Nov 24, 2010

Do Filipinos have their own script and do they still use it?

Dear Filipino,

I once passed by a "Filipino fiesta" near the Moscone Center/Yerba Buena Gardens [San Francisco, CA] and so I checked out some of the booths. I saw these pretty cool shirts being sold with all sorts of weird-looking "characters" -- I mean letters, not people :-) -- which I figured must be from your native alphabet.  Am I right?  If so, what do you call it and does anybody in the Philippines actually still use it?

Thanks in advance for your reply, bud!

Surfer Dude

Yo Surfer Dude!

"Surfer" as in "Internet surfer" or "surfer" as in "California surfer"?  If you're the latter, here's a link for you: The Top 10 Surf Sites in the Philippines as compiled by BISEAN.  Just thought you'd appreciate knowing there's quite a few surfing spots where I was originally from in case you find yourself feeling adventurous one of these days.
Baybayin (from The Bathala Project)

Now, on to your questions. 

You probably saw shirts with these characters found on the image on the left in that fiesta.  It is a writing system called Baybayin and it was widely used in the islands now called the Philippines even up until the 19th century.  More importantly, however, it was THE system of writing well before the Spaniards came and pretty much imposed the Latin alphabet (also called the Roman alphabet) on the natives they subjugated.  As such, some refer to the writing system as a "pre-Filipino" because the term from where "Filipino" was derived, "Filipinas," was itself coined by the Spaniards in honor of their king, King Philip II. (Noteworthy for Filipino Catholics: King Philip II was the son of Charles V, who was crowned Holy Roman Emperor by Pope Clement VII.) 

Mistakenly, others also refer to it as "Alibata," but this term is really a silly modern coinage by a member of the old National Language Institute, Paul R. Verzosa.  Why?  Because the term Alibata is a mash-up of alif, ba and ta, which are the first letters of the Arabic alphabet.  Now, Alibata would probably be fine for people who are fine with formally calling the Latin alphabet as "ABC"; however, the problem in this case is, Baybayin is NOT even based on Arabic!

In fact, Baybayin is a member of the Brahmic or Indic family of scripts, which is not only alphabetic but actually and, more importantly, syllabary in nature: i.e., the letters are actually symbols which represent syllables.

According to Paul Morrow, a respected researcher in the field:

The word baybayin is a Tagalog term that refers to all the letters used in writing a language, that is to say, an “alphabet” – although, to be more precise, the baybayin is more like a syllabary. It is from the root bayb√°y meaning, “spell.” This name for the old Filipino script appeared in one of the earliest Philippine language dictionaries ever published, the Vocabulario de Lengua Tagala of 1613. Early Spanish accounts usually called the baybayin “Tagalog letters” or “Tagalog writing.”...[T]he 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.
Now, here's the interesting part (for me at least):  Although I earlier mentioned that Baybayin was actually used by the natives up until the 19th century, implying thereby that it died, the alphabet is actually "being resurrected thanks to young soul searching Filipinos," according to Christian Cabuay of  This is especially true among the Filipino-Americans raised in the US, who seem to be yearning for meaningful cultural ties to their ancient forebears.  Hence, I think you will increasingly see not only Baybayin-inspired shirts in Filipino fiestas but also real "Filipino characters" with tattoos of the weird characters you mentioned, like this lady for instance:

Baybayin Tattoo (from
Now, The Filipino is not really too keen on tattoos, but he kinda likes this picture. ;-)

Got a question for The Filipino?  Email him now at


The Prodigal Daughter said...

I love this question because it means people are talking about baybayin! I immigrated from Cebu when I was two and slowly lost my identity as a Filipino as I grew up. I saw myself as an American who happened to have Filipino roots, not as a Filipino who happened to live in the States. After getting to visit the Philippines as a teen and grown-up, the shift in how I identify who I am has become more balanced. This became even more so after I became a mom and wanted to have more to pass on to my daughter than our Filipino food. It was during this seeking that I came across baybayin and a passion and my business, Philippine Script Designs ( was born.

What I find interesting is baybayin seems embraced more by Stateside Filipinos. This may be a misconception on my part but I know that when I talk to native Filipinos about this script it's met with skepticism. They'd never heard of baybayin until coming to the States!

Through my business,however, it has been my pleasure to share this aspect of our history and come across other Filipinos who connect to this writing system. They desire to show it in a tangible way. Based on my jewelry business, I think what makes baybayin such a significant expression is that it's a way to express who the individual is (through words, phrases, Biblical verse and names), as well as the history of our culture. It's exciting to see how people are doing this through their clothing, jewelry and tattoos.

The Filipino said...

You have nice-looking products! I know now where to go next time I'm looking for gift ideas!

Unknown said...

My mom is very into "preserving the Filipino culture" she created a Filipino culture group in Dallas and at one international festival held here back in the day, we sold some Baybayin pamphlets at our booth and even gave some people a treat by writing their name in Baybayin script. I need to relearn writing these. It's like a secret code only we know! ;)

The Filipino said...

Great news! Baybayin Buhayin is now available as an iPhone app in iTunes Philippines.

Anonymous said...

it's such a shame that Filipinos living in the Philippines never exercise the script. but we can only chose 1, I guess. it's like the Koreans losing their knowledge of Chinese writing practice in exchange of their own alphabet. while the inverse here in our country, we lost our own alphabet in exchange for English/Roman alphabet/whatever.

you have a good site, btw, keep it up! (I found you via Ask a Korean)

Angeles City Pages said...

Fantastic goods from you, man. I have understand your stuff previous to and you are just too excellent. I really like what you have acquired here, really like what you’re saying and the way in which you say it. You make it entertaining and you still care for to keep it wise. I cant wait to read much more from you. This is really a great site.

Anonymous said...

I think Baybayin should be preserved for cultural and historical purposes only. It is highly impractical to use today, about 40% of Filipino vocabulary today are of foreign origin, our language has evolved a rather wide spectrum of vocabulary that is incompatible with Baybayin.

Baybayin would be the Filipino equivalent of the Japanese Mangoyana script which used Chinese characters. The Japanese find it highly impractical to revive the script but preserve it for cultural purposes.

Anonymous said...

I think its being thought in 2nd year high school in the Philippines

Anonymous said...

I think they teach that alphabeth in 2nd year high school in 80s.

Anonymous said...

I can't remember where but I've read somewhere that there are more scripts used other than baybayin. Does anyone here have any info on those?

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...