Baybayin writing with style
by Paul Morrow
A chart from the 1890 book Los itas, by Pedro Paterno. It is probably the most copied source for examples of supposedly regional Philippine alphabets. The heading Alfabeto de… implies that each example is a distinct alphabet belonging to a certain region or people. This misunderstanding is made worse by comparing the baybayin samples to scripts from nearby islands and other totally unrelated alphabets such as Hebrew and Arabic.
This is the typeface that Fr. Francisco Lopez used to publish an Ilokano catechism in 1621. It was also used in earlier Tagalog books.
Filipinos today write their languages with the same letters that are used throughout the Western world and in many of the West’s other former colonies, which is known as the Roman or Latin alphabet. It was the Spaniards who introduced the alphabet to the various languages of the Philippines when they began their occupation of the islands in the 16th century. However, some pre-colonial Filipinos were already writing with their own script, known in Tagalog as baybayin, which was almost totally forgotten.
Interest in the baybayin has been growing in recent years but most Filipinos are still not familiar with it. Any attention given to it in schools is generally superficial and often inaccurate. A common feature of many write-ups about the script is a chart showing various styles of baybayin writing, such as the tables accompanying this article, which are often misunderstood due to a lack of necessary explanation. The main misapprehension is the idea that each province or language group in the Philippines had its own distinct alphabet or writing system, but this was not the case. The baybayin writing system was the same wherever it was used but, of course, everybody had his or her own style of writing – just as we have today with our alphabet.
Unfortunately, some confusion arose in the centuries after most Filipinos stopped using their indigenous script in favour of the Western alphabet. It was almost completely forgotten by the 1800s when some historians began to gather the few surviving examples of original baybayin writing. They naturally made careful notes about where they found each sample of writing and for which language it was used to write. Then, they often made charts that showed all the forms of all the letters from the specimens that they had collected. Most historians understood that they were dealing with the normal variations of handwriting or printing types that normally occur within a single alphabet. However, later historians and textbook writers, who based their articles solely on these charts, misunderstood the meaning of the descriptions given to each baybayin style. They assumed that a style of baybayin writing that was labelled Bikol, for example, was the distinct alphabet of the Bikolano language when, really, it was most likely just the handwriting of a single individual who happened to be from the Bikol region.
When the printing press was introduced to the Philippines in the late 1500s, various baybayin typefaces were created as each printer naturally had to base his font on the baybayin style or styles that he was familiar with. In cases where a letter may have had more than one popular shape, the printer had to choose which would become the standard letter shape.
In later centuries these typefaces would become associated with the books in which they were used. A typeface used for a Visayan book or an Ilokano book is now often assumed to be the distinct alphabet that belongs to that particular language when, in reality, it was just the font that the author happened to choose for his book. Imagine if people 500 years from now had only a few samples of our writing and believed that letters like a f g and Q were English while letters like a f g and Q – were French. We know that they are not strictly English or French – they’re just different forms of the same letters from the same alphabet.
The clearest example of this misunderstanding is the baybayin typeface that some people call the “Ilokano baybayin.” It was the typeface that Father Francisco Lopez chose in 1621 for his Ilokano catechism and for his Ilokano grammar in 1627, but it actually appeared in two earlier Tagalog books by other authors – a grammar in 1610 and a dictionary in 1613. Lopez himself called it the “Tagalog script” even though he used it to write in Ilokano. In the 1621 catechism he wrote,
“The reason for putting the text of the Doctrina in Tagalog type… was to begin the correction of the said Tagalog script.”
One of the “corrections” that Lopez made for baybayin writing was to invent a + shaped mark that allowed consonants to be written alone without their inherent vowel sounds. And even though Lopez was a Spaniard, at least one modern day writer, Dr. Carl Rubino, assumed that this was also an “Ilokano innovation,” as he called it in his 1998 Ilokano-English dictionary.
We know that there was only one baybayin “alphabet” because none of the early Spanish historians – who wrote at the time when Filipinos were still using the script – ever suggested that there was more than one script. Even when they wrote about other languages such as Ilokano or Bisaya, they still called the indigenous script “Tagalog writing” or the writing “proper to Manila” because this is where the Spaniards first witnessed Filipinos writing.
The Spaniards did not see Filipinos writing in the Visayas during the first few decades of their occupation in the early and mid 1500s. Later, when they arrived in the Manila area, they found that the Tagalogs could write and, when asked, the local inhabitants told them that their alphabet had come from Borneo.
By the arrival of the 1600s the baybayin had spread to other areas like the Visayas where the local people called it “Moro writing” because, as far as they knew, the baybayin came from Muslim traders through the port of Manila.
The letter shapes of the pre-colonial baybayin were not strictly prescribed, so the handwriting styles varied greatly from one person to the next just as much as they varied from region to region. In 1938, Alberto Santamaría, published an exhaustive study of baybayin specimens kept in the archives of the University of Santo Tomas. He wrote:
“It has been most interesting, for, despite having been written by Tagalogs, we found greater variations among them, in general, than among the different alphabets represented as coming from different regions.”
So, the baybayin was much like our English alphabet is today. That is to say, even though people today have their own distinctive handwriting styles and our computers have hundreds of different fonts, we are all using the same alphabet, which is also used for many other languages.