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I remember back in high school when our Philippine History teacher introduced Baybayin – one of the many indigenous scripts of pre-colonial Philipines. “Baybayin” is actually a Tagalog word which literally means “to spell”. Filipino, or some refer to it as “Tagalog”, is the national language of the Philippines and is the most widely spoken tongue today. At present, everything here is written in a Roman alphabet, but prior to Spanish colonial rule in the 16th century, Tagalog speakers used this syllabic alphabet to document their language. Baybayin, which is believed to be under the Brahmic system of writing, is actually mistakenly known by some as the completely different “Alibata” which is Arabic in origin.

The world’s largest peace mural features the Baybayin translation (in yellow) of the Philippine National Anthem “Lupang Hinirang” (Chosen Land). In this photo is the first line of the anthem, which translates to: “Beloved Motherland, Pearl of the East”. The mural painting is on the walls surrounding Camp General Emilio Aguinaldo in Quezon City, Metro Manila (photo: Tropical Experience).

Most of us youngsters back then felt it was rather irrelevant because it is no longer used in present days. But nevertheless, our teacher saw its cultural importance and went on to impart this knowledge to us – considering that it was not even included in our curriculum.  He patiently coached us, had some reading and writing exercises and tried to make it interesting for us.   I found it fun and intriguing (in a patriotic way) to learn reading and writing words and sentences that (almost) no one would be able to instantly decipher. It feels great to experience the knowledge of something of my very own, how my ancestors used to carve or ink their songs and tales in stones and wood.

My favourite bookmark, a gift from my husband: Poetry carefully engraved into thin bamboo strip. This composition is a seven syllable Ambhan poetry written in the local dialect of the Hanuoo-Mangyan tribe of Mindoro Island, Central Philippines. This rendition is also a syllabic writing similar to Baybayin which is also derived from ancient Brahmic script. Photo: Tropical Experience.

The development of scripts in the Philippines remains somewhat of a mystery due to massive destruction of native literature by Spanish authorities as well as poor preservation of the plant-based writing material in the tropics.

The Laguna Copperplate Inscription, the earliest known written document found in the Philippines, was made in 900 CE. It is inscribed with small writing hammered into its surfaces. It shows heavy Indian cultural influence (by way of Srivijaya) present in the Philippines prior to European colonization in the 16th centry. Photo: malacanang.gov.ph.

It is thought that scripts in the Philippines derived from the Kawi script of Java around the 14th century CE. Ultimately, scripts in Philippines derive from Indian scripts where every Tagalog letter inherently carries the vowel /a/. Furthermore, in order to represent a different vowel, diacritical marks called “kudlit” are added to the basic letter. In the case of Tagalog, a dot above the letter represents either /e/ or /i/, whereas a dot below represents /o/ or /u/.

Ancient Filipino script on the window panes, with the view of Manila City Hall right behind. This is at the Baybayin permanent exhibition at the Museum of the Filipino People in the National Museum of the Philippines in Manila.

Originally, the Baybayin did not represent consonants occuring at the end of the syllable, even though the syllabic structure of Tagalog does allow an ending consonant. During the 17th century CE, in order to more fully represent Spanish loanwords, especially those used to translate the Bible, the Spanish priest Father Francisco López introduced a new kudlit in the form of the plus sign or cross (+) which if placed under a letter that removes the vowel.

Here are two Italian kids (9 and 8-year-old) enthusiastically learning and practicing Baybayin with me.

The boy proudly showing off his notes!

The Tagalog script was largely abandoned by the 17th century CE and was replaced by the Spanish (Roman) alphabet. Modern Tagalog writing employs the Roman letters A, B, K, D, E, G, H, I, L, M, NG, O, P, R, S, T, U, W, and Y.

We gave out customised name bookmarks to our visitors, made on-the-spot during the Tropical Experience Travel Services‘ “All the Colours of the Philippines” photo exhibit tour in different towns and cities in Italy.

Sadly, Baybayin is a lost script but is now making a comeback.It is actually currently getting some renewed attention, along with the patriotism and “pinoy pride” fad. Modernism has met the ancient Baybayin as there are even Android apps with Baybayin tutorials, translators or even keyboards that allows you to type in Baybayin. How cool is that?

The Baybayin script featured in the local currency bills, the Philippine  peso.

The bills spell “Pilipino” (Tagalog word for Filipino) on their lower right corner.

Recent trends in local tattoo arts have welcomed the Baybayin as well. Filipinos came from a ancient tribes which practiced the art of tattooing. It’s no wonder why tribal styles with Baybayin inscriptions are so popular in modern day Pinoy tattoo designs.

Here’s my cousin Patrick with his Baybayin tattoo on this back. It reads “Bulakenyo”, meaning a person raised or coming from the province of Bulakan in Central Luzon Region, North of Metropolitan Manila.

Tribal designs on Patrick’s calf with Baybayin inscriptions reading “hilaga” (north), “silangan” (east), “timog” (south) and “kanluran” (west). 

Want to learn how? I have presented below a Baybayan table that may serve as your guide to follow. Remember, Baybayin is a syllabary, meaning, unlike the commonly used scripts today like the Roman Alphabet, each letter is a complete syllable.

Baybayin Table: a quick guide of the basic rules of Baybayin. A very convenient chart to follow for writing or reading the ancient script. Photo: indohistorian.tumblrs.com.

Try writing your name syllable per syllable. Let’s say, “Manuela”:

Following the table, syllabicating Ma-nu-e-la should produce 4 Baybayin characters.

Now let’s write the word “Baybayin” in Baybayin:

Ba-y-ba-yi-n with 5 characters.

Once you get the hang of it, it’s actually easy and gratifyingly amusing! It’s quite simple, and with ample practice, it will become natural in no time!

(written on June 2016)