How to Write the Ancient Script of the Philippines
by Paul Morrow
The baybayin is not hard to write, but reading it is another matter. An early
Spanish writer said that the baybayin "is as easy to write as it is
difficult to read". This will be explained later. First, let's learn how to
One Letter Equals One Syllable
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. So, a good way to check your baybayin spelling is to make sure that the number of letters in a word always equals the number of syllables.
The Baybayin Characters
These are all the letters of the baybayin "alphabet". There are many ways to draw each letter (See Baybayin Styles). This example is my own modern composite of many old forms and the letters are arranged in the old abakada sequence. (See the original sequence in the main article.)
Each consonant letter is one syllable that is pronounced with the a vowel. This means, for example, that the letter is not just a b, it is actually the syllable ba. If we write the word basa (to read), we only need two letters:
Here are a few more examples: (really, important, and able to do)
So, what do we do if we want to write something that doesn't rhyme with a? In other syllabaries, like the Katakana or Hiragana of Japan, this would require learning a whole other set of letters for each vowel sound. However, the baybayin is a cross between a syllabary and an alphabet, or what is known as an abugida. We use the same consonant letters shown in the list above and simply combine them with a special mark, called a kudlít, to change the sound of the vowel a.
The word kudlit means a small cut or incision, which is exactly what it was back in the days when Filipinos wrote on bamboo. Since we now write with pen and paper, or a computer, the kudlit mark can be any shape. Usually it is a dot or tick, or sometimes it is shaped like a v or an arrowhead >. The sound of a letter is not changed in any way by the shape of the kudlit; it is changed by the position of the kudlit.
The kudlit is placed above a letter to signify the sound of
I or E.
As in the words:
And to change the sound of a letter to U or O, the kudlit is placed below. As in the words:
(island, trouble, and opinion)
Here are a few more examples:
(peak, riddle, ask)
The letters d and ng were not special to the ancient Filipinos but they deserve special attention here to avoid confusion.
The Letter for Da and Ra
There is only one character for both d and r in the baybayin, the . The pronunciation of this letter in Tagalog changes depending on its location within a word. It follows the same Filipino grammatical rule that we have today; when a d is between two vowels, it becomes an r. There are many exceptions to this rule today, but it was more consistent in pre-Hispanic times. For example, the word dangal (honour) becomes marangal (honourable) and the word dunong (knowledge) becomes marunong (knowledgeable), but the baybayin letter, does not change.
Other Philippine languages had different ways to write the r sound. Some used the d/ra character while others used the la character or both. See the main article for more information.
The Letter for Nga
The ng is considered a single letter in the modern Filipino alphabet but it requires two characters to write it, n and g. In the baybayin the ng really is a single character, , and it must be written that way. For example, if the word hanga (admiration) were spelled with n and g, it would be pronounced ha-na-ga. It should be written like this:
The only punctuation for the baybayin is a pair of vertical bars, || or a single vertical bar, | depending on the writer's taste. The vertical bar is used like a comma and a full stop (period). In fact, it can be used like any punctuation mark we have today. The ancient Filipinos usually wrote their words with no spaces between them but sometimes they would separate a single word between a set of bars. However, most of the time the bars were used in a random manner, dividing the sentences into word groups of various sizes.
To solve the problem of writing final consonants, a Spanish Friar named Francisco
Lopez invented a new kind of kudlit in 1620. It was
shaped like a cross (which should be no surprise) and it was meant to be placed below a baybayin
consonant letter in order to cancel its vowel sound. For example:
(mountain, peak, riddle, ask)
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. (See
the main article for more about the Spanish
Here's a verse from a modern song. On the left, the Spanish kudlit is used and the words have been separated to make it easier to read. The pre-Hispanic Filipino method of writing is on the right.
Filipinos in the pre-Hispanic era mainly used the baybayin for writing poetry and short messages to each other. It was never adapted for commerce or scientific data, so numerals were never developed. Numbers were spelled out the same as words. There is a document with numbers on the page entitled Baybayin Handwriting of the 1600s.
Writing non-Filipino words in the baybayin script can be difficult. Many sounds do not have letters in the baybayin and clusters of consonants, especially in English, cannot be written without modifing either the baybayin script or the English words. Strategies for writing non-Filipino words are discussed on the page entitled, How do I write my name in baybayin?
You can test your baybayin skills with Victor Quimson's online baybayin translator at Ating Baybayin. Just type any word you wish and it will show you how it is written in the baybayin script and provide tips for adapting it to non-Filipino words.