Writing in History: Getting To Know The 6 Filipino Writing Systems

Olivia Barredo
August 21, 2022

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Long before the Spanish colonized us, Filipino writing systems were already present and established across the different regions of the archipelago. Today, the Filipino alphabet is based on the English alphabet with a few additional letters. The English alphabet uses the letters taken from the Roman/Latin alphabet. These were letters used by Ancient Romans to write in Latin. Â Our colonizers disconnected the Filipinos from their roots. A majority of Filipinos today can no longer read or write with our old writing systems. Most of us are only familiar with the term Baybayin, but cannot understand texts written in this form. It is most often used and eventually popularized in decorative tattoos or apparel. While Baybayin is the most popular, there are actually many Filipino writing systems that our ancestors used. Just like Korean, Japanese, or Thai, Filipinos originally had their own form of writing that differs from that we use now. Here are six Filipino writing systems to give you a glimpse of what our old texts looked like.  

6 Filipino Writing Systems


Surat MangyanÂ

  Surat Mangyan is also known by Mindoreños as Sulat Mangyan. Surat Mangyan uses the Hanunó’o script as its writing form. It is one of the three surviving pre-Hispanic forms of writing in the Philippines, a version of the island’s ancient script contemporaneously known as Baybayin.   [caption id="attachment_3351" align="aligncenter" width="1024"] Image from Project Pakudos[/caption]   Hanunó'o script comprises 18 basic syllables, specifically three vowels (a, i, u) and 15 consonants followed by the vowel ‘a’. Hanunó'o also uses diacritic or kudlit, written at the top or right of the symbols, and changes vowels to either ‘i’ and ‘u’ respectively.   Surat Mangyan is well-preserved and still used to this day by the Hanunuo-Mangyan in their everyday lives and at schools. Dutch anthropologist Antoon Postma, who lived among the tribe, even enhanced the script.  


  Baybayin is also a pre-Hispanic Filipino writing system predominantly used in Luzon by the Tagalogs. The theory goes that Baybayin is derived from the word “baybay”, a seashore in Tagalog, as they primarily used it in coastal areas during the 16th century.   [caption id="attachment_3352" align="aligncenter" width="950"] Image from Coconuts[/caption]   Baybayin is a left-to-right writing system composed of 17 characters divided among 14 syllabic consonants which are read with the default vowel ‘a’ sound and 3 vowels. It also makes use of diacritic or accents in which the accent may represent the o, u, e, i, sound or it may silence the vowel depending on the position of the accent. The Spaniards also studied this writing system in order to communicate with Filipinos and spread Catholicism. At present, Baybayin is obsolete and is now used most often for designs and as mentioned earlier, for apparel and tattoos.  


  Kulitan is an indigenous writing system primarily used to write Kapampangan. Its writing rules share some similarities with Kawi, a form of Brahmic script. Locally, it is also similar to Surat Mangyan and Baybayin, Kulitan is also an abudiga, a writing structure where each consonant is read with a vowel that is altered with the use of diacritics. Kulitan is written from top to bottom in columns that run from right to left. It comprises Indûng Súlat (mother characters) and Anak Súlat (offspring characters). Mother characters are simply consonants, with an inherent sound, and offspring characters are vowel diacritics that change the inherent vowel sound.   [caption id="attachment_3353" align="aligncenter" width="810"] Image from The Atlas of Endangered Alphabets[/caption]   During certain periods of the Spanish and American occupation, writers used Kulitan to compose anti-Spanish and anti-American propaganda. Using Kulitan has declined over the years and nationalist writers have attempted to revive it multiple times as well.  


  The Tagbanwa (also known as Apurahuano) script is one of the Brahmic scripts indigenous to the Philippines, spoken by approximately 8,000 people living throughout the Palawan region.   [caption id="attachment_3354" align="aligncenter" width="1024"] Image from The Tagbanua[/caption]   The Tagbanwa Alphabet was thought to be used until the 17th century. It is descended from one of the southern Indian scripts. While traditionally written in vertical columns from bottom to top and left to right, it is read from left to right in horizontal lines. Among the three living indigenous Philippine scripts—Hanunoo, Buhid, and Tagbanwa—they acknowledge the latter of the three to be the least widely used.   The script is an abugida composed of 13 consonants with an inherent vowel sound and 3 vowels.  


  The Badlit script / Sulat Bisaya (Baybayin Bisaya) – is an Ancient pre-Filipino writing system, written from left to right and it requires no spaces between words; spaces are only used after each sentence or punctuation. The Badlit script has 20 phenomes, comprising 15 consonants and five vowels. It was used to write Bisayan/Visayan languages in the Visayas region of the Philippines including Cebuano and Hiligaynon.   [caption id="attachment_3355" align="aligncenter" width="596"] Image from Omniglot[/caption]   The Badlit script, similar to Surat Mangyan, Baybayin, and Kulitan, is also an abugida writing system.  


  Known as Kirim script to the Maranao People, the Jawi scripts are Arabic-based scripts adopted by the Muslims in the Philippines. It also became eminent with the spread of Islam, superseding the earlier writing systems. The Tausugs, Malays, and other groups use the script as a gateway to understanding Islam and its Holy Book, the Quran.   [caption id="attachment_3356" align="aligncenter" width="590"] Image from Semantic Scholar[/caption]   They used Jawi for both religious and non-religious texts. Non-religious texts included dramas, puzzles, epics, short stories, love poems, children’s stories, riddles, and rhymes.  

Why Knowing These Scripts are Important to History

  These scripts are an important piece of our identity. It is the key to understanding our history, our ancestors. It allows us to reconnect with our roots and have a clearer picture of the true Filipino identity. Writing is a method of record keeping, giving us a sense of what was truly ours before colonization. Through written texts, we can get a glimpse of the everyday lives and culture of our ancestors.   [caption id="attachment_3350" align="aligncenter" width="800"] Image from NextShark[/caption]   As the world continues its path towards globalization, these writing systems are becoming forgotten and obsolete. The Filipino education system can only do so much, with English being prioritized and promoted as the medium of communication even in the workplace. It is imperative to preserve these writing systems, or even further enhance them so we can use them in modern writing. Baybayin and ancient scripts should not be limited to being used as a design. At the very least, Filipinos should learn to understand it as it is part of our history and our identity.