Baybayin and House Bill 1022: “National Writing System Act”

April 23, 2018. House Bill 1022 also known as the “National Writing System Act” passed the House committee level. The bill aims to increase the awareness and appreciation of the pre-Hispanic Baybayin script among Filipinos by enforcing its use in public spaces, structures, street names, locally-produced products, and in newspapers and magazines.

The Baybayin script has been mistakenly called “Alibata”. Baybayin, in the native Tagalog language, comes from the word “baybay” which means “to spell”. Alibata, on the other hand, is not the correct label since it came from the alif-ba-ta of the Arabic alphabet.

Perhaps the most popular (and existing) example of the Baybayin script is the Ambahan, a love poetry by the Hanunuo Mangyan ethnolinguistic group of Mindoro.

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The pre-Hispanic Filipinos wrote their Baybayin on the surfaces of bamboo or broad-leaf plants such as palm leaves using knives or sharpened sticks. There are 56 scripts for consonants and 3 scripts for vowels, making the pre-Hispanic syllabary a total of 59 scripts.

Aside from the bamboo-based ambahan, another surviving artifact that contains Baybayin is found in the Monreal Stone, also known as the Ticao Stone Inscription, from Masbate which is now displayed at the National Museum.

These days, Baybayin has become quite rather famous. It’s a popular tattoo design requested from Grace, Apo Whang-Od’s granddaughter. It can also be seen as clothing design. Some patronize it out of nationalistic sentiments, while others see it for its exotic allure.

Going back to HB 1022, it is good that we appreciate and increase our awareness of our pre-Hispanic script. But the enforced usage of Baybayin in public spaces and public functions, commercial good and services, as well as in mass media materials is quite a stretch.

Practicality should be considered.

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Will the use of Baybayin facilitate the very purpose for which these signages, these labels, and these communication materials were designed? Or will Baybayin just become an ornament, an exotic design, a source of additional printing cost, or even confusion?

Enforcement will cost training and, for it to be effective, the public must also be instructed and be familiar with its usage. So how do we plan to do that? I mean, teaching Baybayin to students is one thing, but to teach Baybayin to ate/kuya vendors, the ordinary mamimili, and the government employee seems quite a stretch. This is technically teaching all Filipinos to learn the alphabet all over again. And as far as historical experience is concerned, convenience and practicality trumps nationalist sentiments.

For example, the Tagalog language dominated the “Filipino” language because of its wide usage as a language of trade, the language of the capital, as well as being the language of the revolutionary founders.

On the same level of argument as that of HB 1022, if we would like also to appreciate the “Filipino” language, then we must learn, as much as possible, other Philippine languages like Ilocano, Hiligaynon, Bisaya. For example, the Filipino word for justice, “Katarungan” is from the word “tarong”, a Bisaya word. But we don’t do that.

If the majority of the population will not be able to read Baybayin, much less write, what do we achieve? The initiative will die a natural death. I understand the nationalist and cultural sentiments behind HB 1022, but some of its provisions are simply incompatible with reality.

But of course, if we never try, we’ll never know.


Banner photo from When in Manila (Koji Arsua)

Dom writes for pay by day and writes for passion by night. He is a Japan major at the University of the Philippines. He’s fond of ramen and anime but not of nice people.

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