This evening I watched Joshua Oppenheimer’s incredible film The Look of Silence, set in the Indonesian province of North Sumatra. Although I grew up a skip and a hop from Indonesia, I know inexcusably little about it. I’ve been aware since childhood that Indonesian, Malay, and Tagalog have many similarities, but I’ve remained ignorant of exactly which words, grammatical elements, etc. they have in common. In The Look of Silence I noted some Indonesian vocabulary that also appears in Tagalog but, in the context of the film, seemed to hold different meanings in each language. One of the words that stood out to me, tahanan, led me down a rabbit hole that turned out to be somewhat relevant to my dissertation (time well spent!).

In Tagalog tahanan means home, with the weighty meaning it has in contrast to house (bahay). In Indonesian, according (questionably) to Google Translate, tahanan can mean a range of things: from prisoner, detainee, or captive to resistance. In Malay it means internment—the act or condition of imprisonment rather than its subject. Tahan (in Tagalog the -an suffix turns a root into a noun) in Indonesian and Malay means to withstand, to bear, to hold out, etc. An 1852 Malay grammar book (thanks, Google Books!), though, lists tahan as to cease or to be still, which helps explain the divergent meanings that tahanan took on in Tagalog (i.e., home as a place of rest) versus in Indonesian and Malay. I’m fascinated that this link between capture and stillness appears across the three languages, as the dynamic between the two is one way through which the (moving) image enters my dissertation.

Given these findings, I wondered where bilanggo, the Tagalog word for prisoner or captive, came from. Apparently it’s originally(?) Bisaya, and in Indonesian and Malay belenggu means chains or shackles. Etymologically, then—and from the perspective of an English speaker—a prisoner in Indonesian connotes someone with will who needs to be subdued, whereas a prisoner in Tagalog is already reduced to the literal mechanism of their imprisonment. Also, since the most common word for chains in Tagalog is kadena, a Spanish cognate, it could very well be that bilanggo was explicitly metonymical in pre-Hispanic times.

A final thought for now on this braid of language: If you collapse the etymologies of tahanan across Indonesian, Malay, and Tagalog, you come up with something like house arrest—or of the home as a responsibility to be borne/to withstand, or perhaps a base from which to bear other things. With tahanan‘s connotations of family in Tagalog, the word appears rich with an accretion of pre-Christian Tagalog social values and their endurance.