aaron2

Baybayin (Alibata): The Ancient Filipino Alphabet

NEW articles daily! Subscribe below to receive daily updates with our new articles!

Please enter your name.
Please enter a valid email address.
Something went wrong. Please check your entries and try again.

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.

Tagalog Buddy

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.

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

JohnM

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.

Most Shared Posts

69
Leave a Reply

avatar
34 Comment threads
35 Thread replies
0 Followers
 
Most reacted comment
Hottest comment thread
41 Comment authors
Bob MartinGilFred Erick GalirozethSabrina Recent comment authors
  Subscribe  
newest oldest most voted
Notify of
Paul
Guest
Paul

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.… Read more »

John Miele
Guest
John Miele

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.

jason
Guest
jason

very cool i enjoyed reading this. I allways enjoy the history of the phils. Thanks for writing it John

John Miele
Guest
John Miele

Jason: Thanks! Glad you enjoyed it.

rozeth
Guest
rozeth

I’m from philipines but I don’t know this baybayin alphabet

Roberto
Guest
Roberto

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
Guest
John Miele

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
Guest
Schyerdth

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

Mike
Guest
Mike

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

John Miele
Guest
John Miele

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.

JonB
Guest
JonB

JM,

There’ll be three characters for WA-NI-TO.

Jonb

John Miele
Guest
John Miele

Jon: I thought 4 – Hu-A-Ni-To. I think you are probably more correct, though.

Sabrina
Guest
Sabrina

JonB used3 characters because in the original writing systems there were no added characters for example: instead of ‘Q’, ‘K’ was used.
Further, people hate it when their own writing system is named Baybayin -(name). For example: Baybayin-Kulitan/Kapampangan when it should be Kulitan/Kulit/pamangkulit/Sulat Kapampangan alone.

Mike
Guest
Mike

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!… Read more »

AlexB
Guest

Mike, A distant relative’s son, had his name in baybayin tattooed on his upper arm. It looked pretty impressive. Alex

John Miele
Guest
John Miele

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
Guest
John Miele

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.

Chris
Guest
Chris

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
Guest
John Miele

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.

AlexB
Guest

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… Read more »

John Miele
Guest
John Miele

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
Guest
Paul

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… Read more »

John Miele
Guest
John Miele

Paul: Will do thast

Dave Starr
Guest

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
Guest
John Miele

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.

jonaky
Guest
jonaky

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
Guest
John Miele

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!

jonaky
Guest
jonaky

Great. Please make time for it.

Biz Doc
Guest
Biz Doc

hi john,

looks like it’s been a year since you wrote this piece– any news on the next article you mentioned here?

cheers,

John Miele
Guest
John Miele

Biz Doc: I’ve been so tied up lately, that I’m barely keeping up. Still on my list.

SIGN UP TO JOIN OUR GIVEAWAYS & INFO NEWSLETTER

Make sure you've signed up to our newsletter to get exclusive newsletter only content! Also be updated about all our important events and other important info that our readers rely on.

SIGNUP FORM


Something went wrong. Please check your entries and try again.