Mindoro Island in the Philippines is home to two closely-related, incised-in-bamboo endangered alphabets–Hanunuo in the southern part of the island, and the less well known Buhid farther north.It’s a sign of how accustomed we have become to the notion of writing in parallel horizontal lines (and also of left-handed people being expected to write the same way as right-handed) that these scripts have caused great confusion among outside observers. Some thought the script was vertical, others left-to-right or right-to-left, even bottom to top.

The act of incising with a sharp bolo knife in a hard, round, relatively unstable surface such as a piece of bamboo is fundamentally different from writing on lined paper. Sensibly, the Mangyans of Mindoro held the bamboo at an angle, slanting away from their bodies. (Read the Baybayin profile for more on this process.)

In Mindoro, this writing technology also led to cultural and regional differences in traditional writing styles. This difference may be aesthetic, but it is also rooted in the technical:

“The rounded garagbutan style,” Christopher Ray Miller explains, “is made with the tip of a bolo knife whereas the dakdahulan (big or bold style) is made with the blade (next to the tip, I imagine), leading to the contrast between thin verticals and thick horizontals.”

Historically, young Hanunuo men and women learned the Hanunuo script in order to write each other love poems. The goal was to learn as many songs as possible, and using the script to write the songs facilitated this process. Nowadays they are more likely to use digital devices, which are unlikely to support the Hanunuo script.

An example of the traditional seven-syllable Ambahan poetry of the Hanuno’o-Mangyans of Mindoro, Central Philippines:

So, you will be going now,
Starting on a journey far!
Your eyes will enjoy the trip
Many things you will behold.But I, who will stay behind,
Here within this four-walled room,
What thoughts could I entertain?
Just looking up at the roof,Just looking down at the floor.

The Mangyan Heritage Center has started teaching the Hanunuo Mangyan Syllabic Script in Mangyan public elementary and secondary schools, partnering with the Department of Education to give a one hour once a week schedule for each class in selected schools.

The Center has a Primer to Mangyan Script which they use to teach the script. They have also published books on Mangyan literature, including ambahan poetry, and other cultural practices which are integrated in the teaching of the script. The teachers are community elders, the bearers of their culture.
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