Phil. Literature

The Literary Forms in Philippine Literature

by: Christine F. Godinez-Ortega

       The diversity and richness of Philippine literature evolved side by side with the country’s history. This can best be appreciated in the context of the country’s pre-colonial cultural traditions and the socio-political histories of its colonial and contemporary traditions.         

       The average Filipino’s unfamiliarity with his indigenous literature was largely due to what has been impressed upon him: that his country was “discovered” and, hence, Philippine “history” started only in 1521.

       So successful were the efforts of colonialists to blot out the memory of the country’s largely oral past that present-day Filipino writers, artists and journalists are trying to correct this inequity by recognizing the country’s wealth of ethnic traditions and disseminating them in schools and in the mass media.

       The rousings of nationalistic pride in the 1960s and 1970s also helped bring about this change of attitude among a new breed of Filipinos concerned about the “Filipino identity.”


Pre-Colonial Times

       Owing to the works of our own archaeologists, ethnologists and anthropologists, we are able to know more and better judge information about our pre-colonial times set against a bulk of material about early Filipinos as recorded by Spanish, Chinese, Arabic and other chroniclers of the past.

       Pre-colonial inhabitants of our islands showcase a rich past through their folk speeches, folk songs, folk narratives and indigenous rituals and mimetic dances that affirm our ties with our Southeast Asian neighbors.

       The most seminal of these folk speeches is the riddle which is tigmo in Cebuano, bugtong in Tagalog, paktakon in Ilongo and patototdon in Bicol. Central to the riddle is the talinghaga or metaphor because it “reveals subtle resemblances between two unlike objects” and one’s power of observation and wit are put to the test. While some riddles are ingenious, others verge on the obscene or are sex-related:


        Gongonan nu usin y amam If you pull your daddy’s penis

        Maggirawa pay sila y inam. Your mommy’s vagina, too,

(Campana) screams. (Bell)

       The proverbs or aphorisms express norms or codes of behavior, community beliefs or they instill values by offering nuggets of wisdom in short, rhyming verse.

       The extended form, tanaga, a mono-riming heptasyllabic quatrain expressing insights and lessons on life is “more emotionally charged than the terse proverb and thus has affinities with the folk lyric.” Some examples are the basahanon or extended didactic sayings from Bukidnon and the daraida and daragilon from Panay.

       The folk song, a form of folk lyric which expresses the hopes and aspirations, the people’s lifestyles as well as their loves. These are often repetitive and sonorous, didactic and naive as in the children’s songs or Ida-ida (Maguindanao), tulang pambata (Tagalog) or cansiones para abbing (Ibanag).

       A few examples are the lullabyes or Ili-ili (Ilongo); love songs like the panawagon and balitao (Ilongo); harana or serenade (Cebuano); the bayok (Maranao); the seven-syllable per line poem, ambahan of the Mangyans that are about human relationships, social entertainment and also serve as a tool for teaching the young; work songs that depict the livelihood of the people often sung to go with the movement of workers such as the kalusan (Ivatan), soliranin (Tagalog rowing song) or the mambayu, a Kalinga rice-pounding song; the verbal jousts/games like the duplo popular during wakes.

       Other folk songs are the drinking songs sung during carousals like the tagay (Cebuano and Waray); dirges and lamentations extolling the deeds of the dead like the kanogon (Cebuano) or the Annako (Bontoc).

       A type of narrative song or kissa among the Tausug of Mindanao, the parang sabil, uses for its subject matter the exploits of historical and legendary heroes. It tells of a Muslim hero who seeks death at the hands of non-Muslims.

       The folk narratives, i.e. epics and folk tales are varied, exotic and magical. They explain how the world was created, how certain animals possess certain characteristics, why some places have waterfalls, volcanoes, mountains, flora or fauna and, in the case of legends, an explanation of the origins of things. Fables are about animals and these teach moral lessons.

       Our country’s epics are considered ethno-epics because unlike, say, Germany’s Niebelunginlied, our epics are not national for they are “histories” of varied groups that consider themselves “nations.”

       The epics come in various names: Guman (Subanon); Darangen (Maranao); Hudhud (Ifugao); and Ulahingan (Manobo). These epics revolve around supernatural events or heroic deeds and they embody or validate the beliefs and customs and ideals of a community. These are sung or chanted to the accompaniment of indigenous musical instruments and dancing performed during harvests, weddings or funerals by chanters. The chanters who were taught by their ancestors are considered “treasures” and/or repositories of wisdom in their communities.

       Examples of these epics are the Lam-ang (Ilocano); Hinilawod (Sulod); Kudaman (Palawan); Darangen (Maranao); Ulahingan (Livunganen-Arumanen Manobo); Mangovayt Buhong na Langit (The Maiden of the Buhong Sky from Tuwaang–Manobo); Ag Tobig neg Keboklagan (Subanon); and Tudbulol (T’boli).


The Spanish Colonial Tradition

       While it is true that Spain subjugated the Philippines for more mundane reasons, this former European power contributed much in the shaping and recording of our literature.   Religion and institutions that represented European civilization enriched the languages in the lowlands, introduced theater which we would come to know as komedya, the sinakulo, the sarswela, the playlets and the drama. Spain also brought to the country, though at a much later time, liberal  ideas and an internationalism that influenced our own Filipino intellectuals and writers for them to understand the meanings of “liberty and freedom.”

       Literature in this period may be classified as religious prose and poetry and secular prose and poetry.

       Religious lyrics written by ladino poets or those versed in both Spanish and Tagalog were included in early catechism and were used to teach Filipinos the Spanish language. Fernando Bagonbanta’s “Salamat nang walang hanga/gracias de sin sempiternas” (Unending thanks) is a fine example that is found in the Memorial de la vida cristiana en lengua tagala (Guidelines for the Christian life in the Tagalog language) published in 1605.

       Another form of religious lyrics are the meditative verses like the dalit appended to novenas and catechisms. It has no fixed meter nor rime scheme although a number are written in octosyllabic quatrains and have a solemn tone and spiritual subject matter.

       But among the religious poetry of the day, it is the pasyon in octosyllabic quintillas that became entrenched in the Filipino’s commemoration of Christ’s agony and resurrection at Calvary. Gaspar Aquino de Belen’s “Ang Mahal na Passion ni Jesu Christong Panginoon natin na tola” (Holy Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ in Verse) put out in 1704 is the country’s earliest known pasyon.

       Other known pasyons chanted during the Lenten season are in Ilocano, Pangasinan, Ibanag, Cebuano, Bicol, Ilongo and Waray.

       Aside from religious poetry, there were various kinds of prose narratives written to prescribe proper decorum. Like the pasyon, these prose narratives were also used for proselitization. Some forms are: dialogo (dialogue), Manual de Urbanidad (conduct book); ejemplo (exemplum) and tratado (tratado). The most well-known are Modesto de Castro’s “Pagsusulatan ng Dalawang Binibini na si Urbana at si Feliza” (Correspondence between the Two Maidens Urbana and Feliza) in 1864 and Joaquin Tuason’s “Ang Bagong Robinson” (The New Robinson) in 1879, an adaptation of Daniel Defoe’s novel.

       Secular works appeared alongside historical and economic changes, the emergence of an opulent class and the middle class who could avail of a European education. This Filipino elite could now read printed works that used to be the exclusive domain of the missionaries.

       The most notable of the secular lyrics followed the conventions of a romantic tradition: the languishing but loyal lover, the elusive, often heartless beloved, the rival. The leading poets were Jose Corazon de Jesus (Huseng Sisiw) and Francisco Balagtas. Some secular poets who wrote in this same tradition were Leona Florentino, Jacinto Kawili, Isabelo de los Reyes and Rafael Gandioco.

       Another popular secular poetry is the metrical romance, the awit and korido in Tagalog. The awit is set in dodecasyllabic quatrains while the korido is in octosyllabic quatrains. These are colorful tales of chivalry from European sources made for singing and chanting such as Gonzalo de Cordoba (Gonzalo of Cordoba) and Ibong Adarna (Adarna Bird). There are numerous metrical romances in Tagalog, Bicol, Ilongo, Pampango, Ilocano and in Pangasinan. The awit as a popular poetic genre reached new heights in Balagtas’ “Florante at Laura” (ca. 1838-1861), the most famous of the country’s metrical romances.

       Again, the winds of change began to blow in 19th century Philippines. Filipino intellectuals educated in Europe called ilustrados began to write about the downside of colonization. This, coupled with the simmering calls for reforms by the masses gathered a formidable force of writers like Jose Rizal, Marcelo H. del Pilar, Mariano Ponce, Emilio Jacinto and Andres Bonifacio.

       This led to the formation of the Propaganda Movement where prose works such as the political essays and Rizal’s two political novels, Noli Me Tangere and the El filibusterismo helped usher in the Philippine revolution resulting in the downfall of the Spanish regime, and, at the same time planted the seeds of a national consciousness among Filipinos.

       But if Rizal’s novels are political, the novel Ninay (1885) by Pedro Paterno is largely cultural and is considered the first Filipino novel. Although Paterno’s Ninay gave impetus to other novelists like Jesus Balmori and Antonio M. Abad to continue writing in Spanish, this did not flourish.

       Other Filipino writers published the essay and short fiction in Spanish in La Vanguardia, El Debate, Renacimiento Filipino, and Nueva Era. The more notable essayists and fictionists were Claro M. Recto, Teodoro M. Kalaw, Epifanio de los Reyes, Vicente Sotto, Trinidad Pardo de Tavera, Rafael Palma, Enrique Laygo (Caretas or Masks, 1925) and Balmori who mastered the prosa romantica or romantic prose.

       But the introduction of English as medium of instruction in the Philippines hastened the demise of Spanish so that by the 1930s, English writing had overtaken Spanish writing. During the language’s death throes, however, writing in the romantic tradition, from the awit and korido, would continue in the novels of Magdalena Jalandoni. But patriotic writing continued under the new colonialists. These appeared in the vernacular poems and modern adaptations of works during the Spanish period and which further maintained the Spanish tradition.


The American Colonial Period

       A new set of colonizers brought about new changes in Philippine literature. New literary forms such as free verse [in poetry], the modern short story and the critical essay were introduced. American influence was deeply entrenched with the firm establishment of English as the medium of instruction in all schools and with literary modernism that highlighted the writer’s individuality and cultivated consciousness of craft, sometimes at the expense of social consciousness.

       The poet, and later, National Artist for Literature, Jose Garcia Villa used free verse and espoused the dictum, “Art for art’s sake” to the chagrin of other writers more concerned with the utilitarian aspect of literature. Another maverick in poetry who used free verse and talked about illicit love in her poetry was Angela Manalang Gloria, a woman poet described as ahead of her time. Despite the threat of censorship by the new dispensation, more writers turned up “seditious works” and popular writing in the native languages bloomed through the weekly outlets like Liwayway and Bisaya.

       The Balagtas tradition persisted until the poet Alejandro G. Abadilla advocated modernism in poetry. Abadilla later influenced young poets who wrote modern verses in the 1960s such as Virgilio S. Almario, Pedro I. Ricarte and Rolando S. Tinio.

       While the early Filipino poets grappled with the verities of the new language, Filipinos seemed to have taken easily to the modern short story as published in the Philippines Free Press, the College Folio and Philippines Herald. Paz Marquez Benitez’s “Dead Stars” published in 1925 was the first successful short story in English written by a Filipino. Later on, Arturo B. Rotor and Manuel E. Arguilla showed exceptional skills with the short story.

       Alongside this development, writers in the vernaculars continued to write in the provinces. Others like Lope K. Santos, Valeriano Hernandez Peña and Patricio Mariano were writing minimal narratives similar to the early Tagalog short fiction called dali or pasingaw (sketch).

       The romantic tradition was fused with American pop culture or European influences in the adaptations of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan by F. P. Boquecosa who also penned Ang Palad ni Pepe after Charles Dicken’s David Copperfield even as the realist tradition was kept alive in the novels by Lope K. Santos and Faustino Aguilar, among others.

       It should be noted that if there was a dearth of the Filipino novel in English, the novel in the vernaculars continued to be written and serialized in weekly magazines like Liwayway, Bisaya, Hiligaynon and Bannawag.

       The essay in English became a potent medium from the 1920’s to the present. Some leading essayists were journalists like Carlos P. Romulo, Jorge Bocobo, Pura Santillan Castrence, etc. who wrote formal to humorous to informal essays for the delectation by Filipinos.

       Among those who wrote criticism developed during the American period were Ignacio Manlapaz, Leopoldo Yabes and I.V. Mallari. But it was Salvador P. Lopez’s criticism that grabbed attention when he won the Commonwealth Literay Award for the essay in 1940 with his “Literature and Society.” This essay posited that art must have substance and that Villa’s adherence to “Art for Art’s Sake” is decadent.

       The last throes of American colonialism saw the flourishing of Philippine literature in English at the same time, with the introduction of the New Critical aesthetics, made writers pay close attention to craft and “indirectly engendered a disparaging attitude” towards vernacular writings — a tension that would recur in the contemporary period.


The Contemporary Period

       The flowering of Philippine literature in the various languages continue especially with the appearance of new publications after the Martial Law years and the resurgence of committed literature in the 1960s and the 1970s.

       Filipino writers continue to write poetry, short stories, novellas, novels and essays whether these are socially committed, gender/ethnic related or are personal in intention or not.

       Of course the Filipino writer has become more conscious of his art with the proliferation of writers workshops here and abroad and the bulk of literature available to him via the mass media including the internet. The various literary awards such as the Don Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature, the Philippines Free Press, Philippine Graphic, Home Life and Panorama literary awards encourage him to compete with his peers and hope that his creative efforts will be rewarded in the long run.

       With the new requirement by the Commission on Higher Education of teaching of Philippine Literature in all tertiary schools in the country emphasizing the teaching of the vernacular literature or literatures of the regions, the audience for Filipino writers is virtually assured. And, perhaps, a national literature finding its niche among the literatures of the world will not be far behind.



Baybayin – The Ancient Script of the Philippines

by Paul Morrow

This language of ours is like any other,
it once had an alphabet and its own letters
that vanished as though a tempest had set upon
a boat on a lake in a time now long gone.

“To My Fellow Children”,
attributed to Jose Rizal, 1869
English translation by P. Morrow

The tempest in Rizal’s verse struck the Philippines in the 16th century. It was the Spanish Empire and the lost alphabet was a script that is known today as the baybayin.

Contrary to the common misconception, when the Spaniards arrived in the islands they found more than just a loose collection of backward and belligerent tribes. They found a civilization that was very different from their own. The ability to read and write is the mark of any civilization and, according to many early Spanish accounts, the Tagalogs had already been writing with the baybayin for at least a century. This script was just beginning to spread throughout the islands at that time. Furthermore, the discovery in 1987 of an inscription on a sheet of copper in Laguna is evidence that there was an even more advanced script in limited use in the Philippines as far back as the year 900 C.E. (See The Laguna Copperplate Inscription)

Literacy of the Pre-Hispanic Filipinos

Although one of Ferdinand Magellan’s shipmates, Antonio Pigafetta, wrote that the people of the Visayas were not literate in 1521, the baybayin had already arrived there by 1567 when Miguel López de Legazpi reported that, “They [the Visayans] have their letters and characters like those of the Malays, from whom they learned them.” B1 Then, a century later Francisco Alcina wrote about:

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… [the Visayans] learned [the Moros’] letters, which many use today, and the women much more than the men, which they write and read more readily than the latter.

The baybayin continued to thrive in many parts of the Philippines in the first century of Spanish occupation. Even before the end of the 1500’s the Spaniards were already printing books in the Tagalog script (see Literature), which indicates at least an adequate level of literacy. Some accounts went so as far as to say that the literacy rate was practically 100%. A Jesuit priest, Father Pedro Chirino wrote in 1604 that:

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. B3

And Dr. Antonio de Morga, a Spanish magistrate in the Philippines echoed Chirino’s enthusiasm in 1609:

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. B4

These often quoted observations were exaggerations, of course; the historian William H. Scott managed to turn up several examples from the 1590s of datus who could not sign affidavits or oaths, and witnesses who could not sign land deeds in the 1620s. B5 Nevertheless, it appears that wherever the baybayin was available, literacy was common not only among the elite but at all levels of society.

Pre-Hispanic Writing Techniques

The pre-Hispanic Filipinos wrote on many different materials; leaves, palm fronds, tree bark and fruit rinds, but the most common material was bamboo. The writing tools or panulat were the points of daggers or small pieces of iron. Among the manuscripts in Charles R. Boxer’s collection, known as the Boxer Codex, there is an anonymous report from 1590 that described their method of writing, which is still used today by the tribes of Mindoro and Palawan to write their own script:

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. B6

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 coloured 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.

Origin of the Baybayin

The word baybayin is a very old Tagalog term that refers to all the letters used in writing a language, that is to say, an “alphabet.” It is from the root baybáy meaning, “spell.” Early Spanish accounts usually called the baybayin “Tagalog letters” or “Tagalog writing.” And, as mentioned earlier, the Visayans called it “Moro writing” because it was imported from Manila, which was one of the ports where many products from Muslim traders entered what are now known as the Philippine islands. The Bikolanos called the script basahan and the letters, guhit.

Another common name for the baybayin is alibata, which is a word that was invented just in the 20th century by a member of the old National Language Institute, Paul Versoza. As he explained in Pangbansang Titik nang Pilipinas in 1939,

“In 1921 I returned from the United States to give public lectures on Tagalog philology, calligraphy, and linguistics. I introduced the word alibata, which found its way into newsprints and often mentioned by many authors in their writings. I coined this word in 1914 in the New York Public Library, Manuscript Research Division, basing it on the Maguindanao (Moro) arrangement of letters of the alphabet after the Arabic: alif, ba, ta (alibata), “f” having been eliminated for euphony’s sake.” B7

Versoza’s reasoning for creating this word was unfounded because no evidence of the baybayin was ever found in that part of the Philippines and it has absolutely no relationship to the Arabic language. Furthermore, no ancient script native to Southeast Asia followed the Arabic arrangement of letters, and regardless of Versoza’s connection to the word alibata, its absence from all historical records indicates that it is a totally modern creation. The present author does not use this word in reference to any ancient Philippine script.

Many of the writing systems of Southeast Asia descended from ancient scripts used in India over 2000 years ago. Although the baybayin shares some important features with these scripts, such as all the consonants being pronounced with the vowel a and the use of special marks to change this sound, there is no evidence that it is so old.

The shapes of the baybayin characters bear a slight resemblance to the ancient Kavi script of Java, Indonesia, which fell into disuse in the 1400s. However, as mentioned earlier in the Spanish accounts, the advent of the baybayin in the Philippines was considered a fairly recent event in the 16th century and the Filipinos at that time believed that their baybayin came from Borneo.

This theory is supported by the fact that the baybayin script could not show syllable final consonants, which are very common in most Philippine languages. (See Final Consonants) This indicates that the script was recently acquired and had not yet been modified to suit the needs of its new users. Also, this same shortcoming in the baybayin was a normal trait of the script and language of the Bugis people of Sulawesi, which is directly south of the Philippines and directly east of Borneo. Thus most scholars believe that the baybayin may have descended from the Buginese script or, more likely, a related lost script from the island of Sulawesi. Whatever route the baybayin travelled, it probably arrived in Luzon in the 13th or 14th century.

Literature of the Ancient Filipinos

All early Spanish reports agreed that pre-Hispanic Filipino literature was mainly oral rather than written. Legazpi’s account of 1567, quoted earlier, went on to say:

They have their letters and characters… but never is any ancient writing found among them nor word of their origin and arrival in these islands; their customs and rites being preserved by traditions handed down from father to son without any other record. B8

The Boxer Codex manuscript from 1590, also mentioned earlier, reported that:

They have neither books nor histories nor do they write anything of length but only letters and reminders to one another… [And lovers] carry written charms with them. B9

Aside from writing letters and poetry to each other, the ancient Filipinos adorned the entrances of their homes with incantations written on bamboo so as to keep out evil spirits.

In the Spanish era Filipinos started to write on paper. They kept records of their property and their financial transactions, and Fr. Marcelo de Ribadeneira said in 1601 that the early Filipino Christians made little notebooks in which they wrote, “in their characters or letters” the lessons they were taught in church. B10 They often signed Spanish documents with baybayin letters and many of these signatures still exist in archives in the Philippines, Mexico and Spain. There are even two land deeds written in baybayin script at the University of Santo Tomas. (See: Baybayin Handwriting)

To take advantage of the native’s literacy, religious authorities published several books containing baybayin text. The first of these was the Doctrina Christiana, en lengua española y tagala printed in 1593. The Tagalog text was based mainly on a manuscript written by Fr. Juan de Placencia. Friars Domingo de Nieva and Juan de San Pedro Martyr supervised the preparation and printing of the book, which was carried out by a Chinese artisan whose name was not recorded for posterity.

For modern scholars the Doctrina is like the Rosetta Stone of baybayin writing and 16th century Tagalog. Each section of the book is presented in three parts: first, the Spanish text then, the Tagalog translation written in the Spanish alphabet, and finally the Tagalog written in the baybayin script. The Doctrina is the earliest example of the baybayin that exists today and it is the only example from the 1500s. The book also provides a view of how Tagalog was spoken before Spanish had a chance to make its full impact on the language. (A facsimile of the Doctrina can be purchased at a very low price at Reflections of Asia.)

The Doctrina of 1593 was printed using the woodblock method. That is, an entire page was carved into a single block of wood. Ink was then applied to the block and a thin sheet of paper was gently brushed onto it to pick up the engraved image. This method did not ensure regularity in the shapes of the baybayin characters. However, when printing with moveable types came to the Philippines in the beginning of the 1600s, baybayin letters began to take on more consistent, though stylized shapes because each character was carved into its own moveable block. Fr. Francisco Lopez used a set of these types in 1620 to produce his Ilokano Doctrina based on the catechism written by Cardinal Belarmine, best know today as the first inquisitor of Galileo. The typeface he chose was used in at least two earlier Tagalog books and today it is one of the most popular baybayin styles among enthusiasts of the ancient script. (See Baybayin Styles) It was in this book that Lopez attempted to reform the baybayin, which, in the view of most Spaniards, was seriously flawed. (See Final Consonants)

Nevertheless, the Spanish friars used the baybayin script not only to teach their religion to the Filipinos, but also to teach other clerics how to speak the local languages. The writers of the early grammars encouraged their readers to learn the baybayin, as Fr. Francisco Blancas de San Jose explained in his Arte y reglas de la lengua tagala of 1610:

Sometimes adjoining the Tagalog word written in Spanish letters I place the Tagalog characters with which the same word is also written, in order that through them whoever can read them can come to know the proper pronunciation of that word… For which reason those who wish to speak well should learn to read Tagalog characters… B11

The baybayin was also described in Visayan grammar books of the 1600s such as Alonso de Méntrida’s Arte de la lengua Bisaya-Hiligayna de la isla de Panay, 1637, and Domingo Ezguerra’s Arte de la lengua Bisaya en la provincia de Leyte, 1663. However, Ezguerra’s example of the script contained printing mistakes. A kind of Spanish check mark was put in the place of two different letters. Méntrida wrote the following about his typeface:

It is to be noted that our Bisayans have some letters with different shapes, which I place here; but even they themselves do not agree on the shapes of their letters; for this reason, and because of the limited types available, I have shown the characters according to the Tagalogs. B12

The Baybayin Method of Writing

The baybayin was a syllabic writing system, which means that each letter represented a syllable instead of just a basic sound as in the modern alphabet. There were a total of 17 characters: three vowels and 14 consonants, but when combined with the small vowel-modifying marks, called kudlíts, the number of characters increased to 45. This way of writing is called an abugida. When a person spelled a word orally or recited the baybayin, the individual letters were called babâ, kakâ, dadâ, etc., but the original sequence of the letters was different to what it is today. This “alphabetical” order was recorded in the Tagalog Doctrina Christiana.

“The abc. in the Tagalog language”

Click on image for more information.

The Consonants & Kudlíts

In their simplest form, each consonant represented a syllable that was pronounced with an a vowel (like the u in “up”). Simply adding a tick, dot or other mark to the letter, would change the inherent a vowel sound. These marks were called kudlíts, or diacritics in English. A kudlit was placed above a consonant letter to give it an i or e vowel sound. When it was placed below the letter it changed the vowel sound to u or o.

Visit the Baybayin Tutorial to learn more about writing the baybayin script.

The Vowels

The three vowel characters were only used at the beginning of words and syllables, or syllables without any consonant. There were only three vowels because the ancient Tagalogs, and many other linguistic groups, did not distinguish between the pronunciations of i and e, or u and o until Spanish words entered their languages. Even today these sounds are interchangeable in words such as lalaki/lalake (man), babae (woman) and kababaihan (womanhood or womankind), uód/oód (worm), punò (tree trunk) and punung-kahoy (tree), and oyaye/oyayi/uyayi (lullaby).

The vowel characters actually represented vowels that were preceded by a glottal stop. This pronunciation was more common in the pre-Hispanic era but has changed over the centuries due to the influences of western languages. This shift can be seen when early texts, such as the Doctrina Christiana, are compared to modern Filipino. For example, we syllabicate the words ngayón (today) and gagawín (will do) as follows: nga-yon and ga-ga-wín respectively. But the baybayin text of the Doctrina reveals a different syllabic division. Ngayón was written, ngay-on, and gagawin was written ga-gaw-in.

The R Sound

The Tagalogs used only one character for da and ra, . The pronunciation of this letter depended on its location within a word. The grammatical rule has survived in modern Filipino that when a d is between two vowels, it becomes an r as in the words dangál (honour) and marangál (honourable), or dunong (knowledge) and marunong (knowledgeable).

However, this rule could not be relied upon in other languages, so when other linguistic groups adopted the baybayin, different ways of representing the r sound were required. The Visayans apparently used the d/ra character for their own words but used the la character for Spanish words. (See Visayan examples.) Fr. Lopez’s choice of d/ra or la seemed to be random in the Ilokano Doctrina, which caused many corruptions of Ilokano words. (See excerpts from his Doctrina.) However, a chart drawn by Sinibaldo de Mas in 1843 showed la doubling for the Ilokano ra while his Pangasinan list showed no substitute for ra at all. The Bikolanos modified the d/ra character to make a distinct letter for ra. (See the chart in Baybayin Styles.)

The Nga Character 

A single character represented the nga syllable. The latest version of the modern Filipino alphabet still retains the ng as a single letter but it is written with two characters. The ng is the alphabet’s only remaining link to its baybayin heritage.


Words written in the baybayin script were not spaced apart; the letters were written in a continuous flow and the only form of punctuation was a single vertical line, or more often, a pair of vertical lines. || This fulfilled the function of a comma and a period, and indeed, of practically any punctuation mark in use today. Although these bars were used consistently to end sentences, they were also used to separate words, but in an unpredictable manner. Occasionally a single word would be enclosed between these marks but usually sentences were divided into groups of three to five words.

Final Consonants

The most confusing feature of the baybayin for non-native readers was that there was no way to write a consonant without having a vowel follow it. If a syllable or a word ended with a consonant, that consonant was simply dropped. For example, the letters n and k in a word like bundók (mountain) were omitted, so that it was spelled bu-do.

The Spanish priests found this problem to be an impediment to the accurate translation of their religious texts. So, when they printed a lesson in baybayin it was usually accompanied by a Spanish translation and the same Tagalog text using the Spanish alphabet, as in the Doctrina Christiana. Other priests simply stopped using the baybayin in favour of the alphabet. The first attempt to “reform” the baybayin came in 1620 when Fr. Francisco Lopez prepared to publish the Ilokano Doctrina. He invented a new kudlít 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. B13

Although Lopez’s new way of writing provided a more accurate depiction of the spoken language, native Filipino writers found it cumbersome and they never accepted it. In 1776, Pedro Andrés de Castro wrote about their reaction to the invention:

They, after much praising of it and giving thanks for it, decided it could not be incorporated into their writing because it was contrary to the intrinsic character and nature which God had given it and that it would destroy the syntax, prosody and spelling of the Tagalog language all at one blow… B14

Direction of Baybayin Writing

The baybayin was read from left to right in rows that progressed from top to bottom, just as we read in English today. However, this has been a point of controversy among scholars for centuries due to conflicting accounts from early writers who were confused by the ease with which ancient Filipinos could read their writing from almost any angle. As the historian William H. Scott commented,

The willingness of Filipinos to read their writing with the page held in any direction caused understandable confusion among European observers who lacked this ability – and causes some irritation to Tagalog teachers in Mangyan schools today. B15 [Note: The peoples collectively known as Mangyans still use their own form of the baybayin in Mindoro.]

Some observers were mistaken to believe that the baybayin should be read vertically from bottom to top in columns progressing from left to right because that was how the ancient Filipinos carved their letters into narrow bamboo strips. However, it was simply a matter of safety that when they used a sharp instrument to carve, they held the bamboo pointing outward and they carved away from their bodies, just as modern Mangyans do today. (See photo above.) This gave the appearance that they were writing from the bottom upward. However, this did not necessarily mean that the text was supposed to be read that way too.

Although the ancient Filipinos did not seem to mind which way they read their writing, the clue to the proper orientation of the text was the kudlíts, or diacritic marks that alter the vowel sound of the letters. In syllabic scripts such as Kavi, Bugis and others closely related to the baybayin, the text was read from left to right and the diacritics were placed above and below the characters (i/e was above and u/o was below). When the ancient Filipinos carved the baybayin into the bamboo strips, they placed the kudlíts to the left of the letter for the i/e vowel and to the right for the u/o vowels. Thus, when the finished inscription was turned clockwise to the horizontal position, the text flowed from left to right and the kudlíts were in their proper places, i/e above and u/o below.


Variants of the Baybayin

Some writers have claimed that there were several different ancient alphabets in the Philippines, which belonged to different languages and dialects in Luzon and the Visayas. The number of scripts mentioned usually ranges from 10 to 12. However, none of the early Spanish authors ever suggested that there was more than one baybayin script. In fact, even when they wrote about other Philippine languages, they usually referred to the baybayin as “Tagalog” writing or as quoted earlier, Pedro Chirino called it “the letters proper to the island of Manila.”

The baybayin was a single script, and just like the alphabet today, its appearance varied widely according to each person’s unique handwriting. (See: The Baybayin as Written by Filipinos) When the printing press was introduced to the Philippines, this variety was reflected in the typefaces. The misconception that each province had its own alphabet arose in the 19th century, long after the baybayin had fallen out of use. Authors who wrote about Philippine culture, such as Eugène Jacquet (1831) and Sinibaldo de Mas (1843), collected old samples of baybayin writing and classified them according to where they were found or the language of the text. (See: Baybayin Styles.) They were aware that these samples were variations of one script but, later writers such as Pardo de Tavera and Pedro Paterno around the turn of the century, assembled their own comparison charts from these samples and other sources and labelled them as distinct “alphabets” from various regions. (See: Paterno’s Cuadro Paleografico) These charts were later reproduced in schoolbooks of the 20th century with very little in the way of explanation for their content. Thus, through generations of copying and recopying, these individual samples, many of which were merely one person’s particular handwriting style, came to be known as distinct alphabets that belonged to entire regions or linguistic groups.

The clearest example of this kind of misinterpretation is the baybayin typeface that Francisco Lopez chose in 1620 for his Ilokano Doctrina and for his Arte de la lengua yloca of 1627. It first appeared in two Tagalog books, Arte y reglas de la lengua Tagala (1610) by Francisco Blancas de San Jose and Vocabulario de lengua Tagala (1613) by Pedro de San Buenaventura. (See the chart on the right.) However, Eugène Jacquet called this style the Ilokano alphabet in his Notice sur l’alphabet Yloc ou Ilog (1831) because it was used most notably in two Ilokano books. B16 But, as quoted earlier, even Lopez said that he put “the text of the [Ilokano] Doctrina in Tagalog type.” Still, the Lopez typeface is often mistakenly called the pre-Hispanic Ilokano alphabet.

See Baybayin Styles for more about the different forms of the Baybayin.

Baybayin Lost

Although the baybayin had spread so swiftly throughout the Philippines in the 1500s, it began to decline in the 1600s despite the Spanish clergy’s attempts to use it for evangelization. Filipinos continued to sign their names with baybayin letters throughout the 17th, and even into the 18th century, though most of the documents were written in Spanish. Gaspar de San Agustín still found the baybayin useful in 1703. In his Compendio de la lengua Tagala he wrote, “It helps to know the Tagalog characters in distinguishing accents.” B17 And he mentioned that the baybayin was still being used to write poetry in Batangas at that time. But in 1745 Sebastián Totanes claimed in his Arte de la lengua Tagala that,

Rare is the indio who still knows how to read [the baybayin letters], much less write them. All of them read and write our Castilian letters now. B18

However, Totanes held a rather low opinion of Philippine culture and other writers of the period gave a more balanced view. Thomas Ortiz felt it was still necessary to describe the Tagalog characters in his Arte y Reglas de la lengua Tagala of 1729 and as late as 1792 a pact between Christians and Mangyans on the island of Mindoro was signed with baybayin letters, which is not surprising because the Mangyans never stopped using their script.

Many people today, both ordinary Filipinos and some historians not acquainted with the Philippines, are surprised when they learn that the ancient Filipinos actually had a writing system of their own. The complete absence of truly pre-Hispanic specimens of the baybayin script is puzzling and it has lead to a common misconception that fanatical Spanish priests must have burned or otherwise destroyed massive amounts of native documents as they did so ruthlessly in Central America. Even the prominent Dr. H. Otley Beyer wrote in The Philippines before Magellan (1921) that, “one Spanish priest in Southern Luzon boasted of having destroyed more than three hundred scrolls written in the native character.” B19 Historians have searched for the source of Beyer’s claim, but until now none have even learned the name of that zealous priest. Furthermore, there has never been a recorded instance of ancient Filipinos writing on scrolls. The fact that they wrote on such perishable materials as leaves and bamboo is probably the reason why no pre-Hispanic documents have survived.

Although many Spaniards didn’t hide their disdain for Filipino culture, the only documents they burned were probably the occasional curse or incantation that offended their beliefs. There simply were no “dangerous” documents to burn because the pre-Hispanic Filipinos did not write at length about such things as their own beliefs, mythology, or history. These were the subjects of their oral record, which, indeed, the Spanish priests tried to eradicate through relentless indoctrination. But, in regard to writing, it can be argued that the Spanish friars actually helped to preserve the baybayin by continuing to use it and write about it even after it fell out of use among most Filipinos.

It is more likely that mere practicality was the main reason that the baybayin went out of style. Although it was adequate for the relatively light requirements of pre-Hispanic writing, it could not bear the burdens of the new sounds from the Spanish language and that culture’s demand for an accurate written representation of the spoken word. The baybayin could not distinguish between the vowels i and e, or u and o, or the consonants d and r. It lacked other consonants too, but more important, it had no way to cancel the vowel sound that was inherent in each consonant. Thus consonants could not be combined and syllable final consonants could not be written at all. Without these elements the meanings of many Spanish words were confused or lost completely.

Social expediency was another reason for Filipinos to abandon the baybayin in favour of the alphabet. They found the alphabet easy to learn and it was a skill that helped them to get ahead in life under the Spanish regime, working in relatively prestigious jobs as clerks, scribes and secretaries. With his usual touch of exaggeration, Fr. Pedro Chirino made an observation in 1604 that shows how easily Filipinos took to the new alphabet.

They have learned our language and pronunciation and write it as well as we do, and even better, because they are so clever that they learn everything very quickly… In Tigbauan [Panay] I had a small boy in school who in three months, by copying letters that I received in good script, learned to write much better than I, and translated important papers for me most accurately, without errors or falsehoods. B20

But if reasons of practicality were behind the demise of the baybayin, why did it not survive as more than a curiosity? Why was it not retained for at least ceremonial purposes such as inscriptions on buildings and monuments, or practiced as a traditional art like calligraphy in other Asian countries? 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. Hector Santos, a researcher living in California, suggested that obligations to the Spanish conquerors prevented Filipinos from maintaining their traditions:

Tributes were imposed on the native population. Having to produce more than they used to, they had less time to pass on traditional skills to their children, resulting in a tightening spiral of illiteracy in their ancient script. B21

Baybayin Found

In some parts of the Philippines the baybayin was never lost but developed into distinct styles. The Tagbanuwa people of Palawan still remember their script today but they rarely use it. The Buhid and especially the Hanunóo people of Mindoro still use their scripts as the ancient Filipinos did 500 years ago, for communication and poetry. Dr. Harold Conklin described Hanunóo literature in 1949:

Hanunóo inscriptions are never of magical import, nor are they on mythological or historical topics. Written messages (love letters, requests etc.,) are occasionally sent by means of inscribed bamboos, but by far the most common use of this script is for recording ambáhan [Hanunóo] and urúkai [Buhid] chants. Both of these types consist largely of metaphorical love songs. B22

Dr. Fletcher Gardner described their postal system in 1943:

A bamboo letter is fastened in a cleft stick and placed by the trailside. The first passer-by, who is going in the direction of the addressee, carries it as far as his plans allow and leaves it again by the trail, to be carried on by some other person. Perhaps half a dozen volunteers may assist in conveying the letter to its designation. B23

Today there are small under-funded movements working to preserve these living scripts, such as the Mangyan Assistance & Research Center in Panaytayan, Mansalay, Mindoro, directed by Antoon Postma and the Palawan State University Tagbanwa Script Project, aided by Dr. Jesus Peralta jr. at the Philippine National Museum. In 1994, Hector Santos created several Hanunóo, Buhid, and Tagbanuwa computer fonts for publishing and education as well as fonts for the ancient baybayin.
(See A Philippine Leaf for more about these living scripts and Hector’s fonts.)

The information revolution has allowed Filipinos to learn more about the pre-Hispanic era on the Internet than was ever taught in Philippine schools. As a result many Filipinos are taking a new interest in their own heritage and it is usually the baybayin that catches their attention first. Through the use of computer fonts, the baybayin is now being used in graphic designs for web sites, multimedia art, jewellery, compact discs, T-shirts, and logos. (See Baybayin Links) And for some Pinoys, it seems that the path has come full circle. Whereas long ago the Visayan pintados were tattooed according to their status in the community, today a growing number of young Filipinos are getting tattooed with baybayin characters to show their pride in their heritage.


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