A Philippine Leaf
Ang Nalimutang Pagsulat

Extinction of a Philippine Script

by Hector Santos
© 1995-96 by Hector Santos
All rights reserved.

Although use of the Tagalog script was prevalent and widespread during the early days of the Spanish regime, by the end of the 17th century its use was almost non-existent, relegated mainly to signing documents that were written in the Latin alphabet. By the late 18th century, it was extinct.

How was it possible for a writing system in extensive use to disappear within a century after the intrusion of foreign influence? There are many theories that can be proposed. I can think of the following:

  1. The Spanish priests gathered and burned all the manuscripts they could get their hands on to eliminate pagan beliefs and to establish their way of writing and thus better control the native population.
  2. Tributes were imposed on the native population. Having to produce more than they used to, they had less time to pass on traditional skills to their children, resulting in a tightening spiral of illiteracy in their ancient script.
  3. The Latin alphabet was easily learned by the natives. Proficiency in the system afforded social and economic benefits and an incentive to switch to the newer system.
  4. The sound of Tagalog evolved rapidly as it incorporated many loan words from Spanish. The script did not keep step and became inadequate in representing the new sounds of the language.
There was no single reason for the disappearance of the Tagalog script. It was probably a combination of factors that caused its disappearance. Let us examine each of these four theories and see to what extent each could have contributed to the script's demise.

Manuscripts burned?

The first theory is the most popular and the most romantic. Like most Filipinos, I believed this to be the case before I started doing research on the subject. Because priests burned Mayan manuscripts in Mexico and Guatemala, this story is very believable. However, when I started looking for documents that could confirm it, I couldn't find any. I pored over historians' accounts of burnings (especially Beyer) looking for footnotes that may provide leads as to where their information came from. Sadly, their sources, if they had any, were not documented.

There are two elements to this theory: one, the manuscripts contained material anathema to the Catholic faith that had to be burned, and two, the priests wanted to replace the Tagalog with the Latin script. The second element is very easy to dispose of. The religious orders published books in the Tagalog script and continued to publish them even when the script was no longer in general use. This belies any allegation that they were trying to suppress it.

The first element requires that there be material of a nature offensive to the Catholic faith. When we think of manuscripts, we think of fairly long accounts and records of historical or religious importance. Since the Tagalog script was only used for poetry, personal communication, and perhaps short sayings, curses, proverbs, and such, there would not have been any ancient manuscripts to burn.

Additionally, in Mexico and Guatemala where documented burnings occurred, many manuscripts escaped such wanton and depraved acts and survive to this day. Apparently, a few manuscripts will survive even a systematic effort to eradicate them.

Those manuscript burnings were duly recorded, too. The conquistadors were proud to have done them because it was considered a noble duty in those days. There are no equivalent accounts in the Philippines.

In Indonesia where no such burnings are believed to have happened, no ancient manuscripts on bamboo and palm leaf exist either. The earliest such manuscripts are from the 19th century when foreign scholars started collecting and preserving them. The hot and humid climate in the tropics prevents biodegradable material from staying around too long. The Indonesians knew this and important documents were copied onto copperplates or stone monuments for posterity.

The Church appears to have preserved some documents in their possession as late as the 19th century. In 1776, Pedro Andrés de Castro wrote in his manuscript Ortografía y reglas de la Lengua tagalog,

I have seen in the archives of Lipa and of Batangas many documents in these characters.
Later on Jean Mallat would see them still existing and would write in his 1846 work, Les Philippines:

From researches made in the libraries of convents and notes communicated to us by some religious, it is patent that these manuscripts were limited to some loose sheets, on which the inhabitants inscribed the number of their buffaloes and some other details of personal interest, but they contained nothing concerning the history of the country.
Where are these documents today? Are they lying in some musty archives waiting to be found by a lucky researcher, or were they burned in World War II like many other precious documents. If any are found, they probably won't be pre-Hispanic but documents made during the early days of the Spanish regime.

Does this mean that no documents were burned by priests? Certainly not. Many small and scattered documents were probably burned if they were found to contain curses, chants, or incantations that the priests determined to be evil. Such short phrases on bamboo were used for decoration or placed on entrances to their houses to ward off evil spirits.

In the early 16th century, Filipinos reportedly started writing down stories, sermons, and prayers they heard in the churches during their process of conversion to Christianity. They would write the stories from memory when they got out of church. They would read them later during their free time, another evidence of their literacy during the early days. Apparently, this worried church authorities because some of the written material were feared to have been inaccurate or mixed with traditional beliefs.

This prompted the archbishop to appoint Fr. Pedro Chirino in 1609 to examine such written material. Francisco Colin reported in his 1663 Labor evangelica how this came about:

For from the sermons which they hear, and the histories and lives of the saints, and the prayers and poems on divine matters, composed by themselves, they use small books and prayerbooks in their language, and manuscripts which are great in number; as is affirmed in his manuscript history by Father Pedro Chirino, to whom the provisor and vicar-general of this archbishopric entrusted the visit and examination of those books in the year one thousand six hundred and nine for the purpose of preventing errors. That was a holy proceeding, and one that was very proper among so new Christians.
Misinterpretation of this account appears to be one source for the story of mass burnings of manuscripts. But if any burnings happened as a result of this order to Fr. Chirino, they would have resulted in destruction of Christian manuscripts that were not acceptable to the Church and not of ancient manuscripts that did not exist in the first place.

Short documents burned? Yes. Ancient manuscripts? No.

Tributes to pay

The second theory about involuntary servitude has some merit to it. In ancient times, the parents spent much time with their children to pass on traditional skills such as writing. Because they spent their free time in this manner, they were labeled "lazy" by their conquerors. The early Spaniards couldn't understand why people would only mine enough gold to adorn themselves when there was so much more underground. The early Filipinos only took what they needed; the idea of surplus production was unknown to them.

This pattern was disrupted when Filipinos were forced to pay tribute. Men were required to produce rice for their rulers' sustenance, districts had to cut and provide timber for the ships used in the galleon trade, and women had to weave additional fabric for the Church and the soldiers.

These new activities had a disruptive effect on traditional patterns of intra-family interaction. Writing became one of the casualties.

New system learned quickly

In the third theory regarding benefits from learning the Latin script, some validation can be seen from this account Cronicas de la provincia de San gregorio magno by Juan Francisco de San Antonio in 1735:

They easily learn any skill and they imitate any work of beauty placed before them. This is why they make such accomplished scribes which supply the treasuries, secretaries, tribunals, and other private offices, but it is rare that an entry made by an Indian does not have to be amended because they cannot stop from lying, even in single items, or it is perhaps because of the little care they take in doing this, something which vexes those who have to dictate or correct these. There have been some who have been so competent as to get to be clerks of the Exchequer and who have filled more important jobs in acting capacities, and others serve as directors for the alcaldes mayores with a great knowledge of paperwork. If these (jobs) are done with the same conscience God only knows.
In spite of the bias in the account, the ability of the early Filipinos to easily learn another script is very obvious from San Antonio's account. Naturally, the prestige that important positions carried with them was additional incentive for Filipinos to be literate in another script. Unfortunately, this caused their knowledge of their own script to be gradually lost.

Sounds of Tagalog changed

Let us now examine the fourth theory, the divergence of spoken Tagalog and the script that recorded it.

As the language of those in power, Spanish became a prestigious language in the Philippines. Although it never became widely spoken, Spanish introduced loan words to Tagalog and caused its sound to be changed forever.

The ancient Tagalog script has often been criticized as one that could not even fully represent the sounds of its own language. Except for its apparent inability to depict final consonants, this criticism is unjustified. The Tagalog script fully represented the sounds of Tagalog as it was spoken when the Spaniards arrived in the 16th century. Critics are unaware that the phonology of Tagalog was different then and base their judgment on the sounds of modern Tagalog.

A doctoral dissertation by Joseph Espallargas in 1984 (Ateneo de Manila University) proves that there was a correspondence between the script and the old spoken language. There were only three vowels that the ancient Tagalogs distinguished, exactly the same number as in the script. R did not exist as a separate phoneme but was an allophone of d.

The Spanish could distinguish between the sounds of i and e, and of u and o. Thus they wrote down the words the way they heard them. To the Tagalogs, there was no distinction although they tended to pronounce them differently (but couldn't hear the difference) according to some linguistic rule. The same thing applied to the sounds d and r, which were represented by the same symbol. It would take a separate article to explain all of these. Suffice it to say, there was a good match between the spoken language and the script of the Tagalogs when the Spaniards arrived.

Because of Spanish influence, the sounds of i and e, u and o, and r and d became distinct and differentiated in due time.

Another big change in the sound of Tagalog was the introduction of words with compound consonants through loan words and proper names. Thus we got words like Francisco, cristiano, and Trinidad which were originally pronounced Pa-ran-sis-co, ki-ris-ti-ya-no, and ti-ni-dad (and written as pa-da-si-ku, ki-di-ti-ya-no, and ti-ni-da).

The way we pronounce some words today also betray some Spanish influence. This can be well illustrated in our syllabification of words like tamis and tanaw. We pronounce them today as ta-mis and ta-naw, as the early Spaniards did. The ancient Tagalogs used to pronounce them tam-is and tan-aw, just as some people still do in remote Tagalog areas.

Within a relatively short time, two new vowels and a new consonant were added to the sound repertoire of Tagalog. Within that same time, sounds of compound consonants were also introduced. The ancient script thus became helplessly inadequate to represent the spoken language when these new sounds came into use.


The inability of the ancient script to record the new sounds introduced by the Spaniards, the rapid acquisition of literacy in the Latin script with its concomitant social and material benefits, and the disruption of traditional family activities were the main culprits for the loss of the Tagalog script. Any burning of documents that may have transpired had very little to do with it.

More on Philippine Scripts

  • Literacy in Pre-Hispanic Philippines shows the state of literacy was when the Spaniards arrived.
  • The Tagalog Script gives more details about the script.
  • Our Living Scripts tells how some ethnic groups managed to retain their literacy in ancient Philippine scripts even to this day.
  • Computer fonts developed by Sushi Dog Graphics were used to generate all the Tagalog symbols on this page.
  • Ask about Sulat sa Tansô if you are interested in learning more about Philippine scripts. It is a newsletter devoted to ancient Philippines.
  • Back to A Philippine Leaf, your introductory page to ancient Philippines.
To cite:
Santos, Hector. "Extinction of a Philippine Script" in A Philippine Leaf at http://www.bibingka.com/dahon/extinct/extinct.htm. US, October 26, 1996.
Sushi Dog
Please send me your comments. I would love to hear from you.
Hector Santos <hectorsan@bibingka.com> Los Angeles
Last modified: Wednesday, July 28, 1999