Back to Our Roots: Different Pre-Hispanic Writing Systems in the Philippines
Aug 3, 2022   •   Meryl Medel
8List.ph is published by ID8, Inc.
Aug 3, 2022   •   Meryl Medel
A couple of months ago, the University of the Philippines Diliman painted its biking and running lanes along the Academic Oval with text in the Baybayin script. This once again reignited the debate on the establishment of a national writing system of the Philippines. There have been various efforts to reintroduce the writing script in modern times. However, Baybayin is not the only writing system in the Philippines. With how diverse the archipelago and its people are, the country is rich in scripts and writing systems, which are collectively known as “Suyat.”
Origin: The script was widely used in Luzon and some other parts of the country.
Script structure: It has 14 consonants, each followed by the inherent vowel “a”, while the three vowels can be interchanged with the use of a kudlit (or a diacritic) placed above (for “e” or “i” sound) or below (for “o” or “u” sound).
Writing direction: Depending on the variant of Baybayin, the writing direction can change, but the most common is from left to right.
Writing material: The script was found on slabs of stone, as well as books like the Doctrina Christiana. Historians infer that the script was also written on perishable materials like leaves or bamboo, hence the lack of more surviving materials pre-Hispanic era.
Notable example: A more modern example of the use of the script is in the University of the Philippines’ sablay.
Today’s use: Though it has fallen into disuse, there have been many efforts to revive the Baybayin script from classes teaching the script to attempts to officially officiate it as the national writing system.
People using this script: The Hanunó’o-Mangyan and the Buhid-Mangyan both use the “Surat Mangyan” script.
Script structure: The Surat Mangyan has 18 basic syllables. It has 15 consonants, which is then followed by a vowel “a”. For the Hanunó’o, the three vowels (a, i, u) are interchanged with the use of a kudlit (or a diacritic) at the top or the right of the vowel symbol.
Writing direction: The Buhid-Mangyan writes their script from left to right. Meanwhile, the Hanunó’o-Mangyan writes vertically from bottom to top, then from left to right. If the person is left-handed, the written text may be done in reverse. The text, however, can be read either vertically or horizontally.
Writing material: The Hanunó’o-Mangyan and the Buhid-Mangyan usually engrave these scripts on bamboo using a small pocket knife. The script has also been found on other wooden objects, such as musical instruments and tobacco containers.
Notable example: The script is often used in the Hanunó’o’s Ambahan poetry, which contains a Mangyan’s thoughts or feelings and is often recited for various purposes, like teaching, courting, or hosting a visitor.
Today’s use: As the Mangyan live mostly in isolation from the modern world, they continue to use the script in their day-to-day lives in Mindoro.
Origin: Central and Northern Palawan
People using this script: The Tagbanua (or Tagbanwa) and Pala’wan groups share the “Surat” script, which literally means “writing”.
Script structure: It has 13 consonants followed by the inherent vowel “a.” The vowel symbol is then changed into “i” or “u” with the addition of a kudlit either above or below the symbol.
Writing direction: It is traditionally written vertically from bottom to top and from left to right. However, it is read from left to right horizontally.
Writing material: The script is usually written vertically on bamboo and wooden slabs.
Notable example: Aside from using the script for signing documents and sending messages to and fro family and friends, the script is also used in the rituals called “lambay it init bau uran” (used to call the sun and rain for the good of the harvest) and “pagbuyis” (used to pray for protection from illnesses). During the ritual, the script is engraved on a bamboo pole erected next to the ceremonial platform.
Today’s use: The use of this script has fallen sideways among the younger generations of the Tagbanua and Pala’wan groups, so it is mostly preserved as a cultural heritage.
People using this script: Kapampangan
Script structure: The script has eleven consonants, with an inherent vowel “a” attached. The 3 basic vowel letters are “a”, “i”, and “u”, and two diacritical marks are placed above or below to represent “i” and “u” depending on context.
Writing direction: In homage to the sun’s movement, Kulitan is written from top to bottom and from right to left. It is also read in the same orientation as it is written.
Notable example: Steeped in mythology and mysticism, Kulitan is said to be often used by spiritual healers to create talismans or to communicate with spirits of the dead.
Today’s use: Only a few Kapampangans continue to use the script, but efforts are being done to see a resurgence of the script, including classes.
CNN Philippines. “Ancient Filipino writing systems that aren’t Baybayin.” 2018.
Rappler.com. “Learning Baybayin: Reconnecting with our Filipino roots”. 2018.
Anshuman Pandey. “Towards an encoding for Kulitan in Unicode”. 2016.
Sushi Dog Graphics. Ancient Philippine Scripts Series.
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