Ancient Filipino writing systems that aren’t Baybayin

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Baybayin is just one of at least 16 different writing systems that were used in pre-colonial Philippines. Illustration by ELLE BATTUNG

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — When a House committee approved the “National Writing System Act”, which seeks to declare Baybayin as the country’s national writing system and aims to put the script to use in street signs, public facilities, government halls, publications, and even food labels, many linguists, historians, and even average Filipinos got upset, to say the least. Baybayin has enjoyed a resurgence over the past few years, with many Filipinos taking an interest in learning the script as a means of tracing one’s roots and connecting with one’s culture.

According to Leo Emmanuel Castro of Sanghabi, an NGO which conducts research and workshops on Filipino culture, most of the people who took an interest in Baybayin in the early days of its resurgence some five to 10 years ago were Fil-Ams. “Kasi ito ‘yung mga tao who grew up in an American society and their parents did not teach them the culture of their parents. So nagkaroon ng tension between their identities,” he says. “They began looking for their roots.”

Castro says another catalyst for the renewed interest in the ancient script was the boom of arts and crafts and calligraphy in the country. As Filipino calligraphers wanted to hone their skills, they sought out a writing system they could identify with instead of practicing in Japanese or Korean, which they could not understand. Fast forward to today and Baybayin can be found on T-shirts, jewelry, and even on tattoos.

However, Baybayin does not encompass the entirety of the Philippines’ writing systems. Baybayin is, in fact, only one of a number of writing systems that were in use before the Spanish arrived on our shores. And those in opposition of the bill’s passing worry that relegating one system to the national writing system would erase the diversity of scripts that have and continue to exist around the country, as well as perpetuate a Tagalog-centric national identity.

Two of the last scripts that remain in use today belong to the Mangyan group of Mindoro, who simply called their writing system "surat." Illustration by ELLE BATTUNG

It is believed that there were at least 16 different types of writing systems present around the Philippines prior to our colonization. Baybayin is just one of them, which was said to be of widespread use among coastal groups such as the Tagalog, Bisaya, Iloko, Pangasinan, Bikol, and Pampanga around the 16th century. One theory is that “Baybayin” got its name from the word “baybay,” or seashore in Tagalog.

When the Spanish arrived, they studied and used Baybayin to communicate with early Filipinos and teach them Catholicism. This could be why Baybayin is arguably the most popular and heavily documented of scripts. As Filipinos began to learn the Roman alphabet from the Spanish, the use of Baybayin, especially in lowland areas, began to disappear.

But in upland areas and remote villages that were difficult for colonizers to reach, some scripts remained intact. There are only two places left in the Philippines that have preserved their ancient syllabic scripts: Mindoro, where the Hanunó'o-Mangyan and the Buhid-Mangyan simply call their scripts “Surat Mangyan,” and Palawan, where the Tagbanua and Pala’wan groups share a writing system they simply call “surat” — a word meaning “writing.” Some ethnolinguists and advocates argue that “suyat” and “surat” are the best neutral term to use as a general descriptor of our writing systems.

Meanwhile, small groups around the country are making initiatives to popularize scripts that are no longer in use, like the Kulitan script of the Kapampangans.

The script of the Hanunó'o Mangyan are usually engraved on bamboo with the use of a small pocket knife and often come in the form of poems called ambahan. Illustration by ELLE BATTUNG

Surat Mangyan

The Northern Script of the Hanunó'o Mangyan and the Southern Script of the Northern Buhid remain in existence today likely due to the Mangyan’s relative isolation in the mountains of Mindoro. Dutch anthropologist Antoon Postma, who lived with the Hanunó'o Mangyan for many years, is also credited for helping document and preserve their scripts.

There are 18 basic syllables: three vowels (a, i, u) and 15 consonants followed by the vowel ‘a’. In Hanunó'o, a diacritic or kudlit written either at the top or on the right of the symbol changes the vowel to ‘i’ and ‘u’ respectively.

The scripts of the Hanunó'o and Buhid Mangyan have likely remained in existence until today due to the groups' relative isolation in the mountains. Illustration by ELLE BATTUNG

A “cutting-off” symbol, or pamudpod, was introduced by Postma to eliminate the vowel or indicate a final consonant. Hanunó'o is written vertically from bottom to top and left to right, though it can be read from left to right in horizontal lines.

In Buhid, the accent is placed above or below the symbols and is written left to right horizontally.

These scripts are traditionally engraved on bamboo with the use of a small pocket knife, and can also be found on wooden objects like tobacco containers, lime containers, house beams, and musical instruments, which are used to accompany the incantation of traditional poems written in the scripts: the ambahan and urukay.

These poems are used by Mangyan parents in educating their children, by young people during courtship, and by a host greeting a visitor, among others. They tell of the experience of birth and infancy, parental love and the intimate ties of the family union, of death and decay.

An ambahan about missing friends. The poem translates to "You, my friends, dearest of all, thinking of you makes me sad. Rivers deep are in between, forest vast keep us apart. But thinking of you with love, as if you are here nearby standing, sitting at my side." Illustration by ELLE BATTUNG

These poems are, according to Mangyan poet and National Living Treasure Ginaw Bilog, the key to the Mangyan soul.

Postma wrote that the writing system helped the ambahan stay alive, while the existence of the poetry provided the script with “sufficient reason (and material) to be used over and over again.” Thus, the syllabic script and poetry have “mutually assisted each other not to become extinct and forgotten.”

Tagbanwa/Tagbanua/Apurahuano is the writing system of the Tagbanua group residing in Palawan. Illustration by ELLE BATTUNG

Tagbanua and Pala’wan

Similar to the surat Mangyan, the script of the Tagbanua (also known as Tagbanwa) and Pala’wan groups is a syllabic alphabet consisting of three vowels (a, i, u) and 13 consonants accompanied by the letter ‘a.’ The script also makes use of a kudlit written above and below the symbol to indicate a change in vowel. Tagbanua script is written in vertical columns from bottom to top and left to right, and read from left to right in horizontal lines. A small knife called pisaw is used to write the script on wooden slabs and bamboo.

The script is believed to have originated among the Tagbanua people, who then introduced the writing to the Pala’wan when Tagbanua workers were taken to Brooke’s Point in Palawan before the second world war. Both groups are said to have recalled the use of their script in relaying messages and asking for basic goods from friends and family in far off places, as well as in signing legal documents, casting their vote during local, provincial, and national elections, and in writing ownership on animals and trees.

Tagbanwa kinship terms from Fletcher Gardner and Ildefonso Maliwanag's "Indic Writings of the Mindoro-Palawan Axis." In English, these words translate to "sibling / cousin / second cousin / the mother / the father / my aunt / uncle / my grandchild / my older sibling / my younger sibling / my relative / my child." Illustration by ELLE BATTUNG

The scripts were also reported to have been used in the planting and harvest ritual called “lambay it init bau uran,” which is done to induce the sun to shine and for the rain to fall during the harvest and planting seasons, and in the “pagbuyis,” which is done to protect the community from epidemics. The ritual is performed on a large ceremonial platform which a bamboo pole is erected next to and inscribed with syllabic scripts near the top.

Today, in contrast to the Mangyan of Mindoro, the Tagbanua and Pala’wan script is preserved as a cultural relic rather than a communication tool.

Kulitan is a script used to write Kapampangan. Illustration by ELLE BATTUNG


Among the other scripts that are being revived by small groups and movements, Kulitan is one of the most interesting scripts, for it is steeped in mythology. In Michael Raymon M. Pangilinan’s book, “An Introduction to Kulitan, The Indigenous Kapampangan Script,” he says the script is written top to bottom, left to right as an homage to the movements of the sun, which is memorialized in a Kapampangan poem.

In Kapampangan mythology, the sun god Apung Sinukuan is believed to be the father of Kapampangan civilization. Pangilinan writes that Apung Sinukuan is also known as the god of war, Bayang the destroyer, who appears on the Katipunan flags (which also contain the Baybayin symbol for “Ka”).

The names of Kapampangan speaking places in Kulitan. Illustration by ELLE BATTUNG

Mysticism and taboo is also associated with Kulitan. For a time, it was used by mystics and spiritual healers in their rituals, creating charms and talismans. It is said that curses were also written in Kulitan with the belief that the script added potency to the spells. Letters were also written in Kulitan and burnt to communicate with spirits of dead heroes and ancestors.

Pangilinan theorizes that it is this attachment to the taboo that prevented people from using the script to communicate everyday matters. Some users of Kulitan also believed that it was taboo to teach foreigners the script.


Since 1989, Pangilinan and Edwin Navarro Camaya, another Kapampangan cultural advocate, have been corresponding in Kulitan and writing about the script in order to make it more relevant outside of the mystic ways, while Surat Mangyan and the Tagbanua script were declared National Cultural Treasures in 1997 by the National Museum, and were officially inscribed in the UNESCO Memory of the World register in 1999.

The National Museum and the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA), along with organizations such as the Mangyan Heritage Center, have also worked towards preserving these scripts by establishing schools and other initiatives, encouraging the youths in these communities to learn the scripts of their ancestors.

However, as linguists, historians, and concerned citizens have pointed out, these scripts, along with the languages of the groups they belong to, are still in danger of fizzling out of existence. The three languages of the Tagbanua are considered endangered, with only less than 30,000 speakers combined left.

A Buhid urukay from Violeta B. Lopez's "The Mangyans of Mindoro." The poem translates to "Like a tree overgrown with branches / my mind is full of turmoil / Though loaded with pain and grief / My dreams continually seek for an end, / Let it be known that I am on my way / Perchance you'll catch up with me." Illustration by ELLE BATTUNG

“Language contains all the knowledge of your people,” says Castro. “[Preserving the scripts] will actually help preserve the indigenous languages as well. Kasi itong scripts na ‘to were designed to really fit the language.”

Though the National Writing System Act seems like a step towards preserving a part of our culture, many argue that it will do just that — preserve only one part of our varied and diverse culture, while others get ignored. While it is good that more Filipinos have a renewed interest in the ancient script of Baybayin, it is also good for us to recognize that it isn’t the only Filipino writing system.

When asked how we can further preserve our rich culture, Castro says that teaching the Philippine languages to children should be a responsibility of their parents.

“If you don't know the language, malamang hindi mo alam ang kultura mo. So the responsibility really is for the parents to teach their kids the language, and with it, the culture.”