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TEMPLE-BEAUDRY : Ancient Tongue Now in the Computer Age

January 23, 1994|JAKE DOHERTY

As the sophistication of computers accelerates the race toward the future, Hector Santos uses his to rescue a piece of the Philippines' rich past.

Santos has completed a design of computer-generated fonts, or typefaces, to print the ancient Tagalog script, which was in danger of being lost and forgotten because it could be written only by hand.

Tagalog, an indigenous language spoken in the Philippines, is rendered in print today using the Roman alphabet. But before the 16th-Century Spanish conquest of the archipelago, Tagalog was written with a squiggly script, known as alibata or baybayin , Santos said.

"When the Spanish came they found the people to be literate" in the natives' own languages, Santos said. The script, generally written with a knife and carved in bamboo, "was in the hands of the masses."

But with the heavy Spanish influence, the script fell into disuse and was almost completely replaced by the Roman alphabet by the end of the 18th Century, Santos said.

However, scripts related to the ancient Tagalog one are still used by the Hanunoos and Buhids of Mindoro and the Tagbanwas of Palawan, Santos said, referring to indigenous peoples on two Philippine islands.

Because Santos is developing computer fonts for those scripts as well, his work is of interest not just to scholars but also to those who want to preserve minority ethnic cultures.

With Santos' software, texts using the ancient and existing scripts can be quickly produced via computer keyboard instead of drawn by hand. One tangible benefit Santos foresees is the production of new books for Hanunoo children eager for reading materials, which until now could be prepared only with painstaking effort.

The fonts are available for Macintosh and personal computers in PostScript and TrueType formats and can also be used in design programs such as Adobe Illustrator and Aldus Freehand.

Santos, 52, runs a Silver Lake-based graphics design and desktop publishing company, Sushi Dog Graphics. Previously, he worked as a computer systems engineer with Northrop Corp.

He dabbled in paleography, or the study of ancient scripts, for years. After he began his research on the Philippine scripts last year, he designed the computer fonts in about two months.

"I started doing it for fun, but now it's become a mission," he said. "There's a visual uniqueness to (the script) that isn't Spanish or Chinese. It is genuinely Filipino in shape and form."

Santos conducted much of his research at the Pilipino-American Reading Room and Library in Temple-Beaudry, said Helen Brown, the librarian and a fellow Filipino. He found some information on indigenous scripts in the library's collection, teaching himself by poring over artifact samples and in scholarly articles. He uncovered clues to other resources and contacts in bibliographies that he found in the library.

"He's more advanced in terms of his technology than researchers in the Philippines," Brown said. "What his work shows is that our history goes way back. It's a big thing that's creating a lot of pride in me and other Filipinos who hear about it."

Last week Santos attended an international paleography conference in the Philippines and presented free copies of his software to the Philippine National Museum and several research and education organizations.

"When I first started, I didn't know if there'd be any interest or need for this," Santos said before leaving for the conference. "But I'll be talking with people who are developing books and in charge of research.

"We weren't taught about the remote areas (of the Philippines) or the subcultures," Santos said of his childhood in Manila. "This is enjoyable."

Information: (213) 413-4642.

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