I’m very excited to be presenting at the International Workshop on Endangered Scripts of Island Southeast Asia in Tokyo, 27 February–1 March. Here is the abstract for my presentation. Comments welcome.
The Eskayan alphasyllabary of the Philippines: history and description of a utopian writing system
Over the course of the twentieth century, leaders of grassroots movements in Southeast Asia have sought to elevate the status of minority languages by rendering them visible in unique scripts. The Pahawh Hmong script, invented by Shong Lue Yang between 1959 and 1971, is perhaps the most celebrated case, but new writing systems are also reported for the Loven language of Laos (1924), and Iban in Malaysian Borneo (1947–1962) among others.
This paper describes the largely undocumented Eskayan writing system of the Philippines (ca. 1920–1937) and discusses the motivations and practicalities of its inspired (re)creation. Although Eskayan is used for the representation of Visayan (Cebuano)—a widely used language of the southern Philippines—its privileged role is in the written reproduction of a constructed utopian language, also referred to as Eskayan. Held to have been created by the ancestral ‘Pope Pinay’, the Eskayan language and writing system are used by approximately 550 people for restricted purposes in the upland region of southeast Bohol. Eskayan makes use of an inherent vowel in a small set of consonant characters, a strategy reminiscent of the endangered baybayin systems found elsewhere in the Philippines. For the most part, however, its approximately 1000 syllabic characters can be decomposed into what local scribes refer to as an inahan (‘mother’) standing for CV onsets and a diacritic sinyas (‘gesture’) indicating consonantal codas. Although the onset is often predictable from the graphic form of the inahan, coda diacritics are inconsistent, meaning that each syllabic character needs to be acquired independently.
I argue that the relatively unsystematic nature of the Eskayan writing system, and the redundancy of the majority of known Eskayan characters, is explicable with reference to the circumstances and ideologies that attended its emergence in the 1920s. From its beginnings, Eskayan was promoted by members of an anti-colonial movement that rejected the US occupation of Bohol in 1901 and sought to valorize an alternative indigenous cultural order. In my analysis, the writing system was likely to have been first developed for the cryptic transliteration of Visayan and Spanish text. Later, the syllabary was expanded to accommodate and preempt the exotic syllable shapes of the emergent Eskayan language, while anticipating the fulfillment of a local prophecy that Eskayan would one day be used for writing all the languages of the world. This dynamic between the particular and the universal plays out in traditional Eskayan literature, where written language is presented metaphorically as both a national flag substantiating indigenous difference and independence, and an expression of organic truth emanating from the human body.