Baybayin (Alibata): The Ancient Filipino Alphabet

I am a believer that expats have a moral obligation to learn as much about the country in which they live as they possibly can. The Philippines, like any other nation, has a rich history that dates back thousands of years. Long before the Spanish conquest of these islands, people lived here, thrived, and developed their own civilization, different and distinct from that of their Spanish conquerors. They say that “History is written by the victors”, and most modern Filipino history is what the Spanish, the Americans, and later the early Philippine governments, wished it to be. The modern history is what is commonly taught in schools, and it is an important part of every Filipino’s cultural identity. Yet, the older history, the one more truly Filipino, also exists, and has largely been neglected and forgotten over time. These islands existed long before Magellan stepped on that beach in Cebu. When he arrived, he found an existing civilization, rather than merely “primitive” tribes.

What defines “Civilization”? In my mind, at least, the level of literacy, rather than the use of tools or anything else, determines that a civilized people existed. That definition is not too far off the mark of the official “cultural development” definition given by Webster’s and Oxford. In short, the ability to write one’s history and communicate abstract concepts to others defines a people and is what separates the civilized from the uncivilized and the animal kingdom. There was a civilization in the Philippines.

The national language, Filipino, was derived from Tagalog, and is colloquially different in many ways, but intelligible, to Tagalog speakers. Think of it as similar to the difference between American English and the Queen’s English: Not quite different dialects, but greater differences than merely different accents. Americans and Brits can normally understand each other, but there are slightly different usages based largely on class and other cultural differences.

Why was Tagalog chosen as the basis of Filipino? There were many reasons, but chiefly: The Capitol is Manila, primarily inhabited mostly by Tagalogs; The nation’s founding Fathers were mostly Tagalogs; Most Filipinos at least had a basic understanding of Tagalog at the time of independence (Bisaya was also considered, due to the number of speakers, but because it splintered into many different dialects, it was deemed less suitable than Tagalog as a “national unifier”); and, finally, there were more surviving written records in Tagalog than any other Filipino language (Back to the “civilization” definition). Modern Tagalog is comprised of approximately 40% Spanish “loan” words, and another 10% English “loan” words. The remainder is mostly derivative of native Tagalog words (Which themselves were mostly derived from Bahasa Malaysia or Bahasa Indonesia words, largely derived from ancient Indian Vedic or Sanskrit), many words derived from Arabic, and local words of Philippine origin.

By way of comparison, the modern Filipino alphabet was Latinized, the only difference from the modern English alphabet is the addition of the letters “Ng” (Tagalog) and “Ñ” (Spanish). Ilocano, Bisaya, Tagalog and other native languages were spoken here for centuries, and were each very different, as they are today. However, they all used the same alphabet (script) when they were written, with a few regional variations. The ancient script was called Baybayin (or, sometimes, Alibata). Baybayin was syllabic in nature, meaning that each character represented a complete syllable, rather than a single sound, as represented by a letter in the modern Filipino alphabet. This syllabic writing came to the Philippines from Indonesia, especially Java and Sulawesi, and shared many characteristics with ancient Sanskrit alphabets that are used, to this day, in India.

Baybayin was used primarily in Luzon and the Visayas. People in Mindanao primarily spoke Arabic, after the Islamic conversion, by the time the Spanish arrived, and Baybayin was largely forgotten in Mindanao (If you are a Muslim, you must be able to read the Koran, which is only officially written in Arabic).

The Baybayin alphabet is written below:

Each character represents a syllable that consists of a consonant, followed by the “a” sound (ah).
So, what if a syllable requires a sound that doesn’t have an “a”? A kudlit, or hash mark, is added either above, or below, the symbol, depending on the sound. For the sound, “I” or “E”, the kudlit is placed above the symbol.For the sound “O” or “U”, the kudlit is written below the symbol.

If a syllable doesn’t have a consonant (like “Oo”, or “yes”), then one of three vowel symbols could be used:

There are many syllables that end in a consonant, leaving a slight problem in reading Baybayin: There’s no way to write that consonant, so the reader must guess as to the meaning. The Spanish solved this problem by developing a special kudlit, in the form of a small cross, which was written below character of the ending consonant, thus making Baybayin easier to read. There were no symbols used for numbers.

Words were written bottom to top, and left to right. The early Filipinos usually had more of an oral tradition, rather than a written tradition, but written records of epic poems and religious works were kept.

The early Spanish friars were literally amazed that the people in the Philippines could read and write. They were impressed. They noted that a greater preponderance of women could read, rather than men, and, initially after the conquest, translations of Spanish into Baybayin were made. The Spanish Friars translated Spanish into Baybayin mainly to aid in the conversion of Filipinos to Catholicism. However, by the 19th Century, the use of Baybayin had largely died out, except occasionally as personal signatures on documents. These documents are largely the ones that survived. Many Friars noted with pride their destruction of “pagan” documents written in Baybayin, and most of the documents written by the ancient Filipinos were lost forever. However, as this article noted in the beginning, “History is written by the victors”, and the Spanish used language as a means of control. By forcing the native people to learn and speak Spanish, they minimized the incidences of insurrection: Keep them fed and ignorant, so to speak. By the time of the American colonial period, the Philippines was largely a Spanish-speaking country, with local languages used in the home and colloquially.

It is interesting to note that Rebecca had never heard of Baybayin before… I’m not even certain that it is taught in schools here. The first thing she said when she read this article was, “Wow! It looks similar to Arabic!”. She is fluent in Arabic, and, given Baybayin’s origins, there are many similarities. There is a small movement among young Filipinos trying to resurrect Baybayin as a source of Filipino pride, primarily through the use of tatoos and other means of artistic expression. Hopefully, they succeed in at least showing their fellow countrymen that their history began well before the Spanish ever arrived.

In researching this posting, I found several good overviews on the Net about Baybayin in addition to a lengthy Wikipedia post (and got the pictures).

via liveinthephilippines


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