The Baybayin bill and the never ending search for ‘Filipino-ness’

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The bill aims to “generate awareness on the plight of ‘Baybayin’ and foster wide appreciation on its importance and beauty.” But how it will further the search for our national identity? Illustration by JL JAVIER

Editor’s note: Michael Wilson I. Rosero obtained his Bachelor of Arts in Linguistics from the University of the Philippines Diliman. He currently works as a Senior Research Officer in the Philippine National Research Center for Teacher Quality (RCTQ). The opinions expressed in this article are solely his.

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — We, Filipinos, have been in constant search for our national identity. This search for national identity, commencing in the Propaganda Movement of the Ilustrados and reaching the peak in the Philippine Revolution of the Katipuneros, remains insatiable. Even so, the colonial impact has been ingrained that our crisis in identity persists in the present. In turn, we find ourselves grasping for every chance we get to build a sense of “Filipino-ness,” aptly hashtagged “Pinoy Pride.”

This mentality can be observed in the many existing national symbols (despite having no legislative basis) that we, as young learners, have come to know. We have been introduced to a national animal (carabao), fruit (mango), leaf (anahaw) and fish (bangus). In 2014, a lawmaker even filed House Bill 3926 to seek official recognition for adobo as the national food, bakya as the national slippers, bahay kubo as the national house and the jeepney as the national vehicle.

The latest of this endeavor is the approval of the House Bill 1022, otherwise known as the National Writing System Act of 2018, by the House Committee on Basic Education and Culture. The bill seeks to declare Baybayin as the country’s national writing system.

The bill aims to “generate awareness on the plight of ‘Baybayin’ and foster wide appreciation on its importance and beauty.” Further, Baybayin, according to the bill, refers to “all existing and discovered ancient and traditional scripts of the Philippine indigenous peoples.”

Specifically, the bill instructs the inscription of Baybayin scripts and their translation on the containers of labels of locally produced processed food products, the inclusion of Baybayin in the signages for street names, public facilities, public buildings, and other necessary signage for other public service establishments like hospitals, fire and police stations, community centers, and government halls. Baybayin translations will also be required in the names of newspaper and magazine publishers.

A Tagalog-centric bill

This move, however, is not without controversy. Many experts and educators pointed out that Baybayin, often mislabeled as “alibata,” refers to the type of the writing system that was used in Tagalog areas. Using the term might be too Tagalog-centric and does not reflect the diversity of scripts in the country. Other Philippine indigenous communities used different terms to refer to their scripts, such as Surat for Mangyan and Buhid in Mindoro, Surat for the script of Palawan languages (Inaborlan, Tagbanwa), Kulitan for the Kapampangan script, and Kurditan for the Ilocano script, among others. Further, clarification is needed in defining “ancientness” and “indigeneity.”

The bill also does not offer specific provision with regards to the development and revitalization of these living yet endangered indigenous scripts. It dismisses the fact that the existing indigenous scripts have their own linguistic nuances and particularities. The idea of nationalizing Baybayin, which is heavily based on Tagalog, is reminiscent of the past and ongoing struggles of other ethnolinguistic communities for recognition. It is viewed that rather than advance ongoing efforts on the revival and promotion of indigenous scripts, the current version of the bill might be a hindrance.

Lacking in function

Another issue is the functional vitality of Baybayin. At present, Tagalog Baybayin has no widespread contemporary use. Unlike East Asian languages such as Korean, Japanese, and Chinese, Baybayin is no longer utilized by the community of speakers to which it is associated. It merely serves as an ornamental font type used by various government and non-government organizations or as logos for commercial enterprises. In the digital domain, young Filipinos memorialize it through fonts, tattoos and other “paraphernalia of interest.” In schools, children do not actually learn it. The bill does not specify how the Baybayin should be integrated in the elementary and secondary curricula.

The bill must also determine how Baybayin and other indigenous scripts can be integrated in the existing programs of the Department of Education, such Indigenous Peoples Education (IPEd) and the Mother Tongue-based Multilingual Education (MTBMLE) programs. For instance, Surat Mangyan is an established part of the IPEd curriculum in Mindoro.

Under the MTBMLE program, the inclusion of Philippine indigenous scripts in the elementary and secondary curricula is a welcome initiative. Dr. Ricardo Nolasco, a professor of Linguistics and a pioneer advocate of MTBMLE, suggested that several modules on the indigenous scripts can be included in MAKABAYAN and MAPEH lessons.

Molding the national identity

While insufficient in its current form, the House Bill 1022, coupled with the recent discovery of “Baybayin Stones” of Ticao in 2011, may pave the way and jolt the Philippine scholarly community to give more attention to the Baybayin studies.

But molding our national identity is a complex and ongoing struggle. It is important that while these kinds of legislative actions might have the initial good intentions directed at nation building, great care must be placed into crafting laws which could potentially impact our society.

The bill, rather than superficially promote Baybayin for aesthetic purposes, should focus more on the revitalization of the increasingly endangered writing traditions of the indigenous peoples. Indigenous scripts, first and foremost, must serve the communities that use and promote them.