Hangeul for Cia-Cia, part III

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Back in August and December of last year, I wrote about the efforts of Hangeul enthusiasts to get a tribe in Indonesia to adopt Hangeul as their script.

The latest news, in the Korea Times, no less, is that the rumors of the tribe's having chosen Hangeul as their offical script were not only premature, they were downright false.

Here are the first few paragraphs of the article, by Lee Tae-hun, entitled "Hangeul didn’t become Cia Cia’s official writing" and with the revealing subtitle "Mistranslation causes media hype over Korean writing system":


Contrary to the media hype, the Cia Cia tribe, a group of 70,000 on the remote Indonesian island of Bau-bau, has neither received central government approval for the adoption of Hangeul as its writing system, nor has it made such a request, sources told The Korea Times Wednesday.

“The mayor has not requested the government’s approval for the adoption of Hangeul,” Ibnu Wahid, an official from Bau-bau, said.

Hangeul was taught for a total of 37 hours to some 50 fourth graders last year at an elementary school in Bau-bau and now it is being taught to some 190 students in two schools, the sources said.

The tribe gained attention over the past year for allegedly being the first foreign ethnic group to officially adopt Hangeul.

In July this year, a host of media outlets ran stories claiming that Bau-bau Mayor Amirul Tamim said the Indonesian government had finally authorized the adoption of Hangeul as the tribe’s official alphabet to preserve their dying language.

Chun Tai-hyun, a professor of Malay and Indonesian linguistics at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul, points out that those reports were groundless and based on a mistranslation of Tamim’s comment.

“Mayor Tamim only mentioned that official discussions have begun and he was consulting with the central government over the adoption of Hangeul in a media interview,” he said. “However, the media wrongfully translated his remark as if he had received formal acknowledgement from the government.”


Further down in the article, we find that "The Cia-Cia is one of some 700 Indonesian tribes which use the Roman alphabet, the official writing system of the country, as they only have their spoken language."  As stated, this is ambiguous, since the first part of the sentence says that the Cia-Cia use the Roman alphabet, while the second part implies that they only have a spoken language.  Even Professor Chun Tai-hyun, who originally proposed the adoption of Hangeul to the Bau-Bau mayor in 2007, admits that it is unlikely for Hangeul ever to be adopted by the Cia-Cia as their official writing system, since Indonesia's Basic Law stipulates that all tribal languages be recorded in Roman letters to preserve national unity.

Case closed?  Or will there be a "Hangeul for Cia-Cia, part IV" half a year from now?

[A tip of the hat to Mark Swofford]


  1. Jonathan Badger said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 1:40 am

    Ignored in all of this is that Cia-Cia is traditionally written using the Arabic script… And I say this as a person who is learning Korean Hangul in order to understand the absurd things the North Korean government is twittering…

  2. Jongseong Park said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 3:34 am

    Well, the closely related Wolio is traditionally written using the Arabic script, and I couldn't find any references to Cia-Cia being an active literary language in the past.

    Here's the link to the earlier article "Quest to Globalize 'Hangeul' Raises Questions" mentioned in the article. Interestingly, in Korean-language media reports from as recently as July, Chun Tai-hyun comes across as enthusiastically supportive of the whole project as ever. In those reports, he tells us that the adoption is not official basically as a way of saying that the work is far from complete and government support is needed.

    The only major news outlet in Korea I've seen to treat this entire story with any sort of scepticism has been the Korea Times. In fact, I've not been able to find any Korean language information on the web raising any questions about this pre-dating my own blog post from 6 August 2009.

  3. michael farris said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 4:41 am

    "The Cia-Cia is one of some 700 Indonesian tribes which use the Roman alphabet, the official writing system of the country, as they only have their spoken language."

    I think "only have their spoken language" means "they don't have an indigenous script". There seems to be the idea in some circles that an indigenous script is inherently preferable to a borrowed on.

  4. Marion Crane said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 5:28 am

    "There seems to be the idea in some circles that an indigenous script is inherently preferable to a borrowed on."

    In which case we ought to be writing our posts and comments in, what? Runes?

    Jokes aside, this is turning into a strangely compelling linguistic soap opera. I'll keep an eye out for part IV, yes.

  5. richard howland-bolton said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 8:03 am

    Runes weren't borrowed?

    Worrabaht those various old Italic wossits?

  6. Jongseong Park said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 8:48 am

    I think "only have their spoken language" means "they don't have an indigenous script".

    Actually, I think what they mean is that their language doesn't have an active literary tradition. Speakers of Cia-Cia will probably know the Roman alphabet through education in Indonesian, and maybe there are even some people who remember how to read Wolio in modified Arabic script. But Cia-Cia itself has remained an exclusively spoken language as far as I can tell. I don't count linguists recording the language in the Roman alphabet or IPA for descriptive purposes, or isolated Cia-Cia words and names written in the Roman alphabet on signs and such.

  7. Coby Lubliner said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 10:11 am

    The Wikipedia article on Cia-Cia still treats hangul as though it were the normative script for the language.

    By the way, how do you pronounce "Cia-Cia"?

  8. KWillets said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 12:57 pm

    Does Cia-Cia have the same phonemes as Korean? I doubt it's a perfect fit for the language.

    I do like the orthophonic aspect of Hangeul though. It would be interesting to try to extend it to represent more phonemes.

  9. Jongseong Park said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 5:05 pm

    Here's a quick comparison of the phonemes (I use my own idiosyncratic transcription for Korean and I follow the current Wikipedia article for the Cia-Cia phonemes and orthography).

    i e (ɛ) a o u ɯ ʌ (ʉ) (ɵ)
    ㅣ ㅔ (ㅐ) ㅏ ㅗ ㅜ ㅡ ㅓ (ㅟ) (ㅚ)
    i e a o u
    ㅣ ㅔ ㅏ ㅗ ㅜ

    m / pː pʰ b̥
    ㅁ / ㅃ ㅍ ㅂ
    n / tː tʰ d̥ / sː z̥ʰ / tɕː tɕʰ d̥ʑ
    ㄴ / ㄸ ㅌ ㄷ / ㅆ ㅅ / ㅉ ㅊ ㅈ
    ŋ / kː kʰ ɡ̊
    ㅇ / ㄲ ㅋ ㄱ
    l / j / w / ɰ / h
    ㄹ / (glides j, w, ɰ plus vowels are written as diphthongs) / ㅎ
    m / p b ɓ / β
    ㅁ / ㅃ ㅍ ㅂ / ㅸ
    n / t d ɗ / s / tʃ dʒ
    ㄴ / ㄸ ㅌ ㄷ / ㅅ / ㅉ ㅈ
    ŋ / k g
    ㅇ / ㄲ ㄱ
    r l / h ʔ
    ㄹ ㄹㄹ / ㅎ ㅇ
    ㅡ is the orthographic null vowel

    Cia-Cia has a smaller vowel inventory, and the three-way distinction of stops in Korean works out for Cia-Cia.

    On the other hand, the /r/ vs /l/ phonemic distinction in Cia-Cia calls for a cumbersome transcription using doubled ㄹㄹ for the latter; in Korean, [ɾ] and [l] are realizations of the same liquid phoneme that I write above as /l/, with intervocalic single /l/ surfacing as [ɾ] and double /ll/ as [lː]. No such opposition occurs initially or finally in Korean, so to write an initial /l/ in Cia-Cia one adds a phantom 을 in the beginning (using null consonant ㅇ and null vowel ㅡ), and a final /r/ is indicated by appending a null vowel as 르. A phantom 응 is needed for an initial /ŋ/, which does not occur in modern Korean (modern hangul ㅇ doubles as a null consonant initially and /ŋ/ finally).

    Hangul did have historical letters for /ŋ/ and even /ʔ/; the latter doesn't seem to be written explicitly in Cia-Cia hangul orthography. But they did resurrect the obsolete letter ㅸ for /β/.

    You might notice that hangul isn't a perfect match for the phonemes of Modern Korean. It presumably worked much better in Middle Korean, for which it was invented. Nowadays ㅔ represents a simple vowel /e/ in Korean, but in Middle Korean ㅣ, ㅓ, ㅏ, ㆍ, ㅗ, ㅜ, ㅡ represented the seven simple vowels of the time and diphthongs were indicated by combinations like ㅐ and ㅔ. Whoever came up with the Cia-Cia hangul orthography tried too hard to keep it close to Modern Korean pronunciation of the letters. If Cia-Cia has only five simple vowels /i, e, a, o, u/, then using ㅣ, ㅔ, ㅏ, ㅗ, ㅜ and leaving ㅓ unused seems inelegant; I would have chosen ㅣ, ㅓ, ㅏ, ㅗ, ㅜ. Incidentally, I think ㅓ might have represented something like /e/ in Middle Korean.

    The choice of which consonant letters to use for the obstruents with different phonations could have been made more elegantly, because I see the double letters ㅃ, ㄸ, ㄲ, and ㅉ everywhere. These are more cumbersome to write because of the higher number of strokes and also create tiny dense spots on the page, so it would have been better to assign them to the phonations that are used less often. And if there's only a two-way opposition in the affricates, I would use ㅈ and ㅊ, not ㅉ. But no, they had to decide on a Korean-centric orthography.

    Cia-Cia, according to the chart of phonemes on Wikipedia, would seem to represent an underlying form /tʃiatʃia/, but I don't know how it is actually pronounced.

  10. Jongseong Park said,

    October 7, 2010 @ 5:23 pm

    KWillets: It would be interesting to try to extend it to represent more phonemes.
    King Sejong, the inventor of Hangul, invented letters to be used for representing phonemes occurring in Chinese but not Korean. Several letters that have been used throughout history have become obsolete in Modern Korean, so we could always resurrect them to represent more phonemes. Note that sound values for the letters may have changed, and not only because of sound changes of the language. Double letters like ㅃ, ㄸ, ㄲ that are now used for fortis voiceless consonants in Modern Korean were originally used not for Korean, but for voiced letters in the Chinese of the time; there was a debate on how to represent fortis voiceless consonants in the early 20th century, and the double-letter option won out.

  11. imc said,

    October 8, 2010 @ 11:38 pm

    Hi. I'm a korean blogger and fully interested in Hangeul and Korean language. Can I translate this article in korean and post to my korean blog? I want to tell my visitors things that "Hangeul is not official writing system for Cia-Cia".

  12. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 10, 2010 @ 10:34 pm

    @imc: Most of this article is excerpts from a Korea Times article. I'd suggest that if you want permission, you should ask the Korea Times. Or you could summarize the article on your blog, with a link.

    (I added a short summary to the English-language Wikipedia article. As you're careful about intellectual-property rights, I'll remind you that you can use Wikipedia as long as you give credit—if you think the summary there is good.)

  13. Michael Rank said,

    October 17, 2010 @ 5:26 pm

    There is a small display of Cia-cia textbooks etc in the new, underground King Sejong Memorial Hall in Gwanghwamun, Seoul, I have uploaded some photographs here

  14. Eric said,

    March 29, 2014 @ 8:06 am

    I have this yearning to learn all about Korea and the Korean language. How and where do I begin? Is having that compact dictionary the 1st step?

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