Luntar Sug: Reconstruction of A Lost Ancient Sulu Script


Pre-Spanish Philippines is known to have used an ancient writing system called Baybayin. This was noted by both Spanish priest Pedro Chirino in his book Relación de las islas Filipinas in 1604 and historian Antonio de Morga in his book Sucesos de las Islas Filipinas in 1609. However, none of these sources mention the origin of the Baybayin or of the place where it was first discovered.

In this article, I will attempt to trace the roots of this ancient writing system as well as its connection with the “Luntar,” a lost ancient Tausug script.  I will also detail our own efforts to reconstruct the Luntar using characters from the Baybayin.

Baybayin in Tagalog can either mean “to trace” or “to spell”. Its root word, baybay, means “spelling”. Spaniards called Baybayin “Tagalog letters” while Bikolanos called it Basahan. To the Tausug, Basahan or Bassahan means a “place to read”, “manner of reading”, or “will be reading”. A piece of literature is called Babassahun. Basahan or Bassahan comes from the word Bassa, which means “to read”.

Baybayin characters

Baybayin was used generally to write poetry, diaries, and other personal writings. Historians debate about the extensiveness of its use or the extent of literacy among natives during pre-Spanish times. Historian William Henry Scott argued that no literacy was generally achieved by natives in those times, and that no historical record of any writing system currently exists. He cited evidences where Datus from the 1590s could not sign affidavits and where witnesses could not sign oaths in the 1620s.  

Ferdinand Magellan’s chronicler Antonio Pigafetta wrote that Visayans were not literate in 1521. However, Miguel Lopez de Legazpi, who became the first governor of the Philippines in the 1500s, refuted this. In his writings, Legazpi reported that Visayans used a system of letters and characters, which they learned from the Malays.

Legaspi’s claim was supported a century later by Jesuit historian Francisco Ignacio Alcina, who wrote that Visayans had a system of writing they learned from Tagalogs, who, in turn, learned it from the Borneans. He called this system of writing the “moro writing”.

At least five theories about the origin of Baybayin have been brought up by scholars David Diringer, Fletcher Garner, and Isaac Taylor. Baybayin, according to them, may have come from other Asian ancient writing systems such as the Kawi Script from Java, Pallava Script from Sumatra, Lontara Script from Sulawesi, Assamese Script from Bengal, and Cham Script from Champa.

One alternative theory raised is that this system of writing could have come from Sulus or Tausugs because Sulu was at the height of its civi-cultural as well as political-economic power in the 1500s. In addition, much of ancient Borneo, whom Legazpi attributed as origin of the Tagalog writing form, was inhabited by Tausugs in those times.

Dean Paul Rodriguez Versoza of the University of Manila proposed to change Baybayin into “Alibata” in 1914. He explained this in a book entitled Pangbansang Titik nang Pilipinas, which was published in 1939. He coined Alibata from the first three letters of Arabic characters; Alif, Ba, Ta’, which was widely known in Mindanao and Sulu Archipelago in ancient times.

Many historians, however, do not agree with Dean Versoza. Among them was historian/scholar Paul Morrow, who contended that the term Alibata has no connection with the ancient writing system in the archipelago. To Morrow, Alibata is totally a modern creation and absolutely has no relationship with the Baybayin.

Spanish priests in the 1500s relied heavily on the Baybayin in their evangelisation of natives. Father Francisco Lopez introduced Doctrina Cristiana in Ilocano. The book, which was an early record of Roman Catholic catechism, was published in 1621 using the Tagalog form of Baybayin. Over time, however, Baybayin was slowly abandoned by people until it finally disappeared from use.

Tausug historian Samuel K. Tan wrote that one of the first written literatures of Sulus or Tausugs was called Luntar, or Sulu annals.  Dr. Najeeb M. Saleeby in his book, The Moro Problem, recalled being given access to a library of ancient books by the Sultan of Sulu. Most of the the books were religious manuscripts and books on law and magic. “There was no book on religion, law, or history in the possession of Datu Ali that I could not get, and the Sultan of Sulu placed his precious Luntar in my hands,” wrote Dr. Saleeby.

The Luntar was known as the ancient writing system of the Tausugs, aside from Sulat or Surat Sug. Sulat Sug, also called Jawi in the Malay world, are Arabic characters used in writing letters in Bahasa Sug. Luntar was believed to have been used in writing poetry, individual and personal historical accounts, and biographies.

“Luntar Sug” written in Luntar Sug characters by Jefrey Rosales Ramos.

Some scholars believe that the use of the Luntar was practiced even before the advent of Islam in the 7th or 9th century in the Sulu Archipelago. However very few evidences of its use exist; much of it is believed to have been lost during the first burning of Jolo by the Spanish armada in the 16th century.

The Spaniards destroyed evidences of Tausug writings; perhaps they did so not only to terrorize the natives but also to bury ancient Tausug symbols of civilization. Even after coercive and brutal attacks on Sulu and Mindanao, the Spaniards still couldn’t contain the natives. Out of frustration, the Spaniards burned cities, along with them valuable pieces of literature of ancient Suluks.

Luntar means “tossing words from mouth” or literally “by word of mouth and speaking”. Tausugs wrote on both leaves and bamboo slits. Historian Paul Morrow wrote that pre-Hispanic writing tools were called panulat. Pānulat, panunulat or manulat is a Tausug word which means “writer” and panulasulat means “how it is being written” or “presentation of writing”. Hipanulat means “tool used to write”, from the word sulat which means “to write a letter.”

As mentioned earlier, theories on the origin of the Baybayin are varied: from Kawi of Java, Pallava of Sumatra, Lontara of Sulawesi, Assamese of Bengal and Cham of Champa. Other historians wrote that the Tagalogs and the Visayans learned the Baybayin from Borneans.

If Baybayin was learned by Visayans from the Tagalogs, and if the Tagalogs learned it from Borneans, it is highly possible that the lost original script for the Baybayin is the Luntar, which came from the Sulu Archipelago and Borneo. (It should be noted that some Borneans in the early 15th century, before the invasion of the Spaniards, were also known as Sulus, Sulugs, Suluks, Tausugs or people of Sulu Archipelago and Borneo.)


Inspired by the rich history of the Baybayin and its connection with the Luntar, I and Tausug artist/author Asree Sug set off to reconstruct and develop a modern version of the Luntar using the Baybayin as basis. We call this writing system the LUNTAR SUG. This reconstruction effort started in February 2011 at Sandakan, with the goals of preserving a lost ancient script and achieving renewal of Sulu heritage.

The system or atulan to write Luntar Sug characters by Asree Sug.
New and updated chart of Luntar Sug

Luntar Sug has the basic set of characters from Baybayin and/or Alibata as well as a few more, which we added to suit the modern spelling of words according to the English alphabet. These new characters are; ja, za, ra, fa, patay, sangka’ and baris. We call these characters “asreeneldy”. Asree Sug designed fonts around them as well.

We plan to discuss further about the Luntar Sug in a book which we will publish later. The book is entitled Sejarah Sulug dan Teori Likusantara: Kepulauan Sulu sebelum muncul nama Philippines or Sulug History and Likusantara Theory: Sulu Archipelago before the existence of the name Philippines. In this book, we will discuss about pre-Spanish Philippines as it formed part of the Sulu Archipelago.

Luntar Sug is a system of writing (atulan pagsulat) that has twenty one (21) characters; three (3) vowels and eighteen (18) consonants. It has its own individual characters (sulatan) and alphabet (sunudsulat). We call Luntarsug characters batangsulat and the additional characters batangsunu’. The batangsulat, which we named asreeneldy, are also called “jafaraza.” The batangsunu’ are patay (sound stopper), sangka’ (glottal stop), and baris (slide line).

Sample sentences written in Luntar Sug by Asree Sug.

The stopping symbol used in Luntar Sug is a caret, which appears like an inverted v (^). This stopping symbol is called patay. The glottal stopper, which is called sangka’, is a small curl-like diacritic placed above a character. It is influenced by the Arabic dammah symbol (و). The sliding line, which we call baris, is used to determine how a character should sound: i (read as /iy/| if the baris appears above a character (baris ha taas), u (read as /uw/) if the baris appears below a character (baris ha baba). The sound /ah/ is the standard sound of each character.

The vowel sounds of the Luntar Sug are based on the three sounds of the Sulu vocal sounds, namely, a, i, and u. These three sounds are believed to be from the ilmu’ kabatinan, which is considered mystic knowledge in Sulu. Ilmu kabatinan is known as the “three alifs”. According to ancient Sulus, these three alifs can neither be destroyed nor exterminated. The three (3) vowels in Luntar Sug are called tingugtuw or katingug, while the eighteen (18) consonants are called tingugpurna’ or patingug.

Sample sentence written in Luntar Sug by Asree. Sug.

Based on our study of the Sulu language, Asree Sug and I theorize that the word luntar came from the word luntad, which in turn was derived from the two words lun (roll) and tadtad (chop into pieces). Luntar may have become known later from liyun tiyadtad, tiyadtad liyun, luntadtad, lun tiyadtad and tiyadtad paglunun. Over time tadtad may have evolved from tad to tar

On 1st July 2013, at the first regular session of the Sixteenth Regular Congress, Honorable Congressman Leopoldo N. Bataoil filed House Bill 160, also known as the “National Script Act of 2011”. This bill was intended to provide for the protection and conservation of native Philippine scripts, previously categorized under the umbrella term “Baybayin Scripts”. In this bill he listed eight written languages that are considered major, among them the Luntarsug or modern Tausug script.

Layag Sug written in Luntar Sug by Jefrey Rosales Ramos

Ancient script researcher from Zamboanga City, Jefrey Rosales Ramos, who learned of the Luntar Sug writing system and studied it, sent us this message just recently: “Assalamu Alaykum. I would like to ask your and Asree Sug’s permission to use the Luntar Sug chart. I would like to learn Luntar Sug since I live in Region 9 and I descended from diverse ethnic tribes. Learning and actually using indigenous writing systems in my arts help me as I advocate for their use and for better appreciation of culture and history. I am hoping for your positive reply.”

I exchanged conversations with him. He understood that Luntar Sug is a reconstructed script. Asree Sug and I are very happy to spread the use of Luntar Sug. I am honoured that Brother Jefrey Rosales Ramos made banner designs with the phrases “Layag Sug” and “Neldy Jolo” in Luntar Sug. I personally thanked him for this.

Neldy Jolo written in Luntar Sug by Jefrey Rosales Ramos

p/s: This post originally written by Neldy Jolo on his blog Credit to him for for this article which is consider most precious for the Tausug.


1.       Morrow, Paul. “Baybayin – The Ancient Script of the Philippines.” Baybayin, The Ancient Script of the Philippines. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Feb. 2014.

2.       H.R. 160, 16th Cong. (2013) (unenacted). An Act Providing for the Protection and Conservation of the Baybayin, and Declaring Baybayin as the National Script of the Philippines.

3.       Wade, Geoff. “On the Possible Cham Origin of the Philippine Scripts.” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies.

4.       Santos, Hector (1995). “Literacy in Pre-Hispanic Philippines.” 

5.       Saleeby, Najeeb (1870). “The Moro problem; an academic discussion of the history and solution of the problem of the government of the Moros of the Philippine Islands.”

6.       Tan, Samuel K (1987). “The History of the Philippines.” Pg9.

7.       Blog of Indio Bravo:


1.       “…and the Sultan of Sulu placed his precious Luntar in my hands.”

                            –          Dr. Najeeb Saleeby, the Moro Problem, 1870.

2.       “The second form of Tausug written literature is the luntar, which is known to Tausug scholars or leaders as a brief historical account of the sultanate.”

                            –          Dr. Samuel K. Tan, History of the Philippines, 1987.

3.       The sad fact is that most forms of indigenous art in the Philippines were abandoned wherever the Spanish influence was strong and only exist today in the regions that were out of reach of the Spanish empire.” 

                             –          Paul Morrow, Canadian Baybayin Expert. 

4.       “…an art which was communicated to them from the Tagalogs, and the latter learned it from the Borneans who came from the great island of Borneo to Manila…From these Borneans the Tagalogs learned their characters, and from them the Visayans, so they call them Moro characters or letters because the Moros taught them…”

                            –          Francisco Ignacio Alcina, 1668

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