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Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Hangeul lands in Bau-Bau, Indonesia... to save the Cia !

According to The HunminJeongeum Society (HunminJeongeum Research Institute), representatives from Bau-Bau decided to use the Korean alphabet in order to preserve their own language, a dialect that lacked a writing system.

Created in 1443, Hangeul is often praised by linguists as the most efficient alphabet ever invented and indeed, it takes only a few minutes to understand how it works. Still, Hangeul needed some help to reach Bau-Bau, the most populated town (120,000 inhabitants) of Buton island, at the Southwesternmost point of Sulawesi, Indonesia.

The HunminJeongeum institute has been trying to export Hangeul for years. The easiest and most obvious entry points are non written languages with a limited reach and on the verge of extinction : a writing system means an easier conservation, transmission, and of course a global reach via the internet.

Last year, the vice president of the association (headed by Seoul National University Professor Kim Ju-won), Chun Tai-hyun, Professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, announced in a Korean Times interview* that representatives from Bau-Bau would visit Korea to learn Hangeul and find out how to implement it. "In Indonesia, ethnic minority communities are losing their own spoken languages. We realized that the Korean alphabet could actually help preserve these endangered local languages."

The said trip bore interesting fruits : a comprehensive textbook in Hangeul created by the Institute and titled "bahasa jjia-jjia 1", and a Korean center soon to be opened (see Yonhap article*).

I found this information both exciting and surprising : If it were say in Thailand, where the national language uses a specific writing system, I would understand the trial... but Bahasa Indonesia itself, the Indonesian language, has adopted the Latin alphabet about one century ago. Indonesian is spoken everywhere, even if many dialects survive, and Latin alphabet already offers a potentially global reach. Choosing an alphabet is a founding moment, and picking a different alphabet almost has to have a political meaning...

I did some quick research :

- on the island's official website (, there's nothing about the issue yet : all pages seem written in perfect Bahasa Indonesia... as much as I can tell (I haven't practiced the very little I know for 20 years !).

- on the always fascinating
UNESCO Atlas of endangered languages, I found only Busoa ("vulnerable") and Taloki ("definitely endangered") in the area. If Indonesia boasts about 130 endangered languages, this very one is not on the list.

- on the "
Ethnologue report for Sulawesi, Indonesia", I found the language mentioned on the manual : in 2005, 79,000 people spoke Cia-cia language (or simply cia, which means "no") across this part of Sulawesi, but with many variant dialects. The language is said to be "vigorous" and spoken at "all ages", along with Indonesian and the dominant Austranesian language of Buton island, wlo (or wolio).

- I couldn't dig any clue in the political / social context that may cast a particular light on such a bold move from local representatives.

So my guess is that in this more "push" than "pull" operation, the survival of cia-cia language was not as essential as the opportunity to see how Hangeul performs in a completely new context. Professor Kim Ju-won is even more specific : "In the long run, the spread of Hangeul will also help enhance Korea's economy as it will activate exchanges with societies that use the language."*

I understand that this kind of arguments help raise funds for research, but I sincerely hope that linguistics remain the main topic, and that someone is planning to closely monitor the impacts. For example, I'm anxious to see if there is any impact on pronunciation.

If this thrilling (in all senses of the expression) experiment turns out to be a success, other local languages may be tempted to adopt Hangeul... if they simply don't catch the virus by contagion.

To be followed up...

* "
Linguistics Scholar Seeks to Globalize Korean Alphabet" (Korea Times)
** featuring "writing, speaking and reading sections", "the tribe's history, language and culture" (definitely a must), and as a bonus "a Korean fairy tale" - see "
Indonesian tribe picks Korean alphabet as official writing system" (Yonhap 20090806)

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