It’s National Language Month (Buwan ng Pambansang Wika) and what better way to start it than with some thoughts on the Filipino word “utak”, which is more than just the brain.
The other week I wrote about how President Aquino, in his State of the Nation Address, referred several times to “utak-wangwang,” which if we were to use a literal translation would be “police siren brain.” What the President was referring to was abuse of power, derived from the way the wangwang was, at least until last year, used by politicians and anyone trying to zip their way through traffic by pretending they were VIPs.
I translated “utak” as “mind-set” but again translations can be treacherous. Utak-wangwang was not just a way of thinking but a way of doing things, and the President had many examples to give concerning corruption.
Toward the end of his speech the President mentioned “utak-alimango” which many Filipinos recognize immediately as “crab mentality,” a term which does exist in English complete with its own Wikipedia entry. After explaining the behavior of crabs in a bucket, the Wikipedia entry goes on to explain that the analogy among humans “is that of a group that will attempt to ‘pull down’ (negate or diminish the importance of) any member who achieves success beyond the others, out of envy, conspiracy or competitive feelings.”
I explained in my column that the crab mentality is not exclusive to Filipinos and I won’t repeat the discussion here. For today’s column, I am mentioning utak-alimango because writer Ed Maranan e-mailed me to ask if the term is correct, Ed being inclined to use “utak-talangka.”
That got me wondering because indeed, until I read the President’s speech, I hadn’t actually heard “utak-alimango” being used. What seems to be in common usage is “utak-talangka.”
Then the biological anthropologist in me got me thinking, is there a difference between alimango and talangka? I have written about the difference between mice and rats and hares and rabbits, so why not one now on alimango and talangka? And since we are talking about utak-alimango and utak-talangka, I thought I might as well tackle the question: Do crabs even have brains in the first place?
Crabs and more crabs
Google to the rescue, and lo and behold, what I got weren’t links to Wikipedia but to tl-Wikipedia, which is Tagalog Wikipedia, and which relies heavily on the UP Diksyonaryong Filipino for basic definitions. Here’s what I found:
Alimango are mud or mangrove crabs, with the scientific name Scylla serrata. Talangka is Varuna litterata, with the common names littoral or shore crabs. The two then are different types of crabs, distinguished by their habitat.
But the Tagalog Wikipedia gives links as well to katang, which refers to freshwater (tubig tabang) crabs. There’s also dakumo, described as small crabs (alimangong maliit) with hair, and which live in stony parts of a river, in other words also freshwater crabs.
In all these entries it seems alimango is the generic term for crabs, something I confirmed while marketing last Sunday. All the vendors used “alimango” to refer to the many kinds of crabs. They also used the English “crabs” a lot, for example, “blue crab.”
The vendors had the usual obsession, distinguishing lalake, babae and bakla crabs, which will make for another entertaining column, or maybe even a blog so I can include photographs. (The Inquirer has given me permission to do a blog for one of the media networks, but I’ll need some time yet before jumping into this new genre of writing.)
We now get the question of using utak-talangka or utak-alimango. There was an entry for utak-talangka: “nais makaangat sa buhay sa pamamagitan ng paghatak sa iba nang pababa” (trying to move up in life by bringing others down). There was also an entry for utak-alimango: “bariyasyon ng utak-talangka.” So, there you have it: utak-alimango is a variation of utak-talangka.
Now to tackle the utak-as-brain part. Two years ago the Norwegian government commissioned a study to determine if crustaceans—crabs, clams, oysters—have brains. The study was commissioned to help finalize a proposed law on animal welfare. The assumption was that to feel pain, you need a brain.
The verdict? The scientific team decided crustaceans don’t have brains—at least not in the same way other animals do. The crustaceans lack a neocortex, which is responsible for thinking. Put simply (or simplistically), if you can’t think, then even if you’re in pain you won’t know you’re in pain.
If the scientific team did decide crustaceans have a brain and, by extension, can feel pain, then it would have been illegal to cook them alive. Heaven knows what humane methods would have been prescribed to put the crustaceans to sleep (wait, do they sleep at all?) before cooking.
Now if crabs don’t have brains, can we talk about utak-talangka (or alimango, or the small hairy variety called dakumo)?
Our linguistic utak
I would think so because utak in Filipino is highly metaphorical. We have seen that utak can be a mind-set as well as a way of doing things. Utak-pulis for example is to shoot first, ask questions later. So in the case of the crabs, it’s more of the mechanical way of doing things, without necessarily saying the crabs are conspiring to pull each other down. In fact, if you watch crabs in a basket, you could also interpret their movements as a way of “helping” each other upwards.
Austronesian languages (to which our Philippine languages belong) are famous for agglutination or combining words. Any word, utak included, can be combined with other words to yield new meanings and metaphors. Utak-biya is demeaning, referring to the ease with which you can catch the goby fish. It can get worse: utak-langgam (ant-brained) down to utak-hanip, probably a translation of flea-brain to emphasize the most meager of thinking capacities (but then again fleas, like crustaceans, don’t have brains, so you shouldn’t feel guilty next time you de-flea your dog).
Even lower than utak-hanip is utak-polvoron, referring to the powdery dessert. Get it? Powdered, pulverized brain?
It doesn’t end there. We also like to convert nouns into verbs. As a verb (e.g., utakan), to “brain” someone means to out-smart that person, often with negative connotations of having employed underhanded tactics.
Then there’s toyo sa utak, where someone who seems to have problems thinking is said to have soy sauce up there.
I thought I heard patis sa utak once many years ago, to mean something like the soyed brain. That would have been eloquently translated, drawing from patis being highly salted, into a brined brain, again not exactly conducive for thinking.
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