8. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press.)

"The word that has been reconstructed for Proto-Philippines by Himes, and also Blust for 'to flow, of a river' is *bulus. None has reconstructed *agus with this, or any other meaning. In fact it is doubtful that there was a *g phoneme in the Proto-Philippine language. The g sound in Philippine languages usually developed from a voiced velar fricative, represented as *R in reconstructions.

"The evidence for the Proto-Philippine word reconstructable for river, *kaRayan, comes from Ilokano karayan, Central Cagayan Agta kahayan, Itawis kayan, etc. Note that in all the languages that have a reflex of this form, it simply means 'river', it is not a morphologically complex form. There is no language that reflects a form 'kagay'. Nor is there any evidence that either the final -an was a suffix, or for that matter that the initial ka- was a prefix. At some early stage, it is possible that the -an was a locative suffix. But perhaps *kaRay was the name of a plant that typically grew in the river where the term first developed, or the name of a kind of fish. These are far more likely than to assume that *kaRay meant 'river'. But to go beyond the evidence presented above is pure speculation, and any person's guess is as good as any others ...."

This YouTube video is part 1 of 4.


  • What is cagayan? What is the etymology of cagayan? What is the meaning of Cagayan de Oro? Does cagayan mean river?  

If you are using ad-blocking apps, consider whitelisting elson.elizaga.net.

Originally published Aug. 31, 2002 in cagayan.elizaga.net and later in cagayandeoro.elizaga.net, both defunct. Revised by Dr. Lawrence Reid on July 19, 2017. Updated Aug. 7, 2017. Photo of Cagayan River and "Historical Linguistics" added January 22, 2020.

Unique visitors since Jan. 10, 2018:   

Home | 2002-2017 | About | Contact  
© Elson T. Elizaga