Baybayin: The Lost Filipino Script (Part 1)
The Baybayin as we know it today is an ancient Philippine system of writing, a set of 17 characters or letters that had spread throughout the Philippine archipelago in the sixteenth century. The graphic contours of the Baybayin are distinguished by smoothly flowing curvilinear strokes that convey both suppleness and strength.
Take this to heart: never ever ever ever call Baybayin “
Alibata”. This name was invented by Paul Versoza who erroneously thought that Baybayin came from Arabic and thus named it Alibata from ‘Alif-bata,’ the first letters of the Arabic script. Recent studies strongly suggests that Baybayin may have come from Sanskrit, the ancient Indian script, brought to the Philippine shores by Indian traders.
Where did the name Baybayin come from? The word ‘baybay’ in ancient Tagalog means ‘to spell’ or in modern Filipino, ‘syllable.’ As early as 900 AD, there are tidbits of evidences that the ancients in our islands had a sophisticated way of writing. As to why it quickly disappeared comes from the fact that we were never a print culture like China and Korea, that used paper and built large libraries of scrolls to preserve their history, their memory. Another factor is the effective colonization of Spain by the forcing of the houses of ‘natives’ to be gathered around a town-square called ‘reducciones’ close to the church and the alcaldes for the close supervision of the Spanish authorities.
Baybayin as a Syllabary
Baybayin is a syllabary, meaning unlike commonly used scripts today like the Roman Alphabet, each letter represents a complete syllable, not a phoneme which is a sound that a single letter possesses. The Roman alphabet (the one we use today) is a phonetic alphabet, with each letter having its own phoneme like the letter ‘k’ which has the sound ‘ck’. The sounds of each letter of Baybayin are just V (Vowel), and CV (Consonant and Vowel) with with our unique CV letter ‘nga’. The dilemma lies with the current Filipino language we use which has V, VC, and CVC, that is why these variations cannot be represented in the original Baybayin in the strictest sense.
Babayin’s Disappearing Consonants
A weird practice in Baybayin which completely eludes linguistic historians till today was the fact that whenever the sequence CVC occurs in one syllable, the last C (consonant) would be dropped. However, if the document is read, ancient Filipinos would seem to know the consonant that was dropped and would suddenly reappear in their reading. Imagine reading the Filipino word “bignay” (an endemic Filipino cherry). In Baybayin it would be written as “bi-na”. But when a precolonial Filipino reads it, the ‘g’ and the ‘y’ mysteriously reappears. It may have been no different from the Chinese script which entails understanding the context-clues of the whole sentence to guess the missing consonants. This is harder than doing the ‘txt msg’ which we frequently do by dropping all the vowels to save space for our text.
Certain Spaniards like Fray Francisco Lopez saw this as a ‘deficiency’ and suggested an additional kudlit or diacritic “+” to be written below the Baybayin letters to make it phonemic. These diacritic makes Baybayin usable in Modern Filipino language today. But what happened to this innovation when it was first introduced?
This is where we see the pride of the ancient Filipinos in their own way of writing:
“The experts of the time were consulted, we read in the Tagalog orthography, about this new invention with the request that they adopt and use it in writing for the convenience of everybody. But after highly praising it and expressing their thanks, they decided that it cannot be introduced into their writing system because it was against the intrinsic nature and character given the Tagalog language by God and it would be equivalent to destroying in one stroke the whole syntax, prosody and orthography of their language.” (Pedro Andres de Castro, 1776).
Baybayin through the Eyes of the Conquistadors
When the Spaniards arrived, they were shocked to find that almost all Filipinos could read and write in their own way. Ancient Philippines, to be frank, had a high sense of literacy. Read as Spanish chroniclers give us a rare glimpse of Baybayin through the people:
“So accustomed are all these islanders to writing and reading that there is scarcely a man, and much less a woman, who cannot read and write in the letters proper to the island of Manila.” – Pedro Chirino (1604)
“Throughout the islands the natives write very well using [their letters]… All the natives, women as well as men, write in this language, and there are very few who do not write well and correctly.” –Antonio de Morga (1609)
“They [the Visayans] have their letters and characters like those of the Malays, from whom they learned them.” – Miguel Lopez de Legazpi (1567)
“We will end this chapter with the characters of these natives, or, better said, those that have been in use for a few years in these parts, an art which was communicated to them from the Tagalogs, and the latter learned it from the Borneans who came from the great island of Borneo to Manila, with whom they have considerable traffic… . From these Borneans the Tagalogs learned their characters, and from them the Visayans, so they call them Moro characters or letters because the Moros taught them … they learned their letters, which many use today, and the women much more than the men, which they write and read more readily than the latter.” – Francisco Ignacio Alcina (1668)
“They have certain characters which serve them as letters with which they write whatever they wish. They are of a very different shape from any others we have known until now. The women commonly know how to write with them, and when they write, it is on some tablets made of the bamboos which they have in those islands, on the bark. In using such tablet, which is four fingers wide, they do not write with ink, but with some scribers with which they cut the surface and bark of the bamboo, and make the letters.” – Boxer Codex (1590)
An even more surprising discovery was made by William Henry Scott: “A few years later [after the Spaniards sent a Baybayin letter to Borneo] Tagalog conspirators hoping to expel their Spanish invaders communicated among themselves and their Bornean allies in [Baybayin] writing, and even sent a letter to Japan. Naturally none of this correspondence has survived, but the Spanish translation of a Bikolano letter En Letras Tagala, which contains a scathing condemnation of Spanish misconduct, is preserved in Franciscan archives in Madrid.”
What happened to our script?
Paul Morrow, a Canadian Baybayin expert, wrote this painful fact: “The sad fact is that most forms of indigenous art in the Philippines were abandoned wherever the Spanish influence was strong and only exist today in the regions that were out of reach of the Spanish empire.” Another Baybayin expert, Hector Santos, would say that our illiteracy was caused by the growing demands of our conquerors when it came to taxes, rendering us with no time to pass our way of life to our children. He noted: “Could it be that the disappearance of the Tagalog script marked that point in history when the Filipinos’ cultural will was finally broken? Are we now forever fragmented as a nation grasping for empty symbols when there are so many real things that we should be proud of?”
Indeed it is a sad plight, a historical circumstance that we are now realizing. Baybayin is a lost script, preserved to us thanks to a lot of Spanish documents and 16th-17th century dictionaries. But Baybayin is making a comeback.
With the resurgence of Baybayin in the 21st century, I will leave that to my next post. :)
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