Learning Baybayin: A Writing System from the Philippines
Baybayin is one of the Philippine's ancient scriptures and forms of writing. The character-based alphabet was used in pre-colonial times. Read on to learn more about this beautiful ancient language!
- What is Baybayin?
- Enabling it in your GBoard
- Writing and Reading Baybayin
- The Filipino Language
1. What is Baybayin?
The word baybayin literally translates to "to spell", "to write", or "to go to the shore/coast" in verb form and to "coast," "seaside," and "alphabet" in noun form. It is one of the Philippine's archaic, 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.
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.
2. How Do I Enable Baybayin for my GBoard?
Unfortunately, Baybayin characters look like tiny boxes on the web. For that reason, it's best 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.
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 Filipino characters:
- Look for your keyboard settings.
- Click on "Languages".
- Click "Add Keyboard".
- Look for "Filipino (Baybayin)".
- Customize it if you want to.
- 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.
3. How Do You 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
First, you need to do a little research on how Filipinos compose words. 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 translation below (also seen above in the quoted box made up of boxes) 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, 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.
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 it and read it as-is.
Every letter and sound has to have the proper emphasis when you're speaking it. Let's say the English word "city", for example. 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 the word to Filipino with the help of Google Translate or a your-language-to-Filipino Book.
- Use the above rule to sound out the spelling and translate the word to Baybayin characters.
In this case, we're going to use the rule above because it serves as a fundamental in writing Baybayin characters.
First, say the word "city" with your mouth:
- 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". That simplification makes it easier to write it in Baybayin.
City - "siti" - ᜐᜒᜆᜒ - se/si + te/ti
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.
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.
The kudlit of per letter or that small cut or incision above or below the characters are 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 or commas.
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 English word long can actually be translated to Baybayin and it will look like this:
But didn't you say that one syllable is equal to one character? Yes, and there's a really good explanation of why there are two characters for words like long, but we also must discuss words with lone or repetitive consonants.
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 in order to cancel its vowel sound, leaving it as a single consonant letter.
Remember the English word long from above? This rule covers that word.
ᜋ - ma
ᜀ - a
ᜇ - de/re/di/ri
Maaari - ᜋᜀᜀᜇᜒ
If you're on a computer, it's possible 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/ro/ru
ᜃ᜔ - k
Bundok - ᜊᜓᜇᜓ (written traditionally)
Bundok - ᜊᜓᜈ᜔ᜇᜓᜃ᜔ (written with the Spanish dot)
Did you know that the correct Filipino word for "City" is "Lungsod", or ᜎᜓᜐᜓ, which is synonymous to the Filipino word "Siyudad", or ᜐᜒᜌᜓᜇ, which is from the Spanish word "Ciudad"? Both are written in Baybayin traditionally.
As you can see, D/R only has one character. This follows a Filipino grammatical rule that when there is a letter between two vowels, it becomes another letter, but it is only exclusive for a few letters such as d and r. 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.
Like the word mangdaraya:
- from the root word daya or cheat,
- mang is added as a prefix making it an adjective or adverb,
- the da from mangda is another Filipino rule where the first syllable of an infinitive, contemplative verb is repeated,
- from mangdadaya to mangdaraya (correct word), a rule where the first syllable or the first word changes. Use ‘d’ words or syllables when the sound of the word preceding it is consonantal. Use ‘r’ words or syllables when the final sound of the word or syllable preceding it is vowel (a, e, i, o, u), a semivowel (w, y), or ‘d’ (to avoid the duplication of the ‘d’ sound).
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. And 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.
Filipinos never accepted this way of writing because it was too cumbersome 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.
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.
5. Summary of the Lesson
Here's a helpful guide to summarize the whole lesson.
5. Filipino: a Brief, Brief History
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.
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.
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.
Filipino, defined by the Commission on the Filipino Language, the official regulating body of the Filipino Language and the official government institution tasked with developing, preserving, and promoting the various local Philippine Languages, is defined as the national language of the Philippines. Filipino is also designated, along with English, 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.
Today, the Philippines includes three major islands (the Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao) and has over 180 languages with eight major dialects within the country.
6. 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 on:
- Talon (jump, falls)
- Humawak (to hold)
- Aanihin (to gather)
- Pagmamahal (loving)
- Iniipon (saving)
If you have any questions about the topic or words that you want to translate to Baybayin, freely drop by the comment section!
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.
Please use me as a resource! Let me help you better understand this subject by commenting on what this article may be lacking (like more examples or more rules). Thank you for reading!
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.
© 2019 Darius Razzle Paciente