By Ellen Faye Ann Yabut and Gianela Zapata

Symbols are nothing without the ones who give them meaning. What better way to embody the diverse culture and resplendent history of our country than acquainting ourselves with one of our most ancient writing systemsBaybayin. 

Baybayin is a 17-character indigenous script believed to be a crucial part of Philippine identity. In Tagalog, “Baybayin” literally translates “to spell, write, and syllabize." Although it is only one of the numerous dialects that our ancestors spoke, it is still one of today’s most popular. 

There are few remains of its usage, but thanks to historical accounts, there is still much to unfold beneath the ancient script. If you think you already know Baybayin, here are four facts you may not know about the indigenous script: 

1.  Baybayin from Giant Clams?

Writing systems stemming from the Indian-influenced cultures of Indonesia and Malaysia arrived on the islands somewhere in the 13th century, resulting in the emergence of native writing systems such as baybayin, which is predominantly used by the inhabitants of Luzon and the Visayas. 

However, after spending some time with a Tagbanua native from Palawan, Mr. Bonifacio Comandante, Jr. postulated a theory that the curvilinear forms of the Baybayin alphabet were derived from giant clams. In his 2009 PhD dissertation entitled "The Role of Giant Clams in the Development of the Ancient Baybayin Script", he stated that the Baybayin characters are based on the formations or shapes seen on huge clams by our Filipino forefathers.

Photo Courtesy via Esquire Philippines

Our ancestors, said Comandante, used the giant clam as a food source, a tool, a container, a utensil, a supply of lime for their betel chew, a body ornament, and a burial instrument. He further explained that each Baybayin syllabary is a word in and of itself, and may have originated from our forefathers' giant clam-related ceremony or ritual. The physical shapes and forms of and on the clam may have influenced the symbols themselves.

Conclusively, this idea represents a crucial and intriguing breakthrough in Baybayin's historical study, as it has the potential to contradict prior beliefs about the syllabary's beginnings.

2.  Baybayin was not lost during Spanish colonization

It is a common misconception that Baybayin had either been lost or eradicated during the Spanish colonization. However, remains such as documents, signatures, and other writings have shown that the script was still utilized during these times. 

The first book printed in the Philippines, “Doctrina Christiana,” published by the Dominicans in 1593, was in baybayin, as well as in Spanish and Tagalog Roman. Spanish friars also further studied the script for the natives to understand their religious teachings. 

However, the most interesting use of the script is found in the notations on Spanish documents. These included brief notes about the purpose or content of the given legal paper. Most are found on the backside of the documents while some are on the margins and bottom. On the first page of a three-page document, entirely in Spanish, there is the following five-line notation in baybayin: 

Apatna pouo dipa ang haba siyam na pouo

The common denominator found in the various notations is the mention of ‘lupa’ and ‘lupain.’ This is because the documents usually dealt with the buying and selling of land. One example would be the single lines of text such as the ones below which reads: Lupa ni Don Agustin Vica and Lupa ni Luis de Torres sa Cabayanan.

Lupa ni Don Augustin Vica

Lupa ni Luis//de Torres sa Cabayanan

Furthermore, 17th-century baybayin documents from the University of Santo Tomas (UST) Archives were declared a National Cultural Treasure by the National Archives of the Philippines. The two records are the oldest of their kind, showing insights into the use and prevalence of baybayin by various individuals living in Manila in the early 17th century and the legal affairs of early Spanish colonization.

1635 deed of sale with discoloration from heavy water damage

According to director of the UST Archives, Regalado Jose, the deeds also shed light on the role of women as landowners and entrepreneurs in ancient Philippine society, as they had the same power and right as men to own and sell land. 

3.  The Reintroduction of Baybayin in the Modern PH

Still, the script was never truly abandoned in certain regions of the Philippines, rather, it evolved into its own distinct styles. The Tagbanuwa people of Palawan still remember their script, but they don't use it very often. The Buhid and, in particular, the Hanunóo of Mindoro, continue to utilize their scripts for communication and poetry, much as the ancient Filipinos did 500 years ago.

Despite being primarily a historic script, Baybayin has seen some revival in the modern Philippines. Today, there is a great deal of interest in revitalizing Baybayin; certainly, the script has been reclaimed as a symbol of Filipino national identity in certain respects.

It is often used in official insignia, and works of literature are regularly published either partially or entirely in Baybayin. Passports issued by the government also include Proverbs 14:34 in Tagalog, in both Latin (“ang katuwiran ay nagpapadakila sa isang bansa”) and Baybayin.

Zoom-in on the Baybayin displayed in the Philippine passport (2016 edition). Photo Courtesy via Wikipedia (25 April 2020)

Additionally, the new series of banknotes includes the word “Pilipino” in the bottom right in Baybayin. Seals of government agencies such as the National Historical Commission of the Philippines and logos of institutions namely the National Library of the Philippines, National Museum of the Philippines, and Cultural Center of the Philippines highlight different characters of the indigenous script.

Retrieved from

Photo courtesy via CNN Philippines

4.  Baybayin’s Comeback: Poetry, Art, Tech, and More

It is empowering to think that Baybayin (which was once considered a lost language) is now making a comeback!

The indigenous script is now regaining popularity among millennials, young professionals, and the diaspora in the Philippines. Along with the patriotism and "pinoy pride" movement, it is presently receiving renewed attention. This is highlighted by its integration into various art forms in the country. 

Last 2013 in the Alameda, California PH Independence show, Kristian Kabuay brought to the stage his modern performance-style writing system called Tulang Kalis (Poetry of the Sword) inspired by the ancient writing system, Baybayin.

Dance x Kulintang x Baybayin in Alameda, California by Kristian Kabuay (May 28, 2014)

Moreover, Baybayin calligraphy inscribed on bamboo tubes and Ambahan a traditional poetry revolving around nature, life, death, and love of the Hanunoo Mangyans is still keeping up with the aging time.

In creative endeavors, Baybayin is vibrantly celebrated. The world’s largest peace mural on the walls surrounding Camp General Emilio Aguinaldo in Quezon City features the Baybayin translation of the Philippine National Anthem “Lupang Hinirang”.

Recent trends in local tattoo arts have also welcomed the tribal styles with Baybayin inscriptions in modern-day Pinoy tattoo designs. 

Photo Courtesy via Cosmopolitan PH

Furthermore, modernism has already met the ancient script. There are even Android apps that include Baybayin tutorials, translators, or even keyboards that allow you to type in Baybayin. ​Baybayin, though last used centuries ago, is resurfacing on everything from tattoos to t-shirts to mobile apps. How cool is that?

The ancient script reveals how identity has been created and represented in the Philippinesfrom its early inception through Indian influence, to its abandonment, and its present rebirth as part of our nationalism. 

The acknowledgment of Baybayin as the country's first-known writing system has undeniably empowered Filipinos as it expresses the identity and immortalizes our culture. Still, may its revitalization awaken not only our novelty and fleeting “Pinoy pride,” but also invoke a deep desire to use these symbols in understanding the nation and the people it represents.

Sources: AliosHabielenburg, GMA News, Aswang Project, Library Blogs, Tropical Experience Philippines, The National News, Rappler, Paul Marrow, ESquire Mag, Branding In Asia, Henry Del Rosario, Philippine Daily Inquirer, GMA Network