The Life, Death, and Resurgence of Baybayin

The influence of this ancient language can be seen in how Filipinos write today.
ILLUSTRATOR Jasrelle Serrano / Text from Wikicommons

The Philippine Baybayin script belongs to the Austronesian languages. "Bâybayin" aptly means "to syllabicate or syllabify."  Baybayin has three vowels and 14 consonants (see charts below). It was widely used in the country prior to Spanish conquest up until 1668 when the script forms were removed from official Doctrina Christiana publications.


The Boxer Codex of 1590, the first book about Filipinos, mentioned the adeptness of men and women in Baybayin writing. The second book, Doctrina Christiana, (1593) marked the imposition of the Spanish Catholicism. The Spaniards saw it fitting to put both Baybayin and the Latinized Tagalog in the book because they knew so well how most Filipinos can read and write in Baybayin. Otley Bayer (1921) wrote, “It cannot be said that such writings did not exist, since the early Filipinos were even more literate than the Mexicans... One Spanish priest in Southern Luzon boasted of having destroyed more than three hundred scrolls written in native characters.”

Conflicting Origin Theories

Early writings have never been conclusive as to where the ancient syllabary originated. Jose Rizal, in his book Estudos Sobre La Lengua Tagala (1893), wrote, “It has been long thought that Tagalog branched out from the Malay Language because it was the first known language in Europe from this region. But recent studies comparing the languages of Malayo-Polynesian will show that this belief has no strong basis.”

New evidences from paleography, ethnography and historical accounts can help in repositioning our views on the origins of the Baybayin. Recently, a couple of Philippine National Treasures were found to have Baybayin inscriptions (Comandante 2009). The Angono Caves in Rizal province (determined to be Neolithic by the Philippine National Museum; 6000-2000 BC) bears rock drawings, or petroglyphs, with visible Baybayin script forms. Another National Treasure with clear Baybayin scripts is the Manunggul Jar (a secondary burial vessel) taken from the same named cave in Palawan that was carbon dated to be 890-710 BC.

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Confusing Accounts on Baybayin Marks

The confusion over the use of marks may have contributed to the demise of Baybayin over time. The desire of Francisco Lopez (1620) for Baybayin to conform to alfabetos paved the way for the invention of a cross sign. Such introduction was uniquely a standalone event that was blindly copied by succeeding writers up until now. Sevilla and Alvero (1939) said, “The marks required in the formation of syllables are: the tuldok or point (.) and the bawas or minus sign (-).” The bawas or minus sign (-) that is placed before the script to remove the paired vowel appears more logical than the cross or plus sign (+) of Lopez.

New Origin Theory

Guilermo Tolentino was one of the very few individuals who tried to put forward the possible Filipino origins of Baybayin and numerals in his book, Ang Wika at Baybaying Tagalog 1937.” But in 2009, Comandante presented a PhD dissertation entitled "The Role of Giant Clams in the Development of the Ancient Baybayin Script." The dissertation also included a theory of the origins of Baybayin numerals as shown below (note the resemblance of Baybayin numerals etched at Angono Petroglyphs to modern numerals:


Writing seven with a dash at the middle, as practiced by majority of Filipinos, is a subconscious imprint from the ancient times (see no. 7 above with a middle dash; red dash-lines by author).

A summary of the Baybayin word meanings from San Buenaventura 1613 is as follow: aa, ii, and uu refer to chanting;  baba means inside; kaka- biggest in a group; dada/dara-bloodletting; gaga-to show; haha- to break; lala- to scrape; mama- to eat; nana- blood; nganga- open wide; papa- partake; sasa- to break; tata- split; wawa- opening; yaya- together. The meanings altogether point to an activity using giant clams as part of a ritual offering and partaking thereafter.

The most significant evidence of the relation of Giant Clams to Baybayin is found in the book, A Lexicographic Study of Tayabas Tagalog of Quezon Province done by Arsenio Manuel (UP Faculty) 1971. The word haha (p. 133) is listed to mean "hiwang malaki" (cut wide) and hahain means "bukahin ang manglit" (open the manglit ) while manglit means 'higanteng kabibe" (giant clams).

Today, efforts are being made to promote the script across the country. The National Museum and Commission on Culture and Arts have devoted areas in their offices to showcase the written forms. Down south, patriots are working together to convene by the first quarter of 2018 an initially modest Suwat Bisaya and Mindanao Baybayin Conference. In Negros, La Consolacion College (Bacolod) will hold a Baybayin seminar on November 30, 2017 while Taklobo Baybayin Group will have its yearly festival later on August 28 at Imus, Cavite. Schools like Bucas Grande in Surigao have started to patronize the written forms of Baybayin. Organizations like Mangyan Heritage Center and Lucban Historical Society have been active in promoting our forgotten ancient writing forms called Panulat.

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About The Author
Bonifacio Comandante
An award-winning marine biologist, Boni also holds a Ph.D. in Anthropology. He is the director of Taklobo Baybayin.
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