The language with four-cornered letters — Bugis (ᨅᨔ ᨕᨘᨁᨗ) and the Lontara (ᨒᨚᨈᨑ) script

Indonesia is amazingly diverse. Hundreds of languages and cultures span the archipelago from Sumatra to the western half of New Guinea, encompassing more than 17 thousand islands. While Bahasa Indonesia is the most widely spoken language, by 80% of the entire country’s population, many other Austronesian languages are spoken too, and more than 270 languages belong to the non-Austronesian and non-Australian branch of languages. In spite of this diversity, Indonesia recognises Bahasa Indonesia as the sole official language, making languages like Javanese and Sundanese the most widely spoken languages in Indonesia without official language status.

This post discusses one of the many languages spoken in Indonesia, and this particular one has a nice-looking writing system. On the island of Sulawesi, a group of some five million people speak Bugis, the To Ugi, commonly referred to as the Buginese. This language is part of the South Sulawesi branch of the Malayo-Polynesian languages, within the Austronesian language family. This puts it quite related to languages like Campalagian, Makassarese and Mandar languages. Groups of Bugis speakers can also be found in Malaysia and Singapore.

Bugis has six vowels and 19 consonants, with four commonly used consonant clusters – /mp/, /nr/, /ɲc/, and /ŋk/. The glottal stop occurs at the end of some words, much like many of the Malayo-Polynesian languages. The language is known for containing some grammatical aspects in the form of particles, namely the durative, perfective, conditional, doubt, emphasis and place. The durative aspect denotes that a situation only lasts for a certain period of time, while the perfective denotes an event interpreted as an entirety. The conditional denotes a hypothetical situation which can be valid if a certain condition is met. The other grammatical aspects are relatively self-explanatory.

Unfortunately, the scarcity of written records of Bugis makes its early history quite obscure and unknown. The earliest known written account is the Bugis creation myth, Sureq Galigo, in the 18th century, based on oral tradition passed down through generations. In fact, it was not until the 17th or 18th century when Bugis had its own writing system, known as the Lontara script. A Brahmic script derived from Kawi, or Aksara Jawa Kuna, used in the 8th to 15th century CE, the Lontara script bears many of the hallmarks of many writing systems used in Indonesia, and possibly even India.

The Lontara script is an abugida, an alphasyllbary where vowel notations around a central consonant sound can indicate which vowel is used in that syllable. 23 basic consonants make up the script, each carrying an inherent /a/ vowel, which can be changed to the other five vowel sounds of the language. What this writing system lacks in contrast to Devanagari or Javanese is the virama, the vowel-killing diacritic. This is in addition to the lack of representation of consonant lengthening, glottal and nasal sounds found in the language. Texts may be ambiguous, which can expose additional perspectives in written Bugis poetry, or to give rise to written puns in games like Basa to Bakke’ (ᨅᨔ ᨈᨚ ᨅᨀᨙ) and Elong maliung bəttuanna (ᨕᨙᨒᨚ ᨆᨒᨗᨕᨘ ᨅᨛᨈᨘᨕᨊ) riddles.

The shape of the letters are highly angular, much different from the mesmerising inscriptions in the Javanese script. In fact, the Bugis word for the Lontara script, urupu sulapa eppa, translates to four-cornered letters. Traditionally written on palmyra palm leaves, the Lontara script is written from left to right, but directions may follow a zig-zag pattern in some texts, as it alternates between left to right, and right to left.

bugis

Image from Omniglot’s Lontara page.

The Lontara script has garnered use in the Makassarese and Mandar languages, although changes in the script were made to accommodate differences in phoneme inventories. Four letters representing frequent consonant clusters in Bugis are omitted in Makassarese Lontara, along with the diacritic representing the schwa. Under the influence of Arabic and other foreign languages, changes were made to accommodate and mitigate some issues and ambiguities in the Lontara script. A letter was added to represent the /ha/ sound, and additional diacritics were added to represent vowel-killing, nasalisation and consonant lengthening respectively.

This writing system was added to the Unicode standard in 2005, gaining a digital presence. However, beyond the Wikipedia pages, I have rarely ever come across the Lontara script typeface, making me wonder about the digital prominence of the Lontara script. The Latin alphabet has been used to represent Bugis since colonisation by the Dutch. Nevertheless, this writing system represents the Bugis people, language and culture, along with the Makassarese and Mandar languages which use this script.

 

Afterword

In 2018, I had the opportunity to attend an event at the Singapore Malay Heritage Center, which showcased various Nusantara languages spoken across this region in Southeast Asia. Learning about languages like Bugis, Minangkabau and Banjarese, in addition to food and traditions presented a great surface exposure to the diverse cultures we have in Singapore, although all of them are grouped under “Malay” or “Indonesian” or other broad umbrella terms. In fact, in Singapore, one of the public transit station names is dedicated to the Bugis community – Bugis station, although originally named Victoria station, this was changed to Bugis in 1985. The Lontara script was exhibited during the event, thereby inspiring this post, almost two years later.

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