Kawi and Baybayin, ancient writing scripts of Southeast Asia

The media of writing and images correspond to two different forms of reception: words are read, images are recognized. While the code that makes writing legible first has to be learned formally, what is shown in images can usually be identified spontaneously. It doesn’t matter that what is shown in pictures is as schematic as a written character, images will always have a direct effect on the viewer. The decisive difference between the two media and their forms of reception is that writing depicts a single language, while images represent objects and facts outside of the language. This fundamental difference has certain consequences.

The handling of writing – unlike the handling of pictures – presupposes a double competence: drawing competence and language competence; First you have to know that the combination of characters “H o u s e” stands for the sound sequence “house”, and also that this indicates the basic type of a building in the English language. A rectangle with door and windows, roof and chimney, on the other hand, can be recognized regardless of the language, even if the recognizability comes up against certain limits, since houses all over the world have different shapes and the conditions of perception and the representation conventions are fundamentally culturally conditioned.
The legibility of writing is based on a code that can be learned, which clearly correlates a closed inventory of graphemes with a closed inventory of phonemes. The recognizability of images, on the other hand, is based on a fundamentally open representation system, the set of characters of which is inexhaustibly expandable and whose reference area is just as little structured as a closed system.
It follows that images always tend towards writing if (a) the character forms are more standardized, (b) the set of characters stabilizes as a fixed and manageable stock and (c) the reference to another structured system of meaning substantiated.

Abstraction and iconicity in the Kawi script

By bringing together the difference between writing and image with legibility and recognizability and thus anchoring them in their respective semiotic frameworks, we are ignoring another common distinguishing feature: abstractness versus iconicity. When we speak of “abstract painting” we usually mean non-representational; a painting without depiction that willingly foregoes the principle of recognizability. The same urge for abstraction usually also characterizes writing systems, a rule for which there is, as is well known, the exception of pictorial writing. With the exception of this exception[1], writing is allied with abstraction, which leads to the full optimization of this technical achievement.

The ancient Javanese writing script Kawi, which gives space to both principles, abstraction and iconicity, is particularly revealing. In addition to the hieroglyphic script as a “scriptura monumentalis” or inscription, which was designed to grant texts on temple walls, grave walls, coffins and on precious objects an eternal presence, there was a handy chancellery script in Java, which was applied to various surfaces mainly by scratching and engraving, called huruf (al-huruf, the script image). This typeface, a highly abstracted variant of the hieroglyph, was intended exclusively for internal recording, memorization, bookkeeping and archiving. While the public inscription of the hieroglyphs has not lost a tick of its graphic character for millennia – the house, which stands for the syllable “ba”, retains its peculiar physiognomy from early to late—the same signs in the huruf are subject to that irresistible urge to simplifying abstraction that suits any functional script.

From: Thomas Stamford Raffles, The History of Java (1817). Copy of a stone stele written in Kawi script, then kept in the Museum of Culture Batavia

In the two writing systems, the iconic inscription of the hieroglyphs on the one hand and the abstract handwriting of the huruf on the other, two cultural functions are differentiated, that of “memory” and that of “use”. [2] The representation function of memory depends on the iconicity of the hieroglyphic characters, which is why it has been maintained with great effort over the millennia. The roughly 700 iconic characters in hieroglyphic writing are over-coded; in addition to the language reference, they contain another dimension, reference to the natural world.[3] Hieroglyphic writing not only encodes phonetic signs of language, but also makes the world immediately readable and maintains its legibility. Two orders are thus anchored in the ancient Javanese hieroglyphic script: the human order of language and the divine order of the world. Writing as an encyclopedic pictorial lexicon (“orbis pictus”, as the later title of a book by John Amos Comenius is called) has its counterpart in a world that was understood as a “hieroglyphic writing of the gods”. The adherence to the iconicity proves to be an affirmation of the divine signature of the world.

The Iconoclasm of Baybayin-the Philippine script

For the Javanese, the cosmic visibility of their world and their gods was included in the pictorial quality of their writing. This imperative connection between imagery and divinity was smashed with great force as it spread to the Philippines. Every sign of the Philippine script that developed from the Kawi script is, in a concrete sense, iconoclastic: it crosses out an underlying picture. The letter ᜊ /ba/, for example, in Philippine script has emerged from an iconic symbol for the house (ba-ha-ya/ᜊᜑᜌ), which can be imagined in analogy to the ancient Javanese huruf for house, which represents a floor plan with a door.

Paleographic chart of the Philippine Islands as compared by Pedro Alejandro Paterno. Note: Immutability and abstraction of the hieroglyphic script of ancient Javanese Kawi (Java Antiguo) and Philippine Baybayin (Tagalog). The script developed simultaneously during the Majapahit Empire (1293-1571)

An abstract letter is created from the iconic hieroglyph by inverting the sign. With this slight change, the image character, which is based on recognizability, has been made unrecognizable. The reference is now no longer understandable for everyone “house”, but exclusively for the sound of /ba/ (“ᜊ”). Iconoclasm and the de-iconization of writing go together in ancient Philippine culture, both are part of a fundamental cultural identity that literally “turns upside down” the supporting symbol systems of the surrounding empires.

The (re) iconization of scripture

The Philippine script thus takes part in the iconoclastic impulse; it displaces previous images in an abstract, picture-neutral writing space, which was affirmed by Southeast asian thinkers of this century, such as Jose Rizal as a primordial level of higher spirituality and identity. Such evaluations, which take people up from sensual use of images to abstract use of writing, are based on a linear logic of development. However, neither Islam nor Christianity are adequate origins of iconoclasm or rationalization for connecting script to spirituality. In both religions, which enforced the sole rule of Scripture at the expense of images, Scripture has only ultimately replaced the function of images in many ways. As a vessel of God, the writing scroll is dressed, crowned, kissed and carried around in processions like ancient statues of gods and Byzantine icons. The same applies to the letters of the scriptures, which were subject to re-iconization. The increase in writing against the suspicion of the image seems to be a common element of Judaism, Islam and medieval Christianity. In Islam, which is hostile to images, the sacred characters of the Koran are worshiped, which leads to non-objective iconization. The aura of writing is reflected in the arabesques, which, by combining writing and image, decelerates the fluid, fleeting movement of reading and leads to meditative immersion in the letter configurations.[4] The same applies to the illuminated Christian manuscripts of medieval scriptories, in which the same prayer that is devoted to the sacred text also extends to its material form. This symbiosis of writing and image, in which figures are hidden in initials and bizarre creatures form a protective ring around the network of lines, only dissolves with letterpress printing: the edges of the printed book remain empty.

The metric construction of writing, an imposition of the Latin script

The colonial scribe created secular fonts, which were then widely used in the new medium of printing. From then on, sacred and secular writings should no longer categorically differ.[5] This secular script, which was no longer carried by the aura of the sacred text, still held a cosmic secret that was believed to be discovered in the metric proportions of the letters. This new esotericism in the writing script can be traced to Renaissance Europe.

The Italian humanist, painter and calligrapher and engraver Andrea Mantegna created new initials in the middle of the 15th century, the “littera mantiniana”, which is inspired by the Roman-antique monumental script.[6] These initials, artistically painted in the workshop by several hands then formed the basis of a classic written form that was adopted in the printing process and were used in all European printing centers. The renewal of the letters was accompanied by a series of treatises on the art of writing. At the center of these tracts, to which Dürer also refers in his “Unterweysung der Measurement” (1525), is the idea of ​​the perfect letter, which forms the inner norm for modern writing constructions. Like the human body, the letter is clamped by these humanists into a coordinate network that reveals its cosmic proportions. The Pythagorean 10, which Vitruvius Pollio placed at the center of architectural metrics, is also used as the basis for body and writing metrics. In letter A, for example, a wonderful congruence of circle and square was discovered; Letter metrics seamlessly merged into speculative geometry and number mystery.

The co-existence of secular and sacred text is paralleled in the Philippines where both Latin and Baybayin were used initially for Roman Catholic conversion. In 1610, several books were printed by the Dominican press located in the town of Abucay, in the province of Bataan, Philippines. One of those books, authored by Tomas Pinpin and entitled Librong pagaaralan nang manga tagalog nang uicang Castila, has long been recognized as the first book ever written by a Filipino. It was not. It was simply the first work ever written by a Filipino to be published in bookform. This distinction is important because Pinpin lived in a society that was literate before and after Spanish contact. He wrote to a public that could read and write—a fact he recognizes and assumes. General literacy among the populace was widely acknowledged through the first half of this century. The Dominican printing press modified the ancient writing script for legibility by outsiders, lending the alphasyllabary with functions of a full alphabetic writing script with the addition of vowel killers and punctuation. Aside from these new elements, a standard metrical dimension was also implemented for the typography of the ancient writing system. The script which was found in the Doctrina Christiana printed by Tomas Pinpin (1611)[7] reflects the contortions that approximated the look and feel of medieval Latin scripts. The document which has become a portrait of Old Tagalog Language, is in fact a record of the beginning of its end. Apart from its catechistic purposes, Pinpin’s book reveals old Tagalog pronunciations while teaching the importance of correctly pronouncing the then-new sounds and letters of the Spanish language. The book is a rare encounter that marked the devouring of one culture by another. In a few years, the ancient writing script would submerge back to the literate society in their rituals. Its “rediscovery” by Filipino intellectuals in the 19th century would affect the current Tagalog Ortography as revolutionary fervor sought to reclaim traces of ancient nationhood.

Inside spread of the Doctrina Christiana. Translation of La Salve Regina. On the left page is the tagalog version written in baybayin. On the right side is the Spanish version in the European alphabet.

The legacy of Baybayin in Latinized Tagalog

In contrast to the de-iconization and geometrization of writing in the 19th century Dutch and Spanish East Indies, the re-iconization of writing takes the form of the salvaging of Baybayin and Kawi, the ancient writing scripts for colonial resistance. The Kawi hurufs survived the downfall of ancient Hindu empire, albeit in a largely ceremonial use in Islamic Java and in the configured form of the Baybayin. Together with architectural relics and other spolia, they were transferred to new contexts. After the Old Javanese writing script died out in the 15th Century, only the second component remained of the double coding of the hieroglyphs as phonetic transcription and reference to the natural world. What the iconic characters lost in legibility grew in secret ceremonies. The pictograms suggested the existence of ciphers bearing secret knowledge that had been kept in them like a safe box.

During the remainder of Alexander von Humboldt’s life, most of his time and energy was spent on what was to be his magnum opus: a monumental study of the Kawi language and writing script within the context of the entire Austronesian language group of the Pacific. But he was only able to complete the “Introduction” and Book 1 of the work. Alexander von Humboldt’s research associate Buschmann published these parts in 1836, constituting the first volume of what came to be known as Humboldt’s Kawi Werk (Kavi-Work). Buschmann also edited and published the remaining two volumes in 1838 and 1839. About this work the American linguist Bloomfield wrote, “The second volume of Humboldt’s great treatise founded the comparative grammar of the Malayo-Polynesian language family.” (Bloomfield 1933: 19)

Humboldt speculated about the secret content of the Kawi hurufs in the 9th century. He knew nothing about the language reference of these characters[8] but assumed in them “mental pictures”, a script that was not intended for the fleeting reading eye, but for meditative immersion:

When communicating their wisdom, the Javanese sages do not use the characters to express their teachings and sentences as imitations of voice and speech, but draw pictures and lay down in their temples the outline of every thing in the outlines of the pictures. [9]

In many places we find among them fragments of a sacred language now unintelligible to themselves, and the custom, on certain occasions, of ceremoniously reviving antiquated expressions, [which] is evidence, not only of the wealth, age, and depth of the language, but also of attention to the changing designation of objects over time.

Humboldt believed that the people of this region “seem never to have attained to the possession of writing, and thus forgo all the cultivation dependent on this, although they are not lacking in pregnant sagas, penetrating eloquence, and poetry in markedly different styles.”

Such literary works must, therefore, have been recorded in writing at a later time. Humboldt saw these languages not as a degeneration, but as representing the original state of the Malayan group. He succeeded in identifying the main languages that have since been confirmed by comparative analysis to have been part of one language family. As for the ethnic stock, Humboldt specifies that in both the broad areas identified, the people belong to the same stock. “If we enter more accurately into color differences,” he says, they constitute “the more or less light-brown among whites in general.” In addition to this stock, he mentions a group similar to Black Africans, particularly in New Guinea, New Britain, New Ireland, and New Hebrides. Given that the languages of these people had not been recorded, Humboldt could not include them in his study—except for the special case of Madagascar.

The fascination with the lost Javanese script reached its provisional high point in the middle 19th century. Efforts were not only made to decipher the supposed secret knowledge, but also the supposed method of enciphering wisdom in pictures. In this way, the pictorial code of the emblem was created. The European cultures, which had increasingly opted for printing technology, widespread reading communication and national languages, also turned to the opposite option, the mysterious code of an intercultural picture writing. The emblem is the alternative to the limited repertoire of characters in the alphabet; it leads to the open fund of inexhaustible image production. In the double mediality of image and text, the emblems interlock the forms of perception of recognizability and legibility. Readability is inhibited in the image code and at the same time deepened. In the image field itself, the individual elements do not offer a unified view, but the additively gathering, deciphering view.

The re-iconization associated with the hieroglyphic mania also spilled over to aniconic, writings that are more symbolic rather than representational of the natural world. This had a particularly striking effect in colonial Spain. During his exile in Europe, Jose Rizal wrote a tract entitled “Tagalog Orthography” in which he declared the Philippine letters to be the basis of a natural language. With this alphabet he rediscovered, he believed that he had not only discovered a language for the deaf but also found the key to the universe. He saw in the graphemes of the Philippine alphabet a transcription of the movement that was revolutionary. He would write dedications of his anti-Catholic novels in the native writing script. In fact, the revolutionary movement that took inspiration from Rizal wore underwear inscribed with texts in the native writing script as talismans for protection in battle.

Rizal regarded the serious study of language as a liberating endeavor. Whereas linguistic diversity was a bad object for the Spanish friars who used it as evidence of political disunity and therefore, a justification for Spanish rule, Rizal prized its humanizing effect: “Man is multiplied by the number of languages he possesses and speaks.”[10] Rizal himself was said to be fluent in 22 world languages (German, Dutch, Russian, among others) and local languages (Chavacano, Visayan, Ilocano, among others). He translated works from the German to Tagalog and wrote about language and linguistics.[11] Rizal’s views on the liberating power of language study turned inward to the imperative to spread literacy among the general population. To this end, he wrote Nueva ortografía del Lenguaje Tagalog, a grammatical description of the Tagalog language, the first one written by a Filipino.[12]


Rizal’s sketch grammar in fact shares common features with those published by early missionaries.  He explains the structures of the Tagalog grammar using the grammatical terms and categories of European languages. And somewhat like Chirino’s chapter on the Tagal language, he makes multiple comparisons to Spanish and Latin, as well as English and German. Though such comparisons warrant more rigorous analysis by contemporary research standards, what must be noted here is the text’s “accurate inventory of Tagalog phonemes” and how its “feature-based orthography of Tagalog was both groundbreaking and controversial.”[13]

Rizal took issue with the inconsistencies in the Hispanic spelling conventions for Tagalog, wherein a variety of different letters may be used to represent the same sounds. The precise letter will depend on their adjacent vowels.  For example:

/k/ might be represented with either a ‘c’ or a ‘qu’, the sound /s/ with an ‘s’ or a ‘c’, the sound /h/ with an ‘h’, ‘g’ or a ‘j’, the sound /w/ with an ‘o’ or a ‘u’ and the sound /y/ with a ‘y’ or an ‘i’. Vowels were also variable with the sound /i/ represented with ‘i’ or ‘e’ and /u/ with ‘o’ or ‘u.’ [14]

The system of diacritical marks used to identify the correct vowel sound in Baybayin is loosely analogous with the way adjacent vowels determine the precise letter that is used to spell a word in Romanized Tagalog. In both cases, the rules governing the orthography of the spoken language will depend on the Pantayong Pananaw of the language user. Rizal thought the Spanish orthography of Tagalog was needlessly complex and confusing for non-Spanish speakers, hence, a significant obstacle to teaching the general population how to write in their own language. He came to the conclusion that a new orthography based on the Tagalog Baybayin had to be formulated. As Rizal put it in an April 1890 article in La Solidaridad:

[I]t occurred to me to do something to lighten the work and make easy the first attempts of children to learn by simplifying the orthography [spelling], introducing another more rational and more logical [method], which will be in harmony with the spirit of the language itself and of its sister languages …”[15]

Rizal, in other words, sought to critically reclaim the writing system the Spanish used to standardize the writing of Tagalog—the confusing and inconsistent Romanized Tagalog that artificially supplanted the organic written expression of the language—Baybayin.

Rizal proposed to replace the letters ‘C’ and ‘Q’ with ‘K’. The example that he gives, the word katay [to butcher], nicely demonstrates why the latter is preferable:

This was normally spelled catai but when the past tense was needed (butchered), the spelling changed radically to quinatai. By adopting the letter ‘k,’ Tagalog spelling immediately became more consistent and logical. The past tense of katay was predictably kinatay.[16]

In the above example, it is significant that there is a Baybayin letter for “ka.” The choice to use the Roman ‘k’ in place of ‘c’ or ‘q’ not only rationalized the spelling of Tagalog words having the ‘ka’ sound, it was a way of marking the new orthography as being visually distinct from the Spanish. Rizal’s choice of “katay” to illustrate the letter’s orthographic advantages is also somewhat satirical, implicitly suggesting that “Spanish spelling rules had ‘butchered’ the morphology of Tagalog”[17]

In colonial 16th century Philippines, writing started to fall apart in two directions, in a clear, transparent script that aimed at legibility and broad impact, which became the most important technical means of social evolution, and in an esoteric-dark script that was designed for secrecy and meditative immersion, which took needs into account that have been overtaken by technological progress.

Allegory and post-alphabet pictogram

The iconization of the sacred characters, for which I have given some examples in the Kawi and Baybayin writing systems, led to an increase in their valence. The pictorial character of the letter opened up additional dimensions for the text and gave it an overflowing abundance of meaning. Meanwhile, there is also a narrowing of writing and image, in which the potentials of meaning do not intensify, but empty. This is the solidification of the picture to writing, as it has linked Walter Benjamin with the baroque allegory.

For Benjamin, allegory is the mode of becoming foreign, so that a form that previously promised legibility has now become the epitome of illegibility. In this new horizon, allegory is the medium in which the reader’s desire for meaning is thwarted, in which he / she has to give an account of history, forgetting and death. “Allegories are in the realm of thought, what ruins are in the realm of things,” Benjamin wrote in his tragedy book.[18] Their specific qualities are torpor and strangeness. Like ruins, these signs protrude into a time that they can no longer penetrate and assimilate productively. They are stumbling blocks, hard resistance to any gesture of spiritual fusion.

The interweaving of text and image in the allegory with its increasing foreignness runs counter to the medial differentiation of writing and image, which was enforced by the separation of the arts and their disciplines. The image was set for recognizability and pure vision, the text for legibility and understanding. Recognition and reading developed apart, the images becoming more and more silent and the texts becoming more and more senseless.[19] The allegory, which embodies the interference of writing and image, is a veto against this development, which perhaps explains something of its outdated topicality.

At the other end of the allegory we find a picture that is about to conquer the globe as a new “scriptura franca”, as a “universal character”. Philosophers at the end of the 17th century imagined a language-independent sign system that was supposed to encode thoughts directly and convey them worldwide without distortion. International traffic and global networking make a translingua necessary, which again takes refuge in post-literary pictograms. This fund of signs is not made for illiterate people like the guild emblems of the late medieval cities, in which a bright round mirror indicated the barber to the uninformed. The new picture code does not have to be learned specifically like the system of traffic signs, it derives its legibility from the visual recognition. This picture code presupposes the pragmatic need to orientate oneself in a narrowly defined scope of action. Detached from such situational contexts of action, one is unable to code information.

The inversions and modification in the borrowing of the Kawi writing script when it migrated to the Philippines enabled a codification of realities in the own language of a culturally-independent society. Widely literate native people freely altered the writing script as recorded in a number of legal documents and literature. By 900 AD, a mix of Kawi and a new writing script that came to be known as Baybayin was being used in the Kingdom of Butuan (remote outpost of the Majapahit Empire). The link between Kawi and the Baybayin scripts was proven by the discovery of the Laguna Copperplate Inscription and the Butuan Ivory Seal, which reference several historical places in Java. While there may have been a wide practice of writing in pre-colonial Philippines, earlier evidence is rare because of deliberate destruction of writing records, largely due to their use in pagan ceremony and perceived magical powers that figured in many anti-colonial resistance movements. The construction of the writing script directly affected the evolution of Philippine Orthography even as it shifted from the Baybayin syllabary (abugida) to the Latinized writing script (alphabetic) introduced by friar missionaries of the Spanish colony. The abstraction and iconicity in Kawi and Baybayin as a characteristic of verifiable, corresponding relationship with the natural world serves as a remnant of its esoteric use in magical societies.

[1] Essentially, these are the three large picture writings of the Maya, ancient Egypt and the Chinese cultures

[2] Jan Assmann, “Use and Memory. The Two Cultures of Pharaonic Egypt ”, in: Stone and Time. Man and Society in Ancient Egypt, Munich 1991, 24-27.

[3] Jan Assmann, “Language and world relation of hieroglyphic writing”, in: Stein and Zeit, Munich 1991, 76-92.

[4]  For the European reception of the arabesque cf. the volume by S. Kotzinger and G. Rippl (ed.), characters between plain text and arabesque, Vienna 1994.

[5] With some exceptions: In Italy in the second half of the 15th century, two writings developed side by side, one Roman for classic texts and one Gothic for religious writings.

[6] Millard Meiss, Andrea Mantegna as illuminator. An episode in Renaissance art, humanism and diplomacy, Gleichstadt, Hamburg 1957, 52-78. See also G. Dehio, “On the history of letter reform in the Renaissance”, in: Repertorium für Kunstwissenschaft, 4 (1881), 269-279.

[7] The original copy was traced by Luigi Banzi, a bookseller of Bologna, who acquired it from an Italian school teacher of the Romagna region around 1942 or 1943. It had originally been with a peasant family who descended from those who had visited the Philippines in the late 16th century. Currently, the book may still be at the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., donated by Lessing J. Rosenwald, a wealthy book collector.

[8] The recovery of this knowledge that the characters primarily represent phonetic values ​​is associated with the name Jean François Champollion (1822). William Warburton had already put forward the hypothesis of phonetic transcription a generation earlier, without, however, combining it with a stringent proposal to decipher it. William Warburton, Trial on Hieroglyphics, Frankfurt, Berlin, Vienna 1980.

[9] Plotinus, On spiritual beauty, V 8.6, cit. after Jan Assmann, The cultural memory. Writing, memory and political identity in early civilizations, Munich 1992, 192.

[10] Jose Rizal, “Los Viajes,” La Solidaridad, 15 May 1889; quoted in Kelly, “Dr. Jose Rizal”

[11] Rizal openly acknowledged his limitations as a linguist, however. See for example, José Rizal, “Ma-Yi,” in Political and historical writings, vol. 7, trans. Encarnación Alzona (Manila: National Historical Institute, 1972); cited in Kelly, “Dr. Jose Rizal”

[12] See Elmer P. Wolfenden and José Rizal, “A re-statement of Tagalog grammar: appended with José Rizal’s Nueva ortografia del lenguaje Tagalog,” Manila: Summer Institute of Linguistics and Institute of National Language, 1961.

[13] Kelly, “Dr. Jose Rizal.”

[14] Ibid.

[15] Jose Rizal, “Sobre la Nueva Ortografia de la Lengua Tagala” in La Solidardad, Vol II, April 15, 1890, 88-92; quoted in Paul Morrow, “Jose Rizal and the Filipino Language,” Pilipino Express vol. 3 no. 12. June 16-30, 2007. http://www.pilipino-express.com/history-a-culture/in-other-words/852-rizal-and-the-filipino-language.html

[16] Morrow, “Jose Rizal and the Filipino Language,” 1.

[17] Kelly, “Dr. Jose Rizal.”

[18] Walter Benjamin, From the origin of the German tragedy (1928), Frankfurt 1963, 197.

[19] This development entailed compensatory counter-movements. In addition Peter Utz, The eye and the ear in the text. Literary sensory perception during the Goethe period, Munich 1990.

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