How Now Carabao

A dog is recognized as everybody’s best friend. They’re loved almost all over the world. In my country, dogs are met with the same affection but they also face stiff competition against our beloved carabao.

Wow Carabao! This is our best friend.

Filipinos see carabaos as faithful partners in life. The carabao or kalabaw is a water buffalo that is endemic in Southeast Asia. Aside from helping our farmers plow the fields, this animal is our source of transportation, milk for sweets and cooking, meat, raw materials to design furniture, coin and mascot designs, body armor, children’s songs, jokes, and expressions in the vernacular.

* * *

The Carabao and I, Taken last year in Batanes, the northernmost part of the Philippines.

The carabao has been our constant companion and it has taken a great role in shaping my country’s history. During the Spanish colonial period, the natives worked on the fields to produce quantities of rice, sugar, and other cash crops that were exported throughout the 19th century.

The farmers would have to rely on the carabao’s hard work and patience to get the job done. Profits from this trade eventually gave rise to rich and educated Filipinos who earned the alarm, envy, and scorn of the friars: bestias cargadas de oro (beasts laden with gold)

Look at His Eyes. Taken from The History of the Burgis by Mariel N. Francisco and Fe Maria C. Arriola

The friars were a powerful bloc that maintained stability and continuity of Spanish authority in the Philippines for more than 300 years. For good or bad, these men of the cloth brought us the craft of masonry, the art of architecture, the weaving industry in northern provinces, the propagation of coffee in a province called Batangas, and most importantly, Christianity. Filipinos at present are more than 80% Roman Catholic.

* * *

That is not to say that abuses were not committed. There were numerous revolts but the successful and most enduring one was the revolution in 1896. Filipinos almost had complete victory in driving out the Spaniards but our leaders placed too much trust and faith on the Americans.

In 1898, the Philippines was sold by Spain to the United States for $20 million. This was not well received by the Filipinos because they thought that the Americans would recognize their independence. The following year, the War for Philippine Independence erupted. The revolutionaries didn’t have enough arms and sophisticated weapons. They had to rely on anything available and would also need the help of their faithful and furry compatriots.

A Charge of Carabaos. This postcard was sourced from Ambeth Ocampo, one of our leading historians.

Due to in-fighting among our leaders and lack of arms to match up against the new invader, we lost that war. More than 200,000 innocent civilians died and one of the biggest casualties was the carabao. A tenth of the total population of these animals before the war was eradicated.

* * *

Today, most Filipinos speak English and we use it as a medium of instruction. Our form of government is patterned after the United States. Santa Claus, Superman, Ironman, Batman, hamburgers, sanitation and vaccination are just a few of the many things we attribute to the Americans.

As a people, we have evolved and so has our use of English in popular culture, which we call Carabao English. It’s now part of our vocabulary and we use it every day unwittingly or not.

One of the many examples is the expression: the more, the many-er (it should be: the more, the merrier). The mistake was deliberate to elicit laughter, catch one’s attention, and go light on things during the day.

There’s also a figure of speech, blessing in disguise. Instead we use, blessing in the sky and I think that it just applies to the carabao, our inheritance from the Great Creator.

I say, take a bow carabao for you have earned a special place in every Filipino heart.

Read more:
Mabuhay! Greetings from the Philippines
‘The awful German language’: so you want to learn German
The Argentinian Gaucho

About the author

Bryan Ocampo
I’m a marketing management graduate from one of Manila’s universities. After years in sales promotions, public relations, and advertising, I've chosen to pursue tour guiding as a profession. Currently, I’m working with the Philippines’ Department of Tourism as a Mabuhay Guide.
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  • Bryan, thanks for your post, it’s very interesting.

    I related to a few things you wrote about, like what the “men of the cloth” did in the Philippines, for they did the same all over the Empire. Did they have reservations too, or was it just in South America? The Jesuit reservations in North Eastern Argentina, Paraguay and Southern Brazil were a safe haven for the Guarani Indians who sought refuge there to escape enslavement at the hands of the Spaniards. There, they were taught to read and write, were converted to Catholicism (which goes without saying!) and were also taught other skills which they then out to use for their own upkeep and that of the Jesuits. If you’ve seen the film “The Mission” with Robert De Niro, that’s a more or less accurate description of what went on there and it was filmed on location (Argentina and Brazil)!

    It seems the Americans have a more pervasive influence than any other “colonisers’

  • Hi Ana! Thank you for sharing your thoughts. It was in the 1920s that the cultural shift began to deepen. That’s when English replaced Spanish as our language of instruction. Together with the power of media/new tools (e.g. Hollywood, the public school system, etc.), we learned the ABCs of a new culture.

    Spain governed Filipinas through Mexico for more than 200 years. Perhaps that’s why we can easily connect to Latin American countries. We had the Manila-Acapulco Galleon Trade that made an huge impact to who we are now. Also, we have 20,000 Spanish loan words in Tagalog vocabulary so I guess the influence is still strong.

    There probably were no reservations. Several friar orders (Augustinians, Franciscans, Jesuits, etc.) were sent to convert the islands because it would be a lot expensive for the empire to send a huge army. It is much easier to conquer with ideas on morality than with force. Governor officials may come and go but the friars remained to administer the country. There were good ones (our culture heroes such as the Jesuit Fray Sedeño) and there were really bad ones who made the people revolt :-)

  • It is certainly a special animal, and amazing that it can lead to such a discussion. I appreciate this history lesson!

    Does Carabao English refer only to funny expressions like the ones you mentioned, or does it have a more general meaning (like Singlish for example)?

  • I think it’s the first time I see a carabao :)
    Very interesting post! I’d like to suggest another post on the Spanish influence in your country (good and bad) or on the Spanish words in tagalog (I’m a translator, so, I’m always curious when it comes to languages :) ). We never studied anything related to the Philippines at school. Thanks!

    • remog ablartep

      u should learn about the philippines especially our culture.

  • Mondell

    Hi everyone, interesting discussion going on here. Some Tagalog words borrowed from Spanish:

    Generally all Spanish “c” became “k”, “j” became “h”


    1. loro-loro-parrot
    2. basura-basura-trash
    3. jaula-hawla-cage
    4. pared-pader-wall
    5. hacer caso-asikaso-pay attention to someone
    6. gobierno-gobyerno-government
    7. silla-silya-chair
    8. cómo está-kumusta-how are you
    9. caso-kaso-case
    10. cuaderno-kwaderno-notebook
    11. pizarra-pisara-board
    12. borrar-bura-erase
    13. para-para-for the purpose of
    14. cementerio-sementeryo-cemetery

  • Thanks, Mondell!

    @Liz- Thanks for the kind words. I think that we use Carabao English only in good humor but there are times that this gets slipped in during office meetings :-) We don’t use it in formal correspondences. If one would use it to talk to a Filipino, it will surely draw laughter because he/she gets it and it’s not meant as an insult.

    @Marta- Thanks for the suggestion :-) I will use it in future articles because it occupies a significant part of my heritage.

    In addition to Mondell’s post, here are some of the words that we still use to this day: ‘guisa’, ‘cariño’, ‘caldereta’, ‘maize’, ‘menudo’, ‘camote’, ‘repollo’, ‘cacao’, ‘camatchile’, ‘chico’, ‘sinkamas’, ‘sili’, ‘cebollas’ (sibuyas), ‘calabaza’, ‘pastilla’, ‘achuete’, ‘turron’, and ‘leche’ flan, ‘jabon’, and ‘cuarta’ :-)

    Because culture is dynamic, some of the influences brought by different nations have been made our own to suit our needs/preferences. ‘Como estas’ is now ‘Kumusta’ in Tagalog.

  • Thanks, Bryan! I love this “Kumusta” expression, I’ll use it with my friends :) .
    I’d like to know a bit about the products your country exports now. In Spain, we call the shawl flamenco dancers wear “mantón de Manila”. I think the shawl was bought in China at first, but then, they started producing it in the Philippines, is that right? I’ve also heard your country exports mother of pearl, coral, etc. so, I guess the beaches must be idyllic and full of this flora & fauna? Thanks!

  • @Marta: not only manton de Manila, how about papel de Manila?

    @Bryan, so which language do you use on a daily basis? If I went to las Filipinas, would I get by just using Spanish? I’m curious as to how it sounds!

  • @Marta- Thank you for the questions :-) Yes, you’re correct. The silk comes from China and embroidered by Filipinos in Manila hence, the name. It’s through the Manila-Acapulco Galleon Trade that a product like this is made known to the world. Products from China and Japan are sent to Manila then to Acapulco, then to Vera Cruz for Spain and vice-versa. That’s one long trip :-)

    Handicrafts like mother of pearl is one of the products that we export aside from semiconductors and electronics, garments, and petroleum products.

    You’re also correct about our beaches. We have one of the longest coastlines in the world :-) Nowadays, it’s Boracay that’s very popular but fast emerging is Caramoan, the location of the TV show Survivor (France).

    We’re actively promoting eco-tourism because of our bio-diversity. People from a place called Donsol used to hunt for whale sharks/butanding but now they’re the staunch defenders of these creatures.

    Hope that you can come and visit. I’ll be very happy to show you around :-)

  • @Ana- You are correct. There’s also Manila Paper, Manila Hemp, Manila Cigar, and Manila Envelope. The Americans saw the potential of Manila Hemp, which is made from abaca. The islands are abundant with these plants but with the introduction of nylon, the industry suffered.

    Unfortunately, Spanish is spoken by less than 1% of Filipinos. It used to be a required subject in university but this was abolished in 1987. The good news is that Spanish will be re-introduced in select schools in the archipelago.

    It’s still a long way to go but you can somehow still understand a Tagalog when he/she speaks because of the loan words and intonation. At present, English is very useful because it’s widespread.

    There’s a place in southern Filipinas called Zamboanga where they speak Spanish pidgin called ‘Chavacano’ and it would be a lot easier for you to understand the speaker because of the heavy mix of Spanish and the native dialect spoken there.

    This might interest you:

  • Thanks for the post, very interesting.

  • Nuria

    This is such an interesting post, Bryan! :)
    Wow…I didn’t know there was such strong Spanish influence in the Philippines. It was so much fun reading those Tagalog words borrowed from Spanish! I especially liked “hawla” jiji Oh, and the video in youtube is fantastic! I’d love to visit Zamboanga one day!!! :D

  • @Ana- I’m glad that you enjoyed it. Thanks! :-)

    @Nuria- Language is just one of the facets. Our cuisine, dance, and architecture are influenced by the Spanish. Eventually, we came up with something unique and made it our own :-)

  • Mondell

    I’d like to share something a friend told me before. There’s a chocolate bar in Spain that’s called “Filipinos”. They say it’s called such because Filipinos are brown on the outside but white on the inside (brought about the influence of American colonization).

    Actually a lot of Spaniards and South Americans are not aware of the Philippines’ Hispanic roots, they don’t know that we were a former colony of Spain (I blame the Americans for this, the Yankees subjugated us so fast).

    Filipinos, in my opinion, are very Hispanic in our customs and attitudes. We take a siesta (midday nap) after eating lunch (creo que este costumbre viene de España). We are very Catholic and we hold religious processions. We like to hold fiestas outdoor in the provinces.

    Espero que pronto visitéis nuestro país. Es un país maravilloso, es la perla del mar de oriente. Os garantizo que lo pasaréis muy bien.

  • @Mondell, thanks for the glossary and the info!

    @Bryan, Liz, Ana and Nuria, I’d love to go to the Philippines, I mean, what’s not to love, wonderful beaches, nice people, exotic and familiar customs that are a mystery to discover… The problem is I think it’s still a bit expensive to go there from Spain, as I don’t think there are any direct flights.

  • @Marta- Thank you very much for your interest :-) I share your concern. I want a lot of people to visit my country because of the things that you’ve mentioned.

    I’ll check with some friends from our government’s department of tourism for assistance :-) Thanks!

  • I wandered onto this site after searching for the beloved kalabaw.

    However, I have to comment about the thread on Spanish / Mexico remnants. Perhaps it sums it up that 1% or less of the Philippine population speaks Spanish because quite frankly – the people want nothing to do with anything not of SE Asian origin, and are now getting back to their original roots.

    I am of the same — hopefully that 1% will drop off to zero. Colonialism is not part of the peoples heritage no matter what kind of baloney PR is spread into the world about the people so coined as “filipino.” The Carabao, however, (getting back onto subject) — what a wonderful Southeast Asian animal!

  • Bryan

    Hi Kate,

    Hail to the carabao or anuwang (it’s old Tagalog name)! I appreciate the feedback. I believe that there are good and bad things from the colonial experience, which Filipinos of today can learn from.

    Though foreign influences (Chinese, Spanish, American) were strong in areas such as religion, dance, cuisine, architecture and heritage, I believe that it was (and still is) the native who shaped or customized them according to his or her needs or preference—we made it our own and that’s what I think is the beauty of it. Some say it’s corruption but I’d rather call it ‘Filipinization’.

    Thanks and good day :-)

  • daniel padilla


  • I wandered the web for karabaw, since my niece posted a peaceful picture of a boy sleeping soundly upon its back… and my brother commented that it is quite a scary animal. Then I came across your feature and the comments… and your tactful answers… that engrossed me… very interesting!

    I am glad I bumped into it!