CJK: August 2009 Archives

Korean Script Heads to Indonesia (Archived)

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The biggest sensation in Unicode land these days is that the Korean script Hangul (or Hangeul/Han'gŭl depending on your transliteration preferences) has been adopted by the speakers of Cia-Cia in the nation of Indonesia. This will be the first time any language other than Korean has adopted Hangul as it's writing system, so it is a cultural triumph for them.

What's interesting is how this decision happened. The standard press releases are not giving much information and even the linguistic community is a little perplexed. It's actually more interesting if the Wikipedia report that Cia-Cia was formerly written in the Arabic script (specifically the Jawi variant in Indonesia) is accurate. According to Ethnologue, the population is still mostly Islamic, so there shouldn't be a religious reason to switch.

So what about it? First, let's discuss the switch from Arabic. Actually a lot of Muslim communities including speakers of Hausa, Swahili, Malay and Turkish have switched from Arabic to the Latin alphabet. Malaysia and Indonesian are two countries following this trend, although the Jawi/Arabic script is still used in some religious and cultural contexts. There may be a variety of reasons for this including European colonial policy or the perception that the Latin alphabet is easier to learn and enhances literacy (Turkish). A move to the Latin alphabet may also represent a move towards a secular government (as in the case of Turkey).

It should also be mentioned that the Arabic script must be modified heavily when it is used for non-Semitic languages if all the sounds are to be represented. If you look at the Omniglot Jawi chart for example, you will see that many consonants have the same shape but with with different patterns of dots to indicate the differences. This also happens in the Latin alphabet (e.g. n vs. ñ in Spanish), but if Jawi also includes the different letter shapes depending on word position as Arabic, then the script becomes more complex.

Cia Cia is unique though in switching to something other than the Latin alphabet. One reader commented that this may be due to the fact that in South and Southeast Asia, a language gains social status by having its own script. In Indonesia, Balinese, Javanese and Sundanese have their own historic scripts. Although these scripts may not be used on an everyday basis, they do show that there is a cultural tradition having nothing to do with the West.

In theory, Cia Cia could adopt one of these scripts or one from India (e.g. Devanagari) would would probably be a good fit, but none would probably be perceived as being unique in Indonesia. On the other hand...no one else in Indonesia is using Hangul. It is very unique. Fortunately, Hangul is probably a good fit. Although the forms are somewhat angular like Chinese writing, the underlying principles are actually very similar those used in India and Southeast Asia (with some differences of course).

There's another benefit to Hangul over scripts like Javanese and Balinese and that's enhanced Unicode support. Korea has been fortunate enough to have the economic and political influence for developers to develop functional encoding schemes, fonts and input utilities for Hangul. Many Southeast Asian scripts are still catching up Unicode wise.

Whether this is the reason Cia Cia switched to Hangul or not, I wish them the best of luck. I think there are lots of people now invested in the success of this project.

Correction

The story is not accurate. Although the Cia Cia community has been taught some Hangul, there was no official decision to adopt Hangul as the writing system.

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About The Blog

I am a Penn State technology specialist with a degree in linguistics and have maintained the Penn State Computing with Accents page since 2000.

See Elizabeth Pyatt's Homepage (ejp10@psu.edu) for a profile.

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