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Siling Labuyo: Baybayin: A Gateway to Our Past

I’ve seen the tattoo symbols before and was intrigued by its artistry. This weekend, I was reminded again when I glanced upon these symbols emblazoned on the organizational logo of the Council for Teaching Filipino Language and Culture (CTFLC) during an event in Chula Vista. The yellow background circular logo showed the bold letters “CTFLC” on top with six Baybayin characters or scripts below it across the middle. I’ve never really paid attention to these symbols before (for lack of familiarity) but with the recently passed legislation at the House Committee on Basic Education and Culture in the Philippine Congress (House Bill 1022 sponsored by Congressman Leopoldo Bataoil of Pangasinan), got me looking into it. House Bill 1022 (National Script Act of 2018) will “require all manufacturers of locally-produced food products to inscribe Baybayin scripts and provide a Baybayin translation on their labels.” It will also mandate local government units to included Baybayin signs for a lot of things including street names, public facilities, and public buildings with necessary signage for public offices like hospitals, fire and police stations, community centers and government halls. Newspapers and other print publications will also be required to provide a Baybayin translation of their names, according to the bill. More importantly, government agencies must disseminate knowledge and information about Baybayin through reading materials on all levels of education (including teaching the course) and in government and private agencies and offices. If signed into law, this would be a major undertaking. Imagine trying to teach not only Filipinos but everyone including foreigners who needs to know because of the interactions they have with the Filipino people, the government, and business enterprise. It would be a tall order to get this through the Philippine Senate and have President Rodrigo Duterte to sign-off on it. This is really not the first time that advocates have tried to get this legislation through. During the 15th and 16th Congress, the good congressman from Pangasinan along with his counterpart in the Senate, Sen. Loren Legarda tried but did not even get a vote at the committee level. During the 15th Congress, the impeachment of Chief Justice Renato Corona got in the way and got the senators preoccupied. In the 16th, it was the Bangsamoro Bill (and the Mamasapano tragedy) that got the blame for not pursuing the bill more actively. Well, guess what. On the 17th Congress, we have both – the possible impeachment of Chief Justice Lourdes Sereno and the passage of the Bangsamoro Bill. President Duterte even hinted that he might resign if the Bangsamoro Bill is not passed and signed into legislation. But there’s more. This year the Philippines will have its midterm elections and possibly a referendum on the switch to Federalism. The current Congress will end in June 2019 which means that for H.R. 1022 must be passed later this year for it to see daylight. Otherwise, supervening events might set this aside again. But hope springs eternal. Just in case the bill miraculously survives and makes it to Duterte’s desk, perhaps it is not too early to learn more about it NOW before these scripts start mushrooming in public places and cartoons of milk. One could Goggle “Baybayin” and will find all kinds of things that can be helpful or can get one more confused. There are no real hardcore reference materials online that one could call authoritative. Wiki explains that Baybayin was apparently already in use even before the Spanish Conquistadores arrived on de Las Islas Filipinas. The Brahmic (Indian) writing system was already in use by the Tagalogs, Kapampangans, Pangasinenses, Ilocanos, Bicolanos, and the Visayan people. It was referred to as the “Suyat” system which is traceable to “Abugida” – a segmented writing system in which consonants-vowels are written as a unit. Each unit is based on a consonant letter with a vowel being a secondary notation. For example, instead of “K” it will be “Ka.” Unlike in the English alphabet where consonants and vowels have equal status, the Suyat scripts adds a “kulit” (a symbol below or above the letter) to change it to “Ki” or “Ko.” Within the indigenous Suyat writing system in the Philippines, lies some variations in writing the scripts. Although the Tagalog scripts are the basis for the current legislative push, the other regional scripts can add to the confusion. A good example are the Baybayin letters on the CTFLC logo which I though intitially were Baybayin letters for “CTFLC” but then there are more Baybayin symbols on the logo. When compared to the “Philippine Baybayin Chart” (I put his in quotation mark because I’m not really positive about the authenticity of such chart), the letters do not make sense. On the other hand, the Tagalog scripts also did not make total sense. The first symbol looks like a human nose (Wa) but with a kulit above it. In the Tagalog interpretation, the kulit makes it “Wi.” Other Suyats had the nose inverted or the top of the nose on the right facing left. The next letter is one that we have seen on Katipunan flags and it looks like a capitalized “I” with exaggerated slits on top and bottom. This is “Ka.” Thus, the first two symbols is “Wika” (or language). The next symbol looks like Kenny G’s saxophone with the mouthpiece on the right. Accordingly, this is letter “a.” Then the Katipunan symbol follows again but this time with a kulit below the letter – meaning, “Ko” or “Ku.” This is followed by the fifth symbol that looks like a clamp (Ta) with a kulit underneath it makes is “To” or “Tu.” The last symbol looks like an exaggeratedly drawn letter “C” which means “Da” or “Ra” based on some rules. Thus, putting it all together, “Wi-ka-a-ku-tu-da” or “Wi-ka-a-ku-tu-ra.” The last one seems plausible and sounding like “Wika at kultura” but seems missing some letters. Anyway, going through this exercise seems like trying to unravel Da Vinci codes hidden behind these ancient scripts. Apparently, in addition to the words created by putting the alphabets, the scripts themselves means something else based on some Giant Clams ritual chants in the past or that the hieroglyphics themselves mean something else. Intriguing as it is, perhaps learning more about these symbols will open up gateways to our past that has been obscured by nearly 400 years of Spanish colonization and more than 50 years of American influence. Training our sights on Baybayin now would also provide the impetus to modernizing the writing system to accommodate influences to the Filipino language over the years that form the current lexicon. More importantly, make the writing system appealing not just for tattoo making but to hasten learning of the alpabets without needing the services of Tom Hanks.

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