Pinoy Kasi

‘Ay, atay’

/ 12:08 AM August 31, 2016

WITH the Buwan ng Pambansang Wika (National Language Month), I thought I should produce one more article on Philippine languages, combining therein two of my special interests in anthropology: one around linguistics, and the other around medicine.

There, I’m already feeling my liver excited, because I’m going to look at the concepts around this organ.


Yes, that phrase “an excited liver” sounds strange because we tend to think of the liver as a rather dull organ, tucked away in one corner, remembered only when someone comes down with some kind of liver disease.

Yet, many cultures see the liver as the seat of emotions and, linguistically, it seems that earlier generations of Filipinos shared the view.


Look at the Tagalog words dalamhati and lualhati.  They have the suffix “-hati” which in Malay means the liver (although sometimes it’s also interchanged with the heart).  Dalamhati, sadness, combines dalam (inside) and hati, to mean literally “inside the liver.”  On the other hand, lualhati is from lual (outside); so sadness is what is inside the liver and joy is what is outside.

The liver is seen then as a seat of important emotions. Two other words with “-hati” are pighati for grief, and lunggati for yearning.

The liver as soul

Historian Resil Mojares wrote an article titled “Heart and Liver” in 1994. The article elaborates on the relationship between the liver and emotions, pointing out that in Cebuano, sharp emotions are described as makapakitbi sa atay (“what curdles the liver”).  And while the Tagalog describes an emotionally moving feeling as nakakataba ng puso (“something that fattens the heart”—not very eloquent in translation), the Cebuano will say makapadaku sa atay (“that which enlarges the liver”—again much is lost in translation).

Mojares observes that the Tagalog atay ng lupa refers to the most fertile part of a piece of land,  and the  pagmamayatay as a proud and powerful man, literally means “he who claims to have the liver.” He points out, too, that the palm, and the sole of the foot is the atay ng paa in Tagalog, and atay-atay  in Cebuano.  In so many words then, atay is central, almost like the soul (yes, the soul of a foot and of a hand), maybe, even our very being.

The liver figures prominently in our folklore as a favored delicacy for the predatory aswang.  I can see the powerful metaphor here of the aswang draining its victim of its life-force, the emotions. Warriors from various ethnic groups in the Philippines have been described as going for the liver of the enemy, to ingest his courage, and animal livers are used for diagnosing a person’s illness and predicting the future.

Doing research for today’s column I was surprised at how widespread the association is between emotions and the liver.  The Online Etymological Dictionary notes that in the English language during the medieval ages, “the liver rivaled the heart as the seat of love and passion.”


In traditional Chinese medicine, the liver is seen as the seat of anger while the heart is the seat of joy, the spleen of pensiveness, the lungs of anxiety and grief, and the kidneys of fear and fright., a website that focuses on linguistic and translation aspects of the Bible, lists several references to the liver in the Old Testament and in Semitic languages (spoken in the Middle East, North and East Africa) where the liver is also “temper” and “disposition.”

In Lamentations 2:11 Jeremiah cries out: “My liver is poured upon the earth because of the destruction of the daughter of my people.”

Biblehub notes that in Hebrew, kabedh means “liver” and kabhodh means “glory,” which may have possibly resulted in confusion during the translation of Psalm 16:9, with variously reads: “My heart is glad and my heart rejoiceth” (ASV version); “My heart is glad and my glory rejoiceth” (King James Version); and “My heart is glad and my whole being rejoiceth” (English Standard Version).

Note a happy resolution with the Tagalog translation: “Kaya’t ang aking puso ay masaya, at ang aking kaluwalhatian ay nagagalak.”  Reading this rendering of “rejoicing” into kaluwalhatian made me realize that joy is not just an emotion “outside” of the liver; it is also an emotion that overflows, umaapaw in Filipino.


Words are powerful; not only do they describe emotions, they also direct the way we feel. In the Philippines, we seem to have abandoned the liver and moved over to the heart when we describe our emotions. When we say “nakakataba ng puso,” we do feel the heart expanding as it is touched.   We also feel the pinching when we say “nakakakurot ng puso.”

Now for the medical part.  Is there an actual relationship between the liver and emotions?

There is, actually, because the liver is such a vital organ. It’s our filter system for removing toxins. It produces bile for digestion and several blood proteins. It activates enzymes important in many body functions.

There are several different liver diseases, some caused by infections (hepatitis A, B, C, D and E), others by lifestyle (cirrhosis from alcoholism, drug use). And when the liver gets “sick,” it can adversely affect the brain and cause an illness described as hepatic encephalopathy, which manifests in mental confusion and anxiety.

Cebuanos speak of giatay (literally, “to be livered”) as a pestilence originally affecting chickens but now with expanded meaning; so an exclamation of “Giatay!” is one of exasperation, referring to people who come into our lives like a plague.

Liver diseases do figure prominently among the most common illnesses in the Philippines, even as causes of death, but they are not analyzed enough for their social significance. I have no doubt that cirrhosis is tied to our high alcohol and/or drug use.  And infectious hepatitis relates to unsanitary food handling (for hepatitis A and E), and to the larger problems of sexually transmitted infections, contaminated blood supplies, and injecting drug use (hepatitis B, C and D).

Do avoid the giatay; take care of your liver, and find joys in life, and give as much as you receive so that it overflows as kaluwalhatian should.


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TAGS: Buwan ng Wika, Language, Language month, linguistic, medicine, opinion
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