The Fundamentals of Baybayin

The Bathala Project BaybayinGuest Contribution by David Lazaro, The Bathala Project

The ability to read and to write is the mark of any civilization.  Thus, it should be no surprise that Spanish accounts reveal that when they first landed on the shores of the Philippine islands, the people of the land were already reading and writing to each other through their own script. The accounts even estimate that the native people of the Philippines may have been writing this script for over a century prior to the first Spanish steps on the beaches of Homonhon made by Magellan himself.  This script that seemingly every local was literate in including women and children was found to be called Baybayin.

Allow me to introduce myself: My name is David Lazaro, and I am the artist and engineer behind The Bathala Project, through which I produce artworks primarily involving the ancient script of Baybayin as a means to expose, express and educate about this seemingly forgotten part of our rich Pilipino culture. After understanding what the fundamental mechanics of the script are, the Baybayin script will be further investigated to reveal the cultural tie-ins with the Pilipino people and its usage.  Lastly, a look at how the presence of Spaniards affected Baybayin writing will be examined to give context to the eventual near-extinction of the script.

However, the script itself is far from extinct as evidenced by you reading this very article about Baybayin.  But what exactly is Baybayin?  Is it the same thing as Alibata?  Is it like Chinese writing?  Japanese?  Arabic?  All valid questions when inquiring about a piece of history that was at the cusp of extinction, while hearsay and assumptions drawn from ambiguities have seemingly been taken as facts to some.  Before we get into the cultural disambiguation however, let’s first get acquainted with a few basic facts:

1. Baybayin is an alphasyllabary writing system known as an abugida., a website highlighting writing systems of the world, defines an abugida writing system as: 

"[Consisting] of symbols for consonants and vowels. The consonants each have an inherent vowel which can be changed to another vowel or muted by means of diacritics. Vowels can also be written with separate letters when they occur at the beginning of a word or on their own.” 

The Baybayin writing system is comprised of 17 characters that express consonants and vowels found in old Tagalog, as shown in Figure 1.

baybayin sheet
Figure 1 – Baybayin Characters

Notice that some modern sounds we have grown accustomed to are not expressed among these 17 characters such as Ra, Ja, Fa, Ch, Cr/Kr, Va, Th, Sh, and Za.  This is because these sounds were not native to the old versions of Tagalog and the other Pilipino dialects of the time.  However, phonetic estimations for these sounds would later be made, specifically with the introduction of Spanish words and pronunciations.  The consonants themselves are accompanied as a default with an “A” sound and in order to change the accompanying sound of the vowel, a diacritic called a kudlit is placed either above or below the Baybayin character as shown in Figure 2.  The Sa symbol is used for the sake of example:

Baybayin Vowel

Figure 2 – Kudlit Vowel Changes

The last kudlit, known as the cross kudlit, was introduced by the Spaniards to better express the sound of silent consonants.  This will be examined later. 

2. In regards to whether Alibata is the same thing as Baybayin; yes, it is the same thing as it refers to the same writing system, and no, because it is the wrong term to use as explained by Hector Santos, one of the first Baybayin writers to post articles online about the script: 

“In 1914, the newer term Alibata was introduced by Dean Paul Versoza of the University of Manila. He claims the term comes from alif, ba, and ta, the first three letters of the Maguindanao arrangement of the Arabic letters.  He did not explain why he chose a totally unrelated writing system to name the script.”

I suppose the word, Alibata, seems to roll off the tongue more, and is easier to read than Baybayin, but not all that glitters is gold.  When referring to a piece of our Pilipino history and heritage, it would be best to use the real name, Baybayin, as to further proliferate fact over fiction. 

3. Baybayin is thought to have developed from “the Kawi script of Java, Bali and Sumatra, which in turn descended from the Pallava script, one of the southern Indian scripts derived from Brahmi.”  Thus, to compare it to Arabic or Chinese writing would not be a precise comparison.  If anything, it would be closer to Japanese writing as they are both syllable based, however, Baybayin’s utilization of the kudlit sound changer distinguishes a clear difference. 

Structurally, Baybayin is an ancient abugida writing system that has been mislabeled as Alibata.  Though derived from comparable Malay writing systems, Baybayin is a uniquely Pilipino writing system and was exclusively used by the ancient people of the Philippines. But what was Baybayin used for?  Who did the writing?  And how is it written? 

Typically in ancient civilizations such as that of the Egyptians, Mayan, and Indonesian civilizations, reading and writing were reserved for the elite and high class.  This was done as a mark of high status and used as a tool to control information from the lesser and lower class peoples.  But as far as Baybayin writing was used and as to who used it, the Pilipino people were more of an equal-education culture, as Hector Diaz explains: 

“The culture that the Spaniards found in the Philippines was unique in that the art of reading and writing was in the hands of everybody. 

The [Spanish] priestly class and its related class of scribes existed mainly to glorify and perpetuate the reign of the ruling king. They were employed to record history, the glorious deeds of the king, and keep track of tributes and taxes that were expected from the governed. In contrast, accounts of the use of writing in the Philippines indicate that they were not used to record history and tradition but simply for personal communication and writing poetry.”

Several Spanish accounts corroborate the casual use of Baybayin writing, specifically pointing out the lack of historical records and scientific discoveries being documented into Baybayin.  This may be due to how Baybayin was being written.  Typically, Baybayin was carved into bamboo and other wood mediums, as described by Charles Boxer: 

“When they write, it is on some tablets made of the bamboos which they have in those islands, on the bark. In using such a 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.”

Baybayin Bamboo

Figure 3 – “A Hanunóo boy of Mindoro carves letters into a piece of bamboo. The Hanunóo script is one of three forms of the baybayin that is still in use today”


Figure 4 - The bamboo document and the dagger used to write it.

An excerpt from Ang Baybayin further attributes the lack of modern records of ancient documents:

“Once the letters were carved into the bamboo, it was wiped with ash to make the characters stand out more. Sharpened splits of bamboo were used with colored plant saps to write on more delicate materials such as leaves. But since the ancient Filipinos did not keep long-term written records, more durable materials, such as stone, clay or metal, were not used. After the Spaniards arrived Filipinos adopted the use of paper, pen and ink.”

In addition to the tropical climate of the Philippines and the natural changes between wet and dry seasons, it’s understandable why bamboo slats from centuries ago may not have survived throughout.  Yet the knowledge of Baybayin was well proliferated among all the Pilipino people, not excluding any class within their societies.  This piece of our ancient and rich culture traces so far back that it actually pre-dates the existence of the term “Filipino”, which was coined by the Spaniards.  With such strong prominence with the Pilipino people and such deep ties with our history, one may wonder, “What were the effects of the Spanish colonization on Baybayin?” 

Historically speaking, their presence has driven Baybayin writing to near extinction, yet structurally, they have actually progressed Baybayin to phonetically express many of the modern sounds we use today that are not found among the original 17 characters. 

The fall of Baybayin writing from modern Pilipino society will be examined later, but for now we will look into the Spanish contributions to Baybayin.  With subjugation, brain washing, self-hating, image-worshiping and other traumatic side-effects of the Spanish colonization on to the Pilipino culture put to the side for now, it should be noted that the Spanish subjugators actually utilized the Baybayin script as a means to help proliferate their messages among the Pilipino people.  Case and point: La Doctrina Christiana



 Baybayin Doctrina Christiana
Figure 5 – An excerpt from the Doctrina Christiana


La Doctrina Christiana, a book based on Cardinal Bellarmino's catechism, was the first proliferated published text that was translated from Spanish into Tagalog.  To help spread the message of the Spaniard’s Christianity and for the Pilipinos to accept and understand this foreign religious text, many of the copies were printed into Baybayin script.  However, a specific change had to be implemented in order to phonetically express certain sounds found in the Spanish language that could not be expressed within the confines of conventional Baybayin writing.  Thus, the introduction of the cross kudlit was implemented, as described by Paul Morrow: 

“The first attempt to “reform” the Baybayin came in 1620 when Fr. Francisco Lopez prepared to publish the Ilokano Doctrina. He invented a new kudlit in the shape of a cross. This was placed below a Baybayin consonant in order to cancel the inherent ‘A’ sound. Lopez wrote: 

    The reason for putting the text of the Doctrina in Tagalog type... has been to begin the correction of the said Tagalog script, which, as it is, is so defective and confused (because of not having any method until now for expressing final consonants - I mean, those without vowels) that the most learned reader has to stop and ponder over many words to decide on the pronunciation which the writer intended.”

The cross kudlit (as seen in Figure 2) essentially silenced the vowel sound at the end of Baybayin consonants.  So, instead of writing “Sa”, one can write “S” to achieve the silent ‘S sound found at the end of words such as “manzanas” (apples) or “Pontius Pilatus” (Pontius Pilate).  However, the cross kudlit was seen as cumbersome to native Baybayin readers and writers, which was one attributing reason as to why the Pilipino people would later adapt the Spanish alphabet for ease of writing and reading.   

Over the centuries of Spanish subjugation, varying reasons would attribute to the overall switch from Baybayin to the alphabet, though the Spaniards initially tried to work with Baybayin.  Add to this the habit of writing Baybayin on perishable materials such as bamboo, the faded existence of Baybayin can be outlined in this modern looking back at it.  However, with strong oral traditions of passing knowledge of this 17 character abugida and the heavy proliferation of this pre-Spanish writing system among the ancient Pilipino people, we are still learning, reading and writing Baybayin today.  Before the ambiguities arisen from the aftermath of switching subjugators and centuries of misinformation, colonization and manifest destiny, both the country and the writing system of Baybayin have existed before them, and remain with us today.  We can use it as a reminder of who we are, and as a source of pride and strength to derive from its symbolism.  However, before we can take Baybayin writing to the next level, we must first discover where it went and where it has been, to better understand our own reasons for writing and stylizing Baybayin... But until then... 

Stay up, 


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