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It’s heartwarming that young Filipinos have newfound interest for the Baybayin, the ancient Tagalog script that our ancestors used before the Latin alphabet was brought to the islands. It’s everywhere, from university symbols to underground passes in Manila, so it’s not surprising that a lot of people want to learn how to read and write Baybayin.
But before we download Baybayin fonts and write our names in Baybayin letters, it’s important to clear up a few misconceptions about the script.
Is it Alibata or Baybayin?
The correct term is Baybayin. Alibata is erroneous.
Baybayin scholar Norman de los Santos claims that the word “Alibata” is a misnomer (that is, it’s inaccurate). In his paper The Philippine Indigenous Writing Systems in the Modern World, which was presented at the 13th International Conference on Austronesian Language, he explains that “Alibata” was invented in the early 20th century by Paul Versoza , who based it on the Arabic letters alif, ba, and ta.
Historians, however, officially refer to the script as Baybayin. For example, William Henry Scott described Baybayin as the indigenous Tagalog script in his book Barangay: Sixteenth-Century Philippine Culture and Society (check pages 209-216).
The online version of the UP Diksiyunaryong Filipino also doesn’t acknowledge Alibata as the official name of the script. It defines “Alibata” as “alpabetong Arabic tulad ng pagkakakilala sa Silangan.” In contrast, it defines “Baybayin” as “sinaunang alpabeto ng mga Filipino.”
Script vs. Language
Baybayin is a script (how we write the characters), not a language whereas Tagalog or Filipino is the language.
It’s important to note that Baybayin is not the only script used by pre-Hispanic Filipinos. The Mangyans of Southern Mindoro have the Surat Mangyan, and the Kapampangans have the Kulitan. If you have a few minutes to spare, try checking them out.
How to Write the Baybayin
Let me begin by saying that the Baybayin you see in online font generators and translators isn’t the original Baybayin. It’s a modernized version that’s adapted to how modern people write and read.
Here are key differences:
- Independent Consonants. The original Baybayin doesn’t have independent consonants, so the word “namin” in Ama Namin was spelled as NA-MI. In modern Baybayin, you can use consonants, so you can spell “namin” as NA-MI-N.
- Spaces. The original Baybayin doesn’t put spaces between words. The phrase “Diyos Ama” would have been a continuous string of characters for DI-YU-A-MA. Meanwhile, modern Baybayin would have a space between DI-YU-S and A-MA.
- Punctuation. The original Baybayin uses two vertical lines to separate a string of characters (often parsing the section into phrases). Modern Baybayin often uses two vertical lines to separate sentences.
How to Write Modern Baybayin
It’s relatively easier to learn how to write modern Baybayin because it is adapted to how we, native Latin alphabet writers, write.
First thing you have to do is memorize the characters for the vowels and the syllable form [CONSONANT] + A. These are the base characters for other characters.
By adding a mark (either a dot or a kudlit) on top of the character, you get the syllable form [CONSONANT] + E/I.By adding a mark below the character, you get the syllable form [CONSONANT] + O/U. By adding a cross mark below the character, you remove the vowel and get the independent [CONSONANT] sound.
In writing sentences, most Baybayin font generators use || in place of a period to denote the end of the sentence.
Exploring the Original Baybayin
If you find modern Baybayin fun, then the original script used by our Tagalog ancestors would leave you loving our pre-colonial story.
Here are my favorite points:
Despite a lack of consonants, Baybayin was perfectly readable to the natives. The original Baybayin didn’t have independent consonants, so the script for the word LI-LI could be read as lilim, lilim, limlim, liglig, etc. It may seem impossible to read, but our ancestors were able to decipher them without batting an eyelash.
In the book 3 Baybayin Studies, Ramon Gulliermo recounts the observations of friars Alcina and Chirino, who said that there were Tagalogs who read Baybayin “with proficiency” and “without stumbling.” They can supply the missing consonant quickly (check page 5).
The reading process was complex, but to our ancestors, it was easy-peasy. The original Baybayin didn’t put spaces between words and used || to separate phrases. As such, in any given Baybayin text, there would be strings of characters separated by ||, making it difficult to distinguish individual words. But again, because our ancestors were so adept at reading that they can easily make sense of the text.
The friars found it difficult to spell words involving foreign concepts. It was difficult for the friars to spell Spanish loanwords in Baybayin, but they had to make do. Hesu Kristo was spelled as SI-SU-KI-TU, whereas impiyerno was spelled as I-PI-NU.
The Baybayin is a rich heritage that makes us feel like we are part of a grander narrative. So the next time you get a Baybayin tattoo or pen your secret love letter, remember that you’re not just using an exclusive script that only a handful can decipher; you are carrying the story of our people.
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