Interview: Paul Morrow

Paul Morrow runs one of the most informative sites on Baybayin. Below is my interview with him.

Christian Cabuay
What got you interested in Baybayin? I assume you studied the script on your own, what was the most challenging part?

Paul Morrow
It’s a bit ironic. I became interested in Filipino/Tagalog many years ago when I discovered that Filipinos used the Roman alphabet. At the time I thought Filipinos probably wrote in Chinese or some “bizarre” script like Tibetan. That’s how little I knew. But when I happened to see a dictionary at a friend’s house, I thought, “Hey, I can read this. I think I’ll try to learn the language.” Then, a few years later, I came across an article by Lope K. Santos about the baybayin in a book for students of Tagalog. I was surprised because none of my friends had ever mentioned to me that Filipinos once had their own writing system. When I asked them I about it, they didn’t know what I was talking about. This made me very curious so I tried to find every scrap of information I could about the baybayin.

Learning the baybayin was the easy part; the challenge was finding reliable information about its history and usage. All I had in the beginning were second and third hand sources, like school textbooks. This was the dark ages before the Internet.

Christian Cabuay
What’s the reaction of Filipinos when they find out you speak Tagalog and even know our old writing system most of us don’t even know about?

Paul Morrow
It depends on the situation. Usually, they are just happy to hear me say “Kumusta ka,” but then some of them are just dumbfounded when I proceed to have are real conversation with them.

Sometimes though, I feel a bit uneasy about this because, here in North America, we meet people everyday from all over the world who have learned English as a second language but we take it for granted. Why should people be so impressed that this “white guy” can speak another language?

Occasionally I have met people who just pretend not to notice that I’m speaking to them in Filipino. I really don’t know what they think of me but I get the feeling it’s not good.

I have also met a few elderly Filipinos who honestly didn’t realize that we were conversing in Filipino until someone asks them, “O Nay, ba’t n’yo tinatagalog siya? Naiintidihan ka niya?”

When I tell people about the baybayin the reactions vary. I suspect that deep down some of them feel embarrassed that they don’t about it because their reactions are the same as when they hear me speak – either they say, “Wow, I don’t even know that!” or they seem very sceptical, as though I’m playing a joke on them.

Christian Cabuay
Have you experienced any backlash from “scholars”? I noticed that you translated your name (Morrow) as MO-DO/RO? I’ve read that the RA character in “foreign” words should/would use LA.

Paul Morrow
Actually, I think I was the first to make that observation about the use of LA in Bisayan baybayin texts. (If I wasn’t, I’ll defer to the rightful owner of that honour.) At any rate, that was in Bisayan texts. Tagalog texts used the Da/Ra character more consistently, except where Tagalog pronunciation differed from the original Spanish as in jugar/sugal or rezar/dasal, etc.

Ilokano text (at least Fr. Lopez’s Doctrina) seemed to be completely random in the use of Da/Ra and La. (William H. Scott made that observation.)

Nobody’s ever told me I was wrong to write MO RO. I usually get comments about writing my first name as “PO”.

Christian Cabuay
As you mention on your site, many of the documents classifying the script as regional were based on individuals handwriting. Your fonts have pretty much become the Times New Roman equivalent of Baybayin. It’s a standard for which all Baybayin writers are measured by. I also run and I’ve seen dozens of tattoos with your Baybayin Stylized font.

Paul Morrow
Yes, that is flattering but it is also a bit disconcerting because I know that many people are using my fonts without understanding the history behind them (or lack of history behind the Tagalog Stylized.) They think that my fonts are examples of how their ancestors wrote, when in fact they are actually replicas of typefaces that were made for Spanish printing presses. Filipinos back then could read and understand those fonts but their own handwriting was quite different.

As for the tattoos, that is also very flattering, to see my design on somebody’s skin but I completely understand the view of those tattoo artists who disapprove of using a font for a tattoo. After all, if I were to put something on my body for the rest of my life, I would want something unique and artistic. Besides, I have seen so many photos on the web of tattoos with my Stylized font that were spelled completely wrong. Just gibberish. It’s funny but it’s sad at the same time.

Christian Cabuay
Besides the website, how else do you use or promote Baybayin?

Paul Morrow
I also write articles for a community newspaper called the Pilipino Express, which my friends and I own in Winnipeg, Canada. I’ve done a few articles on the baybayin that have never been published online.

Every year in August there is a city-wide festival in Winnipeg called Folklorama. For two weeks about 40 different cultural groups put on shows with lots of food and music from their respective homelands. For the past three years we at the Pilipino Express have organized the cultural display at one of the Filipino pavilions. I sit among the wood carvings, clothing and other artifacts and I write out people’s names in baybayin on an information sheet that explains how to write the script and gives a brief history of it. It’s not very artistic, I just use a sharpie marker. With the bus loads of tourist, I often do about 200 transcriptions in one evening.

Christian Cabuay
Do you get a lot of inquiries from people asking for translations?

Paul Morrow
I get requests almost every day. I don’t mind doing it if the person seems honestly willing to learn. I like to share the knowledge. But there are some who think I’m just a machine. No please or thank you and no effort to try it for themselves. They just tell me they want something translated, often a long English sentence or a unique name with some crazy spelling that only their mother knows how to pronounce and they don’t care about the details. They just want to see it “translated” into the baybayin “language.” Usually it’s for a tattoo.

Christian Cabuay
What is your opinion of people stuck on the term Alibata? There’s this thought that Baybayin was the original script and when the Spanish kudlit was introduced, it became Alibata.

Paul Morrow
Well, I wouldn’t want to generalize about the people. Some might not know the story behind the terms or they just like the sound of “Alibata”. The Baybayin and the Alibata are the same thing regardless of the Spanish kudlit. As you probably know already, the term Alibata was invented about 400 years after Fr. Lopez added the Spanish kudlit to the baybayin.

I don’t like the term Alibata for three reasons. The first reason is because it is not historical. The man who invented the term, Paul Versoza, claimed he coined it in 1914. By itself that is not such a bad thing. There’s nothing wrong with using a new word for an old alphabet. But Versoza’s reasoning makes no sense. Why name the ancient Filipino script after the first three letters of the Arabic script? There’s no connection between the two. I think Versoza was just being pedantic. My third reason for rejecting the term Alibata is that it smacks of the old colonial mentality. I have no proof of this but I suspect Versoza liked the term because it sounded more like “alfabeto” and “alphabet.” Perhaps he thought it was more dignified than “Baybayin.”

On the other hand, baybayin is a Tagalog word; perhaps he wanted to avoid “Tagalog Imperialism” and so he invented a word that was acceptable to everybody. I think every language group should have their own word for the script.

I should mention that baybayin has a long history as a word, meaning to trace or spell out. It is most likely pre-colonial. But I have not yet determined when it was first used as the name for the ancient script. As far as I can tell, it is not much older than Alibata. All really old accounts just called the script Tagalog writing or Native writing.

Christian Cabuay
Do you actually have those old books books you quoted? If so, where did you get them? What was your research process?

Paul Morrow
I have most of them in one form or another. I photocopied some of them from university libraries. Others are now available online in digital scans (Check the University of Michigan web site). Project Gutenberg and Google Books have books on line from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Occasionally people just send me photocopies or scans of pages from hard-to-find books. The Doctrina Christiana can be bought on line very cheaply. As I said earlier, when I started out I only had school text books, which were next to useless but they did lead me to better sources. In some instances I have quoted a quote. The links on my web site show where I took the quote and where it came from originally.

Christian Cabuay
I look at the script in 3 ways…as a cultural artifact…a writing system….an art form. Being a non-Filipino, how do you approach it?

Paul Morrow
I see it as a cultural artifact and I leave it to the heirs of the legacy, the Filipinos, to develop it as they see fit, as a writing system, an art form or both.

Christian Cabuay
I’ve come across people who are hardcore about keeping the “traditional” way of writing and scoff of any modifications as colonial. What are your thoughts on this?

Paul Morrow
I’m mainly interested in the historical aspect, so I prefer the traditional method. To me, it’s just more elegant and it is the way Filipinos preferred to write even after the Lopez modification was introduced. But today it is harder for us to read. I can understand why people today who were raised on the Roman alphabet would like the modified baybayin. What bothers me are the few who invent complicated new modifications and then try to pass it off as “the ancient baybayin.” It’s almost like they are ashamed of the original.

Christian Cabuay
Have you ever been to the Philippines? If so, what do you most remember?

Paul Morrow I went to the Philippines in 1988 and stayed there for five months. I’m sure a lot has changed since then. What I remember most was probably the chaos of the traffic and the mañana attitude and being called Joe or Amerikano everywhere I went. (Yes, I am an uptight white guy.) But for every negative I can think of several positives – the stunning shades of blue water at Hundred Islands in Pangasinan and the brilliant green vegetation of Pagsanjan. I know I must sound like a travelogue but the hospitality of the people was downright humbling. I’ll go back there someday and will appreciate it all more.

Visit Paul Morrow’s website

13 thoughts on “Interview: Paul Morrow

  1. I would like to make a correction to one of my statements in the interview. I said:
    “…the term Alibata was invented about 400 years after Fr. Lopez added the Spanish kudlit to the baybayin.”
    It should say “about 300 years.” The Lopez kudlit was introduced in 1620 and the term Alibata was coined in 1914. Basic arithmetic is not my forte. 🙂

  2. Dapat nating pagyamanin ang ating sariling baybayin
    huwag nating talikuran at talikdan
    sapagkat ito’y ating karangalan dapat ipagmalaki….

    Salamat sa iyo Ka Paul Morrow sapagkat ang aking isipan ay natuto.

  3. sana may matutunan tayo kay Paul Morrow,, Ibang lahi siya pero nagkaroon siya ng interes para matutunan ang sarili nating (orihinal) na alpabeto na ginamit nung mga ilang nagdaang taon na ang nakararaan,, sana magkainteres din yung iba sa atin at hindi lang basta maging “isang paksa sa Filipino subject” noong high school ang maging tingin ng karamihan dito,, nakakalungkot kasi yung iba mas may interes pang matuto ng hapon kaysa Baybayin,,, (opinion ko lng po iyon at hindi ko naman po nilalahat) salamat po

  4. tama nakahiya man sabihin pero banyaga pa ang nagkaron ng interes sa pinagalingan ng ating salita at sistema ng pagsusulat. Kung pwede lang ito ipatupad sa mga paaralan ngayon, upang mabigyan linaw ang ating nakaraan. Kung malaman kung sino, ano at san tayo nangaling. Sa totoo lang ngayon ako mas lalo na nag ka interes na malaman ang sariling atin. Kaya tunay na nagpapa salamat ako ke Ginoong Paul Morrow sa pagmamalasakit niya sa atin mga pilipino sa pagtuklas ng baybayin. Mabuhay ka at kaawaan ka ng Diyos na buhay.

  5. I think Mr. Morrow needs more research with our filipino history. yes indeed it was commonly used or called by our ancestor katutubos as “Baybayin” because that time only people in the society have the access to education such as: most of them are the maharlikas which belong to the 1st class society that lives near the sea shore or river banks that why it is called the ‘baybayin language’. (baybayin means ‘tabing dagat or tabing ilog) this alphabet was first introduced and taught by Islamic (muslims) scholars from indonesia and malaysia a.k.a. malay people. Mr. Morrow should search first on what was the main religion of filipinos before the spaniards settled in the philippines. The main religion of filipinos during those eras was ISLAM and Islam is being taught in arabic and nobody can read the Qur’an without learning first its alphabet which is the Alif’ ba’ ta.

  6. Wow. I can’t find one correct fact in Teonilo’s comments. I wonder if someone is just playing a practical joke on me. I will play along:

    1. Several early Spanish accounts said that where ever the baybayin was used, almost everybody knew how to use it and at all levels of society, not just among the elite. Almost every modern writer who writes about the baybayin quotes one of these early accounts.

    2. The maharlikha were not the “first class” of society. They were free men who served the maginoo in times of war.

    3. Baybayin does mean shoreline but it also means to trace and to spell out.

    4. The marhalika class did not live exclusively near shorelines, however rivers were the natural highways for inland trade and seashores were where inter-island trade naturally took place. So naturally, a lot of people lived near shorelines. That particular meaning of baybayin has nothing to do with the name of the writing system. Perhaps Teonilo is confusing the maharlikas and shorelines with the popular history that says Tagalogs were “taga-ilog.”

    5. Baybayin is not a language. It is a writing system that was used to write several languages.

    6. There is no record of Muslim scholars teaching baybayin to the people of the Philippines. They wrote in Arabic or in the scripts of the Malay archipelago such as Kavi. The people of Luzon and the Visayas learned or adapted the baybayin from the writing of people from the area of Borneo or Sulawesi, through trade contacts. Some of these traders were probably Muslim but the baybayin was not. It is generally thought to have Hindu roots.

    7. Islam was not the main religion of the Philippines before the arrival of the Spaniards. It was established in parts of Mindanao and surrounding areas, which is why the Spaniards failed to conquer the south completely. The Spaniards were only successful in the central and northern parts of the Philippines because the Muslims had not yet gained control of those areas. The people of Luzon and the Visayas were animists. Some of the wealthy people in these areas did take on some Muslim fashions and habits because of their trade contacts with Muslims but they were not devout Muslims.

    Also, Teonilo contradicted himself or herself. Teonilo said the Koran is taught in Arabic. Why, then, would the Muslims teach the baybayin to Filipinos? The baybayin writing system and the Arabic abjad are two completely different things.

    8. Alif ba and ta is the beginning of the Arabic abjad sequence not the baybayin. The original baybayin sequence was likely: A U/O I/E HA PA KA SA LA TA NA BA MA GA DA/RA YA NGA WA – as shown in the oldest surviving baybayin document, the Doctrina Christiana of 1593.

    Perhaps Teonilo would like to do some research, too. For information about the customs of the various peoples of the Philippines at the time of Spanish contact, I highly recommend the book, “Barangay, Sixteenth-Century Philippine Culture and Society” by William H. Scott.

    Also see my article “Maharlika and the ancient class sytem.” it is a quicker read than Scott’s book.

    For detailed information about the baybayin, see my own website at The sources of my information are documented in footnotes and a bibliography.

    Or just look around this great web site by Christian Cabuay. There is also Hector Santos’ web site called “”

    Salamat Teonilo sa inyong mga puna at salamat din sa lahat na nag-kumento dito.

    – Paul Morrow

  7. Update:

    I said in the interview that I have not yet determined when the term “baybayin” was first used as the name for the ancient script. I still don’t know but I did see “baybayin” listed in the 1754 dictionary by Noceda and San Lucar as “El A B C Tagalo”

    So the name “baybayin” is at least 160 years older than “alibata” if this entry was in the first edition of the dictionary. I was looking at the 1860 edition, which is still 54 years before Versoza coined the word “alibata”.

  8. Obviously Teonilo confuses many things. At the time when Muslim Malays were conquering parts of the Philippine archipelago, their literate men and women already wrote their own language (Malay) in a modified version of the Arabic alphabet.

    For example, the sound /p/ does not exist in Arabic while it exists in Malay. So Malay took the Arabic letter for the sound /f/, and used it to represent the sound /p/. To avoid any spelling confusion with the original Arabic letter ف, they replaced the single dot by three dots ڤ. When an Arabic word with an /f/ had to be included in a Malay text, the Arabic letter for /f/ was read /p/ except by those who had mastered this foreign sound, and pronounced it /f/. For example, while the name of the 2nd month of the Islamic calendar is Safar صفر, the majority of Malays pronounced it [sapar].

    This version of the Arabic alphabet adapted to Malay is called _Jawi_ (Jaawi جاوى ) both in Arabic and Malay. Originally _Jawi_ meant “Javanese” in Arabic, but due to the confusion between Java and Sumatra, it eventually just meant “Malay”.

    The majority of Malays and Philippine Muslims cannot speak Arabic. When they read the Qur’an, they do so without understanding what it means, unless they refer to a translation in their own language or in English. Besides they mispronounce it because Arabic has many difficult phonemes, and only a certain number of their clerics have mastered them, after long studies in Arabic-speaking countries. (A Qur’an reader / cantor, called _qaarii’_ قارىء, always has a diploma from an official Qur’anic institute.)

    _Jawi_ and _Baybáyin_ cannot be confused by anyone who has seen both. The term _Baybáyin_ “alphabet” is mentioned in SAN BUENAVENTURA’s Tagalog dictionary (1613), our earliest lexicographical source.

    The wrong term _Alibáta_ was used by Paul VERSOZA in 1914 while he was employed at the New York City library simply because he did not know the proper term _Baybáyin_. He borrowed it from Magindanaon, where it refers either to Jawi or the Arabic alphabet.

    Malays call the Arabic alphabet _abjad_ ابجد . This name reveals that they adopted it when the old alphabetic order prevailed – alif, baa’, gaa’/ jaa’, daal, etc – that is parallel to the order of the Greek and Hebrew alphabets. I don’t know when it was replaced by the new order – alif, baa’, taa’, thaa’, jiim, etc.

  9. Perhaps this will interest some of you.
    As regards baybáyin, the name of the Tagalog syllabic alphabet, it should be said that there are several monosyllabic roots √bay. Some were very productive. It goes without saying that many of the words below are either archaic or obsolete.
    √bay “cluster” in bagaybáy “bunch of fruit”, bálay-bálay “bunch of fruit”, kabayúkan “swarm of bees”, lábay “silk or cotton skein that comprises 576 threads in six túhol-s of 96 threads each”.
    √bay “community” in balaybáy “gossip corner”, *bálai > báhay “house”, balángay “boat manned by twelve to sixteen”, balangáy “compound on which several houses are built; neighborhood”, báyan “town; country”
    √bay “deception” in bayúbay “carved head on rampart to deceive the assailants”, baykót “fraud”
    √bay “female” in babáe “woman, female”, báyì “court lady”, baláe “in-law”, baysán “in-law”, bayáw “in-law”, pamamaháy “womb”, ibáyi “female genitals”, bayúgin “transvestite man”, báyot “effeminate male, hermaphrodite”, líbay “doe [female deer]”
    √bay “flakes” in balayúbay “dandruffs”
    √bay “lath” in bagaybáy “raceme”, bálay-bálay “raceme”, lábay-lábay “bamboo cross-pieces for roofing support; truss”, balaybáy “palm frond; rib of a leaf”
    √bay “side > companion” in ábay “escorting”, agábay > agápay “one of a pair”, agbáy: umagbáy sa bátà “to help a child to walk”, akbáy / agbáy “accompanying”, alagbáy: umalagbáy sa táo “to follow sb. with one’s eyes”, alakbáy: mag-alakbáy “to put one’s arm over one’s companion’s shoulder”, albáy: umalbáy “to support sth. that might fall or collapse”, albáy “stanchion”, alinsabáy “contemporary”, sabáy “together”, síbay “walking shoulder to shoulder” > kasíbay “companion”, sibáy-sibáy / subaybáy / sumbaybáy “walking arms over each other’s shoulder”, sigbáy “sharing a seat, a bed”, umbáy “companion”
    √bay “side > handrail” in balaybáy“open corridor flanked by railings”, gabáy “handrail; guide”, patnúbay “guide, escort”
    √bay “side > roadside” in antábay / balaybáy “waiting for sb. on the road side”, bayábay “vagrant, hobo, tramp”, “expecting sb.”
    √bay “side > limb” in imbáy “swinging one’s arms”, lábay-lábay “alternating strokes of the arms in swimming”
    √bay “side > side of the body” in bayawáng “waist; loin”, baywáng “the waist”, nakapamaywáng “akimbo”
    √bay “side > tilted” in bagaybáy “overload”
    √bay “side >bank, shore” in baybáy “seashore”, baybáyin “shore, riverbank”, balaybáy “going along a river, a border”, hibaybáy “region along a coast hence a province”, kahibaybáyan “suburbs”, kalubaybáy “coastal shipping”, ibáyo “the opposite shore/bank > twice as much > times”, lakbáy “travel on foot > travel”, lambáy “seashore, passable riverbank”, sambáy “shortcut” | bálay “oyster: a long and flat species”, halubaybáy “sardine (Sardinella perforata)”
    √bay “slowness” in bayúbay “in suspense, in abeyance”, báyà “quietness”, bayaís mapagluklók “to keep still because of the narrowness of the place where one is sitting”, báyat “nonchalance” > bayatí “a herb used to drug fish in a river”, katábay “slow, cautious”, báyaw “calm, quiet” > mabáyaw ang loób “light-hearted”
    √bay “space, horizon” in báyà“space, room”, báyan “atmosphere: the space between earth and sky; time; weather”, bayán “time of the day”
    √bay “spell” in baybáyin “alphabet”, mamaybáy “to summon”, labáy “incantation”, umbayihán “dirge”

  10. Hello, I am sorry to add a comment that does not have a connection with the subject. I am a French anthropologist teaching tagalog at INaLCO and I am trying to look for Jean-Paul Potet’s telephone number in Paris or email adress because Pr. Harold Conklin is in Paris and he would like to call you. Can you please send me an email at elisabeth .luquin@inalco. fr. I am going to see Pr. Conklin on Friday afternoon:
    Exceptionnellement à Paris pour le jury d’une thèse, un séminaire en son honneur a lieu vendredi 18 juin à 14h, amphithéâtre de Paléontologie, Muséum d’Histoire naturelle, 2 rue Buffon, 75005

    maraming salamat sa inyo

  11. Pingback: GMA 7: Pintados Remake | (aka Alibata) art, translations and tutorials

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