The Baybayin Script, NOT Alibata

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At the time the early Spaniards arrived in the islands of what is now known as the Philippines they noted that the people were already reading and writing in their own scripts and according to Spanish accounts the Tagalogs have already been writing for at least a century. At the time of the Spaniards this script was spreading throughout the islands and was still in the process of developing even further.

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At the arrival of Magellan though the script didn’t seem to have arrived in the Visaya’s in 1521 based on the records of Antonio Pigafetta who mentioned the people were not literate, years after the fall of Magellan, Miguel Lopez de Legazpi arrived in 1567 and by this time he noted that they did have a writing script similar to the Malays. A century later the well known Jesuit missionary, Francisco Alcina who kept detailed accounts of the Bisayas from its people, their cultures, dress, and the local flora and fauna, wrote,

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.

Another missionary who was a Jesuit priest, Pedro Chirino, wrote in an entry in 1604

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.

According to Antonio de Morga he also noted how literate the people actually were supporting the others on saying,

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.

So at the time of the Spaniards and toward a century after their arrival the native people already knew how to read and write. So why aren’t their any written records by our ancestors?

The main reason is that though they did know how to read and write it was for personal use only. Our literature was an oral one, meaning stories, events, myths, and records from history were passed orally from one generation to the next. They would be memorized, sung and told by the old to the young. Writing was mainly only used for personal letters and poetry especially between lovers as noted in the Boxer Codex 1590,

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.

Of course with recent finds such as the Laguna Copperplate Inscription which was written in the ancient Indonesian script, the Kawi script, but the language was in a mix of Old Tagalog, Sanskrit, Old Javanese, and Old Malay, we know that at least prior to Baybayin, Kawi was used in everyday writing and has been used in official documents like the recent discovery of the Laguna Copperplate. However besides that document that pushed the Philippines written history back to the year 900 C.E. on April 21 based on the date written in the inscription using the Hindu calendar of the Saka era date of the year Siyaka 822, month of Waisaka, the fourth day of the waning moon, as of today we haven’t found any other documents.

When the Spaniards tried to convert the native people to Catholicism, one of their tools were books written in Baybayin. The earliest book, the Doctrina Christiania en lengua española y tagala, written in Tagalog was printed in 1593. It is the oldest print of Baybayin to date and is also an example of how the Tagalog language was before the Spanish language influenced Tagalog.

The Baybayin script today is often wrongly called and taught as, Alibata. The term Alibata was actually coined in the 20th century by Paul R. Veroza, basing his invented term on the Maguindano script whose arrangement of letters takes after the Arabic script. His basis is unsupported by evidence because Baybayin was never recorded to have arrived in that part of Mindanao and the script has no relations to Arabic at all along with every other scrip in Southeast Asia not being any way related to the Arabic script.

Unfortunately today based on the term being wrongly used in schools and textbooks the invented name has spread through many Filipin@’s who are taught the script in school as a passing topic.

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The script is actually an abugida script an alphasyllabary script and is part of the Brahmic family that is throughout the Southeast Asian region and India. Being an abugida script, each letter of the script represents a syllable not a sound, where it has vowel modifying marks known as kudlits, usually dot markings, to signify the change in vowel. Later on during the early Spanish colonial period another mark to cancel the vowel sound was created by the Spaniards through putting a cross next to the syllable which is known as a virama mark. At the time of the Spaniards the script was still developing and the people didn’t have a vowel cancellation mark. With the modern virama mark it has made Baybayin to be written through the traditional method without the virama mark and with the modern method with the virama mark.

Today most people use the traditional way in regards to artwork however in writing they use the modern method often either using the cross marking or in other modern variations such as a curve to make it easier to read and write.

Though the script isn’t used today in everyday use there is a growing interest among the younger generations to learn and write in Baybayin and the other Philippine scripts and is part of the cultural revival movement among Filipin@’s. Many have created artwork with Baybayin as well as in the form of tattoo’s.


About The Author

Executive Editor & Founder

Ligaya is the Executive Editor & Writer at She lives in NYC with her two dogs and spends her time reading, writing, collecting and buying books online and in safe haven, Strand Bookstore, watching her guilty tv show pleasure Vikings, and overdosing herself in coffee as a certified caffeine addict. Her book, Diwatahan: A Look Into the Precolonial Beliefs, Practices, Myths, & Folklore of the Philippines, is currently in progress and is scheduled to be published in Summer of 2017.

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