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Cagayan means "river"
By Dr. Lawrence A. Reid and Elson T. Elizaga
Cagayan de Oro River

Cagayan de Oro 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. Montalván 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."

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 ...." End

This YouTube video is part 1 of 4.
By Elson T. Elizaga

This table is a collection of terms that may or may not be related to "cagayan" (river). It is the result of independent online research. No linguist has been consulted, yet.
Name Description
Can Ayan River in Malaybalay, Bukidnon, Philippines (YouTube, accessed December 31, 2021)
"Spoken L1 Language: Kayan River Kayan" A list of Austronesian languages containing the word "kayan," some of which mean "river." The list is in Glottolog, "[The] Comprehensive reference information for the world's languages, especially the lesser known languages ...." (Glottolog, accessed January 20, 2022)
Kakayan River Map Kakayan River is in Myanmar. (Getamap, accessed 2021.)
Keybeyan River " ... a watercourse that is part of the Murrumbidgee catchment within the Murray-Darling basin, is located in the Manaro region of New South Wales, Australia." (Wikipedia)
Kedayan 1. "Kedayan River (Malay: Sungai Kedayan) is a tributary of the Brunei River which flows through Bandar Seri Begawan, the capital of Brunei." (Wikipedia, accessed December 29, 2021; also Wordisk, accessed December 29, 2021.)2. "The Kedayan (also known as Kadayan, Kadaian or Kadyan) are an ethnic group residing in Brunei, Labuan, Sabah, and parts of Sarawak on the island of Borneo.[1][2] ...." (Wikipedia, accessed December 29, 2021.)

Also known as kadayan, karayan, kerayan. (The British Museum, accessed December 29, 2021.)
Sungai Kedayan 3. "Sungai Kedayan is a mukim in the Brunei-Muara district of Brunei. It is one of the six water village mukims. All the water village mukims are quite small in size and area and are water-bound. It is located in the heart of Brunei's capital, Bandar Seri Begawan on the waters of the Brunei river ... By end-2014 - 2015, the mukim is ceased to exist because of the development of the Eco-Corridor (now known as the Taman Mahkota Jubli Emas.)" (Mapnall, accessed December 29, 2021.)
Aayan River Sports

Location: Chaba, Himachal Pradesh 171301
"Whether you want to go fishing, sailing or just want to have tranquil time on the waters, Aayan River Sports has something for you. We offer boat hiring services to our esteemed clients and ensure that they get the best time of their lives ...." (Aayan River Sports)
Karayan Dam In Chico River, Kalinga province, Philippines. The project is opposed by the Indigenous Peoples of the Philippines Cordillera. (Ejatlas.org, accessed January 8, 2022)
Karayan River A river in La Paz, San Narciso, Zambales, Philippines (Geographical Names, accessed January 8, 2022; Mindat, accessed January 8, 2022.)

"Karayan River is a stream in and has an elevation of 10 metres. Karayan River is situated nearby to , and north of Coyacoy River. (Mapcarta, accessed January 8, 2022.)
Karayan Salakniban "Protect our River" (Facebook, accessed January 8, 2022.)
Kawayan River 1. a stream in Oriental Mindoro province, Philippines (Getamap, accessed December 31, 2021)

2. a stream in Aklan province, Philippines (Mindat, accessed December 30, 2021)

3. a stream in Abra province, Cordillera Administrative Region, Philippines (Geoview, accessed December 31, 2021)

4. a stream in Zamboanga del Sur province, (Geoview, accessed December 31, 2021)

5. List of Kawayan Rivers in the Philippines (Wikipedia, accessed December 31, 2021)


1."Kayan River is a river of Borneo island, flowing in the North Kalimantan province of Indonesia, about 1600 km northeast of the capital Jakarta.[3][4] Tributaries include the Bahau River." (Wikipedia, accessed December 29, 2021.)

2. "Kayan, indigenous people of central Borneo. They numbered about 27,000 in the late 20th century. The Kayan are settled mainly along the middle reaches of the Baram, Bintulu, and Rajang rivers in Sarawak, Malaysia. In Indonesian Borneo they live mainly near the headwaters of the Kayan River ...." (Britannica, accessed January 22, 2022)

3. "The Kayan are a sub-group of Red Karen (Karenni people), Tibeto-Burman ethnic minority of Myanmar (Burma). The Kayan consists of the following groups: Kayan Lahwi (also called Padaung, ပဒေါင် [bədàʊɰ̃]), Kayan Ka Khaung (Gekho), Kayan Lahta, Kayan Ka Ngan. Kayan Gebar, Kayan Kakhi and, sometimes, Bwe people (Kayaw). They are distinct from, and not to be confused with, the Kayan people of Borneo. (Wikipedia, accessed January 20, 2022)

Ayan-Yuryakh - River "The Ayan-Yuryakh is a river in the Magadan Oblast of Russia. It is a left tributary of the Kolyma river, which forms at the confluence of the Ayan-Yuryakh and the Kulu ...." (Wikipedia, accessed March 9, 2023)
Kanhan River " ... an important right bank tributary of the Wainganga River draining a large area lying south of Satpura range in Central India ...." (Wikipedia, accessed April 12, 2023.)

Originally published Aug. 31, 2002 in cagayan.elizaga.net, now 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. Appendix added April 12, 2023. Photo of Cagayan River replaced August 30, 2023.



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