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Sundanese Writing System

Many ethnic groups across the country, including the Sundanese, are facing the threat of the declining use of their language or writing system. Sundanese leaders are particularly concerned by the fact that while few youngsters use Sundanese at home, fewer still are able to use the Sundanese script.

Since 2004, computer programmer and linguist Dian Tresna Nugraha has been working to computerize the ancient Sundanese characters, known as Kangana, so that they are consistently represented. Yuli Tri Suwarni explains further:

Born in Coanggeang, Sumedang, Dian, who now lives in Germany, said it was important for people to continue to use the script in everyday life.

“We have proven that the Sundanese characters are still used among certain circles of the Sundanese community,” said Dian, in a discussion titled “Computerization of Sundanese Characters in an Effort to Gain World Recognition,” held at Padjajaran University in Bandung in early November.

Dian said of all the Indonesian scripts, only the Bugis and Balinese scripts had been computerized. In 2006, the Irish linguist and script encoder Michael Everson came to Dian’s aid.

Everson was instrumental in drawing up a proposal to add the Sundanese characters to the Universal Character Set, which is published in book form as The Unicode Standard. This would allow computers to consistently represent and manipulate Sundanese script, putting it on an equal footing with other writing systems.
It is generally acknowledged that the Sundanese began using their own system of writing in the 7th century.

The Sundanese characters took different forms as they came under different cultural influences. History notes that up to the 7th century, most ancient manuscripts were written in Palawa characters.

The ancient Sundanese characters were discovered at the Kawali site, Ciamis, where an inscription meaning 7th century was found.

Ancient artifacts bearing Sundanese characters have also been discovered in the southern part of West Java, namely Garut and Ciamis.

The invasion of West Java by the kingdom of Central Java brought a change in the use of Sundanese characters. Between the 16th and 17th centuries, the Javanese characters known as Cacarakan were used by the Sundanese. Later, the influence of Islam led to the use of the Pegon Arabic characters.

The Sundanese characters were eventually recorded in a table by a Dutch researcher, KF Hole, in the 18th century.

The Sundanese people’s lack of confidence in using their own script has affected the teaching of Sundanese in West Java’s elementary and junior high schools.

Up to 1996, the Cacaraka characters or the Sundanese Mataram characters reading “ha na ca ra ka da ta sa wa la mang ga ba ta nga”, which resemble the sound of Javanese characters, were introduced in elementary and junior high schools in West Java.

In 1996, West Java Governor Danny Setiawan issued a bylaw on the preservation of Sundanese characters and culture, which also restored the use of Kagana characters — which read “ka nga na ca ja nya ta da na pa ba ya ra la wa fa qa va ksa za” — in schools.

Dian said Sundanese characters would likely be included in the next version of Unicode, which will be released in 2008.

“If the inclusion of Sundanese characters is approved, it will be easy to translate Sundanese into Indonesian or English, or the other way around,” Dian said.