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On Sayang & Mahal

Posted by on 28 November 2008

This is a reconstruction of an SMS (text message) exchange that took place not too long ago between myself and one of our managers, whom I shall refer to as ‘A’:-

A: Those stocks are all defective and have to be disposed of.
A: Better be careful with that word. I don’t want to get into trouble with your husband!

Filipinos would probably find A’s response perplexing. This is because the word sayang in Tagalog and Cebuano means ‘what a pity’. So why should be A get in trouble with my husband just because I sms’d him “Sayang“??

Naturally, I meant ‘what a pity’, because I was referring to the stocks that had to be disposed of, sayang in Malay being exactly the same as sayang in Tagalog and Cebuano. But what I forgot was that the word sayang can also mean something else in Malay — love!

Sayang can be used both as a noun, as in a term of endearment similar to Honey or Darling (‘Happy anniversary, Sayang‘), or as a verb, as in I sayang you (I love you).

There is, however, another Malay word for love, which is cinta [chin-ta]. There’s a lot of debate going on about the difference — or lack thereof — between the two words, but it is generally accepted that cinta is usually more towards romantic love, such as in that famous love song that goes, ‘Aku cinta padamu sungguh‘ (I love you very much).

Despite its usage for romantic love, cinta can also be used when expressing love for the country or the environment. For example, one tagline for a campaign for cleaning up the rivers is ‘Cintai Sungai Kita‘ (Love Our River).

When it comes to expressing love for God, both sayang and cinta can be used.

As for my Malay readers, whether you are in Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore or Brunei, in case you’re wondering how to say ‘I sayang you’ in Tagalog, it’s very easy to pronounce and to remember — Mahal kita.

Now, it’s the Malay speakers’ turn to get perplexed. You see, mahal means ‘expensive’ in the Malay language and kita means ‘I’ or ‘us’. I can only assume that mahal in the Tagalog sense evolved from meaning ‘I value you’ to meaning ‘I love you’. I cannot, however, come up with any theory as to how sayang could have evolved from ‘what a pity’ to ‘love’!

And just as there is cinta in Malay, there’s also pag-ibig in Tagalog, which is usually used for romantic love, as well. Its usage as a verb is quite tricky because Filipinos have a system of prefixes and suffixes to affix to a root word in order to get specific words, depending on the usage and tense. Here are a few examples:-

Iniibig kita – I love you/I’m in love with you
Ikaw lang ang aking iibigin – You’re the only one I’ll ever love
Minsan, inibig din kita – I once loved you

A mother will tell her child “Mahal kita” but she can only say “Iniibig kita” to her husband.

However, pag-ibig, by itself, can be used for expressing love towards the country, such as in ‘pag-ibig sa inang-bayan‘ (love to our motherland), towards fellow human beings, i.e. ‘pag-ibig sa kapwa-tao,’ and towards God, i.e. ‘pag-ibig sa Diyos‘.

Whatever the case, as the Filipina singer Leah Navarro sang in ‘Isang Mundo, Isang Awit’ (meaning ‘One World, One Song’; click on the link to see complete lyrics and to listen to the song):-

Paano man sabihin
Ang mundo’y turuan natin
Tanging lunas ang pag-ibig

Which roughly translates to:-

No matter how it’s said (or how it’s called),
Let us teach the world (that)
The only solution is love.

To read a more detailed explanation on the usage of the word sayang, click on this link. It’s actually in Indonesian, but its usage is very similar to the Malaysian context.

And to read a very nice article on the difference between suka (like), sayang and cinta, click on this link.  Too bad it’s entirely in Indonesian language!

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