Continuing what seems to be a recent theme of readability (of words with scrambled letters, words with one letter altered, and text without word-breaks), here’s a page about a syllabary (known as alibata) formerly used to write Tagalog that had the unfortunate property of representing only CV syllables, whereas the language is full of CVC ones. As early as 1620 Fr. Francisco Lopez made a logical suggestion:

He proposed the use of a cross kudlit [diacritical mark], so-called because it was a diacritic placed under the basic symbol and was shaped like a cross or “+”. Its function was to cancel the inherent a sound associated with the basic script symbol. The cross kudlit turns the basic symbols into the phonemes k, g, ng, t, d, n, p, b, m, y, l, w, and s (but not h) suitable for use as final consonants and making it possible to write CVC syllables like kam, pit, and ting.

But did the Tagalog speakers gratefully accept this improvement? They did not:

The experts of the time were consulted, we read in the Tagalog orthography, about this new invention with the request that they adopt and use it in writing for the convenience of everybody. But after highly praising it and expressing their thanks, they decided that it cannot be introduced into their writing system because it was against the intrinsic nature and character given the Tagalog language by God and it would be equivalent to destroying in one stroke the whole syntax, prosody and orthography of their language.

This page, which I found via graywyvern, takes a mystical attitude toward the resulting situation:

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 may 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.

But a more recent and detailed site about the alibata system takes a more prosaic approach on its Features page:

While the script cannot completely represent the Philippine languages, it is not an unsurmountable difficulty when reading it. As mentioned, the writing system of Linear B had the same problem when writing Mycenean Greek. A similar situation occurs in ancient Hebrew, which does not have symbols for vowels. The occurence of vowels were determined by context and through conventional usage. Also similar is the occurrence of homonyms in English, in which the meaning of a word such as “bear” which can either be an animal, or mean “to carry,” must be determined through context. Hence, it is likely that an ancient user of Alibata could tell the difference between the love between a man and a woman (Tagalog sinta) and a type of string bean (Tagalog sitaw)…

Or so one would hope.

Addendum. A comment points me to a site with a great deal more information about the syllabary. Thanks, Chris!


  1. Hi.. This is my first comment – I’ve been reading your blog for a few months. I highly enjoy it.
    Anyway, Tagalog is a native tongue of mine (English is the other). I first encountered that website about 8 years ago. It seems like everyone came to know Baybayin/Alibata via his site.
    The internet has sparked a sort of renaissance among Filipinos. It can be found on jewelry, greeting cards, signage, etc. But I don’t think it’ll ever be widely used again. I personally find the limitations annoying.
    BTW another excellent site is by Canadian Paul Morrow. It’s at: http://www.mts.net/~pmorrow/
    PS: The syllabary or abugida is called Baybayín. Alibata was a term coined last century to make it resemble the word “alphbaet.”

  2. The South Sulawesi scripts (Makassarese, died out C19 and Bugis, still pretty much alive) have the same problem. You need to have a pretty good idea what they say before you can decipher texts. But there’s nothing mystical about it – most texts are quite formulaic and it’s usually not too hard to tell what the words are (except for old personal and place names which are a bugger if you don’t have the necessary cultural knowledge).
    There were also attempts to introduce a ‘vowel killer’ in Bugis, but they were not widely adopted.

  3. Harvey Hernandez says

    I’m a second year college student doing my homework about literature in the Phlippines. As I read articles, journals, and books about it, I found a source that records “The conquistador, especially its ecclesiastical arm, destroyed whatever written literature he could find, and hence rendered the system of writing (e.g., the Tagalog Syllabary) inoperable.” So I searched for Tagalog Syllabary. If the secret technique lies verbally or known to our ancestors then it may somehow be passed through oral tradition. Without removing hope to have even a written piece or code recording the secret technique saved from conquistador. What if the real thing is how to put words into writing (or as it really is)? For example, if I was thought to read “sita” as “sinta” then I should read it that way. I just thought of other races writing words in their own languages but omits some letters when read. I wonder if this is the opposite of the miraculous way of bringing back omitted consonants. Well, just some of my thoughts anyway. I would appreciate if you reply. Thank you so much.

  4. David Marjanović says

    If the secret technique lies verbally or known to our ancestors then it may somehow be passed through oral tradition.

    Read the comment just above yours, or the site: there is no secret technique. You start by knowing the language a text is in, and then you interpret words into the text and see if they make sense. If they don’t, you try others. It’s no different than figuring out how to read read and lead in English, it just applies to a lot more words.

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