Learning Baybayin: Reconnecting with our Filipino roots

Rhea Claire Madarang

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Learning Baybayin: Reconnecting with our Filipino roots
Consciously learning and practicing Baybayin can lead to discoveries about yourself as a Filipino and about the richness of Filipino culture

It was a curious thing, the Spanish (among them the conquistador Miguel Lopez de Legazpi) noted, as they explored parts of the country they named after their then ruler. The natives had their own government and religion, and their own writing system – markers of civilization. And the writing system was used extensively, not just by leaders or the elite, but by ordinary people, men and women, young and old, alike. The early Filipinos wrote not just to record; they wrote letters, poems, prayers, and incantations.

The use of Baybayin, one of the country’s surat or writing systems, in particular, was widespread especially in Luzon and Visayas that Spanish friars studied it to teach Catholicism to Filipinos. Part of the catechism book Doctrina Christiana, believed to be one of the first books published in the country, is printed in Baybayin.  

BAYBAYIN FOR TEACHING CATHOLICISM. A reproduction of Doctrina Christiana, an early Cathecism book, can be browsed at the National Museum of the Philippines’ Baybayin Gallery.


Eventually, as Filipinos learned the Latin alphabet, use of Baybayin began to die out. Documentations written in native writing systems were also destroyed, with one Spanish priest even boasting of destroying over three hundred scrolls, anthropologist Otley Beyer writes.

Baybayin’s characters and origins

Often mistakenly known as alibata, a word with Arabic origin, Baybayin literally means “baybay,” or “to spell” in Filipino. It is an alphasyllabary, with characters standing for syllables based on consonants, as opposed to an alphabet corresponding to single letters. 

Baybayin has 14 characters, 4 of them vowels, while others are combinations of consonants and the vowel “a.” To change the vowel and sound, one needs to put a mark on top of the character (for the “e-i” sound) or bottom (for the “o-u” sound).

The Spanish added the cross mark to indicate stand-alone consonants as the original Baybayin does not have it. “Bathala” (God), for example, is written in Baybayin as “Bahala” but is read and understood by Filipinos as “Bathala.” With the introduction of the cross, though, the Spanish can add the character “ta” with a cross at the bottom to show the “t” in “Bathala.”


BAYBAYIN CHARACTERS. Baybayin has 14 characters. To change the sound of the characters with consonants, a mark should be placed at the top or bottom, while a cross is added to cross out the vowel and make it a stand-alone consonant (see last line of the characters). Characters drawn by Minifred Gavino

BATHALA. Read and understood by Filipinos as “Bathala,” but written as “Bahala.” Characters drawn by Minifred Gavino


Like other Southeast Asian writing systems, Baybayin and the rest of the country’s ancient writing systems like the Tagbanua in Palawan and the Hanunoo-Mangyan in Mindoro, may have come from India’s ancient scripts.

Ramon Guillermo, University of the Philippines professor of Philippine Studies and author of studies on Baybayin, notes in a Baybayin lecture that while many Asian writing systems originate from India’s own ancient script, the countries which adopted it modified it according to their context and culture.


HANUNOO-MANGYAN SCRIPT. The Mangyans in Mindoro usually write on bamboo. They use their script for correspondences like the ones pictured here, as well as songs and chants. Photo from the 'Baybayin' book by the National Museum.

TAGBANUA SCRIPT. The Tagbanuas of Palawan also have their own script, whose use in rituals is documented. Here, the script is carved into anitos  (wooden idols). Photo from the “Baybayin” book by the National Museum


The Philippines’ writing systems are closest to Indonesia’s, and are theorized to come from there, though Guillermo says that the two countries may have also influenced each other. The Laguna Copperplate, said to be the earliest known written document in the Philippines, is in fact written in Indonesia’s old Sanskrit Kawi script.


 LAGUNA COPPERPLATE. Known as the earliest written document, the Laguna Copperplate details the acknowledgment of a partial debt payment in gold by a noble, Namwran, to a Chief of Dewata. This artifact is currently displayed at the National Museum.



Baybayin as heroes’ pride

Even as the use of Baybayin declined during Spanish rule, heroes like Andres Bonifacio and Jose Rizal recognized its value.

The Katipunan’s Magdalo and Magdiwang flags use the Baybayin character “ka.” The use of “ka” could also be a statement of nationalism, Guillermo points out, as there is no “ka” in the Spanish language.

BAYBAYIN IN KATIPUNAN. Some of the Katipunan’s flags have the Baybayin character 'ka' in their logo. Pictured is the flag of the Magdiwang group. Photo from the Baybayin book by the National Museum


Bonifacio also wrote with pride in his essay “Ang Dapat Mabatid ng mga Tagalog” (What the Tagalogs Should Know) how Tagalogs lived in prosperity and peace before the Spanish came, and how everyone, women and children included, knew how to read and write using the native writing system.

Jose Rizal, meanwhile, used the Baybayin characters as basis for the orthography or spelling, of Tagalog words, to be in “harmony with the spirit of the language.” For example, Rizal used “ka” instead of the Spanish “qu.”He  translated European stories like German Friedrich Schiller’s Wilhem Tell into Tagalog, with Baybayin as basis.

Reviving Baybayin

In some of his past lectures on reclaiming the country’s collective memory, National Artist for Literature and incumbent National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) Commissioner Virgilio Almario would draw a timeline of Philippine history on the board, starting from the prehistoric age up to the present.

Over three-fourths of that timeline is blank, while the rest covers mostly colonial rule, starting from the Spanish. Almario notes that the greatest colonization the Spanish did was to erase Filipinos’ collective memory (“gunita”).

“If you have no memory of your past, it is easier to make you a slave, especially if the colonizer replaces your memory with a new memory, through their education and the idea that they are superior,” Almario said.



The search for identity and the hunger to re-connect to Filipino roots, then, is understandable, according to Leah Tolentino, executive director of GINHAWA, a non-governmental organization facilitating workshops on well-being and Filipino culture and spirituality. There is a desire to become whole again, given the feeling of fragmentation after being colonized, she adds. (READ: Ginhawa: Wellness for the Filipino)

The current resurgence of Baybayin in art, in media, in classrooms, in workshops, in daily objects like money, and even in a bill to make it a national writing system – which was met with controversy, as Baybayin is only one of the country’s writing systems – may be an attempt to re-connect to Filipino identity.

Different cultural groups and individual artists in the Philippines and overseas are actively reviving Baybayin. Government organizations also work to raise awareness of Baybayin and other Filipino writing systems. The Baybayin Gallery at the National Museum is a permanent exhibit, while the NCCA holds activities and other events to promote ancient writing systems.

BAYBAYIN ART. One of artist Taipan Lucero’s works in his own style of Baybayin calligraphy, which he calls CalligraFilipino. Photo by Leon Pangilinan Jr.


BAYBAYIN CRAFTS. There are now accessories like necklaces with Baybayin inscriptions.


BAYBAYIN TATTOOS. Baybayin is now also a staple in tattoo designs. Even the well-known mambabatok Whang-Od in Kalinga gets requests for Baybayin tattoos. Photo taken at the National Museum


BAYBAYIN CLOTHING. The characters have also found their way in clothes. This is the sablay used for graduation ceremonies at the University of the Philippines. Photo taken at the National Museum


BAYBAYIN LOGOS. Some organizations already incorporate Baybayin in their logos. Photo taken at the National Museum


BAYBAYIN IN CURRENCY. Baybayin has found its way in everyday objects like Philippine peso bills. Photo taken at the National Museum


Meditating on Filipino culture and spirituality 

Learning Baybayin is not just about learning how to write the characters, Minifred Gavino, who initiated GINHAWA’s Baybayin Creativity Workshops-Classes, points out. It is also about connecting to the self and to Filipino culture and identity.

In workshops, Gavino usually leads a Baybayin calligraphy meditation and other meditations as well as rituals that invite deeper reflection and connection.   

CALLIGRAPHY MEDITATION. At GINHAWA’s Baybayin Creativity Workshops-Classes, participants usually do Baybayin calligraphy meditation.


BAYBAYIN RITUAL. Solemn rituals like this also facilitate further reflection and connection.


BAYBAYIN ART WORKSHOPS. There are also workshops on making Baybayin art. Photo courtesy of Minifred Gavino


Lectures also usually include information on how Baybayin mirrors Filipino culture and spirituality.

For example, the Baybayin for “Bathala” includes both the “ba” from babae (female) and “la” from lalake (male), alluding to the duality of the divine in indigenous Filipino spirituality.

The Filipino culture of connection can be seen in the character “ka,” which looks like two connected curves or lines, and is further evident in words like “kapwa,” (no direct translation, but literally means shared space) “kaibigan,” (friend)kalikasan(nature, which shows indigenous Filipinos’ connection to nature), and even “kaaway” (enemy).

CONNECTION. The Baybayin character 'ka,' with its bridging line, illustrates Filipinos’ culture of connection. Character drawn by Minifred Gavino


For artist and cultural worker Reimon Cosare, writing Baybayin is a powerful process on feeling and awareness. He notes how the word “anak” has characters and syllables both from “ama” (father) and “ina” (mother), and ends with “ka,” the character for connection, implying a union between the parents.

“When writing ama, ina, and anak in Baybayin, I get the sense that each of my parents shared part of what makes them who they are, in order to create me,” he writes in reflection.

FROM FATHER AND MOTHER. The child indeed comes from both parents, as the word 'anak' has characters from both 'ama' and 'ina' and ends with the character 'ka' to show union.  Illustration taken from Reimon Cosare’s essay 'Ama, Ina, Anak'


Gavino said that learning and writing Baybayin can be a personal and eye-opening journey, as it has been, and continues to be, for her.

She invites fellow Filipinos to learn, write, and meditate on Baybayin and its meaning for them.  –  Rappler.com


Claire Madarang is a writer, traveler, and researcher. She also occasionally facilitates or assists in facilitating Baybayin workshops. She blogs at Traveling Light.



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Rhea Claire Madarang

Claire Madarang is a traveler, writer, biodiversity communications practitioner, and facilitator of nature play activities. Follow her adventures, travel tips, and reflections on her blog Traveling Light and on her Instagram