The Analysis and Content of the Diccionario Bisaya-Español, Español-Bisaya of Fr. Juan Felix de la Encarnacion and Its Impact Today


by: Dr. Jes B. Tirol, PhD, Director, Planning and Research, University of Bohol, Tagbilaran City


A dictionary has a wealth of information about a particular language and like any other form of wealth it must be used judiciously.

  1. A modern dictionary usually has the following functions:[1]
  2. It provides definition, usage, and functions of words and other entries.
  3. It is a guide to correct spelling.
  4. It provides grammatical informations.
  5. It provides tense and number forms of words.
  6. It provides a guide to the proper pronunciation of words.
  7. The etymology of words reveals about past use and suggestive as to the connotation of present use.
  8. The synonyms and antonyms will help a person chose a variety of words.

The writing of a dictionary is not a task of setting up authoritative statements about the “true” meaning of words, but a task of recording what various words have meant as it is being used.  The writer of a dictionary is a historian, not a lawgiver.[2]

The above statements regarding a dictionary can help us analyze the dictionary written by Fr. Juan Felix de la Encarnacion.  Fr. Juan Felix’s dictionary did not follow the modern seven (7) functions of a dictionary but definitely it was a valuable dictionary during its time and even at present.

The Dictionary

In the year 1851, Fr. Juan Felix de la Encarnacion, OAR, published his Diccionario Bisaya-Español.  The word entries of about 17,500 were in Sugboanon Bisaya and the defintions were in Spanish.  The next year, 1852, he published the converse Diccionario Español-Bisaya.  The word entries of about 28,000 were in Spanish and the definitions were in Sugboanon Bisaya.  Subsequent printing joined the two dictionaries in one volume with separate pagination.  The corrected second edition was published in 1866. The Tipografia De Amigos Del Pais in Manila published the third edition in the year 1885 under the auspices of the Augustinian Recollect Order.  The 3rd edition had about 3,000 additional entries by Fr. Jose Sanchez, OAR, mostly found in the appendix.

As a bilingual dictionary, the target users of the dictionary were the confreres of Fr. Felix and educated Bisaya speakers who knew or studied both the Sugboanon Bisaya and the Spanish languages.

It was not the first comprehensive Sugboanon Bisaya dictionary.  In the year 1711, or 140 years earlier, the comprehensive Vocabulario De La Lengua Bisaya by Fr. Matheo Sanchez, S.J. was published.  Fr. Sanchez finished that dictionary in 1618, which was the year of his demise.  The numerous examples how to use the words in Bisayan sentences made that dictionary a valuable reference for the Jesuits.

The Augustinian Recollects replaced the Jesuits in the same mission fields in 1768.  Due to the manner of expulsion of the Jesuits, it could be expected that the Augustinian Recollects would have no access to the dictionary of Fr. Matheo Sanchez.  So in 1851, after 83 years of administering the vacated Jesuit mission fields, Fr. Juan Felix felt the need for a Sugboanon Bisaya dictionary.  However, Fr. Juan Felix wrote only a dictionary. He was not able to publish a grammar book on how to use the Bisayan words in sentences.

Fr. Juan Felix[3]

Fr. Juan Felix de la Encarnacion was a Spaniard.  He was born in Villadolid, Spain on 30 June 1806.  He joined the Order of the Augustinian Recollects (OAR) on 27 March 1828.  He was granted his religious order at the Colegio de Alfaro.  He arrived in Manila on 29 December 1829.  He was ordained a priest on 12 February 1830 and assigned as companion priest in Zamboanga.  It is a place at the western side of the Island of Mindanao.

He immediately started learning the Sugboanon Bisaya language and mastered it.  He was then transferred to Bislig (Now:  Bislig, Surigao del Sur), a place located at the eastern side of the Island of Mindanao that also speak the Sugboanon Bisaya.  On 18 August 1832, he was transferred to Siquijor (Now:  Siquijor province) and remained there until 1849 when he was elected as Father Provincial of the Augustinian Recollects.  After his 3-year term, he was again assigned to Siquijor from 1852 to 1861.  He was again elected as Father Provincial for the second time.  After his second 3-year term as Father Provincial, he was assigned as Prior of San Sebastian Convent in Manila.  In 1867 he returned to the Visayas as Parish Priest of Dumaguete and Vicar Provincial of Negros Oriental (Note:  Negros Oriental became a separate province in1890.  Siquijor was detached from Bohol and joined to Negros Oriental in January 19, 1892).

Fr. Juan Felix served his duties until it became impossible to do so due to old age.  He was transferred to San Sebastian Convent in Manila, where after a short while he died on 22 November 1879.

Along the way, he had been Sub-Prior and Novice Teacher of Manila in 1837, Procurator General in 1840, Vocation Prior of Taytay in 1843, Chapter Governor (Definidor) in 1846, and while Parish Priest of Siquijor, he became the Vicar Provincial of Negros on November 1848.  He also translated the 4-volume Historia Sagrada by Fr. Saadera Mazo, S.J., from Spanish to Sugboanon Bisaya.  It was not published for lack of money.  The original manuscript of volume one is still existing in Tagbilaran City, Bohol.

Language Situation in 1851

When the Spaniards took control of Cebu and the Visayas in the late 1500’s and early 1600’s, they hired the Sialo or Siyalo Sugboanons as mercenaries.  They were from the present towns of Carcar and Barili, Cebu.  These towns are located at the central part of the island of Cebu.

It would be just natural for the Spaniards to learn the Sugboanon Bisaya of their servants.  The Siyalo Sugboanon Bisaya uses the same words as those of other Sugboanon Bisaya speakers.  They only have a peculiar way of pronouncing some words.  The Siyalo Sugboanons were fond of using the letter “L”.  They would say “salâ = sin” while other places would say sä = sin”.  They would say “pahúlay = rest” instead of the usual “pahúway = rest”, and many others.

As time went by, the Spaniards mastered, wrote, and taught the version of the Siyalo Sugboanon Bisaya.  Eventually it became the standard Sugboanon Bisaya until at present.

It must be noted that Fr. Juan Felix stayed for two (2) years in Mindanao and 17 years in Siquijor before he published his dictionary in 1851.  When Bohol was made a separate province on March 3, 1854, the island of Siquijor became a part of Bohol.  Bohol and Siquijor have also their peculiar way of pronouncing the Bisayan words.  They are fond of using the letter “J” as in English “Jam”, the letter “W”, and the hamza sound or dieresis sound of the vowel, as in “bö” instead of the Siyalo Sugboanon “bólò”.  In 1851, the Boholanos were still using the “D” instead of the “R”, as in “cadón = now” instead of the standard “karón = now”.

The Bisaya-Español and the Español-Bisaya dictionaries can be used only by a person who know both languages.  According to the Spaniards, the standard Sugboanon Bisaya was the Siyalo Sugboanon.  The native Bisayans naturally imitated their Spanish overlords.  So it came to pass that the elite and the literati were using the Siyalo Sugboanon way.

Unfortunately the dictionary of Fr. Juan Felix recorded the non-elitist words and even spelled some words not in accordance with the way favored by the literati and the elite.  So the dictionary of Fr. Juan Felix was not favored by the elite, who in the first place, were the ones capable of using it.  In other words, the dictionary of Fr. Juan Felix was not the “in” thing during its time.

In the preface of the second edition in 1866, Fr. Felix could only express his dismay; “Corrige cuanto you haya dicho mal, explica lo que yo no haya comprendidio, adiciona lo que falte, a fin de que la segunda impression, cuando se efectue, salga mas esmerada que la que yo to ofrezco: entonces adquirira mi obra la perfeccion que necesita, y que yo no supe darla.”

[Translation:  Do correct me, where Ierred, do explain what I did not understand, do add what it lacks so that the second impression would be better than this one I am offering you.  Only then, would my work acquire the perfection it needs, which I could not provide.]

The Adapted Alphabet

When recording the sounds of a new language using the alphabet and language of the researcher, there will be problems to be encountered.  The researcher’s language may not be capable of recording the sounds of the new language.  The researcher will make a “formula” how to represent the new sounds in his own language, approximate the others and reject that, which could not be represented.[4]

The grammar book Arte De La Lengua Zebuana (1836), by Fr. Francisco Encina, OAR,[5] listed A, B, C, D, E, G, H, J, L, M, N, O, P, Q, S, T, U as the alphabet of the Sugboanon Bisaya language.  The literati and elite of the Sugboanon Bisaya language followed this grammar book.

The Diccionario Bisaya-Español by Fr. Juan Felix uses the following as the alphabet of the Sugboanon Bisaya: A, B, C, D, G, H, I, L, M, N, NG, O, P, Q, S, T, Y.

Both Fr. Encina and Fr. Felix admitted that there are only three (3) vowels in the Sugboanon Bisaya alphabet, A, E-I, O-U.  The vowels E-I, O-U are indistinguishable and often interchanged from place to place and writer to writer.  However, Fr. Encina was not true to his opinion.  He used the five vowels of the Spanish alphabet, A, E, I, O, U in writing Bisayan words.  On the other hand, Fr. Felix was true to his word, he used only the three vowels, A, I, O.

Both alphabets have seventeen (17) letters.  You will notice that both alphabets have no letter R.  In the Sugboanon Bisaya language you can hardly find a native word that begin or end in letter R.  However, there is a letter R within a word as “caron = now”, “aron= so that”.  Fr. Felix was true to his opinion; he did not use the letter R, but instead used the D.  He spelled “caron” as “cadon”.  In fact in the preface of his dictionary, Fr. Felix criticized Fr. Encina.  The problem was, Fr. Felix was not able to make his own grammar book so he could not counter the influence of Fr. Encina.

The old Sugboanon Bisaya literati followed the style of Fr. Encina.  However, at the advent of the Americans, the Sugboanon Bisaya used the alphabet A, B, K, D, G, H, I-E, L, M, N, NG, O-U, P, R, S, T, W, Y.

Difficulty in Recording

Fr. Juan Felix was a Spaniard.  Due to the limitations of the Spanish language and alphabet, there were many sounds in the Sugboanon Bisaya language that could not be written and some could only be approximated.

The Spanish alphabet has no letter “W”.  The letters “K” and “H” were no longer pronounced in the 1850’s.  In fact the letter K was no longer used even if it existed in the 16th century Spanish alphabet.  The letter “J” was pronounced like the “H” in English.  Therefore the Spanish alphabet could not record the Jsound of the Sugboanon Bisaya language similar to the word “Jam” in English.  The letter “Y” approximated the “J” sound.  The Bisayan word “jahóng = bowl” was approximated as “yahóng”.  The Bisayan word “ajam = dog” was approximated as “ayam”.  In fact “ajam” and “ayam” became out of use and replaced by “iro = dog” which is a corruption of the Spanish “perro = dog”.  However, to hunt is still “mangáyam = to hunt using dogs”.

The Sugboanon Bisaya has only 3 vowels; A, I, O.  The Spanish language has 5 vowels; A,E,I,O,U. Fr. Juan Felix knew it, and he used only the 3 vowels A,I,O in writing the Bisayan words.  It was one reason why the dictionary was not popular with the native Bisayans as word reference.  The Spaniards, the elite, and the literati preferred to use the 5 Spanish vowels.  The peculiar spelling in the dictionary further aggravated the condescension especially that the dictionary was full of words that were used by the common people such as farming and fishing terms.

Without the letter “W”, Fr. Felix represented the sounds “WA”, “WI”, “WO” as “OA”, “OI”, “OO”.  He wrote “Oala = None” instead of “Walâ”.  He wrote “Oioi = to distend; open by the fingers” instead of “Wîwî”.  He wrote “Taoo = person” instead of “Tawo”.  Maybe the words are still recognizable as representing the Bisayan words.

The Bisayan sound “AW”, and “IW” was appoximated by Fr. Felix as “AO”, and “IOI”.  He wrote “Bahao = stale food; past due” instead of “Bahaw”.  The Bisayan word “Taliwtiw = pointed, as pointed nose” was written as “Talioitioi”.  It could hardly be recognized.  However the Bisayan word “Lagíw = to run away from home” is written as “Lagio”, which can be misread as “Lagyo”.  He also wrote “Siwsiw = rinse in liquid” as “Siosio”, which again can be misread as “Siyo-siyo”.  In fact Fr. Felix chose not to record some Bisayan words ending in “IW”.  He did not record “Ngiwngiw = Owl”, “Bigiw = scamper; a type of boat”, “Balígtiw = to flip something by tapping”, etc.

The absence of the letter K did not create many problems.  The “AK” and “KA” sounds were represented as “AC” and “CA” as “Paac = bite” and “canon = now”.  The modern spelling is “Paak” and “Karo”.  “OC” and “CO” approximated the “OK” and “KO” sounds.  The “IK” sound is represent by “IC” as in “Balic = return” compared to the modern “Balik”.  The “KI” sound is represented by “QUI” as in “Quini = This” compared to the modern “Kini”.

The Spanish orthography could not represent the hamza or dieresis sound.  However, Fr. Felix was lucky, the standard Siyalo Sugboanon could not also pronounce it.  The Siyalo Sugboanon would not roll their tongue but instead add another syllable.  Hence, Fr. Felix spelled it in the standard Siyalo Sugboanon way.

While everybody would say “Wei”, the Siyalo would say “Wala = none; disappear”.  The “Sa = sin” is “Said” in Siyalo.  The word “Ngob = grumble” is recorded as “Ngolob” and “Pei = island” is recorded as “Polo”,  etc.

What is regrettable is the case of the letter “J” with the English “Jam” sound.  The provinces of Bohol, Southern Leyte, Surigao del Norte, and Surigao del Sur has this sound in their version of the Bisayan language.  The Spanish “J” has the “H” sound of English.  For lack of anything else, the letter “Y” approximated the “J” as in “jam.”

The Boholanos and the Leyteños would say “Jamo”.  It came from the Arabic word “Jamo”, which means “totally”.  “Wa jamó = Totally none”.  The recorded approximation is “Walâ yamó.”  This would be wrong because the Siyalo Sugboanon would never say “jamo or yamo”.  Nonetheless we are still glad that Fr. Felix made the record even if it is only an approximation.  It was not his fault that the Spanish alphabet could not capture the sound of “Wâ jamo”.

The standard Sugboanon Bisaya has the word “Payág = hut”.  The Boholanos would say “Pajág = hut”, but the Boholanos also accept “Payág”.  What is regrettable is that the Boholano “Pájag” (accent at first syllable), which means to cut down a tree.  Fr. Felix did not record it.

General Contents of Fr. Felix’s Dictionary

On 3 November 1881, the Augustinian Recollect priests in Misamis province in Mindanao requested for a third edition of the dictionary of Fr. Juan Felix.  The comment of Fr. Marcelino Simonena said that the dictionary was like a “medical encyclopedia”.[6]

The greatest value of Fr. Juan Felix’s dictionary was not as a guide for grammar but as an encyclopedia. It has thousands of word entries regarding culture, customs, and traditional practices of the Bisayans.  It has hundreds of fishing and farming terms.

It listed 24 types of rain, 54 different terms for tying or binding, and hundreds of terms regarding sound.  It listed 110 different types of rice.

It has more than 2,000 terms applicable to politics and governance.  In fact the modern Robert’s Rule of Order can be fully translated into Sugboanon Bisaya using the terms found in the dictionary of Fr. Juan Felix.  However, during the American era, these terms were forgotten in the rush to use only the English terms.

The dictionary contains about 3,000 words regarding mathematics, geometry, and engineering.  In fact I have been teaching mathematics using Sugboanon Bisaya to engineering students up to analytic geometry using the terms found in the dictionary.

Medical Encyclopedia

When Dr. James A. Graham, a Scottish-American Protestant missionary and physician, came to Tagbilaran, Bohol in 1907, he was surprised that the Boholano’s “think that they have a very complete system of therapeutics”.[7]  Dr. Graham had a hard time convincing the Boholanos that the American medication was superior to the native therapeutics.

The dictionary of Fr. Juan Felix has about 4,000 medical terms that deals about parts of the body, names of diseases and illnesses, and physical infirmities and defects.

The dictionary has listed about 500 names of native plants, grasses, shrubs, and trees with medicinal value.  He specifically indicated 210 of them as to the particular sickness it can cure and how to prepare and apply them.  However, at the appendix of the 3rd edition, it tabulated only 148 names medicinal plants together with the particular sickness it can cure.  It is no wonder that the Boholanos could claim to have a complete system of therapeutics.

Its Weakness As A Dictionary

The greatest weakness of the dictionary of Fr. Juan Felix is that it did not discuss the grammar, especially the affixes that are very important in the agglutinative Sugbo-anon Bisaya language.  It did not provide the standard spelling. It did not also provide the standard pronunciation of words.

Its Redeeming Value

The Augustinian Recollects in the Visayas provided only a general education up to the primary grades.  Their graduates could hardly benefit from the bilingual dictionary.  Even if the natives can read the Sugboanon Bisaya words, they could hardly understand the Spanish definitions.

However, there were few in the elite class who knew both the Spanish and Sugboanon Bisaya languages.  This class of people desired to have the dictionary of Fr. Juan Felix for another reason — to become prestigious in the eyes of the common people.

In an interview with Msgr. Margarito Gonzaga[8], he intimated that when he was still very young, he remembered that his parents were considered prestigious because they had a copy of the dictionary of Fr. Juan Felix.  Common people would come to their house to consult for cures of some illnesses.  His parents would then read the dictionary and suggest the cure.  His parents could also discuss customs and traditions by consulting the dictionary.

In effect, the dictionary was the greatest stabilizer of the community.  He who could read and understand the dictionary was looked up to as the local wise man.  The encyclopedic nature of the dictionary provides myriad of information.

Present Value

The late historian William Scott wrote his history books using as references the different old dictionaries he could find.  Among his references is the dictionary by Fr. Juan Felix.

If you are interested regarding the social customs, traditions, and practices in the Visayas and Mindanao in the 19th century you can find a wealth of information in the dictionary of Fr. Juan Felix.  At present, Bohol is reviving the planting and utilization of the ubi or yam.  Present agriculturists and scientists could only identify 17 varieties of yams.  In my lecture, I told them that Fr. Juan Felix has listed the names of 29 varieties of yams.  So the scientist and agriculturist searched for the other twelve (12) varieties.  They have now found twenty-one, which are still eight varieties short of the list.

Fr. Juan Felix listed 210 varieties of rice and out of these only about 4 or 6 are presently being planted in Bohol.  We will have a long way to go to recover the 204 or 206 lost varieties.

I have been studying the Sugboanon Bisaya language for the past 20 years and teaching it in the College of Engineering for the last 6 years.  I can teach Geometry, Solid Mensuration, Algebra, Trigonometry, and Analytic Geometry using Sugboanon Bisaya with the dictionary of Fr. Juan Felix as the reference for the terms.

I am now writing a Bisaya-English dictionary.  For the first 8 letters I have already 13,000 words. So for the next 14 letters I would have an additional 22,700 words or we expect approximately 35,750 base-words.  The dictionary of Fr. Juan Felix has only 17,500 words.  It means that there were yet many words not recorded by Fr. Juan Felix.

[1] “The Reader’s Digest Great Encyclopedic Dictionary”, Funk and Wagnalls Publishing Company Inc. (New York:  1975), p. vii.

[2] S.I. Hayakawa, “How Dictionaries Are Made”, About Language, M.J. Clark, S.F. Cox, M.R. Craig, eds., Charles Scribner’s Sons, (New York:  1970), p.236.

[3] Fray Manuel Carceller Galindo, “Historia General de La Orden De Agustinos Recoletos”, Vol. 12, 1867-1891, (Madrid:  1974), pp. 389-401.

[4] Patrick D. Hazard and Mary E. Hazard, Language and Literacy Today, Science Research Associates, Inc., (Chicago:  1965), p. 14.

[5]  Francsico Encina, Arte De La Lengua Zebuana, D.J.M. Dayot (Manila:  1836), p.1.

[6]  Fray Manuel Carceller Galindo, op. cit., p. 400.

[7] Anne C. Kwantes, Presbyterian Missionaries in the Philippines, (New Day Publishers, Q.C., 1989), p. 99.

[8] Msgr. Margarito Gonzaga is now 86 years old and still play lawn tennis.  He was a former Mayor of Albuquerque, Bohol and provincial Board Member of Bohol.  He did it during the time when Roman Catholic Priests were still prohibited to become elected officials.

Augustinian Recollects

Agustinos Recoletos

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