The very first mention of kali as the original Filipino martial art can be traced back to the book Mga Karunungan sa Larong Arnis (A Body of Knowledge in the Sport of Arnis) by Placido Yambao and Buenaventura Mirafuente published by the University of the Philippines Press in 1957. It was the very first definitive literature on arnis.

Written in Tagalog, a line from the book reads, “Ang kali na dinatnan ng mga Kastila ay hindi pa arnis ang tawag noong 1610 (The kali that the Spaniards witnessed when they arrived was not yet called arnis in 1610).

But because the authors did not include a bibliography of their sources in writing the book, the validity of the claim that kali is the older Filipino martial art became the source of many bitter debates among Filipino martial arts (FMA) practitioners in recent years.

While there are many historical gray areas in Yambao and Mirafuente’s book among them the kali demonstration in front of Miguel Lopez de Legaspi of tribal leader Malitik and his son Kamutuhan in Abuyog, Leyte in 1564, there is historical evidence indicating that kali could indeed be the mother art of arnis and escrima.

The etymology of the term kali offers the simplest way to solve the puzzle left by Yambao and Mirafuente.  The most logical choice as the origin of the word kali is “kalis,” an old Tagalog term included in Vocabulario de la lengua Tagala, the first Tagalog-Spanish dictionary composed by Fray Pedro de San Buenaventura and published in Pila, Laguna in 1613.

A Franciscan friar, San Buenaventura started collating the materials for Vocabulario de la lengua Tagala on May 20, 1906 and the printing of his dictionary was finished seven years later in May 23, 1613. The book was printed by Tomas Pinpin (the first Filipino printer) and Domingo Loag in La Noble Villa de Pila in Laguna.

The word kalis was written as “calis” in San Buenaventura’s dictionary because in Spanish, a “c” can sound like an “s” or a “k.”

“Calis” has several meaning in San Buenaventura’s dictionary but let’s just focus on those that have martial art connotations.  The first is calis with the same meaning as the Spanish term “espada” or sword.

The second is calis as an equivalent of the Spanish word “reñir, which means “to fight.” The third Spanish counterpart of calis is “acuchillarse,” meaning “thrust” or “to thrust.”

The fifth and most interesting Spanish equivalent of calis is “esgrimir,” meaning to fight with weapons. Esgrimir is also obviously the root word of another Spanish term “esgrima,” which means fencing. The Filipino term escrima is a corruption of the Spanish word esgrima.

“Esgrimir : Calis pp : dos con palos o canas, nagcacalis,” this is from Vocabulario Online, the computerized works of Jean Paul Potet and Antoon Postma. It made available on the Internet the first part of Vocabulario de la lengua Tagala (16,350 words printed in 618 pages).

Vocabulario Online is now a feature of the website Bahay Saliksikan ng Tagalog (House of Tagalog Research). This is very interesting because the aforementioned Spanish words connote fighting with a pair of sticks – the very trademark of the FMA.

The entries in Vocabulario de la lengua Tagala published 92 years after the Battle of Mactan is a proof that the Spaniards have seen an old practice of the natives called kalis wherein they fought with swords or a pair of sticks.

Take note that based on this evidence, the Filipinos were already using both swords and stick as early as this period in contrast with the popular FMA evolution theory of bladed weapons to sticks.

I also would like to postulate that what the Spaniards have witnessed was not a crude art for employing paired weapons in fighting is a sign of sophisticated martial skill.

In the accompanying shot of a portion of a page of Vocabulario de la lengua Tagala, it shows that there are eight definitions of calis. This is an indication that calis during that period was not a newly invented term.

The natives have been using it for a long time to refer to certain things (calis is also the equivalent of the Spanish word “pata,” which means leg) and practices among them fighting with blades and a pair of sticks.

The contraction of kalis to kali can be explained by examining how some Tagalog words were shortened through the passing of time. I have mentioned the origin of Bahala na in my previous articles.

Bahala na came from “Bathala na,” which means “Let God.” In this case, Bathala, the name of the supreme god of the Tagalogs were shortened to “bahala” through the passing of time. Notice that one letter (“t”) was eventually omitted.

The etymology of the word Tagalog itself makes another good example. Tagalog originated from “taga ilog,” which means “river dweller.” Over time, the term was shortened to “Tagalog,” a word that refers to a group of people in Luzon and the dialect they speak. Again, notice that one letter was omitted (“i”), which could be what happened in the shortening of kalis to kali (the “s” was omitted).

Kalis in Vocabulario de la lengua Pampanga by Diego Bergaño (1690-1747)
Another old dictionary that contains the definition of “calis” is the Vocabulario de la lengua Pampanga en romance by Diego Bergaño (1690-1747). One definition of kalis in Bergaño’s dictionary clearly pertains to the natives’ act of fighting with swords (espadas) and sticks (cañas).  – Perry Gil S. Mallari