The writing system written in one direction, but read in another

The Philippines, an archipelago of more than 7 400 islands, and home to dozens of languages, most of which belong to the Austronesian language family. While Tagalog, Filipino, Ilocano, and Cebuano stand out as some of the more spoken languages, or better known ones in the Philippines, there are many others with much fewer speakers, some in the range of dozens to thousands.

With it, comes with a whole host of indigenous writing systems many may not be aware of. Together, these writing systems are called suyat, which comprise of such writing systems prior to Spanish colonisation in the 16th century, up to the independence era in the 21st century. The term suyat was coined as a neutral term to encompass the indigenous writing systems of the Philippines.

Among this however, one stands out in a manner many would not expect. Furthermore, it is used by thousands who formed what could be one of the oldest ethnic groups in the Philippines, primarily in central and northern Palawan. This is the Tagbanwa.

The Tagbanwa people are further classified into the Central Tagbanwa and the Calamian Tagbanwa, which may not share exactly the same customs and traditions, and speak languages that may not be mutually intelligible with one another. They do also speak, in addition to the Tagbanwa languages, the Palawano language, and several other dialects in the locality.

However different the Tagbanwa languages are from one another, they are united by their writing system, known as the Tagbanwa script. This is also used by the Palawan people, and is closely related to another indigenous writing system known as the Baybayin script. The Tagbanwa script traces its roots back to one of the south Indian scripts derived from the Brahmi script. From which, the Kawi script of Java, Bali, and Sumatra was derived, and it was from this Kawi script where the Baybayin and Tagbanwa scripts may have arisen.

The Tagbanwa and Baybayin scripts are almost identical, with the most notable differences being the way the /k/ and /w/ are written in Tagbanwa. Technically speaking, the Tagbanwa script is an abugida, where each letter is a syllable containing an “inherent vowel”, the /a/ vowel, and diacritics are added to modify the vowel quality. /i/ is marked above the letter, and /u/ is marked below the letter.

This script was also adopted in the 20th century by the Palawan people and was called the Ibalnan script, and the vowel mark was called the ulit.

However, perhaps one of the most defining characteristics of the Tagbanwa script is how it is written, and how it is read. In this part of the world, writing was done traditionally on bamboo, with knives. The need to make cuts and grooves on bamboo would bring several mechanical limitations for the way the writing system could work, like how imprinting on clay tablets for cuneiform would make curved letters difficult, and how the traditional use of leaves as writing media for scripts like Tamil make letters with sharp edges unfavourable.

This brought about an innovation by the Tagbanwa, well, sort of. The Tagbanwa script is written in vertical columns from bottom to top, then left to right. Yes, you read that correctly, bottom to top. It is perhaps of the most unconventional directions of writing, since most writing systems are written left to right or right to left, then top to bottom. Even writing systems like the Mongol bichig are written top to bottom then left to right.

And Tagbanwa is read in a different direction. It is read from left to right in horizontal lines. It is perhaps one of the few existing writing systems where the writing and reading directions differ from each other, making it one of the most intriguing writing systems to ever exist.

However, preserved writing in Tagbanwa is not really easy to come by, probably due to the climate, and the longevity of writing on bamboo media. And to make matters worse, the Tagbanwa languages are at risk of dying out, as younger generations prefer to learn and use non-traditional languages like Tagalog and Cuyonon, placing some uncertainty on the future of the Tagbanwa script. While there are plans to revive and revitalise the Tagbanwa script for its speakers, under a bill to protect all writing systems of the Philippines in 2018, further updates on how this would be done are quite hard to come by. Perhaps this is still being agreed on with the speaking communities, or with schools.

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