Baybayin (Alibata): The Ancient Filipino Alphabet

I am a believer that expats have a moral obligation to learn as much about the country in which they live as they possibly can. The Philippines, like any other nation, has a rich history that dates back thousands of years. Long before the Spanish conquest of these islands, people lived here, thrived, and developed their own civilization, different and distinct from that of their Spanish conquerors. They say that “History is written by the victors”, and most modern Filipino history is what the Spanish, the Americans, and later the early Philippine governments, wished it to be. The modern history is what is commonly taught in schools, and it is an important part of every Filipino’s cultural identity. Yet, the older history, the one more truly Filipino, also exists, and has largely been neglected and forgotten over time. These islands existed long before Magellan stepped on that beach in Cebu. When he arrived, he found an existing civilization, rather than merely “primitive” tribes.

What defines “Civilization”? In my mind, at least, the level of literacy, rather than the use of tools or anything else, determines that a civilized people existed. That definition is not too far off the mark of the official “cultural development” definition given by Webster’s and Oxford. In short, the ability to write one’s history and communicate abstract concepts to others defines a people and is what separates the civilized from the uncivilized and the animal kingdom. There was a civilization in the Philippines.

The national language, Filipino, was derived from Tagalog, and is colloquially different in many ways, but intelligible, to Tagalog speakers. Think of it as similar to the difference between American English and the Queen’s English: Not quite different dialects, but greater differences than merely different accents. Americans and Brits can normally understand each other, but there are slightly different usages based largely on class and other cultural differences.

Why was Tagalog chosen as the basis of Filipino? There were many reasons, but chiefly: The Capitol is Manila, primarily inhabited mostly by Tagalogs; The nation’s founding Fathers were mostly Tagalogs; Most Filipinos at least had a basic understanding of Tagalog at the time of independence (Bisaya was also considered, due to the number of speakers, but because it splintered into many different dialects, it was deemed less suitable than Tagalog as a “national unifier”); and, finally, there were more surviving written records in Tagalog than any other Filipino language (Back to the “civilization” definition). Modern Tagalog is comprised of approximately 40% Spanish “loan” words, and another 10% English “loan” words. The remainder is mostly derivative of native Tagalog words (Which themselves were mostly derived from Bahasa Malaysia or Bahasa Indonesia words, largely derived from ancient Indian Vedic or Sanskrit), many words derived from Arabic, and local words of Philippine origin.

By way of comparison, the modern Filipino alphabet was Latinized, the only difference from the modern English alphabet is the addition of the letters “Ng” (Tagalog) and “Ñ” (Spanish). Ilocano, Bisaya, Tagalog and other native languages were spoken here for centuries, and were each very different, as they are today. However, they all used the same alphabet (script) when they were written, with a few regional variations. The ancient script was called Baybayin (or, sometimes, Alibata). Baybayin was syllabic in nature, meaning that each character represented a complete syllable, rather than a single sound, as represented by a letter in the modern Filipino alphabet. This syllabic writing came to the Philippines from Indonesia, especially Java and Sulawesi, and shared many characteristics with ancient Sanskrit alphabets that are used, to this day, in India.

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Baybayin was used primarily in Luzon and the Visayas. People in Mindanao primarily spoke Arabic, after the Islamic conversion, by the time the Spanish arrived, and Baybayin was largely forgotten in Mindanao (If you are a Muslim, you must be able to read the Koran, which is only officially written in Arabic).

The Baybayin alphabet is written below:

Each character represents a syllable that consists of a consonant, followed by the “a” sound (ah).
So, what if a syllable requires a sound that doesn’t have an “a”? A kudlit, or hash mark, is added either above, or below, the symbol, depending on the sound. For the sound, “I” or “E”, the kudlit is placed above the symbol.For the sound “O” or “U”, the kudlit is written below the symbol.

If a syllable doesn’t have a consonant (like “Oo”, or “yes”), then one of three vowel symbols could be used:

There are many syllables that end in a consonant, leaving a slight problem in reading Baybayin: There’s no way to write that consonant, so the reader must guess as to the meaning. The Spanish solved this problem by developing a special kudlit, in the form of a small cross, which was written below character of the ending consonant, thus making Baybayin easier to read. There were no symbols used for numbers.

Words were written bottom to top, and left to right. The early Filipinos usually had more of an oral tradition, rather than a written tradition, but written records of epic poems and religious works were kept.
The early Spanish friars were literally amazed that the people in the Philippines could read and write. They were impressed. They noted that a greater preponderance of women could read, rather than men, and, initially after the conquest, translations of Spanish into Baybayin were made. The Spanish Friars translated Spanish into Baybayin mainly to aid in the conversion of Filipinos to Catholicism. However, by the 19th Century, the use of Baybayin had largely died out, except occasionally as personal signatures on documents. These documents are largely the ones that survived. Many Friars noted with pride their destruction of “pagan” documents written in Baybayin, and most of the documents written by the ancient Filipinos were lost forever. However, as this article noted in the beginning, “History is written by the victors”, and the Spanish used language as a means of control. By forcing the native people to learn and speak Spanish, they minimized the incidences of insurrection: Keep them fed and ignorant, so to speak. By the time of the American colonial period, the Philippines was largely a Spanish-speaking country, with local languages used in the home and colloquially.

It is interesting to note that Rebecca had never heard of Baybayin before… I’m not even certain that it is taught in schools here. The first thing she said when she read this article was, “Wow! It looks similar to Arabic!”. She is fluent in Arabic, and, given Baybayin’s origins, there are many similarities. There is a small movement among young Filipinos trying to resurrect Baybayin as a source of Filipino pride, primarily through the use of tatoos and other means of artistic expression. Hopefully, they succeed in at least showing their fellow countrymen that their history began well before the Spanish ever arrived.

In researching this posting, I found several good overviews on the Net about Baybayin in addition to a lengthy Wikipedia post (and got the pictures).

www.baybayin.com

http://www.mts.net/~pmorrow/bayeng1.htm

http://www.eaglescorner.com/baybayin/

http://www.omniglot.com/writing/tagalog.htm

Post Author: JohnM (207 Posts)

John Miele is a Citizen of the World, having spent time in many locations around the globe. Currently, he finds himself in Manila, but travels throughout the Philippines. John joined the Live in the Philippines Web Magazine in mid-2008.


Comments

  1. Paul says

    Hi John – Great article. The history and usage of Baybayin has always intrigued me.

    I’m glad you didn’t waste much space with the name “Alibata.” That name was concocted in the 1900s by using the first two characters of the Maguindanao alphabet (alif & bet) which, unlike Baybayin, is derived from the Arabic alphabet. Most scholarly articles I’ve read definitely prefer “Baybayin” and either intentionally omit the name “Alibata” or disparage it.

    One thing I found interesting – there are “written dialects” or versions of Baybayin which appear to better accomodate languages such as Ilocano, Kampampangan, Tagalog, Bisayan, etc.

    btw, there are fonts for Tagalog Baybayin for the “hardcore” among us at http://www.mts.net/~pmorrow/fonts.htm ;)

    • John Miele says

      Paul:

      Thank you!

      I heard that about Alibata… The term is largely discredited, but I included it in the article since some people refer to it by that term.

      I find the whole topic fascinating… In particular the bit about some people keeping the alphabet for their signatures only, but using Spanish otherwise.

  2. Roberto says

    Hi John: Thanks for sharing this information, always knew that there was a lot more to these Islands than four hundred years of Spanish convent, and fifty years of Hollywood.

    • John Miele says

      Roberto: I first read about Baybayin in a history book, and had never heard of it. I suspect there is much more hidden history here.

      • Schyerdth says

        Roberto, to help you and John, the Philippines was actually colonized by the Spaniards for 333 years then the Americans came and then the Japs. And the Filipinos revolted and revolted to these three major colonizers and then had their freedom thanks to US dudes

  3. Mike says

    John, this is just too cool! Last night, I was telling my wife about this & she recited the entire alphabet to me. Now, as I type, she is sitting beside me, amazed by the characters. Thanks for the education!
    Mike

  4. John Miele says

    Mike: I had to try writing Juanito’s name in Baybayin… I think I need a little practice! It is a really cool looking script.

  5. Mike says

    LOL, I’m planning to practice these characters, as well, John. I wonder if I signed documents in The Philippines, using this script, if it would be considered legal? Having studied mandarin and, subsequently, the historical significance of chinese characters, I’d like to learn more about the representation of these characters. In broad strokes, it seems that this alphabet is much like the Japanese kanji, originating from chinese characters & a similar pattern of pronounciation, though some characters have dual sounds & meanings – more along the lines of present-day chinese characters – and the word separation is unique. Really fascinating! Sad, that the script has fallen out of use.
    Mike

      • John Miele says

        lex: One of the sites I linked to is for an artist who makes tattoos… He had some pictures up, and they did look really neat!

    • John Miele says

      Mike: Wow! I’m really not certain… Perhaps if a lawyer reads the site, they would know! Would be interesting to try on something that is largely irrelevant, though, like a small customs duty slip at the post office, or something.

  6. Chris says

    John, perhaps you have also heard about the Laguna copperplate inscription, which supports the idea that the ancient Filipino language (at least the one used in the area which would eventually be occupied by Metro Manila) was related to Sanskrit, with Malay influences.

    • John Miele says

      Chris:

      That would make sense, given the linguistic similarities. However, I had not heard of the Laguna Copperplate. I know that most of the early Filipino writings were on bamboo or bark, so they didn’t last. Really interesting subject, though. I need to read up on it.

  7. says

    Nice one, John. “History written by the victors” how true. With more stuff coming out of the woodwork via internet, real Philippine history is just coming to light now.

    The Mangyans apparently can still write in baybayin. From what I’ve read, this baybayin is a “modern” version came into use around 14th cent, based on the older version, e.g. Laguna copperplate writing, Javanese-Sanskrit (“kavi”). I believe Spanish historian, de Morga had noted that the Filipino writing was from Sanskrit. Unfortunately, they wrote on bamboo tubes.

    The 9th century Laguna copperplate (Natl Museum) and the 11-13th cent gold treasures of Surigao (Ayala Museum) can probably give people a better idea of what this civilization was. You’d be amazed. I was.

    • John Miele says

      Alex:

      Thank you!

      I’ve really been meaning to get down to the Nat’l Museum… I went about a year ago and it was “closed for renovation”. Next time I need to go into town, I’ll look online and see if they are open. I’m certain that there is much more history to discover here… The Spanish never truly completely conquered certain parts of the Philippines and there must be things that have not yet been rediscovered.

      • Paul says

        Hi John – While at the National Museum, also look up the Calatagan Pot, the Butuan Silver Strip and the Butuan Ivory Seal. These mysterious artifacts are each, in themselves, unique. Each bears ancient script writing, unlike that on the others (and the LCI). While there are no other artifacts that provide a second example of any of those unique scripts, the artifacts are thought to possibly be authentic – without additional proof, all is conjecture.

        Still, it’s quite interesting. The LCI itself puts the beginning of this country at year 900AD – quite a bit earlier than the previous 16th Century date around Magellan’s time.

  8. says

    Very interesting, John. The first time I have come across a decent discussion of the script itself. Surprising how things like this can get ‘lost’. Although, how many Americans know about the languages, writings and even governments that existed in what’s now the USA before the Mayflower. History indeed has many, many layers.

    • John Miele says

      Dave: Thank you! Was recently reading a book written after a bunch of Dutch documents from New York were found and the common school days myths they disproved. History and our understanding of it is always changing.

  9. jonaky says

    Great article and important subject. Thanks John. Yes, study the gold artefacts. How about Mindanao before the Muslim conversion? and how about for instance Tboli tradition and craft evidence?

    • John Miele says

      Jonaky: I’m actually thinking about an article along those lines. I’m reading a book talking about the early Indian influences in the Philippines, dating back almost 1400 years. Interesting stuff!

  10. Alfred says

    Hi John,

    How are you? I do hope everything is okay. By the way I would like to thanks you for taking time to write about our Ancient Philippine Script which is by far one of the things that we hold so dear but can no longer implement it in our daily usage. I thanks you as an expat to actually look into this is very much appreciated. Keep up the good work and hope you help us in promulgating this richness that is my islands. Salamat ng Marami.

    Alfred

  11. chester says

    Great site. I really appreciate it. Many of my friends were interested in this and we’re already engage in this ancient writing since college. I’ve even encourage my friends who has a talent in tattoo to try it out.

    • John Miele says

      Chester: Great!!!! The tattoos are becoming really trendy now that several actors and actresses have them.

    • John Miele says

      Josh: Since a tattoo is so permanent, I am really uncomfortable answering this question (I really would hate to be wrong!)… I would ask someone, preferably Filipino, who really knows this inside and out. Sorry…

  12. Nikko says

    Nice article John. I know there’s something interesting about Philippines, like what I had knew that the rice terraces of Banaue is about 6,000 years old (that’s older than India as what others say) and the song Hudhud (I think) people sing that motivates them to continue maintaining the terraces is considered the oldest song ever lived (still sang). Please correct me if I’m wrong. There another thing that I had, the palace ruins of the ancient Kingdom of Sulu left beneath a lushy forest. A lot of people didn’t know it. The royal family of Sulu is currently working with the reclaim of the lost territory (Sabah, Malaysia). Philippine prehispanic history is so challenging yet interesting… I wish there’s more we can learn from the past because somehow they remind people of their true identity. Good luck in your career and works!

  13. John Miele says

    Nikko: My understanding is that you are correct. Rebecca told me that the rice planting songs she sang as a kid go back so many generations that no-one is really certain… they just sing them.

    The difficulty with ancient Filipino archaeology / anthropology / sociology is that the historic materials were largely either destroyed by the Spanish or written on materials that could not withstand the tropical climate over centuries. Nevertheless, I agree with you 100% that the topic is fascinating. Perhaps some of the young scholars in UP’s Filipiniana department will have some dramatic breakthroughs in the future!

  14. jazel joy says

    writing alibata is so cool! and the history of the philippines is very interesting to know!!!
    by the way sir. john are you pinoy? :)

    thanks for the information above! :)

    • JohnM says

      Jaxel: Thank you… I’m glad you found it interesting. Not Pinoy, but merely a Kano living here who finds history fascinating ;-)

  15. roberto me says

    you know what learning alibata is fan. There are a lot of things to discover here in my own native land and this year they launch a drama that tells the epic story of the visayas region that shows the early native people before the spaniards came in my country and their they tell how they live and how they survive and what kind of government they do. the drama was entitled ” AMAYA “. try to watch this. you can see also the beliefs of the filipino for their GOd for their time.

  16. noe cawaling says

    wow! thank you so much for this wonderful idea that you posted here…it helps me a lot esp in doing my ditty in english with regards on alibata or baybayin
    ..i love you…!!!!

    • JohnM says

      Junji: Well, that is one opinion… If you talk to my wife’s family up in the Cagayan Valley, their take on the history is very different. It is one of the reasons why the country is often fragmented and not very united.

  17. says

    John, anneyeong haseyo, a ree ga to, thank you, salamat. :D I’m a Filipino and I’m happy to know that you and also other people appreciate our ancestor’s language, thank you for sharing this article, it helped me on my FILIPINO SUBJECT.

  18. Rollen says

    I have been interested about the old Philippine culture and history since I first heard from the Late President F. Marcos about the reality of the Western invasion in the past (American and Spanish and Portugal). How we use to be called Maharlikans and we have our own alphabet system. I was only 14 years old at that time. Then I started going to libraries to research about it but could not find about actual history of the revolution and world war 2 history about Philippine military involvement. I believe it was the Late Pres. Marcos who open all this to the public. He was responsible to get people to go to USA and Spain and Portugal to get the actual history and brought them back to Philippines. However, when I was 18 and came to Australia. I started searching for the real truth what happen during the Western occupation of the Philippines. But nothing I could find here until the internet started featuring all this infos. I think year 2000 when I started seeing Filipino alphabet and literatures. It makes me proud that we have this identity coming back. I just hope that the Filipinos will start teaching these to the new generations so one day Philippines will become Maharlika again. Thank you to those who are bringing out these infos to the internet keep up the good work.

  19. Anna says

    hi. all the babayin characters are authentic right? im planning to have a tattoo in babayin.
    the words, “sagradong biyaya” — in babayin its sa-ga-do be/bi-ya-ya.
    is this accurate?? thank you.

  20. Lyn DP Jacobe says

    Thank you very much for this article….It is very informative and interesting topic… I’ve learned so much….

  21. AJ Cabatic says

    The photo your used for this has already been proven a hoax. There are other more reliable documents you can cite

  22. Phyrrus vladimir says

    What if we start using baybayin in a filipino animation or used in a commercial or advertisement, this will cause huge impact to spread knowledge about this type of script and may lead this script to be used … I just want to see this script is being use to road signages or being televised in tv with a large characters so it can be seen …

    • Sienna says

      yeah, even I. I wanted to make this script be popular. I don’t want this language to be dead! :-) Hopefully, schools here in the philippines would introduce this alibata. It would be great! By the way, I am a Filipina and I am do practice using it. :)

    • Sienna says

      yeah, even I. I wanted to make this script be popular. I don’t want this language to be dead! :-) Hopefully, schools here in the philippines would introduce this alibata. It would be great! By the way, I am a Filipina and I am do practice using it. :)

  23. Akhie says

    Hi there, i just want to say that this Ancient Filipino Alphabet known as Alibata are still in use in some rural area here in Palawan Province, especially (Tagbanwa or Tagbanua Tribes) or Apurahuano(apurawnon). and
    Tagbanwa Austronesian languages still in use of some elders in tribe as of today but sad to say its dying out as the younger generations of Tagbanwa are learning Cuyonon and Tagalog. Ma-ram-eng Sa-lam-at!

  24. Nica says

    Wow, I read each and every comment and I am truly amaze of this article!
    I grew up in Palawan and went to a public school before shortly transferring into an American School overseas and I am truly amazed by such rich history and culture I came from. I wish the school system focused more on our great history and independence before they even teach us how we got concoured by the Spaniards and Americans. Great article!

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