A Philippine Leaf
Marunong Tayong Sumulat

Literacy in Pre-Hispanic Philippines

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

Why does the world consider China, Japan, and Thailand as countries that have a tradition of writing and assume that the Philippines owes its literacy to the West? It is because these countries use their own writing systems while Filipinos read and write in the Latin alphabet. Although outsiders may be forgiven for such a belief, many Filipinos unfortunately also do not know that a writing system was in place in the Philippines long before the Spaniards arrived.

Spanish accounts

Antonio Pigafetta, Magellan's meticulous chronicler, came in 1521 to the Visayas but did not notice any evidence of writing skills in the places he visited. Instead, he noted that the natives were impressed that he could repeat things that they had said earlier by reading back his notes.

However, when Legazpi came to Manila in 1571 he observed that the inhabitants knew how to read and write. This was documented by Pedro Chirino, a Jesuit historian, who wrote in his 1604 Relacion de las Islas filipinas,

All these islanders are much given to reading and writing, and there is hardly a man, much less a woman, who does not read and write.
Chirino was not alone in his observation. Many other historians had similar conclusions, including Dr. Antonio Morga, Senior Judge Advocate of the High Court of Justice and commander of the ill-fated galleon-turned-warship San Diego that was sunk by the Dutch Admiral van Noort. He wrote in his 1609 Sucesos de las Islas filipinas,

Almost all the natives, both men and women, write in this language. There are very few who do not write it excellently and correctly.

What the Spaniards found

The Spaniards found the people in Manila and other places writing on bamboo and specially prepared palm leaves using knives and styli. They were using the ancient Tagalog script which had 17 basic symbols, three of which were the vowels a, i, and u. Each basic consonantal symbol had the inherent a sound: ka, ga, nga, ta, da, na, pa, ba, ma, ya, la, wa, sa, and ha.

A diacritical mark called kudlit modified the sound of the symbol. The kudlit could be a dot, a short line, or even an arrowhead. When placed above the symbol, it changed the inherent sound of the symbol from a to i; placed below, the sound became u. Thus a ba with a kudlit placed above became a bi; if the kudlit was placed below, the symbol became a bu.

Tagalog Symbols
The Tagalog script: a, i, u, "stop," ka, ga, nga, ta, da, na, pa, ba, ma, ya, la, wa, sa, and ha. The bottom line shows how a kudlit turns a ba into a bi and a bu.

It was a simple and elegant system that was called baybayin. In 1914, the newer term alibata was introduced by Dean Paul Versoza of the University of Manila. He claims the term comes from alif, ba, and ta, the first three letters of the Maguindanao arrangement of the Arabic letters.He did not explain why he chose a totally unrelated writing system to name the script.

The Tagalog script was a syllabary, which means that each symbol represents a complete syllable. This is in contrast to our Latin alphabet where each symbol represents a phoneme, the smallest unit of the sound of speech. It is this distinction that makes it difficult for many people steeped in alphabetic systems to understand the correct way of using the Tagalog script.

The Tagalog script only represented two kinds of syllables, V and CV (C=consonant, V=vowel), whereas the language had V, CV, VC, and CVC types. Therefore only syllables like a, bi, or ku could be written down accurately. Syllables like ak, kam, pit, or ting (ng is one consonant) couldn't be represented in the system. Tagalog did not have consonant clusters like the CCVC, tram.

To write down syllables of the CVC type, the ancient Filipinos simply dropped the final consonant. Thus, ak would be written as a, kam as ka, pit as pi, ting as ti, and so on. The missing final consonant was somehow miraculously added back in when the text was read using a technique which we do not understand and which may forever remain a secret.

Those of us whose initial training in literacy was with alphabets can think only of context as what can give us clues about the unwritten final consonant. But there may have been other elements that we don't know about which helped the early people determine what the missing consonant was.

Who did the writing

In most ancient cultures, the art of reading and writing was reserved for the few who belonged to privileged classes. In ancient Egyptian, Mayan, and Indonesian civilizations, writing was in the hands of priests and scribes. The culture that the Spaniards found in the Philippines was unique in that the art of reading and writing was in the hands of everybody.

The priestly class and its related class of scribes existed mainly to glorify and perpetuate the reign of the ruling king. They were employed to record history, the glorious deeds of the king, and keep track of tributes and taxes that were expected from the governed. In contrast, accounts of the use of writing in the Philippines indicate that they were not used to record history and tradition but simply for personal communication and writing poetry.

Typical of these accounts was one written by Fr. Juan Francisco de San Antonio in his 1735 Cronicas de la provincia de San gregorio magno,

up to the present time there has not been found a scrap of writing relating to religion, ceremonies, or ancient political institutions.
Diego de Bobadilla, a priest who lived in the Philippines for 18 years, wrote a manuscript in 1640 in which he says,

they only use writing to communicate with one another; they do not have manuscripts relating to history or science.
Discovery in late 19th century of similar Philippine scripts in Mindoro and Palawan confirm everything that the early friar-historians wrote about the Tagalog script. Their orthographies and the purposes for which they were used matched those of the Tagalog script which had become extinct by then.

Books in the ancient script

The widespread use of an indigenous script prompted the religious authorities to publish a book using the Tagalog script to help spread Christianity. In 1593, the Tagalog Doctrina Christiana, a book based on Cardinal Bellarmino's catechism, came out. It was published just a couple of months after the first book published in the Philippines, the Chinese version of Doctrina Christiana, was released.

Cover of Doctrina Christiana
Cover page of the 1593 Doctrina Christiana

By the late 16th century, the script had already spread to Ilocos, Pangasinan, Pampanga, and even Visayas where Pigafetta earlier did not find any evidence of writing. This prompted Fr. Francisco Lopez to publish in 1620 an Ilocano version of Dotrina Cristiana (spelling had changed since 1593, 1621 edition shown in illustration) using the same Tagalog script but incorporating his cross kudlit. The Ilocano book was reprinted many times in the span of 275 years until its final edition in 1895.

Cover of the Ilocano Dotrina Cristiana
Cover page of the 1621 Ilocano Dotrina Cristiana

We should note at this point that Tomás Pinpin, the first Filipino author, published his book Librong Pagaaralan nang manga Tagalog nang uicang Castila in 1610.

It is significant that the dates of the above books predated the first book published in the United States, The Whole Booke of Psalmes faithfully Translated into English Metre... by Stephen Day of Boston, Massachusetts which was published in 1640. This drives home the point that literacy was already in full bloom in the Philippines when the Spaniards arrived.

A different version of this article appeared in the May 1995 issue of Filipinas Magazine.

More on Philippine Scripts

  • See a page from the 1593 Doctrina Christiana.
  • See facing pages from the 1621 Ilocano Dotrina Cristiana.
  • Entinction of a Philippine Script tells how the Tagalog script became extinct.
  • The Tagalog Script descrribes the extinct Philippine 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. "Literacy in Pre-Hispanic Philippines" in A Philippine Leaf at http://www.bibingka.com/dahon/literacy/literacy.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