On the Possible Cham Origin of the Philippine Scripts

By Wade, Geoff | Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, March 1993 | Go to article overview

On the Possible Cham Origin of the Philippine Scripts


Wade, Geoff, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies


I. The Philippine Scripts

In 1593, there was printed in Manila a most remarkable xylographic (wood-block) book, comprising Juan de Plascenia's Doctrina Christiana in Spanish, romanized Tagalog and Tagalog script.(1) While there is still some debate as to whether this was the first book to be published in the Philippines,(2) there appears little doubt that it constitutes the earliest extant printed example of any Philippine script.

Slightly more than 10 years later, in 1604, a work by the Jesuit father Pedro Chirino, who had spent 12 years in the Philippines from 1590 to 1602,(3) was published in Rome under the title Relacion de las Islas Filipinas. In Chapter 10 of this work, Chirino noted: "All these islanders are much given to reading and writing and there is hardly a man, and much less a woman, who does not read and write in the letters used in the island of Manila -- which are entirely different from those of China, Japan and India."(4) He then proceeded to detail and illustrate the script he referred to, as comprising three vowel graphs (used to represent five vowels) and 12 consonant graphs. The consonants, he noted, were normally pronounced with an inherent vowel-sound "a", but with the addition of a vocalic indicator either above or below, could also be pronounced with a following "i" or "e" (vocalic indicator above consonant) or "o" or "u" (vocalic indicator below consonant). Chirino's description appears to constitute the earliest description of the "Manila" (Tagalog) alphabet, or more precisely (as pointed out by Juan R. Francisco(5)) "syllabary", and the mechanisms of its use.

Antonio de Morga's Sucesos de las Islas Filipinas, published in 1609, synthesized much of what was then known by the Spanish about the Philippine islands and included details of the languages and script, recording:

The language of all the Pintados and Bicayas is one and the same, by which they understand one another when talking, or when writing with the letters and characters of their own which they possess. These resemble those of the Arabs. The common manner of writing among the natives is on leaves of trees and on bamboo bark.... The language of Luzon and those islands in its vicinity differs widely from that of the Bicayas.... The natives throughout the islands can write excellently with certain characters, almost like the Greek or Arabic. These characters are fifteen in all. Three are vowels, which are used as are our five. The consonants number twelve, and each and all of them combine with certain dots or commas, and so signify whatever one wishes to write, as fluently and easily as is done with our Spanish alphabet. The method of writing was on bamboo, but is now on paper, commencing the lines at the right and running to the left in the Arabic fashion. Almost all the natives, both men and women, write in this language. There are few who do not write it excellently and correctly.(6)

An unsigned document ascribed to Diego de Bobadilla S.J. and dated to c. 1640, contains a further discussion and illustration of the script used in Luzon.(7) An interesting point of note is that this illustration, like Chirino's, does not include the graphs for "nga" and "wa".

The last seventeenth century reference of note is contained in Francisco Colin's Labor evangelica, dating to the second half of that century, where in reference to the "letters of the Filipinos", he noted that "The vowel letters are only three in number, but they serve for five in their use; for the second and third are indifferently e, i, y, o, or u, according as is required by the meaning or sense of the word which is spoken or written. The consonants are thirteen in number and serve (except at the beginning of the phrase or initial letter) as consonant and vowel; for the letter alone without a dot above or below, is pronounced with 'A'. If the dot is placed above, the consonant is pronounced with 'e' or 'i'. If the dot is placed below, it is pronounced with 'o' or 'u'.

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