FFE Magazine

Learn Baybayin/ Alibata

Baybayin, or more commonly known as Alibata, was an ancient script or writing system in pre-Hispanic Philippines way back when the Spaniards were still lost at sea.



Dated around the 16th century or even earlier, this pre-colonial alphabet was the main communication channel for all levels of society. Datus or the old kings used it as well the common village folks as proven by discovered markings on bamboo barks, metal tablets, and fruit rinds.



Not only did the pre-colonial Filipinos demonstrated their advanced civilization with their ability to read and write, but they also displayed an unmatched craftsmanship and artistry in their writing methods. Bereft of any papyrus, quill, or ink, the natives used instead the tilts of their iron daggers to carve the letters onto the bamboo. Afterwards, they would smear the bamboo with ash to emboss the characters as well as add color.



Historians have often theorized that baybayin was derived from the writing system of the Malays or the various South East Asian neighbours, primarily Indonesia, Borneo, Java and Sulawesi since all share similar alphabetic characteristics. Others suggest that it was influenced by Sanskrit, an Indo-Aryan language, from the Indian traders disembarking at pre-colonial Philippines. No exact evidences have been found to prove or dissuade such hypothesis though.







When the Spanish landed on Philippine soil, they were bewildered by the high level literacy of the inhabitants. Almost all of the natives could read and write. Albeit they were naturally and culturally predisposed to oral over written literature, literary material such as letters, poetries and incantations were cultivated. The Spanish then quickly realized that in order to communicate and ease the pagan islanders into Christian conversion and Spanish administration, they would need to learn baybayin themselves.



Eventually, the Spanish succeeded. With over 300 years of Spanish colonization and by decree of the invaders, baybayin was kept in the closet and made to slowly vanish.



It was only until the early 1900s when a dean from the University of Manila managed to resurrect the script with a new name: Alibata, From the first three letters of the Arabic alphabet – alif, ba, and ta. The language understood by the majority of the Muslim population in the Mindanao region. Again, no evidences have surfaced if it is indeed the real reason for the name change.



Whether it is Baybayin or Alibata, contemporary Philippine culture has surely been accepting and proud of this aspect of our history. Not only has this writing system been taught in primary schools as part of our social sciences curriculum but it has also been offered as a language course in various universities. On the street scene, many young Filipinos have also been inspired to have their names, their loved ones names or particular meaningful words tattooed on their bodies in ancient baybayin.



With a need to reconnect to our roots, find ourselves, and prove critics and skeptics wrong about Filipinos not having true Asian identity and history, one that is not thrust upon us by our colonizers, the resurrection of baybayin and its sustainability is still dependant on those who wish to learn, cultivate and propagate it

A Basic Lesson…



To bring you this tutorial we have solicited the help of Miguel Viola, a 15 year old baybayin enthusiast, who has been studying this ancient script and teaching anybody who cares to listen or share his interest in our very own calligraphy, since he was 7 years old.



According to Miguel, to learn Alibata today, one must recognize that unlike Latin, another ancient script, it is highly dependent on syllables and not on phonemes or the smallest unit of the sound of speech.



1.) The very first step in learning how to read and write Alibata is getting used to the 14 base consonants (mga katinig) and the 3 base vowels (mga patinig) that build their alphabet.






  • Da and Ra have the same one and only character. The pronunciation of the letter is dependent on the location of where it is found. The most basic way to understand this is if “d” is found between 2 vowels, it automatically changes into “r”. i.e. dunong (knowledge) and “marunong” (knowledgeable).



2.) The base consonants are the consonants with an inherent “a” vowel. To remove the inherent “a” vowel in the base consonants, By adding a modifier or kudlit, the pronouncing properties of the syllable immediately changes. The kudlit is a tiny character or punctuation similar to a tick, a dash, or a dot that is added above or below the alphabet syllable.



  • A kudlit above the character cancels the “a” and replaces it with either an “i” or “e” vowel.



  • A kudlit below the character cancels the “a” and replaces it with either an to “o” or “u” vowel.



  • A kudlit below of the character that is specifically cross-shaped (+) cancels any vowel inherent to the character. Ex.






3.) The 3 vowels or patinig are only used if the first letter of the word is a vowel.



4.) To insert vowels in the middle of the word, use kudlits. Babayin read beginning from left to right.



5.) Babayin is written in a continuous manner. Word spaces and punctuations do not exist unless they  are a single vertical line or a double vertical line.



  • The single vertical line ( | )acts as a comma.
  • The double vertical line ( || )acts as a period.



6.) In reading text in Baybayin, the only way to know if the character with a kudlit above or below the character represents �i,e,o,u� sounds, one must be a native Talagog speaker to determine the inherent vowel. You will know this if you naturally know the spelling of the Tagalog word.



Here are some examples:





Now wasn’t that easy? Now that you know basic Baybayin or Alibata, try to spell your name, your friend’s and family’s name! Not only is learning Alibata a great way to reconnect with our Filipino heritage and culture, but being able to read and write in this ancient pre-colonial script can be an effective conversation starter and a way to impress others!





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