Reclaiming Baybayin

For most of my life I envied the Thai, Chinese, Arabic, and the Japanese for having a system of writing to call their own. Those elaborate, graceful squiggles have the pull of the mysterious.

They are things that belong to the birth of world civilizations. Something that would mean that the local people “discovered” by colonizers were not the savage little monkeys that the conquistadores had gleefully described them to be.

For the longest time, I mourned that Filipinos have to be content with the a-b-c borrowed from the west. I was led to believe that the colonizers – Spain and the USA alike – were to be credited for my literacy.

I somehow got used to that piece of misinformation. It’s like wearing a pair of slippers two sizes too big – they’re awkward and cause one to stumble every so often. Nevertheless, it will do.

But as I was mulling over how Filipinos never really had any identity of our own, serendipity came knocking at the door.

Last night, my mother needed material on the general state of the Philippines before the Spaniards came in the 16th century. I buried myself in the online search for snippets of information that would be useful for her (she’s due for her dissertation defense by the third week of March).

Then I stumbled upon information that gave me goose bumps. We, as Filipinos, were not without our own writing system at all.

Yeah, well, maybe you’ll say that I ought to have known that. But, honestly, I was not conscious of it in the past. There was a day in grade school that a civics and culture teacher of mine droned about the pre-historic Filipinos having a system of writing known as alibata and that it was a crude form of writing. Then she proceeded to glorify the westerners’ contribution to the nation’s literacy rate in the “modern” age without elaborating further on something that could have instilled pride in her students that they are born in this archipelago.

So, there was already a system of writing employed by the people who inhabited the cluster of islands that the Spaniards would later name in honor of their monarch. The writing system was erroneously known as alibata. The information I came upon last night corrected so many misconceptions I had about my own heritage.

The system of writing of the island people is correctly called Baybayin (good ole Wiki gives the lowdown).

And here’s what gave me the goosebumps: Most men and women knew how to read and write in Baybayin and used this chiefly for communicating with each other. Not just an isolated case, but Spanish friars based in Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao all had the same report: the natives know how to read and write in their own language.

In the west, writing was primarily used for proclaiming grandiose achievements of monarchs, of recording the wealth of a nation, of keeping track of infants sired by nobility. The friars criticized the way Filipinos carelessly used their writing system. The writing system – Baybayin – was “only” used it for communicating and writing poem. Que horror!

The rest was history. And in the present, here is one confused woman wondering about the non-identity of her nation who stumbled upon the information.

How did I react?

Well, I printed a chart of the Baybayin characters, read the generic instructions of how to write in Baybayin, and spent the rest of the evening learning to write and read as my ancestors did.

Writing (as well as reading) in Baybayin was like coming home from a very long and dusty journey. It’s like finally getting a pair of slippers in the right size, slipping them on and finding that they fit perfectly.

We Filipinos, we aren’t little brown monkeys. Here’s proof that we had been doing fine even before other nations “discovered” us.

In retrospect, why are we so beholden to those who conquered us and destroyed our true identity as a nation? Baybayin is proof that we had our own well-developed civilization that we can afford to use our system of writing merely for communication and snippets of poetry that catch our fancy.

I long for the day that the Filipinos would not disown their citizenship in favor of other nationalities. We were great before. We can be great again.


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