Who’s afraid of Baybayin? Experts weigh in on the pre-colonial Filipino writing system

A debate on whether Baybayin, an ancient, pre-colonial Filipino writing system, should be used by Filipinos in their daily lives has sparked once again after it was used in the signages of the newly rehabilitated Lagusnilad underpass.

(Photo from DTCAM)

Tourism Operations Officer Angel Carlo Salonga of the Department of Tourism, Culture, and Arts of Manila (DTCAM) said they included Baybayin transliterations in the underpass to boost public awareness.  

“Isa ito sa pagkakakilanlan natin bilang Pilipino and we, as the nation’s capital, dapat tayo ‘yung manguna sa pagpapahalaga kung ano ‘yung kultura, ‘yung identity natin bilang Pilipino (This is one of our identities as Filipinos, and we, as the nation’s capital, must be the first to value our culture and identity as Filipinos),” he recently said in a live broadcast.

Raven Angel Rivota, an alumna of the Far Eastern University (FEU); Edrian Garcia, and John Leyson from Baybayin Buhayin–a decade-old Baybayin advocacy group–were tapped to do the transliterations.

However, the project garnered mixed reactions from the public on social media.

On function and aesthetic

Mark De Chavez, a professor at the Department of Linguistics of the University of the Philippines-Diliman, praised the city government’s initiative to showcase the ancient script as one of the designs in the rehabilitated tunnel but is still inaccessible as not everyone understands it.

“Based on the pictures I’ve seen online, there were some signs that point to places and many of them occur with English words so they seem to me like a sort of ‘secret language’ that only Filipinos who know Baybayin would understand,” he said in an interview with Manila Bulletin.

“They were not written in the standard orthography of Filipino. So, in that end, Filipino, the national language, was not featured in these signages, only English and Baybayin,” he added.

The ancient script, that is composed of a set of 17 characters that each represent a single consonant, vowel, or whole syllable, was widely used in the Philippines before the Spanish colonial period.

But in 1688, Baybayin transliterations were removed from official Doctrina Christiana publications–one of the earliest printed books in the country–and was eventually forgotten until historians made efforts to restore it.

Salonga admitted that aesthetics was a factor in including the Baybayin transliterations but stressed that its primary purpose was to raise awareness for the writing system.

Evolving language

Citing Baybayin’s “golden rule,” “Kung anong bigkas, ay siyang baybay (It is written the same way that it is pronounced),” some said that there seem to be errors in the Baybayin transliterations on the Lagusnilad underpass signages, particularly the words “LRT” and “SM.”

Jose Jaime Enage, Baybayin Buhayin chairman and co-founder, explained that they are now using a dinaglat or abbreviate system that uses a “vowel killer” to make the transliterations more understandable, compared to the “as pronounced” approach and the “ancient approach” that uses the characters as is.

“Marapat na isa-isip ng lahat ng mga Pilipino na ang paggamit ng Baybayin ay depende sa konteksto. Hindi sa lahat ng pagkakataon panuntunan na ‘Kung anong bigkas ay siyang baybay’ ay ating gagamitin (Every Filipino should bear in mind that the use of Baybayin depends on the context. The rule that ‘It is written the same way that it is pronounced’ is not used all the time),” he said in a statement.

Leyson, Baybayin Buhayin’s brand design specialist and the one who created the Baybayin font that was used on the signages in the underpass, said the writing system must evolve to fit the current needs of the people, like all languages do, if it is to be revived.

“One of the key factors in reviving a dead language is the daring step to create and invent new words while building upon the native language (to make it relevant and practical to present-day applications),” he said in an online exchange with city government officials.

“If we study world writing history, any language that survived to this day have evolved and ‘mutated’ to new, more efficient, and more relevant forms,” he added.

Which language comes first?

Some critics say Baybayin is “Tagalog-centric” and may lead to the alienation of the country’s many other regional languages.

Enage argued that since the Philippines’ national spoken language is Filipino, which is Tagalog-based, it would only make sense for its written counterpart to also be based on Tagalog. This does not mean that other regional and foreign languages will be neglected, he added.

“We have our national symbol, but it doesn’t mean that you’re taking for granted the regional symbols,” he told Manila Bulletin. “You promote your regional script in your own region, but now there is a call for a national one.”

De Chavez also opposed these claims, saying Baybayin is an unfamiliar language to both Tagalog and non-Tagalog speakers.

“As something that has existed many generations ago that has not been a part of our everyday lives for a very long time, can we truly say that Baybayin belong to Tagalog-speaking communities today?” he said. “It is alien to all modern Filipinos for whom Baybayin is not a part of the current written form of their mother tongue.”

Furthermore, the burden of raising awareness about other languages should not be left to an underpass, but to schools and museums, the linguist said.

“We simply cannot entrust education to an underpass. It has its limitations in space for design. We should find and strengthen efficient ways of educating not only Filipinos but also foreigners about the linguistic diversity of the Philippines,” he said.

Enage said the public must get over their “regional” and “colonial” mentality and unite for the implementation of a national writing system.

“Sobrang biased mo naman (laban) sa pangsarili mo (You are being so biased against your own language),” the Baybayin advocate angrily said. “Galit tayo sa Filipino at sa Baybayin, pero sa English at sa alphabet, hindi. Napaka-unfair (We are angry at Filipino and Baybayin, but not at English and the alphabet. That’s very unfair).”

“Kaya ka galit kasi ‘di mo siya alam, ayaw mo siya aralin, ayaw mo siya intindihin, ayaw mo siya tingnan na ‘yan ang writing system natin bago ang colonization (You are angry because you do not understand it, you do not want to study it, you do not want to see it as our writing system before we were colonized),” he added.

With the renewed conversations surrounding Baybayin, De Chavez expressed hopes that it would lead to more urgent and concrete plans to promote and preserve endangered languages in the Philippines.

According to Ethnologue, an online resource for the world’s languages, there are 26 threatened, four shifting, five endangered, four nearly extinct, two dormant, and two extinct languages in the Philippines.

“Personally, keeping the endangered languages of the Philippines alive should be the priority when it comes to language issues. The Baybayin is not going anywhere.  We can decide when we revive it. However, (spoken) languages are different, when they perish, there is no way of getting them back,” he said.

“Time is crucial. Ensuring that they have their own means of representation (both in the written sense and in the knowledge sense) is such an important step to saving them from ultimate death.”