Some background on Baybayin, a pre-Hispanic Filipino Script

Update: a more recent, more detailed, and better-informed version of this project is available here.

A page from the Doctrina Christiana, with Baybayin (Tagalog) on top and Latin (Spanish) below.

In this post I focus on Baybayin, a writing system native to the Philippines. Baybayin is a Brahmic script used to write Tagalog through to the period of Spanish colonization.1 There are few academic studies of Baybayin.2 What we know about this script mostly comes from Spanish missionaries who learned, documented, and translated Baybayin texts in the 16th century. The earliest known book published in Tagalog is the Doctrina Cristiana from 1593, which includes both Latin and Baybayin transcriptions as well as a translation into Spanish. At this time, literacy in the Philippines was fairly widespread, though it seems literature remained primarily oral. The Boxer Codex of 1590 reported that native inhabitants “have neither books nor histories nor do they write anything of length but only letters and reminders to one another.”3 This claim may have been used to cover up mass destruction by Spanish priests of Baybayin writings. In 1921, Otley Beyer, an American scholar of the Philippines, wrote:

The fanatic zeal of the Spaniards for the Christian faith and corresponding hatred for all other forms of belief led them to regard the native writings and art as works of the Devil — to be destroyed wherever found. … It cannot be said that such writings did not exist, since the early Filipinos were even more literate than the Mexicans; they used syllabaries of Indian origin. One Spanish priest in southern Luzon boasted of having destroyed more than three hundred scrolls written in the native character.4

A page from the Boxer Codex.

Throughout the 1600s Spanish clergy continued to use Baybayin for their missionary work. Yet by 1745 a Spanish colonist could claim that “Rare is the indio who still knows how to read [the baybayin letters], much less write them. All of them read and write our Castilian letters now.”5 The reasons for the death of Baybayin are likely complex and tied to Spanish colonization. Yet Morrow argues that “mere practicality was the main reason that the baybayin went out of style.” Santos contends that “the inability of the ancient script to record the new sounds introduced by the Spaniards, the rapid acquisition of literacy in the Latin script with its concomitant social and material benefits, and the disruption of traditional family activities were the main culprits for the loss of the Tagalog script. Any burning of documents that may have transpired had very little to do with it.”6 In our terms, it seems that the “diminished functions of script” that Houston (2008: 231) identifies are what sounded the death knell for Baybayin. At the same time, the indigenous Tagalog script lost prestige with the rise of Spanish colonists. The decline in these factors, I think, adequately accounts for the death of Baybayin.

Recent Filipino passports include Baybayin. Source.
Proverbs 14:34 in Tagalog/Baybayin, as transcribed from the image above.


Today, there is a great deal of interest in the revitalization of Baybayin, including many online resources. Indeed, in some ways Baybayin has been reclaimed as a symbol of Filipino national identity. Philippine passports include Proverbs 14:34 in Tagalog, in both Latin (“ang katuwiran ay nagpapadakila sa isang bansa”) and Baybayin (see images above). The new series of banknotes includes the word “Pilipino” in bottom right in Baybayin (see image below). Furthermore, several bills have been filed in Congress to mandate the teaching of Baybayin and promote the script’s use in other ways; there has been significant pushback, though, with some calling out the bills as promoting a nationalist agenda. This move towards Baybayin is particularly connected to Tagalog regionalism, as noted by Christopher Porter.7

The recent series of banknotes includes the word “Pilipino” in Baybayin (bottom-right).

Arte de la Lengua Yloca

The explicit association of Baybayin with Tagalog is misguided, however. First of all, a language (or cultural group) is not equivalent with a writing system; the Latin script is used for many diverse languages, as is the Arabic script, the Cyrillic, and so on.8 Baybayin was used for writing other languages than Tagalog. A good example of this can be gleaned from the Arte de la Lengua Yloca, a study of the Ilocano language by an Augustinian friar named Francisco López. The codex was originally published in Manila in 1629 and copied sometime in the 18th century, which is the version bought by Dr Nicolás León. I have not found this codex published elsewhere; I was fortunate enough to have access to this manuscript courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library.9 Most of the book is written in Spanish (in the Latin script), but there is an example of Baybayin used to write Ilocano on leaf 8 recto. Little elaboration is needed to indicate why using Baybayin for nationalistic purposes, especially when tied to a particular sub-national group like the Tagalog, is narrow-minded and misguided.

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I will end here because this post is getting long enough, but I think there’s a few interesting questions that this case can give us fodder to discuss. When and why do we mobilize to “save” endangered scripts? When and in what ways is it right to do so? Who should be involved in revitalization efforts?


  1. For more on the origins of Baybayin see Christopher Miller, “A Gujarati Origin for Scripts of Sumatra, Sulawesi and the Philippines,” Annual Meeting of the Berkeley Linguistics Society 36, no. 1 (August 24, 2010): 276–91.
  2. Important sources other than those referenced below include Maya F. Watters and Paul A. Watters, “The Internet and Indigenous Language Use: A Filipino Case Study,” South Pacific Journal of Psychology 10, no. 01 (1999): 54–60; Norman de los Santos, “Philippine Indigenous Writing Systems in the Modern World,” accessed March 15, 2018; Bayani Mendoza de Leon, Baybayin, the Ancient Script of the Philippines: A Concise Manual (Paramus, NJ: Bycynthium Treasures, 1992); Damon L. Woods, “Baybayin Revisited,” Philippiniana Sacra 47, no. 139 (January 1, 2012): 67–102; Damon L. Woods, “Tomas Pinpin and the Literate Indio: Tagalog Writing in the Early Spanish Philippines,” UCLA Historical Journal 12, no. 0 (January 1, 1992).
  3. Quoted in Joel Pabustan Mallari, “Documenting Philippine Pre-Hispanic Scripts: The Case of the Kapamangan Baybayin,” Alaya: Kapampangan Research Journal, December 1, 2006, 107.
  4. H. Otley Beyer, “Asia and the Americas,” Asia: The American Magazine on the Orient 21, no. 10 (October 1921): 861; quoted in Bonifacio Comandante, “The Life, Death, and Resurgence of Baybayin,”, August 11, 2017.
  5. Quoted in Paul Morrow, “Baybayin, The Ancient Script of the Philippines,” 2002.
  6. Hector Santos, “Extinction of a Philippine Script,” A Philippine Leaf, October 26, 1996.
  7. Christopher James Porter, “Language, Tagalog Regionalism, and Filipino Nationalism: How a Language-Centered Tagalog Regionalism Helped to Develop a Philippine Nationalism” (University of California, Riverside, 2017).
  8. That being said, some scripts have stronger associations with a particular language and/or identity — Greek, Armenian, and Georgian immediately spring to mind.
  9. The catalog record is available here.

Let me know what you think!