When Indonesia won independence in 1945, everyday use of the Javanese script effectively halted as the Latin alphabet became de rigueur for the country’s administrative business. The Javanese script is still taught as a mandatory subject in school in various parts of Java, but most people feel estranged from it, viewing it as more of a static relic than a living alphabet. Aditya Bayu Perdana charts the script’s bumpy history and its relevance for contemporary design.
The archipelago now known as Indonesia is celebrated for its diversity. In addition to Indonesian (the country’s official language), Indonesia is home to about eight hundred spoken languages, many of which still play an important role in the everyday lives of their respective communities. For written communication, the Latin alphabet has been the nation’s de facto script since Indonesia gained independence in 1945; historically, though, the archipelago is home to about a dozen scripts used together in an overlapping fashion among diverse groups, places, and periods. Although all of Indonesia’s scripts merit attention, this essay will focus on the Javanese script and its fluctuating journey through the centuries.
At various points in its history, the relatively small island of Java has been home to a rich variety of scripts, from Pallava, Kawi, and Old Sundanese to Arabic, Javanese, Chinese, and Latin. These scripts have been used among indigenous groups such as Javanese, Maduranese, and Sundanese, as well as foreign communities like Arabic, Chinese, European, Indian, and many others. Of these, the Javanese script (natively known as ꦲꦏ꧀ꦱꦫꦗꦮ / Aksara Jawa, or ꦲꦤꦕꦫꦏ / Hanacaraka) is still taught today as a mandatory subject in many regions of Java, alongside the ubiquitous Latin script. Even though the Javanese script is respected as a form of cultural heritage, most people never use it in their daily lives. New books or magazines set in the Javanese script are hard to come by today. Its limited use and formal supplantation by the Latin alphabet, occasionally lamented in news articles,1 has become a source of anxiety among Indonesians attempting to reconcile their cultural heritage with globalization. What’s more, the script’s restricted use perpetuates the popular misconception that Javanese letterforms are static relics that exist outside the field of design. This can lead designers to believe that the visual forms of traditional scripts can never be changed—so, rather than design appropriate letterforms that correspond to a particular context or need, designers too often simply copy/paste styles they come across in a particular script table. And yet, a look back at the script’s history reveals vibrant uses and rich varieties that have constantly adapted to Java’s evolving sociopolitical landscape. So what happened to the Javanese script? What can we learn from its ever-changing design?
One of the earliest confirmed examples of writing in Java is a fifth-century stone inscription known as the Ciaruteun inscription. It was written in Sanskrit with the Pallava script, a southern variant of the Indian Brahmi script. From this early sample, scholars have noted that the region’s Pallava contained unique reﬁnements that do not appear in contemporaneous Indian samples.2 This suggests that the art of writing was not imported wholesale from a single source but rather was a unique blend of adaptations with multiple points of reference. By the eighth century, the region’s Pallava had gradually evolved into a distinct script called Kawi, used for the next eight hundred years primarily for Old Javanese but also for a number of other languages. From the thirteenth century on, Islam increased in influence and, along with it, so did the use of the Arabic script. Arabic, however, did not completely displace Kawi. Instead, the two scripts overlapped, as Kawi gradually evolved into the modern Javanese script, maturing around the fifteenth century. Conventionally, Javanese script literacy at this stage is thought to have been the exclusive domain of aristocrats and scholars. But diverse materials ranging from illuminated courtly manuscripts to mundane receipts of rice purchases indicate that certain uses of the script existed at many levels of society. In terms of style, diversity is also key in understanding the visual aspects of the Javanese script. Scholar T. E. Behrend notes:
Javanese script was used over the entire period of Modern Javanese literature, and throughout the island, at a time when there was no easy means of communication between remote areas and no impulse towards standardization. As a result, there is a huge variety in historical and local styles of Javanese writing throughout the ages. The ability of a person to read a bark-paper manuscript from the town of Demak, say, written around 1700, is no guarantee that that person would also be able to make sense of a palm-leaf manuscript written at the same time only 50 miles away on the slopes of Mount Merapi. The great differences between regional styles almost makes it seem that “Javanese script” is in fact a family of scripts, and not just one.3
From the seventeenth century on, the European colonial establishment began to take root in Java. The relationship between Europeans and traditional scripts was complicated at best. On one hand, any use of scripts foreign to Europeans’ preconceived ideas seems to have been discounted or viewed with suspicion by colonial authorities. On the other, traditional script use was not completely displaced by the European presence—some scripts, like Javanese, even gained access to printing technology. The desire for a Javanese movable type was fueled by a growing interest among European circles in making indigenous texts more accessible in print. However, the alphasyllabic nature of the script, which calls for large diacritics and below-base conjuncts surrounding the main letters, proved technically challenging at the time. Efforts were also hampered by competitive relationships among the various interested parties, who ignored or actively opposed one another.
The first working fount for Javanese was completed by Paul van Vlissingen in Batavia in 1825.5 While hailed as a technical achievement, the typeface’s visual style was considered rather coarse, which limited adoption. Only in 1838 did another typeface by Taco Roorda become widely accepted.6 Roorda’s design was based on the scribal court style of Surakarta, an influential Javanese political center at the time. Deliberate and thoughtful consideration was given to accommodate the spacious proportions of Javanese diacritics and below-base conjuncts, even if the result, for economic reasons, was starkly reduced compared to its original handwritten counterpart. Roorda also incorporated some European typographic conventions that were not then present in Javanese, most notably the application of regular thin/thick contrast in the upward and downward strokes of the letters. The resulting design was well enough received that it became the standard Javanese text type for Javanese publications over the next century. Europeans and natives alike were involved in producing Javanese publications on various subjects, making materials and literacy in the script more widespread. To give one example, the ﬁrst newspaper fully printed in the Javanese language and script, ꦨꦿꦩꦂꦡꦟꦶ Bromartani, was established by C. F. Winter in 1855 in Surakarta, Central Java, with regular contributors like the esteemed Javanese poet Ranggawasita.7 The presence of the Javanese script in popular media continued through numerous publications, such as the influential ꦏꦗꦮꦺꦤ꧀ Kajawèn magazine.
Amid a relatively vibrant publishing scene, several Javanese display types and pieces of lettering were developed using European typographic styles. An example of this is the masthead of the aforementioned Bromartani newspaper, which adopted the Latin blackletter style. Stanley Morison wrote that the convention of using blackletter for mastheads (such as that of the New York Times) arose from the fact that blackletter was the boldest and most eye-catching Latin type available during the early development of commercial newspapers.10 So it’s noteworthy that Javanese designers went to the trouble of replicating the style in the Javanese script for its newly introduced newspaper format. While blackletter Javanese was by no means common, it appears sporadically elsewhere, such as on the title page of ꦯꦿꦶꦩꦏꦸꦛ Sri Makuṭa, a commemorative book celebrating Queen Wilhelmina’s ascension to the throne in 1898, published by G. C. T. van Dorp in 1902 in Semarang.
There are also instances of Javanese print styles that are more grounded in the indigenous writing tradition than in European typographic models. A rectilinear style known as mbata sarimbag can easily be found in use as display type in numerous book titles and commercial advertisements from the early twentieth century. The style does not appear to have obvious European precedents, and may be either a local innovation or a print continuation of the equally rectilinear (but less extreme) handwriting style found in many Yogyakartan manuscripts.
At the dawn of the twentieth century, it was common to see handwritten and printed materials using traditional scripts. In certain non-literary contexts, traditional scripts were even preferred over Latin as a sign of decorum, and commercial type catalogs such as Joh. Enschedé en Zonen (1907) and Lettergieterij Amsterdam (1910) offered several Javanese fonts.
However, Latin orthography for local languages also increased steadily because of modernization efforts on the part of the colonial Dutch East Indies. These included an educational system that favored the Latin script, aspirations of social mobility associated with learning Latin and Dutch, and ultimately economic pressure. Because printing the Javanese script required specialized equipment and typesetters, production costs were difﬁcult to keep down. Javanese publications had to choose between the Javanese and Latin scripts at a time when the latter option had greater support from European modes of publishing introduced by colonial publishing houses. Douwes Adolf Rinkes, the director of the state publisher Landsdrukkerij in what is now Jakarta, mentioned this in a foreword he wrote in 1920; note that his first consideration appears to be what is easiest for European readers:
Furthermore, a choice was made for printing in roman letter-type, which considerably simplifies matters for European users, and for interested Natives presents no difficulty at all, seeing that the Javanese language [...] can be rendered no less clearly in roman type than in the Javanese script. In this way the costs are about one third of printing in Javanese characters, seeing that printing in that type [...] contains about half the number of words on one page of the same text in roman script.11
The Japanese occupation of the Dutch East Indies between 1942 and 1945 brought the ﬁnal push of Latin dominance, due to a governmental mandate that only allowed Latin or Japanese scripts in the public sphere while prohibiting the use of traditional scripts.12 When Indonesia proclaimed independence on August 17, 1945, the young nation was soon preoccupied with armed conflicts, diplomatic struggles, and economic instabilities lasting several decades. Preserving the use of the Javanese script was presumably not a governmental priority, and the newly established state education programs were geared toward literacy of Indonesian in the Latin alphabet. Thus, Latin became the de facto script of Indonesia from that point on.
Decline and Disconnection
The everyday use of traditional scripts has gradually disappeared since the mid-twentieth century because written and printed materials have become scarce. Very few people have bothered to copy old texts or compose new ones using traditional handwritten methods. The whereabouts of the traditional script types that had been used up to that point have also become difﬁcult to trace, as the few remaining publications that included traditional scripts relied mostly on lithography, stencils, or photocopied handwriting. Toward the end of Suharto’s New Order regime in the 1980s, regional identity became an important issue in the discourse of the nation. Interest in traditional scripts resurfaced in tandem with efforts to situate cultural heritage for the modern era. Several regions of Indonesia, including Java, came up with their own programs to revitalize traditional script use and integrated them into the regional curriculum, or Muatan Lokal.
However, several generations have elapsed since traditional script texts were a common part of everyday life, with even the most fluent Javanese speakers today relying on the Latin alphabet to conduct their daily business. Over the years, authentic Javanese texts often became lost or rendered inaccessible in far-flung institutional collections. Private citizens may still inherit and own authentic texts, but modern owners who are no longer familiar with the script are prone to weave spurious or exaggerated claims around their “collections,” which often amount to nothing more than a pile of generic Dutch printed books or badly degrading manuscripts.13 Perhaps because of this sense of unfamiliarity and limited access to primary sources, modern materials tend to include flawed representations of authentic letterforms and hasty additions with unclear provenance. Government-issued publications from the 1990s are especially likely to provide tables of characters in sloppy handwriting or substandard fonts, without representative samples from primary sources.
In addition to the often substandard representation of the Javanese script in these latter-day reference materials, little consideration has been given to making the materials engaging. Of state efforts to increase Latin script literacy in newly independent Indonesia, Moegiadi and Jiyono note that shortage of reading materials outside of the school system caused many people who had gained literacy skills in the early grades of elementary school to relapse into illiteracy.16 This is also the case with Javanese. In the current system, the Javanese script has had little chance to show what it can do beyond textbooks and cheap trinkets. Thus, pupils who have been briefly introduced to the script in school subsequently forget how to use it in the absence of anything compelling to read or write in their daily lives. As scholar Nancy Florida puts it:
It is precisely this brief study [of the Javanese script], so quickly stopped, as the curriculum dictates, which endows many Javanese with a profound sense of failure (when, many years later, they remember what they have forgotten).17
On the off chance that the Javanese script is encountered, one or two poorly rendered fonts are often used indiscriminately for everything, making most readers unable to tell the difference between acceptable variants and crude attempts. In many areas, the most visible usage takes the form of poorly made street signs, unremarkable in their design, usually riddled with spelling mistakes, and with the Javanese text set at a size far smaller than its Latin counterpart, making it almost unreadable at a typical viewing distance. Anecdotal evidence suggests that this lack of range in terms of visual style and application is counterproductive and further lessens interest in the Javanese script, particularly among younger generations.
Working with the Script Today
Since the 2010s, design awareness of traditional scripts such as Javanese seems to be growing. The internet has played an important role in enabling easier access to digital repositories of primary sources, thus increasing people’s appreciation of diverse letterforms that have historically been excluded from canonical materials. It has also led to the rise of script-learning communities on various social media platforms, whose younger participants are often on the lookout for new fonts that can be used for a variety of purposes, from image posts to merchandise. On the flip side, the internet has also enabled the proliferation of subpar materials from prior decades. Indeed, thoughtful design using traditional scripts is far less widespread than repetitive, dull examples. Typographers and designers who have no contact with the appropriate communities may mistakenly consider these easy-to-google materials exemplary. In fact, established design programs in Indonesia often aren’t interested in exploring traditional scripts because of this perceived stasis, only approving of Latin typefaces that emulate stereotypical elements of traditional scripts instead of exploring dynamic forms within the scripts themselves.18
In an environment where recognition of the Javanese script’s rich visual history is lacking, working with it can be quite a challenge. Obviously, it’s difficult to gauge people’s opinions on particular design issues when the script’s existence is barely acknowledged. Designers working with the Javanese script today may need to play a greater role as researchers and educators; that has been my experience so far, at least. On the research side, a certain diligence is required to track down appropriate sources, and to collaborate with historians, philologists, or traditional curators who have regular contact with authentic historical sources. Using these sources, of course, does not preclude the exploration of novel Javanese forms. In fact, the study of historical forms would benefit new designs by offering insight into the inherent characteristics and conventions that may be adhered to or broken according to the design context, along with their significance. On the educator side, approachability is key in exposing stylistic variants as well as the script’s design possibilities in the limited visual range that readers are used to nowadays. On several of my social media posts, I’ve received comments like “Why did you draw this letter this way?” and “What is your source?” and “This is different from what I was taught in school, is that allowed?” For these situations, I maintain a small library of links, images, and papers to share with people who are interested in exploring the complexity and diversity of the script themselves.
For example, studying extant Javanese samples has led me to appreciate the script’s naturally spacious proportions above and below the x-height, which I later learned was also observed by interested European parties in the seventeenth century. Since the Javanese script is written without spaces between words (scriptio continua), spaces that permit large diacritics and conjuncts provide clearer visual cues for dense lines of a typical text, thus increasing legibility. Display types may have reduced proportions to save space, but often this is offset by the overall size of the text itself. Arriving at this insight in turn laid the foundation for making more informed design decisions for my Javanese script projects. These facts are often lost on contemporary Indonesian designers who, without prior exposure to authentic materials, assume that Javanese diacritics work the same way as Latin or Arabic diacritics (both far more commonly seen), which are indeed comparatively small. Accordingly, too much attention is often paid to the base letters, while diacritics are reduced in size to the point where they no longer respect the natural proportions of the script. The result is an unpleasant text to read; upper or lower diacritics with distinct shapes become indistinguishable specks at a normal reading distance, while reduced inline diacritics also introduce distracting white spaces that intermittently break the flow of reading. This has become one of the pieces of advice I most often give to first-time designers of the script, along with providing them with visuals from trustworthy sources to help build their own sense of understanding of many other aspects of the script that words may not adequately convey.
Before the twentieth century, native writing traditions and printing technologies from various quarters engaged in a complex interaction that led to the diverse visual form of the Javanese script as we know it today. However, the script’s relatively sudden suspension during the early days of Indonesian independence in the mid-twentieth century severed contemporary users from its authentic use, resulting in scant reference materials and limited application. A lack of materials can sow disinterest among younger generations of users and designers who don’t consider exploring the Javanese script in sophisticated ways a worthwhile pursuit, thus perpetuating a cycle of mediocrity. Recent trends give cause to be hopeful that the script will continue to live in the near future, but only time will tell whether the Javanese script can break out of its stagnant cycle to become something better.