The Hidden Lore of Baybayin

Panitik Silangan was a Baybayin publication published in 1963. Photos: Stanley Baldwin O. See

All languages are languages of power: the power to impose meaning and thereby give order to the world. Most writing scripts are imposed from above by a state, or the beginnings of one, in a literate society. However, before a writing script is imposed as a structure of power, it exists as hidden lore, a secret language known only to a particular insider-society. The runic alphabet is a good example of this.

Runes, the letters of the runic alphabets, were used in the 1st or 2nd AD to write various Germanic languages before the cultures that had originally used them underwent Christianization and adopted the Latin alphabet. The term “rune” comes from the Germanic root run-, meaning “secret” or “whisper.” Indeed, in the earliest inscriptions, runes were used less as a simple writing system and more as magical signs to be used for charms. This suggests that knowledge of the runes was originally considered esoteric.  Indeed, the 6th-century Björketorp Runestone warns against unauthorized use of the runes as a form of trespass punishable by death and destruction:

Haidzruno runu, falahak haidera, ginnarunaz. Arageu haeramalausz uti az. Weladaude, sa’z þat barutz. Uþarba spa.

I, master of the runes conceal here runes of power. Incessantly (plagued by) maleficence, (doomed to) insidious death (is) he who breaks this (monument). I prophesy the destruction / prophecy of destruction.

The passage calls attention to the “master” who “conceals” within the runes a message meant only for a restricted audience, who alone can decode their meaning. It is this highly restricted act of encoding and decoding that imbues them with “power.” Indeed, runic writing is not inherently more magical than the Latin system of writing.  Its use, as the above passage reveals, was jealously guarded by an elite, who actively invoked it as a medium for transmitting the “secrets” and “mysteries” of a particular culture to a closed community.

Extrapolating from the example of the runes, we can begin to see how the Baybayin script must look to outsiders. Paul Morrow notes how Baybayin’s “strange and exotic” letters imbue the script with a mysterious quality that is attractive to those familiar only with the Roman alphabet. To some outsiders, encountering the Baybayin script for the first time is akin to “discovering a magic code that can unlock ancient secrets.”  But “alleged revelations of spiritual meanings held within the shapes of the Baybayin letters” are spurious at best, deflecting attention away from what makes the script truly significant: the fact that they are part of Filipino heritage and prove that our ancestors were a highly literate people.[1]

Ownership of the polity against state-imposed literacy

The insistence on historical precedent of state imposition implicitly projects a top-down understanding of writing systems. Alternatively, this chapter will show that Baybayin expresses the power of writing systems to serve as a counter-cultural resource that supports “an internal discourse of culture and society”.

Insofar as writing systems (baybayin) are a medium for expressing language, then it lends a specific materiality to our wika, understood in the Pantayong Pananaw perspective as the “impukan/kuhanan ng mga konsepto/dalumat at kategoriyang pangkaisipan at pandamdam at pampahayag”.

The not insignificant role played by writing systems in the creation of Pantayong Pananaw challenges the notion that writing systems are markers of an elite-defined “civilization.” Indeed, we have to veer away from the common definition of civilization as a society that is imposed upon by a cultural elite. In place of a cultural elite, this chapter holds the bayan (nation-state) to be the true “owners” of the Baybayin.

We can say that the current (grassroots) movement to create a national writing system based on Baybayin and the (cultural elitist) resistance to it is symptomatic of this divided condition.

This chapter will focus on proving the existence of a literate bayan (nation) that organically nurtured the development of a Baybayin script. As we shall see, the proof of the literacy of the bayan lies in the accounts of the colonizing missions and the Illustrado project to “revive” Baybayin. Baybayin shares the same predicament as other writing systems particularly in Southeast Asia (see chapter 2). The common thread lies in how writing systems were claimed by the people using it.

As a writing system that presupposes a particular insider knowledge, it is, to use the Pantayong Pananaw perspective, a means of asserting a group consciousness. However, Baybayin was never a monolithic system of writing that was standardized once and for all and imposed from above by a cultural authority. Rather, Baybayin has survived through the specific ways that various ethnolinguistic communities have taken possession of its hidden lore as a way of saying: “This is OUR Baybayin.”

As a writing system that survived the imposition of Latin script by the Spanish colonizers, Baybayin is a testament to the bayan’s capacity to preserve the community’s cultural memory (“taal na kaiisipan”) sa kabila ng dambuhalang pagkakahating pangkalinangan described above. The bayan’s writing script activates the perception of a hidden lore that would allow the bayan to gain access to its cultural memory. This cultural memory is fundamentally based on language, which Baybayin gives material form to.

During the Spanish colonial period, Baybayin coexisted with the Latin script; the two writing systems are emblematic of the cultural gap between the bayan at ang estadong kolonyal. Let us examine this theory in a historical document: the 18th century letter from Antique in Archivo de Filipinas of Biblioteca Tomás Navarro Tomás, CCHS-CSIC. A group of people (naturales) of Isla de Cagayan signed a petition asking for a priest to “teach” them the Spanish-Tagalog-Baybayin Doctrina Christiana (1593). Significantly, the signatories wrote their names using Baybayin.

One might wonder why the signatories would request a priest to teach the bilingual and biscript Doctrina Christiana, which is comprised of the Spanish text in Latin script, the Tagalog text in Latin script, and, crucially, the Tagalog text in Baybayin script. We must bear in mind that there are significant problems in “translating Western philosophical and religious concepts into the Tagalog language,” problems that are compounded by the “differences and discrepancies between the Tagalog Latin transliteration and the baybayin text.”[2] That a petition was made and submitted to the Archbishop of Mindoro nevertheless suggests that there were enough signatories to indicate a literate community eager to learn complex concepts of religious doctrine.  What we have here, then, is an apparent gap between two literate communities: a literate bayan that had organically evolved its own Baybayin from adaptations of other writing systems (see Chapter 2), and a literate Church that served as gatekeepers to alien Christian concepts that must be translated in the bayan’s language and writing system, at times with difficulty.

Secondly, the fact that the signatories of the petition wrote their names using Baybayin script indicates that Baybayin was still being used in this part of the archipelago in the late 18th century. Equally important, the use of Baybayin script was part of the general order of things: Church administrators still recognized Baybayin script, at least as a means of establishing names.[3]

The Doctrina Christiana and the Antique petition are informative not just about the coexistence of two writing systems in Spanish colonial Philippines, but also about the desires of the two literate communities to unlock the hidden lore of the other’s language and culture. However, it must be pointed out that the power to do so was disproportionately held by the Church.

The imperative to taxonomize native languages in the New World drove Spanish missionaries to collect, catalogue and codify all native languages in use in the islands. Crucially, they never imposed Spanish as an official language. They opted to learn vernacular languages instead, seeing this as the most expedient means to convert the populace to Catholicism, as Porter notes:

The Spanish Crown, along with the Spanish friars, did not seek to impose a new language on the inhabitants of the isles, but a new religion. And it was an over-zealous desire to proclaim Catholicism throughout the archipelago which led the friars to learn local vernaculars, perhaps slowly uniting the isles in terms of religion, but leaving them divided in terms of language.[4]

Absent a lingua franca, the bayan remained linguistically divided. But a linguistically-divided bayan did not eliminate Baybayin, as our above example of the Antique petition shows. It simply went underground, its uses becoming increasingly confined to local ritual. And so in a sense, it became something like the runes, “magical signs” for its insider-users and increasingly opaque to outsiders. However, to assume that Baybayin and the Latin script were two mutually exclusive writing systems would be a gross oversimplification, as the role of translation in the Christianization of the colony makes clear.

Christian Conversion and Translation

As exemplified by the Doctrina Christiana, the Spanish friars who codified local languages would go on to use Baybayin to transmit Catholic teachings. Vicente Rafael presents the uncanny scenario that emerges in the encounter between the native and the friar speaking in her tongue.  In this encounter, the friar inspires both interest and anxiety in the native precisely because he embodies “the foreign in the familiar and its reverse, the familiar in the foreign.” Significantly, the friar personifies the disproportionate power of the colonizer who controls the terms of the translation process. For the native:

[W]hat they apprehended in the friar was the force of communication—the power to establish contact across borders and speak in ways otherwise unanticipated and unheard of and to do so in a language other than their own. Conversion was thus a matter of responding to this startling because novel emergence of alien messages from alien speakers from within one’s own speech. It was to identify oneself with this uncanny occurrence and to submit to its attractions, which included access to an unseen yet omnipresent source of all power.[5]

Such is the fear/desire at the heart of the colonial subject’s encounter with the agent of colonial translation. But the ability of the familiar (one’s own language) to express the foreign (Christian concepts) is limited by an important caveat in the translation process: the fact that colonial translators deliberately retained key terms—e.g. Dios, Espiritu Santo, Virgen, the names of the saints and liturgical terms—in their original Latin and Castilliam forms. This was done to prevent any substitution of terms with the natives’ pagan concepts.  Indeed, a notion of untranslatability paradoxically informed the colonizer’s translation project and deliberately left it incomplete. It was left incomplete in order to set precise boundaries between two “hidden lores,” according to terms of exchange set by the colonizer.  For example, words like “Virgen,” for which there is no corresponding concept in the Tagalog language, is rendered as a transliteration that is meaningless for the native.  The opacity of the word captures “the points at which words became wholly absorbed and entirely subservient to their referents.”[6]

In the failure of translation to make the other knowable to the native, the native comes to recognize that a hierarchy of languages exists to shape relations between colonizer and colonized; and it is a realization that sets in motion her conversion and colonial subjugation:

Submitting to the Word of the Father, one came to realize that one’s first language was subordinate to a second, that a foreign because transcendent presence ruled over one’s thoughts, and that such thoughts came through a chain of mediations: roman letters, Castilian words, and Latin grammatical categories superimposed on the vernaculars.[7]

The colonial translation project thus constitutes a model of linguistic standardization that is analogous to the standardization of writing scripts from above. At the center of both is the imposition of a “chain of mediations” that superimpose the worldview of the group in power over the vernaculars being so ordered. Both, in short, work to naturalize the social power of the dominant group.

In the translation process, native languages were codified according to the Eurocentric epistemology of the colonizer’s language. Baybayin was thus appropriated by the colonizer, and in the process, the writing system was likewise “converted” to serve the interests of the Church. Consequently, the “rhetoric of conversion and the practice of translation allowed for the naturalization, as it were, of hierarchy, linguistic as well as social.”[8]

We may see Rafael’s insights at play in the following two illustrations. The first is from  Gaspar de San Agustin’s Conquistas de las Islas Filipinas, 1555-1615, from 1698.[9] The second is from Gio Filippo de Marini’s, Historia et relatione del Tunchino e del Giappone, from 1665.[10]

Cover of Conquistas de las Islas Philipinas: La temporal por las armas del Señor Don Phelipe Segundo el Prudente; y la espiritual por los religiosos del Orden de Nuestro Padre San Agustín – Fundación y progressos de su Provincia del Santísimo Nombre de Jesús (1698, reeditado en 1998 con el título Conquistas de las Islas Filipinas 1565-1615). Gaspar de San Agustin un misionero Agustino y autor tambien de la libro, Compendido de la arte de la lengua Tagala (1703).

Gio Filippo de Marini, Historia et relatione del Tunchino et del Giapone, Roma, 1665 (Österreich National Bibliothek, digital copy from Google Books)

The composition of the first illustration is clearly bifurcated, with the navigator and Agustinian friar Andres de Urdaneta to the left and the Philip II to the right. Between them is an archipelago of islands, with China receding in the horizon. Above them is the light of Christianity, symbolized by the monogram of Christ (IHS), passing through a heart-shaped prism held by Urdaneta, to illuminate the islands. The heart, of course, is the emblem or seal of the Agustinian order, the first missionaries to arrive in the Philippines.

Let us contextualize the image. Jesuit missionary Pedro Chirino notes in his 1604 Relación de las Islas Filipinas  [Reports of the Philippines Islands] that, “conversion of the islands[…]was accomplished by only five hundred Spaniards with six Augustinian religious, holy men and learned.”  He names the Agustinian Father Martin de Herrada as the first missionary to make “converts to Christianity in the Filipinas, preaching to them of Jesus Christ in their own tongue.” The Agustinian is further credited as the maker of “the first vocabulary,” which Chirino had the honor to “have seen and have also studied” in 1596.[11]

Chirino’s Relacion allows us to interpret the allegorical message of the engraving above. The message is clear: the light of Christianity needs the mediation of “holy” and “learned” men like Father Martin de Herrada. The prism, then, symbolizes the colonial translation project, with local languages (“the familiar”) as the filter through which Christian dogma (“the foreign”) must pass. The engraving captures Rafael’s point that the islands were colonized not by brute force, represented by the spears of the Spanish crown on the right, but through Christian conversion, in which the translation of Catholic teaching into local languages played a crucial role.

The second engraving shows a Jesuit facing converts from various regions of Southeast Asia: Tonkin, Cochin China, Cambodia, Siam, Lao, Macassar, Canton and Japan.[12] Rays emanating from the monogram of Christ illuminate the converts who kneel in subservience to the missionary. Their poses register awe at the object lesson being delivered by the priest, who points to the sky with one hand while holding a book with the other. The book is opened at a page containing the words, “Lord of Heaven,” “Ten Commandments,” “Heaven and Earth” and “Truth” in Chinese characters.[13] The filtering of Christian dogma through the natives’ language, which is represented using allegorical symbolism in the first illustration, is represented in a more literal manner here. Also more pronounced is the power of the Church, represented by the composite of a woman, with the dove of the Holy Ghost on the breast, and two cherubs holding the tiara and the keys of St. Peter.

In both engravings, conversion is allegorically figured as a sudden illumination. The postures of the converts in the second illustration register the fear and desire that Rafael locates in the native’s encounter with the priest speaking in her tongue. The moment of conversion is represented as a sublime rapture: it is a moment that comes at great psychic price for the native. She must surrender to the awesome power of the Church, and this will necessitate a total break from her previous identification with the bayan—in short, from her Pantayong Pananaw.

But one finds a blind spot in Rafael’s account of the role of translation in the conversion process. In insisting on the opacity of borrowed words like “Virgen,” it leaves no room for a crucial component in the life of languages and writing systems: the process of linguistic appropriation.  As Ramon Guillermo notes, some borrowed words have become “so completely naturalized by the receiving language to the point that all memories of their foreignness have been practically effaced.” For example, it is easy to forget how words like “pero,” “sige,” “siguro” and “kumusta,” which seem so thoroughly Tagalog, are in fact derived from the Spanish. And indeed, it takes expert knowledge to recognize how some Tagalog words like “tanglaw,” “tangi,” “binibini” and “liham” are derived from the Chinese. [14] These examples behoove us to see the limitations of viewing translation, as Rafael does, as “that double process of appropriating and replacing what is foreign while keeping its foreignness in view.”[15]

Translation is a two-way street. Something happens to Christian concepts when translated into the bayan’s writing system. Insofar as Baybayin gives material shape to the bayan’s “diskursong panlooban (internal discourse),” borrowed words rendered in Baybayin acquire an additional layer of meaning that derives from the community’s Pantayong Pananaw. As we shall see, the very structure of the Baybayin writing script requires users to be familiar with the bayan’s diskursong panlooban. The borrowed words, in short, can only be conveyed in written form through the community’s worldview and self-understanding. Such borrowings, then, are linguistically circuitous, never one-to-one substitutions of a “foreign” concept with an equivalent indigenous term. The mediation of the bayan’s Pantayong Pananaw is the crucial step guiding the Bayan’s ownership of foreign concepts in and through its writing system.

Baybayin and Literacy in Colonial Philippines

In this section, we will illuminate the notion that the bayan was literate, based on the accounts of the colonizers themselves.  The extent to which Baybayin was widely used by the bayan during the first 100 years of Spanish colonization may be gleaned from Chirino’s Relación, written in 1596 and published in 1604. Chirino devotes an entire chapter to the languages spoken in “the Filipinas” (Chapter XV) and another full chapter on Baybayin (Chapter XVII). Since the literacy question encompasses the inseparable relationship between the bayan’s language and the Baybayin writing system, it behooves us to examine both.

Noting the absence of a “single or general language” that extends throughout all the islands of the Filipinas, Chirino further notes that it would be a mistake to assume that each of the islands has its own unique language. The island of Manila has six languages. Conversely, there are cases of single languages being spoken in several islands. He notes, however, that with but one exception, the hundred or so languages spoken in the Filipinas “are so much alike that they may be learned and spoken in a short time.”[16]

Chirino tries to demystify for his Spanish readers the multilingual terrain of the Filipinas by likening its philological kinships to those found in Western Europe: “They are to each other like the Tuscan, Lombard, and Sicilian dialects of Italia, or the Castilian, Portuguese, and Galician in España. Only the language of the Negrillos is very different from the rest, as, in España, is the Vizcayan [i.e., Basque].” The secret lores of these native languages are eminently decodable, Chirino suggests, provided one was proficient in European languages: “Consequently, if one is learned, all are almost known.”[17] Here, we can see how the naturalization of power at the heart of the colonial translation project rests on making European models of language and language-acquisition the “universal” standard for assessing not just the diversity, but also the critical value, of non-European languages.

Of all languages spoken in the Filipinas, it is Tagal [Tagalog], the language spoken in “the greater part of the coast and interior of the islands of Manila, Mindoro, Luban, and some others” that most impresses Chirino:

As I told the first bishop, and, afterwards, other persons of dignity in the islands and in Europe, I found in this language four qualities of the four greatest languages of the world, Hebrew, Greek, Latin, and Spanish: it has the abstruseness and obscurity of the Hebrew; the articles and distinctions in proper as well as in common nouns, of the Greek; the fulness and elegance of the Latin; and the refinement, polish, and courtesy of the Spanish.[18]

Chirino’s “four greatest languages of the world” project a Eurocentric version of cultural evolution that traces the origins of Western civilization to the Ancient mediterranean world,  which the Spanish empire can lay claim to as its cultural heritage. Identifying four distinctive qualities of the Hebrew, Greek, Latin and Spanish languages, Chirino presents as “common sense” a set of arbitrary evaluative criteria for measuring the aesthetic qualities of the Tagal. Chirino then uses the Tagalog translation of “Ave Maria” to showcase the “idioms and characteristic expressions” of the Tagal language:

The “Ave-Maria” in the Tagal language:

Aba Guinoo Maria matoa ca na.
Hail Lady Mary, joyful thou now,

Napono ca nan gracia,
full thou of grace;

An Panguinoon Dios na saio.
the Lord God is with thee

Bucor can pinagpala sa babain lahat.
especially, thou blessed among women all.

Pinagpala naman ang iong anac si Jesus.
Blessed also be thy son Jesus.

Santa Maria ina nang Dios
Holy Mary, mother of God,

Ipana languin mo cami macasalanan
Let us be interceded for by thee, us sinners

ngayon at cum mamatai cami. Amen, Jesus.
now and when shall die we.

Written in Latin script and presented as “word for word equivalents” of the prayer in the Spanish vernacular, the Tagal translation of the “Ave Maria,” for Chirino, is noteworthy for its formulaic language:

The first word of this prayer—Aba—, is obscure, but apparently has the
force of “salute,” like the Latin —Ave. Bucor—expresses diversity,
distinction, and singularity. The article is—Si—(Jesus), as—Ton—
in Greek. The richness of the language lies in its many synonyms
and phrases
; consequently this prayer, which, as it stands, is very
elegant, could be formed with equal elegance in various other ways,
without losing its original sense and meaning. The polish and courtesy
consist in not saying, as in Latin, —Ave Maria—(which would seem in
this language abrupt and barbaric), without adding that polite word,

Two things are worth pointing out in Chirino’s annotations. First is the momentary suspension of the author’s Eurocentric bias, when he states that the Latin “Ave” is too coarse for the customary politeness of the Tagal, which requires the addition of the vernacular, “guinoo,” to soften the Latin term. Second is Chirino’s assertion of complexity in the Tagal language, which he claims has a rich archive of idioms and synonyms from which to draw multiple translations of the prayer without diminishing its “original sense and meaning.”[20]

Chirino goes on to compare the “courtesy” of the Tagal language with two other vernacular languages: the Bisayan and the Hirayan, both widely spoken throughout “the islands of the Pintados.”[21] He provides word-for-word translations—without annotations—of the “Ave Maria” in these two languages, which he summarily dismisses as “more rude and unpolished.”[22]

Crucially, Chirino attributes the linguistic polish of the Tagal to the refined manners of the Tagalog people, whose characteristic politeness is “so noble and pleasing a moral virtue” that he devotes a separate chapter to the “civilities, terms of courtesy, and good breeding” of this ethnolinguistic community.  And he uses the example of personal correspondences in the Baybayin to illustrate his point: “In polite and affectionate intercourse they are very extravagant, addressing letters to each other in terms of elaborate and delicate expressions of affection, and neat turns of thought.” Measuring the terms of courtesy of the Bisayans against the civilities of the Tagalogs, Chirino finds the former to be “more rustic and less civil in manners, just as their language is harsher and less polished.” It is significant that he connects the dearth of “terms of courtesy” in the Bisayan tongue to the fact that this ethnolinguistic group “had no letters until, a very few years ago, they borrowed theirs from the Tagalogs.”[23]

Chirino’s chapter on the Tagal Baybayin makes the much-quoted observation that the majority of the Tagal speakers are, in fact, literate:

All these islanders are much given to reading and writing, and there
is hardly a man, and much less a woman, who does not read and write
in the letters used in the island of Manila.[24]

Following a brief explanation of the writing system (three vowels to communicate five vowel sounds, a system of diacritical marks to indicate the correct vowel sound and the suppression of final consonants), Chirino asserts the eminent comprehensibility of the writing system to its insider-users:

By means of these characters they easily make themselves understood
and convey their ideas marvelously, he who reads supplying, with much
skill and facility, the consonants which are lacking.[25]

Chirino thus disavows the unfortunate misperception that Baybayin is a “difficult” script toread.[26] This erroneous belief, which Guillermo et. al refer to as the “legend of unreadability,” stems from two “deficiencies” of the writing system: 1) it has no way of representing stand-alone consonants and 2) it is written without spaces between words. Briefly explaining the diacritical marks (kudlit) indicating= the correct vowel sound, and without mentioning the double dandas that rectify the lack of word separators, Chirino simply stresses how the writing system is readable to its insider-users, who are well practiced in its structures of communication.

Father Alcina’s account from 1668 is consistent with Chirino’s description of the Baybayin script, though Alcina stresses the challenges posed by the absence of stand-alone consonants and word separators to outsiders:

[W]hatever is not expressed is implied…[O]ne may say that their reading consists in guessing rather than in pronouncing what is actually written. Those who are not skillful in supplying the consonants which some, especially women, read with proficiency and without stumbling and do on adroitly reading and guessing it – more often erring than rendering it properly. For this reason, even though it is easy to learn their way of writing, it is very difficult to read it because as we have said, most of it [i.e. the characters which are not expressed] must be [quickly] supplied [by the reader].[27]

Chirino’s more sanguine assertion of Baybayin’s legibility indirectly points to the Tagalog people’s Pantayong Pananaw: if users can easily supply the missing consonants, it is because they have intimate knowledge of the bayan’s diskursong panlooban. This is the logical conclusion that one reaches given the intimate connections that Chirino makes between the idiomatic richness of the Tagal language, the polite customs of the Tagal people and the eminent readability of Tagal writing system for its insider-users. Interestingly, however,  Chirino concludes his account of the Baybayin writing system with this glowing description of  the Tagalog people’s facility for emulating Spanish ways of reading and writing:

They used to write on reeds and palm-leaves, using as a pen an
iron point; now they write their own letters, as well as ours, with
a sharpened quill, and, as we do, on paper. They have learned our
language and its pronunciation, and write it even better than we do,
for they are so clever that they learn anything with the greatest

What Chirino appears to admire most in the Tagalog people is their facility for mimicry of Spanish reading and writing practices. Nevertheless, this backhanded compliment concedes that such mimicry is significantly enhanced by the prior literacy of the bayan. Implicit in the above passage is an evolutionary sequence: from the ephemeral materials with which the Baybayin has been traditionally written, the Tagalogs have developed the facility for writing on paper, which opens up the possibility of creating a written material culture for the bayan. However, this potential for building an archive of Baybayin texts is attenuated by the fact that the Tagalogs are now writing in the Latin script, as is the “natural” progression of things. The implicit message here is that it won’t be long before the Tagalogs abandon their Baybayin in favor of the  inherently “superior” Latin script.

Chirino’s account is consistent with a 1609 report written by Antonio de Morga, who served as the deputy governor general of the judiciary executive in Manila at about the same time that Chirino was writing his Relacion. Morga’s Sucesos de las islas Filipinas [Historical events of the Philippine Islands] notes:

The inhabitants of the province of Manila, the Tagals, have their own language, which is very rich and copious. By means of it one can express elegantly whatever one wishes, and in many modes and manners. It is not difficult to learn or pronounce. The natives throughout the islands can write excellently with certain characters, almost like the Greek or Arabic.[29]

 Ang mga nakatira sa probinsya ng Maynila, ang mga Tagalog, ay may sariling wika, na napakayaman at malaman. Sa pamamagitan nito, maari nilang ipahiwatig nang matikas ang anumang nais nila, sa napakarami nilang kalakaran at kaugalian. Hindi ito mahirap matutuhan o bigkasin. Napakagaling ng mga katutubo sa islang ito sa pagsusulat ng kanilang mga titik, na halos katulad ng Griyego at Arabo.

Chirino and Morga’s accounts support the notion that the bayan was literate well before a nation state existed to impose a writing system. This, as Hector Santos points out, makes the bayan distinctive when compared to other literate societies, in which reading and writing were the exclusive practices of a priestly class and an auxiliary class of scribes: “The culture that the Spaniards found in the Philippines was unique in that the art of reading and writing was in the hands of everybody.” And while other writing scripts were largely used to “glorify and perpetuate the reign of the ruling king,” Baybayin was not used to record history and tradition but “simply for personal communication and writing poetry.”[30] This means that the bayan was not just a literate society but also a fundamentally democratic one: ordinary people, not a privileged class, created a thriving culture of reading and writing that was geared towards the immediate needs of the people.

Father Francisco Colin’s 1663 Labor Evangelica corroborates Santos’ assertions of a democratic literate bayan:

…the people cling fondly to their method of writing and reading. There is scarcely a man, nor a woman, who does not know and practice that method, even those who are already Christian in matters of devotion.[31]

Noteworthy in Colin’s report is the bayan’s sense of collective ownership of the Baybayin. That the people should cling to their writing system, suggests a sense of jealous ownership in the face of a perceived threat of erasure triggered by the colonization process. The assertion that there is “scarcely a man, nor a woman,” who does not read and write in the Baybayin further suggests that a state of universal literacy existed in the bayan. Finally, the tail end of the passage indicates a steadfast attachment to the Baybayin among those who have already been converted to Christianity. This would suggest that Baybayin was still in general use despite Christian conversion, which in turn is a testament to the resilience and longevity of the bayan’s Pantayong Pananaw.

Toishiaki Kawahara points out a logical flaw in the “dissemination theory” exemplified by Santos’ account of Baybayin as a writing system belonging to the people: “If literacy among residents had been widespread, materials would have been written in baybayin, and a considerable number of literature items should have existed.”[32] But as noted by Chirino above, Baybayin texts were ephemeral in nature and as of 1596, the Tagalogs were relatively new to writing on paper. Furthermore, since Baybayin was largely used for personal communication, “its preservation was not paid serious consideration.”[33] We may also surmise from Santos’ observations that the very idea of archiving written texts to glorify a ruling authority or to legitimize the culture of a privileged class would be inconsistent with the needs and values of a democratic literate society.

The fundamental disconnect between the standards of literacy valued by Spanish observers and the bayan’s democratic writing culture would explain why the former did not find Baybayin texts written in the formats and genres that Westerners associate with a “civilized society.” Father Francisco de San Antonio’s 1735 Cronicas de la Provincia de Gregorio Magno notes, for example that “up to the present time there has not been found a scrap of writing relating to religion, ceremonies, or ancient political institutions.” Diego de Bobadilla’s 1640 report similarly notes that the “people only used writing to communicate with one another and that they did not have manuscripts relating to history or science.”[34]

Rather than hold the bayan to European standards of literacy, and rather than lament, as these European observers do, what sorts of texts were not found in the Baybayin, it would be more helpful to discuss what sorts of texts were in fact written, or were likely written, in Baybayin. Casal et al. argue that Baybayin was likely used to record commercial transactions, given its preponderance in coastal and river-based communities engaged in trade activities.[35]

Scott notes that wills were written in the Latin script, but signed in Baybayin and that the last recorded case of this was in Mindoro in 1792.[36] It is possible that Scott was referring to the 1792 petition discussed above. To these everyday documents–personal correspondences, commercial transactions, wills and petitions—we must add the poetry mentioned by Chirino and Santos. It is worth pointing out that the most popular text written on the island of Mindoro is the ambahan, “a metered poetic form with seven syllables per line,” which, incidentally, mirrors “the most productive segment length” of the Baybayin texts in the Doctrina Christiana.[37]

Though Chirino and Morga devote much of their attention to the Tagalog Baybayin, it behooves us to establish some of the other scripts in use at the time. Robert Fox identifies at least 16 kinds of “alphabetic systems” that were derived from a common source.[38] Various accounts of literacy in the Philippines mention anywhere between 10-12, though “none of the early Spanish authors ever suggested that there was more than one baybayin script.”[39] There are three general types of baybayin: Tagalog (including Ilocano, Bisayan, Pangasinan), Palawan (including Tagbanuwa), and Mangyan (including Hanunóo and Buhid).[40] The subtle variations between these writing scripts reflect the Pantayong Pananaw of specific ethnolinguistic communities. Of these scripts, only three have survived the widespread use of the Latin script, and are still in use today: the Tagbanaua, the Hanunoo and the Buhid Mangyan.[41]

Casal et al note that the introduction of Latin script led to a decline in literacy in the Baybayin, which in turn abetted the false view of the native population as “savages.”[42] An early version of this theme was sounded by Jose Rizal, who discovered Morga’s Sucesos de las Islas Filipinas while studying in Europe.

Using Morga’s observations of widespread literacy among the native population as proof that a “high civilization” existed in the Philippines prior to the arrival of the Spanish, he would go on to write: “After the colonization by the Spanish started, Filipinos started to forget old traditions and old memories and eventually they lost writing systems, songs, poems and laws.”[43] The connection that Rizal draws between cultural forgetting and cultural erasure is striking and projects an alternative scenario: the reactivation of the bayan’s cultural memory through a revitalization of its writing system.

This is the topic of the next section, but for now, it is enough to see how the theme of cultural erasure is consistent with the foreshadowing, in Chirino’s Relacion, of Baybayin’s eventual obsolescence. Though there is still a debate on whether literacy was widespread in pre-colonial Philippines[44] or was more limited,[45] there is consensus that with the adoption of Latin script, Baybayin ceased to support the everyday needs of the bayan and gradually became relegated to more esoteric uses; serving “decorative and magical purposes.”[46]

From the foregoing discussion, two things must be emphasized: 1) the bayan did not need to establish statehood to have a writing script and 2) since Baybayin texts were written largely for personal use, they were not preserved in any concerted way. These two precepts of the dissemination theory challenge the notion that literacy is only possible in a nation-state having clerks or scribes. Rather than be administered from above, a truly democratic writing culture requires ordinary people to take on the responsibility of preserving and nurturing the people’s writing system.

Such is indeed the case for one of the few remaining communities still using Baybayin today: the Hanunóo of Mindoro. Literacy remains widespread in this community, which numbers roughly 8,000. About 70 percent of the adult population are proficient enough in Baybayin to preserve and perpetuate their ambahan poetry, which is now the main use to which the Baybayin is put.[47] Kiupers’s description of the Hanunóo and their ambahan is a perfect snapshot of the democratic writing culture at the heart of the dissemination theory:

Incised into bamboo internodes with a knife, the script is easily learned, although failing to do so carries no penalty. Living typically in scattered settlements with fewer than 200 inhabitants, the egalitarian Hanunóo have not developed priestly or scribal classes over the course of over 500 years of literate tradition.[48]

The script has an ephemeral materiality that is hewn to the original Baybayin texts found by the Spanish colonizers. The “no penalty” is significant, suggesting that the practice of producing ambahan in this manner is completely voluntary: the Hanunóo continue the tradition because their Pantayong Pananaw recognizes its value to the community and not because the practice is mandated by a governing authority.

In Southern Mindoro, children are taught the Mangyan baybayin in elementary school, and this has had a stabilizing effect on the writing system. Its status as a living writing system will hinge on the community taking positive steps to preserve the ambahan tradition absent state support. Kiupers notes, however, the troubling fact that among the Mangyan lowlanders, “the use of the script is viewed as an oddity, a sign of primitive backwardness.” This unfortunate situation may be traced back to the 16th century and our discussion of colonial translation above:

While Spanish priests apparently tried to encourage the use of the baybayin Indic scripts, the scripts were never adapted to the Spanish or English vowel or consonant systems, never gained the prestige of the Latin characters in the region, nor does it appear to have been adapted to a wider range of bureaucratic and everyday uses.[49]

The selective methods of colonial translation, which included yoking the Baybayin solely to the demands of Christian conversion, along with the introduction of the Latin script for all official documents in the colony—all these combined to produce the conditions of Baybayin’s gradual obsolescence from the 16th century onwards. The decline in general literacy in the Philippines went hand in hand with the gradual atrophy of the bayan’s democratic writing culture.

[1] Paul Morrow, “Da Bathala Code,” The Pilipino Express, vol. 5, no.12. June 16-30, 2009, 2-3,

[2] Ramon Guillermo, Myfel Joseph Paluga, and Vernon Totanes, “Ang Panginoon Sisu Kitu: the Tagalog Baybayin text of the Doctrina Christiana of 1593 and the Legend of Unreadability” in 3 Baybayin Studies, ed. Ramon Guillermo, Myfel Joseph Paluga, Maricor Soriano and Vernon Totanes (Diliman, Quezon City: University of the Philippines Press, 2017), 16-17.

[3] It is worth noting that the standardization of Filipino names to Hispanicized versions began in 1849, when Governor Narciso Claveria assigned Spanish surnames to all colonial subjects using the Catalogo de Apellidos, issued by Madrid. See Penelope V. Flores, “How Filipinos Got Their Surnames” Positively Filipino Magazine,  January 6, 2016.

[4] Christopher James Porter, “Language, Tagalog Regionalism, and Filipino Nationalism: How a Language-Centered Tagalog Regionalism Helped to Develop a Philippine Nationalism” (M.A. thesis, University of California, Riverside, 2017),, p. 38.

[5] Vicente Rafael, The promise of the foreign: Nationalism and the technics of translation in the Spanish Philippines (Duke University Press, 2005), 23.

[6] Ibid., 24.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 25.

[9] Gaspar de San Agustin, Pedro G Galende, and Mañeru Luis. Conquistas De Las Islas Filipinas, 1565-1615. Bilingual ed. (Manila: San Agustin Museum, 1998).

[10] Gio Filippo de Marini, Historia Et Relatione Del Tunchino E Del Giappone : Con La Vera Relatione Ancora D’altri Regni E Prouincie Di Quelle Regioni E Del Loro Gouerno Politico : Con Le Missioni Fatteui Dalli Padri Della Compagnia Di Giesù & Introduttione Della Fede Christiana … : Diuisa in Cinque Libri (Roma: Nella stamperia di Vitale Mascardi, 1665).

[11] E. H. Blair and J. L. Robertson, The Project Gutenberg EBook of The Philippine Islands, 1493-1898: Volume XII, 1601-1604,  February 12, 2005 [EBook #15022], Chapter 1.

[12]Tara Alberts, Conflict and Conversion: Catholicism in Southeast Asia, 1500-1700 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), xvi.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ramon Guilermo, “A Book Review of ‘The Promise of the Foreign.’” Kritika Kultura 9 (2007), 56.

[15] Rafael, The Promise of the Foreign, xvii

[16] Blair and Robertson, The Project Gutenberg Ebook of the Philippine Islands 1493-1898, Chapter 15.

[17] Ibid., emphasis added.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid., emphasis added.

[20] Ibid.

[21] “Pintados” is the name the Spanish colonizers gave the inhabitants of the present-day Visayas. This was a reference to the tattoos that adorned the bodies of the warriors of the region, which includes the islands of Bohol, Samar, Leyte, Cebu and Negros.

[22] Blair and Robertson, The Project Gutenberg EBook of the Philippine Islands, 1493-1898, Chapter 15.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid., Chapter 17

[25] Ibid.

[26] For some background on this perception and its cogent rebuttal, see Guillermo, Paluga and Totanes, “Ang Panginoon Sisu Kitu,” pp. 6-47.

[27] F. I. Alcina, History of the Bisayan People in the Philippine Islands [1668] Vol. 3 (Manila: UST Publishing House, 2005), 51.

[28] Blair and Robertson, The Project Gutenberg Ebook of the Philippine Islands, 1494-1898, Chapter 17, emphasis added.

[29] Gregorio F. Zaide, ed. Documentary Sources of Philippine History. Vol. 4 (National Book Store, 1990), 46.

[30] Hector Santos, “Literacy in pre-Hispanic Philippines,” A Philippine Leaf.

[31] Gregorio F. Zaide, ed. Documentary Sources of Philippine History. Vol. 5 (National Book Store, 1990),6.

[32] Toshiaki Kawahara, “A study of literacy in Pre-Hispanic Philippines,” 27.

[33] Ibid., 31.

[34] Francisco de San Antonio. Cronicas de la Provincia de San Gregorio Mangno, 1735; Diego de Bobadilla, Relation of the Filipino Islands By a Religious Who Lived for Eighteen Years, 1640 quoted in Ibid., 24.

[35] G.S. Casal,  E.Z. Dizon, W. P. Ponguillo and C.G. Salcedo, Kasaysayan Vol.2. (Manila:The Earliest Filipinos Asia Publishing, 1998), 222.

[36] William Henry Scott, Prehistoric Source Materials: For the Study of Philippine History (Quezon City: New Day Publishers, 1984), 223.

[37] Guillermo et. al., “Ang Panginoon Sisu Kitu,” 28.

[38] G.S. Casal, E.Z. Dizon, W. P. Ponguillo and C.G. Salcedo, Kasaysayan vol. 2, (Manila:The Earliest Filipinos Asia Publishing, 1998), 223.

[39] Paul Morrow, “Ang Baybayin,”

[40] J. Kuipers, “Indic Scripts of Insular Southeast Asia: Changing Structures and Functions.” Tokyo

University of Foreign Studies, Tokyo, 2003.

[41] E. L. Catapang, “Reviving the Hanunuo and Buhid Mangyan Syllabic Scripts of the Philippines,” in Proceeding paper of International Workshop on Endangered Scripts of Island Southeast Asia. 2014.

[42] Casal et. al., Kasaysayan Vol.2. (Manila:The Earliest Filipinos Asia Publishing, 1998), 221.

[43] José Rizal,  (translated by Gen Iwasaki). “A Hundred years from now in the Philippines,”

in Hangyaku, Bouryoku and Kakumei, eds. Rebellion, Violence and Revolution (Tokyo:

Imura Cultural Projects Company-Keiso Shobo, 1976); quoted in Kawahara, “A Study of Literacy in Pre-Hispanic Philippines,” 22, emphasis added.

[44] See for example Emma J. Fornacier Bernabe, Language Policy Formulation, Programming,

Implementation and Evaluation in Philippine Education, 1565-1974 (Manila: Linguistic

Society of the Philippines, 1987); Anthony Reid, Southeast Asia in the Age of Commerce 1450-1680, Vol.1. The Land below the Winds. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988).

[45] See for example Scott, Prehistoric Source Materials: For the Study of Philippine History; O.D. Corpus, The Roots of the Filipino Nation (Manila: Aklahi Foundation, 1989).

[46] Kawahara, “A Study of Literacy in Pre-Hispanic Philippines,” 24.

[47] H. Conklin, “Bamboo Literacy in Mindoro.” Pacific Discovery 2/4 (1949), 4-11.

[48] Kuipers,  “Indic Scripts of Insular Southeast Asia,” 21.

[49] Ibid.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.