MANY Filipinos are probably unaware that their forebears used their own script – the Baybayin – to write, before the arrival in the Philippines of Spanish colonizers, and even the Islamic missionaries.
The Baybayin, the ancient script of the Tagalogs, is a mixture of an alphabet and a syllabary. It is not a language, but a manner of writing.
It should not be confused with alibata, an erroneous and historically non-existent term that unfortunately found its way into school textbooks.
Baybayin is characterized by its wide letters, whose pronunciations varied, depending on accents above or below them.
Each letter of the Baybayin represented a syllable, unlike in the Roman alphabet where syllables are formed by combining consonants and vowels.
Thanks to the extensive documentation of Spanish missionaries, the Baybayin survived into the colonial era.
In fact, the first book printed in the Philippines, the Doctrina Christiana or Christian Doctrine, was written in Spanish, Tagalog in the Roman alphabet, and Tagalog in Baybayin.
Contracts and deeds of sale were written in Baybayin up to the 17th century, as evidenced by documents preserved at the archives of the University of Santo Tomas in Manila, and the Monreal Stone at the National Museum.
By the mid-1700s, however, the friar Sebastian Totanes, in his Tagalog manual, wrote that the script had fallen into disuse: “Rare is the Indio who still knows how to read them, much less write them. All of them read and write our Castilian letters now.”
Attempts to revive the use of the Baybayin are commendable. Lest the Baybayin be consigned forever as a museum piece, some government agencies like the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, the National Museum and the Armed Forces of the Philippines, have incorporated Baybayin versions of their names or symbols into their official logos. The New Generation Currency banknotes issued by the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas contain the words “Pilipino” in Baybayin.
House Bill 1022, filed by Pangasinan Rep. Leopoldo Bataoil, while well intentioned in its desire to preserve and promote Baybayin, could be contentious.
The bill, approved by the House Committee on Basic Education and Culture, seeks to “promote, protect, preserve and conserve ‘Baybayin’ as the National Writing System of the Philippines, using it as a tool for cultural and economic development to create a consciousness, respect and pride for the legacies of Filipino cultural history, heritage and the country’s authentic identity.”
In reality the bill will only require a) food manufacturers to incorporate Baybayin translations into their product labels, b) local governments to include Baybayin names in signage and street names, and c) newspapers and magazines to provide Baybayin translations of their names on their mastheads.
These measures will hardly make Baybayin a national writing system. They seem to be a token gesture to some vague concept of “authentic national identity,” which will generate only limited awareness.
But is there really a need to elevate Baybayin to the status of a national script? Our Southeast Asian neighbors, with the notable exception of the Thais, have abandoned their scripts without difficulty and without reducing their sense of nationhood.
Baybayin is a workable script but a vague one, as scholars like Vicente Rafael have noted. And experts like Paul Morrow, while avid promoters of Baybayin, said the script was lost for reasons of practicality, as Filipinos found it easier to read and write in Roman alphabets. Moreover, Baybayin was unable to keep pace with the introduction of new words into the Tagalog vocabulary.
It is hard to imagine, therefore, for the Baybayin to be reintroduced to the educational system, or even be taught parallel to the established Filipino orthography.
Filipinos have long unlearned Baybayin and it will take generations to learn it again. Reviving Baybayin requires a national conversation and consensus, not a cultural imposition.