Baybayin: The Resurgence of the Script in the 21st Century (Part 2)

You probably wonder why I would post a picture of a room here. Look closely on the left side wall. It’s the Mangyan script, a developed Baybayin script that is still being used by the said indigenous group in the island of Mindoro today. This room was designed by the students of the Philippine School of Interior Design. Baybayin and its variations have become Filipino cultural symbols, used in logos, graphics design, tatoo/body-paint, and interior decoration—a cultural statement to the world (heck I made this blog’s logo from the Baybayin script). If other cultures have Sanskrit, Calligraphy, Hangeul, Akson Thai, Hebrew Script and the like, the Philippines also has one. But is this all there is to it? Is Baybayin just for tattoos, for decors, for show-offs, to give us license that we once ‘had’ a ‘civilization’? Why do we need to prove ourselves in the first place?

The truth is Baybayin can never be appreciated without an intense study of the nuances, native sounds and linguistic depths of Filipino languages that developed with it before. Like an organism frozen in time, the popular Baybayin we know now has been out of use (and therefore, considered a ‘dead’ script) since the late 16th century (thanks to the Spanish interruption) while the Filipino languages that once used it (Kapampangan, Ilocano, Pangasinense, Tagalog, Sugbuanon, Hiligaynon, etc.) went on with their development. It is not that surprising that there are certain letters accepted in the national language that cannot be written in this 16th century Baybayin. Examples are “f" “j" “x" and “z". The best we could do is to translate these into “pa" “ga" “ka/sa" “sa" respectively. The influence of the Spanish language in our Filipino language (70% of Tagalog is Spanish in origin) has also increased our use of words in one syllable-CVC, forcing the users today to either drop the last consonant like how ancient Filipinos did it or use the diacritic “+” invented by Fray Francisco Lopez.

Baybayin will be more appreciated if one learns the Filipino languages that have once accompanied it. But to believe that it will become the pervasive script to be used in all institutions of the Philippines in the future, to be used as signages? Sorry for popping up your balloons guys. It takes the decision of the majority of 100 million Filipinos residing in the archipelago to use it as such, not to mention the impracticality of using it in our context today. Let us not confuse novelty and nationalism with the need and practicality by pushing an impossible advocacy. Baybayin like any other set of letters will only be used if it is practical and has the ability to be flexible enough to be used in daily life. It is the same with the invention of King Sejong’s Hangeul. It was accepted after a hundred years only because it empowered the poor commoners in Korea who didn’t have the opportunity to study the 5000 Chinese characters. Hangeul made Korean documentation convenient because of how easy it is to be learned.

While it is admirable for Filipinos today to use these ancient scripts out of pride for our history and identity, we are also in danger of forgetting that Baybayin never really died. In fact it lived on in different variations now used by the Filipino peoples of Hanunuo Mangyan, the Tagbanua, and the Palaw’an, indigenous groups that defiantly refused the persuasive and forceful techniques of the Spanish friars for them to join the reducciones in the early years of our colonization. As to why we have disregarded their writings for so long is because we have not really made any effort for these fellow Filipinos to have a clear and loud voice in the national consciousness.

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The Mangyan Script, courtesy of

Baybayin is a script that any Filipino can use. But Baybayin is just an empty shell if it will just be used as a novelty. Study Baybayin, side-by-side with the richness of the Filipino languages and their histories, and you’ll complete the whole circle. Much of our language and our meaning-construction in words like how we interpret the bark of a dog as “aw aw" (Filipino sound) than “woof woof" (American sound) or even how we can use one syllable to communicate (Person 1: Bababa ba? Person 2: Bababa) are linguistic wonders that we have not yet realized. Imagine that in the spectrum of languages ours have the balance of light and heavy syllables, a balanced phonology compared to our eastern and western counterparts. Add to that the unique multiplicative power of Filipino root words (“ganda” - gumaganda, ginaganda, gaganda, igaganda, gumanda ginanda, gumanda, ginanda, nagpapaganda, magpapaganda, magpaganda, nagpaganda). Which is why some studies link this to the ability of Filipinos to learn new languages easily… and Baybayin’s structure coincides with that flexibility of our languages.

What is Baybayin today? It is a vibrant set of 16th century letters long dead, but now being revived by a growing number of Filipinos, especially Filipinos abroad who continuously reaffirm their roots by studying Philippine history and popularizing Baybayin. This is a good thing. But may Baybayin also lead us beyond the novelty, to discover more of ourselves, our existing scripts, our languages… that will eventually encourage us to understand one another, and accept our identity (and yes, that includes our dark side.)

Baybayin: Part 1