Indonesia's multitudinous scripts, ethnicities, and identities

« previous post | next post »

A friend called my attention to this intriguing article:

"This man can read and write 30 ancient Indonesian scripts, some as old as 500 years", by Kiki Siregar, Channel NewsAsia / CNA (3/6/21)

Thirty years old Diaz Nawaksara says, “I started in 2012 by studying the Javanese script first.”

Today, he can read and write over 30 ancient Indonesian scripts. He understands fluently about half of the languages associated with these scripts.

It is a rare ability considering that most Indonesians can only read one or two scripts.

Most Indonesians can read Latin, the script used for the national language Bahasa Indonesia as well as English. Others also know Arabic for reading the Koran or Chinese.

That pulled me up short.  I knew that Arabic script was used to write Chinese in China, but didn't realize that it was also used for that purpose in Indonesia.

"Perso-Arabic and Sinitic Literacy" (6/19/09)



After learning Javanese script, Nawaksara moved on Kawi, the ancestor of the Javanese script and thought to be related to Indian scripts which evolved sometime during the 8th to 16th century.

There are over 600 ethnicities in Indonesia and knowing some ancient scripts leads to a better understanding of how the various ethnicities in the country are related and even stretching to neighbouring countries such as Malaysia and Singapore, he said.

Paraphrasing a quote by Indonesia’s first president and founding father Soekarno, Nawaksara said: "When being a Muslim, don’t be an Arab. When being a Hindu, don’t be an Indian. When being a Christian, don’t be a Westerner."

"It is all about identity," explained Nawaksara.

"Today, there are religious people who are lost because they don't know their identity," he said.

Religion and ethnicity are a potentially volatile combination.  Clear use of language and sorting out identity can help to neutralize them.


  1. cliff arroyo said,

    March 12, 2021 @ 9:34 am

    "Others also know Arabic for reading the Koran or Chinese"

    Did you really segment this as follows?
    know Arabic for reading
    the Koran
    (reading) Chinese

    I segmented it as:
    Arabic for reading the Koran

    That is two separate scripts.

  2. Victor Mair said,

    March 12, 2021 @ 9:55 am

    I segmented it both ways.

  3. Ross Presser said,

    March 12, 2021 @ 9:56 am

    @cliff arroyo,

    See the three links Prof. Mair gave; each clearly discusses writing a Chinese language with Arabic script. Quote from the first link:

    > This information is all the more stunning in light of the fact that Muslims in China developed a system of writing Sinitic languages (primarily one or another topolect of Mandarin [especially in the northwest], so far as I know), in Perso-Arabic script. This was called XIAOERJIN or XIAOERJING. Although the etymology of XIAOERJIN(G) remains uncertain, this Perso-Arabicization of Sinitic was important in the spread of Islam in China.

  4. Chuck Pergiel said,

    March 12, 2021 @ 11:00 am

  5. Michael Watts said,

    March 12, 2021 @ 2:28 pm

    Ross Presser, your quote does not suggest that Arabic script might be used for writing Chinese by Indonesians. Did they have any reason to communicate in xiaoerjing? Or were their Chinese communications more likely to be done in Chinese characters?

  6. cliff arroyo said,

    March 12, 2021 @ 5:27 pm

    "Or were their Chinese communications more likely to be done in Chinese characters?"

    I think of Victor's mentioning of Arabic script used for Chinese was more for general interest purposes since he doesn't actually give any details of anything like that happening in Indonesia.

    I know Malay has been (occasionally still is?) written in Arabic script but I don't know if that's true of Indonesian…

    It's also my impression that the heritage scripts for a number of Indonesian languages aren't really widely known today. I haven't been there but I did participate in a field methods class some years ago with a major Indonesian ethnic language as the target language. Our consultant didn't know the heritage script at all (though they were literate in the modern Latin-based alphabet).

  7. Vanya said,

    March 13, 2021 @ 1:55 am

    Unfortunately I don’t think anyone is reading Chinese in Arabic script in Indonesia. The article is clumsily written. Cliff has parsed it correctly. If you read the Indonesian version of the article it clearly says dan ada juga yang bisa membaca huruf Mandarin”, “and some [people] can read Mandarin characters.”

  8. stephen said,

    March 13, 2021 @ 5:01 pm

    "When being a Muslim, don’t be an Arab. When being a Hindu, don’t be an Indian. When being a Christian, don’t be a Westerner."

    Does that necessarily mean non-Arab Muslims, for example, are more tolerated? Are Ethiopian Orthodox Christians more tolerated?

    And how do Asians refer to the indigenous peoples of North America?

  9. Rodger C said,

    March 14, 2021 @ 8:52 am

    @stephen: I think it just means, "Be any religion you want, but act Indonesian. Like an Indonesian. From Indonesia."

  10. Rodger C said,

    March 14, 2021 @ 8:53 am

    With particular pointedness toward Christians.

RSS feed for comments on this post