Learning Baybayin: A Writing System from the Philippines
Baybayin is one of the Philippine's ancient scriptures and forms of writing. Baybayin is just one of at least 16 different writing systems that were used in pre-colonial Philippines. The character-based alphabet was used in pre-colonial times and have shown a sudden spike of resurgence in the country's modern era.
Read on to learn more about this beautiful ancient writing system!
- What is Baybayin?
- Enabling Baybayin in GBoard
- Writing and Reading Baybayin
- The Filipino Language
- Baybayin or Alibata?
- Lesson Summary
- Practice and Excercise
1. What is Baybayin?
The word Baybayin translates to "to spell", "to write" in verb form and literally translates to "coast," "seaside," and "alphabet" in noun form. It is one of the Philippine's old, traditional, and systematic ways of writing primarily used by the Tagalog — a word derived from "taga-ilog", which means people and/or communities who live near bodies of water. The Tagalog is one of Philippines' languages and is one the basis of it's national and standardized language, Filipino. Tagalog is dominantly spoken in Central Luzon and parts of Northern Luzon. Luzon sits at the northern end of the Philippines, and is the country’s largest and most populous island. It’s known for its mountains, beaches and coral reefs, and is home to Manila, the national capital.
plural noun: diacritics
a sign, such as an accent or cedilla, which when written above or below a letter indicates a difference in pronunciation from the same letter when unmarked or differently marked. - Oxford Dictionary
It is one of a number of individual writing systems used in Southeast Asia, nearly all of which are abugidas, or alphasyllabary, where any consonant is pronounced with the inherent vowel a following it—diacritics being used to express other vowels. Many of these writing systems descended from ancient alphabets used in India over 2000 years ago.
An abugida is a writing system between syllabic and alphabetic scripts. They have sequences of consonants and vowels that are written as a unit, each based on the consonant letter. Vowels must be written down as well, but they are secondary. Syllables are built up of consonants, each of which has an inherent vowel.
2. Enabling Baybayin Script in my GBoard
The virtual keyboard app GBoard developed by Google for Android and iOS devices was updated on August 1, 2019, and Baybayin was added to its list of supported languages. Here I describe how to update your keyboard to have Baybayin characters:
- Look for your phone's keyboard settings.
- Tap on "Languages".
- Tap "Add Keyboard".
- Look for "Filipino (Baybayin)".
- Customize it to your liking.
- Click "Done" and you're all set!
And presto! Tap on the "Globe" icon of your keyboard and it should change the language from your default to the Baybayin keyboard.
If you're unable to see the characters, be sure to check that you successfully updated your Google keyboard first.
Baybayin characters will look like tiny boxes if you're using your PC, if you're viewing from the web, or if haven't yet updated your Google keyboard. For that reason, it is highly recommendeded to read this article using your phone with an updated Google Gboard keyboard. This allows you to see the Baybayin characters in the text portions and to have a practice with it, as well.
3. How to Write and Read Words in Baybayin?
The modern English Alphabet has 21 consonants and five vowels. The Filipino Alphabet has 16 consonants and five vowels. Baybayin has 14 consonants and three vowels.
The Filipino Language Salad Analogy
For a visual summary of the Filipino language, just imagine Spanish, English, Japanese and all other Asian country languages separated on a cutting board. Then, all languages are scraped with a knife into a huge, bottomless bowl, and mixed like a salad.
The Filipino to Baybayin translations below illustrates the pronunciation to character translation as well as the translation to English.
Use Google Translator to Slowly Introduce Yourself to Baybayin
Writing the characters isn't that as hard as it seems, but reading them is tricky. But don't worry, you don't need to learn the Filipino language overnight or page-by-page just to get it. Just type in your words in the Google Translator and translate into Filipino, start by one word at a time, and then two words, until you get the hang and joy of it.
Now you just have to remember my personal rule (a rule which is in books on how to write and read Filipino): Write the word and its letters based on how you pronounce the word.
Writing and Reading Baybayin Characters
In contrast to English, when you write and read Filipino words, you just write and read every letter you see and/or hear. There are no hidden or silent letters or a need for denoting intonations; you just have to write and read as-is. Although,e letter and sound has to have the proper emphasis when you're speaking it.
Can I Use my own Native Language to Translate into Baybayin?
The answer: of course! This character-based writing system is not limited to be translated into any language. But there are some catches. You'll read some of them along the way.
For example the English word "city."
The Baybayin doesn't have any characters to correspond to the letters "ci". There are characters for "t" and "y", but it would just make the four-letter English word longer in Baybayin. So, there are two options:
- Translate a word to Filipino with the help of Google.
- Use a your-language-to-Filipino book or dictionary.
Here, we will use the second rule to sound out the spelling and translate the word to Baybayin characters. All rules above are fundamental in writing Baybayin characters. Any foreign word can be easily translated to Baybayin, well, provided that either the same syllables exist or reformed syllables are made.
For example, the word "city." Say it with your mouth and try to emphasize each syllable:
- ci-ty (two syllables)
Now, hear their letters and the way you say them in English. "City" would also sound like "sea-tea" or "see-tee". Just in case it adds more confusion, the Filipino language only has five vowel sounds:
- a (like the "a" sound in mark)
- e (the "e" sound in bet)
- i (ee or ea in bee or tea)
- o (the "o" sound in octal)
- u (the "u" sound in Uber)
So, if we simplify "city" to a word that we can write it in Baybayin, it will possibly be "siti" or "si-ti." That simplification makes it easier to write it in Baybayin.
You write and read the characters from left to right.
se/si + te/ti
Syllables are the Key
Always remember that one syllable is equal to one character. In our modern alphabet, each letter is a basic sound or phoneme, either a vowel or a consonant. We combine these letters to make syllables and combine the syllables to make words. In a syllabic writing system, such as the Baybayin, each letter is already a syllable. It may be a combination of sounds or just a vowel, but usually, it cannot be reduced to a single consonant.
There are two ways to write Baybayin characters:
- Writing the words Traditionally, which is a more ancient yet acceptable way of writing Baybayin characters.
- Writing the words Modernly, which is also acceptable since Baybayin's resurfacing in the modern world.
Let's say for example the word mahaba or "long" in English. Long is one syllable, while mahaba is three. Since there are three syllables, there should be three characters. Consonant characters + a retains its Baybayin form. In fact, the English world long can be translated to Baybayin by writing the "lo" part of the word only, hence dropping the "ng." This is a more traditional and ancient way of writing in Baybayin. However, "ng" can be added in the word if the writer choose to write it a modern way.
The Kudlit of the Characters
A kudlit (kood-lit), or that small cut, incision, or comma above or below each of the characters, is placed depending on which vowel alphabet it takes: "uppercuts" for consonant + i/e and "lower cuts" for consonant + o/u. These cuts or incisions can be dots, commas, crosses, or even a single stroke.
Let's say the word lugi, or "loss of revenue" in English. The word has two syllables, so there should be two characters.
ᜎᜓ - can be lo/lu
ᜄᜒ - can be ge/gi
Lugi - ᜎᜓᜄᜒ
The Spanish Cross: Single and Repetitive Letters
But one syllable is equal to one character, right? How about long words that sound as if they only have one syllable?
We have tackled words with consonants + vowels in them, but what about lone and/or repetitive consonants and vowels? As I've said before, you speak a Filipino word on how it is spelled, which means all letters should sound as it is when you read it.
Let say the words maaari for "please" and bundok for "mountain." You read the first word as "ma-a-a-ri," while the second word is "bun-dok." Repetitive vowels are considered as one syllable per vowel sound and can be written with their equivalent character, while lone and repetitive consonants, traditionally, have no syllable count since the syllable count only counts those with "consonant + vowel" characters in them and therefore isn't included when being written before, that is why a Spanish kudlit was introduced.
To solve the problem of writing these consonants, a Spanish Friar named Francisco Lopez invented a new kind of kudlit in 1620. It was shaped like a cross and it was meant to be placed below a Baybayin consonant letter to cancel its vowel sound, leaving it as a single consonant letter.
The Filipinos never accepted this way of writing because it was too cumbersome, or complicated, and they were perfectly comfortable reading the old way. However, it is popular today among people who have rediscovered the Baybayin but are not aware of the origin of the Spanish kudlit. Personally, I'd prefer it since it makes reading my Baybayin words a little bit easier.
ᜋ - ma
ᜀ - a
ᜇ - de/di or re/ri
Maaari - ᜋᜀᜀᜇᜒ
If you're on a computer or on a phone without an updated Google Keyboard, it is possible that the Baybayin translations in this article will not show up. If you would like to see the translation in Baybayin, Ating Baybayin offers online translations you can see online.
ᜊᜓ - bu
ᜈ᜔ - n
ᜇᜓ - do/du or /ro/ru
ᜃ᜔ - k
Bundok - ᜊᜓᜇᜓ (written traditionally)
Bundok - ᜊᜓᜈ᜔ᜇᜓᜃ᜔ (written with the Spanish dot)
Special Characters and Foreign/Reformed Words
As you can see, D/R has only one character because this follows a Filipino grammatical rule that when there is a letter between two vowels, it becomes another letter, and is only exclusive for a few letters such as d and r.
Like the word mangdaraya. Mang-da-ra-ya is "cheater", "to cheat", or "will cheat" depending on the word usage where the Baybayin translation is ᜋᜇᜇᜌ without the Spanish dot and ᜋᜅ᜔ᜇᜇᜌ with the Spanish dot.
The letter NG has its own character as well since most Filipino words start with these letters and it is also considered to be one alphabet character in the Filipino alphabet.
Such as the word ngayon, nga-yon, that means "now" or "in the present" where when written in Baybayin is ᜅᜌᜓ traditionally and ᜅᜌᜓᜈ᜔ with the Spanish dot.
The letter Ñ does not exist in the alphabet because it was later brought and added the Spaniards during colonization. Although it can be reformed, like most of the Baybayin alphabet, by combining two letters such as "ni + ya" or "ni + yo," depending on the word's pronunciation.
But, how about names? Are there rules, too? Of course! The same rules apply to when writing your names into Baybayin.
Let's say for example Michael (may-kel). When you read it out, it only has two syllables. Remember that each syllable is equal to the characters it should be written, so:
ᜋ - ma
ᜌ᜔ - y
ᜃᜒ - ke/ki
ᜎ᜔ - l
Michael - ᜋᜃᜒ (traditional)
Michael - ᜋᜌ᜔ᜃᜒᜎ᜔ (with Spanish dot)
But not all names and foreign words are easily convertible to Baybayin since it lacks most of the Roman Alphabet letters that we use today, such as the sounds /dza/ (diya) or /cha/ (tsa) or /sha/(siya). So it's better to use a Google Translator first to translate your foreign language to Filipino, and then write that Filipino word into Baybayin.
4. A Brief History of the Filipino Language
Pre-Colonial Era: Theories About Filipino Ancestors
According to several theories, Filipino ancestors were Malayo-Polynesians from the islands of Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia, and Indonesia who continuously migrated over the country for trade and to live when there were still "land bridges" that connected the archipelago from the outlying islands. They brought over their Austronesian languages with as well. According to theories, it was tens of thousands of years ago where the "land bridges" got severed or melted that the inhabitants stayed in the archipelago, built their communities with leaders, beliefs, religions, and own languages and writing systems. There are more theories about the origins of Filipino ancestors, but this one focuses on the migration with their migration and bringing over their language.
Pre-Colonial Era: Foreign Trading
And then came the age of foreign trading, where the Chinese, Arab, Indonesians, Malaysians, Indians, and other Asian countries traded their goods and commodities with the Philippines, along with their languages, beliefs, religion, and way of life during the pre-colonial era. Foreign trade with the Borneo, Japan, and Thailand also played an integral part in building the language of what we know today. They have taken and adapted words from all of these languages to make them part of the Filipino language. They have, however, still maintained their languages, and maintained separations from one language to another.
Colonial Era: Religion and Language
In the 16th Century, Spain claimed the Philippines for its own. Many friars and priests were sent by the crown to teach Christianity to the native people. At first, the friars were encouraged to learn the local dialects to teach the people in their languages. This they did they gained influence over the Filipino people. During the Spanish Era (1521-1898), the Filipinos already had their own language but borrowed and adapted a lot of words, phrases and common sentences from the Spanish Language (who wouldn't in 333 years?) that are still used today. During the American era (1898-1946) and the Japanese era (1941-1945) Filipinos still kept the integrity of the Filipino language by having it distinguished from the two even as it adapted around the use of the new languages.
The Americans were eager to teach English during their era (and its effectiveness is still prevalent today). When the Japanese occupied the country, they tried to abolish and criminalize English during their time (which never worked). They wanted the Japanese language to be learned instead.
Post-Colonial Era: Shaping a National Identity
Filipino is defined as the national language of the Philippines. It is defined by the Commission on the Filipino Language as an official language of the country and as a standardized variety of the Tagalog language, an Austronesian regional language that is widely spoken in the Philippines. The Commission is the official regulating body of the Filipino Language and the official government institution tasked with developing, preserving, and promoting the various local Philippine Languages, Filipino is also designated, along with English.
One misconception about Filipino is that it equates to Tagalog. Filipino is the standardized, national language derived from Tagalog. Nevertheless, Filipino is also derived from the various languages found in the Philippines, especially from the major regional and ethnic languages. Almost everyone in the Philippines can speak Filipino, but everyone also has their own second, third, even fourth language.
According to a 2015 consensus, there are 120 to 187 known languages, of which where:
- 175 are indigenous.
- 8 are major dialects.
- 8 are non-indigenous.
- 41 are institutional.
- 73 are developing.
- 45 are vigorous.
- 13 are in trouble.
- 11 are dying.
- 4 are extinct.
Imagine the salad analogy. Tagalog is one of its part or piece, while Filipino is the whole salad itself. It may sound confusing, but the people back in the day made sure to do this in able to avoid insurgencies, outcries that almost resulted in a nationwide civil war. I'm saying this because the Filipino language is crafted after the events of WWII, and tensions between the multiple regions found in the Philippines, as well as regional languages, were growing. So, to make sure that everyone in the Philippines is contributing to the crafting of the national language, the commission is born and the name Filipino is crafted to define both the language of Philippines and its people.
Are you interested in learning the Filipino language?
5. What is the correct term: Baybayin or Alibata?
"Alibata" was coined by Paul Verzosa in 1921. The older and more correct term, "Baybayin," has been mentioned in several publications dating back to just right after the Spanish colonization began and throughout the 17-18th centuries as the word that the native population used to refer to their writing system that was dominant in most of the northern part of Luzon.
Most scholars & experts in South East Asian writing systems and the Baybayin practitioners (online) are familiar with the distinction between the two terms: Baybayin vs Alibata.
However, we still see & hear a lot of new Filipino script enthusiasts using the misnomer (improper name) "Alibata" particularly from folks in the Philippines where Alibata is mentioned briefly in Filipino history and language subjects. While, those who are internet savvy are familiar with Paul Morrow's work and quite particularly this entry from his "Ang Baybayin" site about Paul Verzosa's reasoning for the term Alibata:
"In 1921 I returned from the United States to give public lectures on Tagalog philology, calligraphy, and linguistics. I introduced the word alibata, which found its way into newsprints and often mentioned by many authors in their writings. I coined this word in 1914 in the New York Public Library, Manuscript Research Division, basing it on the Maguindanao (Moro) arrangement of letters of the alphabet after the Arabic: alif, ba, ta, “f” having been eliminated for euphony's sake."
To which Paul Morrow added:
"Verzosa's reasoning for creating this word was unfounded because no evidence of the baybayin was ever found in that part of the Philippines and it has absolutely no relationship to the Arabic language. Furthermore, no ancient script native to Southeast Asia followed the Arabic arrangement of letters, and regardless of Verzosa's connection to the word alibata, its absence from all historical records indicates that it is a totally modern creation."
6. Summary of the Lesson About Baybayin
6.1: Memorize the characters.
Learning Baybayin will be easier if you memorize the characters. Characters without commas, cuts are any consonant + the vowel "a." Add commas above of the characters if it's consonant + "e/i" (like "be" and "bi") and add commas below the characters if it's consonant + "o/u" (like "bo" and "bu"). Add a Spanish modified cross or a long line below the characters if it is a lone character (like "b"). The vowels have their own characters, though.
6.2: Stick to the rules.
Preferably the traditional rule where lone consonants are dropped. But if you like your word to be easily read, then you can also stick to the modern rule where the Spanish modified characters are present.
6.3: Slowly introduce yourself.
Try to write them yourself by using your own language, or by translating your language to Filipino first before writing it in Baybayin. Writing them should be pretty easy, but reading them could be a little of a challenge.
6.4: The reforms.
Some letters, syllables, and words does not exist within Baybayin's alphabet. You could try to use the reformed ones, or create your own, depending on the word.
7. Practice, Practice, Practice
It's a new, fun, and joyful writing system you could learn in just hours. With that, I'll leave you with some Filipino words to practice reading out (above) and writing on (below):
- Talon (jump, falls)
- Humawak (to hold)
- Aanihin (to gather)
- Pagmamahal (loving)
- Iniipon (saving)
The practice reading material above is translated into:
This book serves as a more in-depth guide for learning the Baybayin scripture from the Philippines.
The book An Introduction to Baybayin is a helpful resource that you can order from Amazon as well.
You can also use me as a resource. Let help you better understand this subject by commenting on what this article may be lacking (like more examples or more rules). If you have any questions, don't hesitate to ask.
Should you try and write words using Baybayin, you can take a picture of it and email it to me at email@example.com so I can put in here, or write some in the comments section.
Did you know that there's an original Filipino board game? You can read and learn more in here.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Questions & Answers
- Helpful 2
How does one translate JOAN into baybayin?
Depending on the pronunciation of the name, it could be translated into two. As you can see, Baybayin doesn't have any "J" letters in it, but there is a Filipino pronunciation for words with "J". Jack, as an example, the "Ja", more like /zha/, sound is "diya" like the Filipino word "Diyamante" for Diamond but the pronunciation for /zha/ is a bit hardened. "an" could be pronounced as /ahn/ or /wahn/. So, my translation for Joan would be ᜇᜒᜌᜓᜀᜈ᜔ (Di - yo - a - n) or ᜇᜒᜌᜓᜏᜈ᜔ (Di - yo - wa - n), both are written with the Spanish dot, by the way. Writing them traditionally would have to drop ending letter ᜈ᜔ or "n".
© 2019 Darius Razzle Paciente