Baybayin - The Ancient Script of the Philippines
by Paul Morrow
"To My Fellow Children”,
The tempest in Rizal's verse struck the Philippines in the 16th century. It was the Spanish Empire and the lost alphabet was a script that is known today as the baybayin.
Contrary to the common misconception, when the Spaniards arrived in the islands they found more than just a loose collection of backward and belligerent tribes. They found a civilization that was very different from their own. The ability to read and write is the mark of any civilization and, according to many early Spanish accounts, the Tagalogs had already been writing with the baybayin for at least a century. This script was just beginning to spread throughout the islands at that time. Furthermore, the discovery in 1987 of an inscription on a sheet of copper in Laguna is evidence that there was an even more advanced script in limited use in the Philippines as far back as the year 900 C.E. (See The Laguna Copperplate Inscription)
Literacy of the Pre-Hispanic Filipinos
Although one of Ferdinand Magellan's shipmates, Antonio Pigafetta, wrote that the people of the Visayas were not literate in 1521, the baybayin had already arrived there by 1567 when Miguel López de Legazpi reported that, “They [the Visayans] have their letters and characters like those of the Malays, from whom they learned them.” B1 Then, a century later Francisco Alcina wrote about:
The baybayin continued to thrive in many parts of the Philippines in the first century of Spanish occupation. Even before the end of the 1500's the Spaniards were already printing books in the Tagalog script (see Literature), which indicates at least an adequate level of literacy. Some accounts went so as far as to say that the literacy rate was practically 100%. A Jesuit priest, Father Pedro Chirino wrote in 1604 that:
And Dr. Antonio de Morga, a Spanish magistrate in the Philippines echoed Chirino's enthusiasm in 1609:
These often quoted observations were exaggerations, of course; the historian William H. Scott managed to turn up several examples from the 1590s of datus who could not sign affidavits or oaths, and witnesses who could not sign land deeds in the 1620s. B5 Nevertheless, it appears that wherever the baybayin was available, literacy was common not only among the elite but at all levels of society.
Pre-Hispanic Writing Techniques
The pre-Hispanic Filipinos wrote on many different materials; leaves, palm fronds, tree bark and fruit rinds, but the most common material was bamboo. The writing tools or panulat were the points of daggers or small pieces of iron. Among the manuscripts in Charles R. Boxer's collection, known as the Boxer Codex, there is an anonymous report from 1590 that described their method of writing, which is still used today by the tribes of Mindoro and Palawan to write their own script:
Once the letters were carved into the bamboo, it was wiped with ash to make the characters stand out more. Sharpened splits of bamboo were used with coloured plant saps to write on more delicate materials such as leaves. But since the ancient Filipinos did not keep long-term written records, more durable materials, such as stone, clay or metal, were not used. After the Spaniards arrived Filipinos adopted the use of paper, pen and ink.
Origin of the Baybayin
The word baybayin is a Tagalog term that refers to all the letters used in writing a language, that is to say, an “alphabet” although, to be more precise, the baybayin is more like a syllabary. It is from the root baybáy meaning, “spell.” This name for the old Filipino script appeared in one of the earliest Philippine language dictionaries ever published, the Vocabulario de Lengua Tagala of 1613. Early Spanish accounts usually called the baybayin “Tagalog letters” or “Tagalog writing.” And, as mentioned earlier, the Visayans called it “Moro writing” because it was imported from Manila, which was one of the ports where many products from Muslim traders entered what are now known as the Philippine islands. The Bikolanos called the script basahan and the letters, guhit.
Versoza's reasoning for creating this word was unfounded because no evidence
of the baybayin was ever found in that part of the Philippines and it
has absolutely no relationship to the Arabic language. Furthermore, no
ancient script native to Southeast Asia followed the Arabic arrangement
of letters, and regardless of Versoza's connection to the word alibata,
its absence from all historical records indicates that it is a totally
modern creation. The present author does not use this word in reference
to any ancient Philippine script.
The shapes of the baybayin characters bear a slight resemblance to the ancient Kavi script of Java, Indonesia, which fell into disuse in the 1400s. However, as mentioned earlier in the Spanish accounts, the advent of the baybayin in the Philippines was considered a fairly recent event in the 16th century and the Filipinos at that time believed that their baybayin came from Borneo.
This theory is supported by the fact that the baybayin script could not show syllable final consonants, which are very common in most Philippine languages. (See Final Consonants) This indicates that the script was recently acquired and had not yet been modified to suit the needs of its new users. Also, this same shortcoming in the baybayin was a normal trait of the script and language of the Bugis people of Sulawesi, which is directly south of the Philippines and directly east of Borneo. Thus most scholars believe that the baybayin may have descended from the Buginese script or, more likely, a related lost script from the island of Sulawesi. Whatever route the baybayin travelled, it probably arrived in Luzon in the 13th or 14th century.
Literature of the Ancient Filipinos
All early Spanish reports agreed that pre-Hispanic Filipino literature was mainly oral rather than written. Legazpi's account of 1567, quoted earlier, went on to say:
The Boxer Codex manuscript from 1590, also mentioned earlier, reported that:
Aside from writing letters and poetry to each other, the ancient Filipinos adorned the entrances of their homes with incantations written on bamboo so as to keep out evil spirits.
In the Spanish era Filipinos started to write on paper. They kept records of their property and their financial transactions, and Fr. Marcelo de Ribadeneira said in 1601 that the early Filipino Christians made little notebooks in which they wrote, “in their characters or letters” the lessons they were taught in church. B10 They often signed Spanish documents with baybayin letters and many of these signatures still exist in archives in the Philippines, Mexico and Spain. There are even two land deeds written in baybayin script at the University of Santo Tomas. (See: Baybayin Handwriting)
To take advantage of the native's literacy, religious authorities published several books containing baybayin text. The first of these was the Doctrina Christiana, en lengua española y tagala printed in 1593. The Tagalog text was based mainly on a manuscript written by Fr. Juan de Placencia. Friars Domingo de Nieva and Juan de San Pedro Martyr supervised the preparation and printing of the book, which was carried out by a Chinese artisan whose name was not recorded for posterity.
For modern scholars the Doctrina is like the Rosetta Stone of baybayin writing and 16th century Tagalog. Each section of the book is presented in three parts: first, the Spanish text then, the Tagalog translation written in the Spanish alphabet, and finally the Tagalog written in the baybayin script. The Doctrina is the earliest example of the baybayin that exists today and it is the only example from the 1500s. The book also provides a view of how Tagalog was spoken before Spanish had a chance to make its full impact on the language. (A facsimile of the Doctrina can be purchased at a very low price at Reflections of Asia.)
The Doctrina of 1593 was printed using the woodblock method. That is, an entire page was carved into a single block of wood. Ink was then applied to the block and a thin sheet of paper was gently brushed onto it to pick up the engraved image. This method did not ensure regularity in the shapes of the baybayin characters. However, when printing with moveable types came to the Philippines in the beginning of the 1600s, baybayin letters began to take on more consistent, though stylized shapes because each character was carved into its own moveable block. Fr. Francisco Lopez used a set of these types in 1620 to produce his Ilokano Doctrina based on the catechism written by Cardinal Belarmine, best know today as the first inquisitor of Galileo. The typeface he chose was used in at least two earlier Tagalog books and today it is one of the most popular baybayin styles among enthusiasts of the ancient script. (See Baybayin Styles) It was in this book that Lopez attempted to reform the baybayin, which, in the view of most Spaniards, was seriously flawed. (See Final Consonants)
Nevertheless, the Spanish friars used the baybayin script not only to teach their religion to the Filipinos, but also to teach other clerics how to speak the local languages. The writers of the early grammars encouraged their readers to learn the baybayin, as Fr. Francisco Blancas de San Jose explained in his Arte y reglas de la lengua tagala of 1610:
The baybayin was also described in Visayan grammar books of the 1600s such as Alonso de Méntrida's Arte de la lengua Bisaya-Hiligayna de la isla de Panay, 1637, and Domingo Ezguerra's Arte de la lengua Bisaya en la provincia de Leyte, 1663. However, Ezguerra's example of the script contained printing mistakes. A kind of Spanish check mark was put in the place of two different letters. Méntrida wrote the following about his typeface:
The Baybayin Method of Writing
The baybayin was a syllabic writing system, which means that each letter represented a syllable instead of just a basic sound as in the modern alphabet. There were a total of 17 characters: three vowels and 14 consonants, but when combined with the small vowel-modifying marks, called kudlíts, the number of characters increased to 45. This way of writing is called an abugida. When a person spelled a word orally or recited the baybayin, the individual letters were called babâ, kakâ, dadâ, etc., but the original sequence of the letters was different to what it is today. This “alphabetical” order was recorded in the Tagalog Doctrina Christiana.
“The abc. in the Tagalog language”
Click on image for more information.
The Consonants & Kudlíts
In their simplest form, each consonant represented a syllable that was pronounced with an a vowel (like the u in “up”). Simply adding a tick, dot or other mark to the letter, would change the inherent a vowel sound. These marks were called kudlíts, or diacritics in English. A kudlit was placed above a consonant letter to give it an i or e vowel sound. When it was placed below the letter it changed the vowel sound to u or o.
Visit the Baybayin Tutorial to learn more about writing the baybayin script.
The three vowel characters were only used at the beginning of words and syllables, or syllables without any consonant. There were only three vowels because the ancient Tagalogs, and many other linguistic groups, did not distinguish between the pronunciations of i and e, or u and o until Spanish words entered their languages. Even today these sounds are interchangeable in words such as lalaki/lalake (man), babae (woman) and kababaihan (womanhood or womankind), uód/oód (worm), punò (tree trunk) and punung-kahoy (tree), and oyaye/oyayi/uyayi (lullaby).
The vowel characters actually represented vowels that were preceded by a glottal stop. This pronunciation was more common in the pre-Hispanic era but has changed over the centuries due to the influences of western languages. This shift can be seen when early texts, such as the Doctrina Christiana, are compared to modern Filipino. For example, we syllabicate the words ngayón (today) and gagawín (will do) as follows: nga-yon and ga-ga-wín respectively. But the baybayin text of the Doctrina reveals a different syllabic division. Ngayón was written, ngay-on, and gagawin was written ga-gaw-in.
The R Sound
The Tagalogs used only one character for da and ra, . The pronunciation of this letter depended on its location within a word. The grammatical rule has survived in modern Filipino that when a d is between two vowels, it becomes an r as in the words dangál (honour) and marangál (honourable), or dunong (knowledge) and marunong (knowledgeable).
However, this rule could not be relied upon in other languages, so when other linguistic groups adopted the baybayin, different ways of representing the r sound were required. The Visayans apparently used the d/ra character for their own words but used the la character for Spanish words. (See Visayan examples.) Fr. Lopez's choice of d/ra or la seemed to be random in the Ilokano Doctrina, which caused many corruptions of Ilokano words. (See excerpts from his Doctrina.) However, a chart drawn by Sinibaldo de Mas in 1843 showed la doubling for the Ilokano ra while his Pangasinan list showed no substitute for ra at all. The Bikolanos modified the d/ra character to make a distinct letter for ra. (See the chart in Baybayin Styles.)
The Nga Character
A single character represented the nga syllable. The latest version of the modern Filipino alphabet still retains the ng as a single letter but it is written with two characters. The ng is the alphabet's only remaining link to its baybayin heritage.
Words written in the baybayin script were not spaced apart; the letters were written in a continuous flow and the only form of punctuation was a single vertical line, or more often, a pair of vertical lines. || This fulfilled the function of a comma and a period, and indeed, of practically any punctuation mark in use today. Although these bars were used consistently to end sentences, they were also used to separate words, but in an unpredictable manner. Occasionally a single word would be enclosed between these marks but usually sentences were divided into groups of three to five words.
The most confusing feature of the baybayin for non-native readers was that there was no way to write a consonant without having a vowel follow it. If a syllable or a word ended with a consonant, that consonant was simply dropped. For example, the letters n and k in a word like bundók (mountain) were omitted, so that it was spelled bu-do.
The Spanish priests found this problem to be an impediment to the accurate translation of their religious texts. So, when they printed a lesson in baybayin it was usually accompanied by a Spanish translation and the same Tagalog text using the Spanish alphabet, as in the Doctrina Christiana. Other priests simply stopped using the baybayin in favour of the alphabet. The first attempt to “reform” the baybayin came in 1620 when Fr. Francisco Lopez prepared to publish the Ilokano Doctrina. He invented a new kudlít in the shape of a cross. This was placed below a baybayin consonant in order to cancel the inherent a sound. Lopez wrote:
Although Lopez's new way of writing provided a more accurate depiction of the spoken language, native Filipino writers found it cumbersome and they never accepted it. In 1776, Pedro Andrés de Castro wrote about their reaction to the invention:
Direction of Baybayin Writing
The baybayin was read from left to right in rows that progressed from top to bottom, just as we read in English today. However, this has been a point of controversy among scholars for centuries due to conflicting accounts from early writers who were confused by the ease with which ancient Filipinos could read their writing from almost any angle. As the historian William H. Scott commented,
Some observers were mistaken to believe that the baybayin should be read vertically from bottom to top in columns progressing from left to right because that was how the ancient Filipinos carved their letters into narrow bamboo strips. However, it was simply a matter of safety that when they used a sharp instrument to carve, they held the bamboo pointing outward and they carved away from their bodies, just as modern Mangyans do today. (See photo above.) This gave the appearance that they were writing from the bottom upward. However, this did not necessarily mean that the text was supposed to be read that way too.
Although the ancient Filipinos did not seem to mind which way they read their writing, the clue to the proper orientation of the text was the kudlíts, or diacritic marks that alter the vowel sound of the letters. In syllabic scripts such as Kavi, Bugis and others closely related to the baybayin, the text was read from left to right and the diacritics were placed above and below the characters (i/e was above and u/o was below). When the ancient Filipinos carved the baybayin into the bamboo strips, they placed the kudlíts to the left of the letter for the i/e vowel and to the right for the u/o vowels. Thus, when the finished inscription was turned clockwise to the horizontal position, the text flowed from left to right and the kudlíts were in their proper places, i/e above and u/o below.
Variants of the Baybayin
Some writers have claimed that there were several different ancient alphabets in the Philippines, which belonged to different languages and dialects in Luzon and the Visayas. The number of scripts mentioned usually ranges from 10 to 12. However, none of the early Spanish authors ever suggested that there was more than one baybayin script. In fact, even when they wrote about other Philippine languages, they usually referred to the baybayin as “Tagalog” writing or as quoted earlier, Pedro Chirino called it “the letters proper to the island of Manila.”
The baybayin was a single script, and just like the alphabet today, its appearance varied widely according to each person's unique handwriting. (See: The Baybayin as Written by Filipinos) When the printing press was introduced to the Philippines, this variety was reflected in the typefaces. The misconception that each province had its own alphabet arose in the 19th century, long after the baybayin had fallen out of use. Authors who wrote about Philippine culture, such as Eugène Jacquet (1831) and Sinibaldo de Mas (1843), collected old samples of baybayin writing and classified them according to where they were found or the language of the text. (See: Baybayin Styles.) They were aware that these samples were variations of one script but, later writers such as Pardo de Tavera and Pedro Paterno around the turn of the century, assembled their own comparison charts from these samples and other sources and labelled them as distinct “alphabets” from various regions. (See: Paterno's Cuadro Paleografico) These charts were later reproduced in schoolbooks of the 20th century with very little in the way of explanation for their content. Thus, through generations of copying and recopying, these individual samples, many of which were merely one person's particular handwriting style, came to be known as distinct alphabets that belonged to entire regions or linguistic groups.
The clearest example of this kind of misinterpretation is the baybayin typeface that Francisco Lopez chose in 1620 for his Ilokano Doctrina and for his Arte de la lengua yloca of 1627. It first appeared in two Tagalog books, Arte y reglas de la lengua Tagala (1610) by Francisco Blancas de San Jose and Vocabulario de lengua Tagala (1613) by Pedro de San Buenaventura. (See the chart on the right.) However, Eugène Jacquet called this style the Ilokano alphabet in his Notice sur l'alphabet Yloc ou Ilog (1831) because it was used most notably in two Ilokano books. B16 But, as quoted earlier, even Lopez said that he put “the text of the [Ilokano] Doctrina in Tagalog type.” Still, the Lopez typeface is often mistakenly called the pre-Hispanic Ilokano alphabet.
See Baybayin Styles for more about the different forms of the Baybayin.