Reading Indonesian Scripts.

Kiki Siregar writes for Channel NewsAsia about a guy who loves languages and writing systems:

Diaz Nawaksara grew up during the rise of the Internet and telecommunications. When the 30-year-old went to college, he decided to study information management, focusing on storing information through computational methods. But as modern as his educational qualification sounds, his job nowadays involves something very ancient: Preserving Indonesian scripts that are as old as 500 years. “I started in 2012 by studying the Javanese script first,” Nawaksara recounted, referring to the native language of those from Indonesia’s and the world’s most populated island of Java.

Today, he can read and write over 30 ancient Indonesian scripts. He understands fluently about half of the languages associated with these scripts. […] Once an English tutor and a tour guide, Nawaksara is now a freelance researcher who works to preserve ancient Indonesian scripts as well as history. […]

His attempt to read and write Javanese script came by chance. […] Upon completing his studies, he moved to Yogyakarta in central Java to work as a tour guide and English tutor in the city often dubbed as the cultural capital of Indonesia. One day, he went to a local flea market and discovered an ancient Javanese manuscript. He was intrigued by it and decided to purchase it even though he could not read Javanese script. It turned out to be an ancient legislation manuscript of Yogyakarta’s sultanate during the Dutch colonial times. The manuscript was known as rijksblad. Coincidentally, his girlfriend was Javanese and could read the manuscript. She taught him how to read it. […]

It marked the start of his quest to find other manuscripts and learn different old Indonesian scripts. “Since then, I started collecting more Javanese ancient books. A year later, I stumbled upon an older script named Kawi script,” he told CNA. Kawi is considered the ancestor of Javanese script and is thought to be related to Indian scripts which evolved sometime during the 8th to 16th century. In order to enhance his understanding, Nawaksara visited temples and museums that exhibited the script.

Nawaksara has since travelled all over Indonesia to find ancient manuscripts and study the scripts. He said this led him to a better comprehension of history. 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. […] Nawaksara now wants to digitalise the scripts he knows so they will not get lost in time.

Good for him! (Via the Log; at the end, there’s a link to the story in Bahasa Indonesia.)

By the way, if you like exploring the world vicariously, Radio Garden lets you “Explore live radio by rotating the globe.” I’ve currently got it set to Radio Nataan in Dapaong, Togo; I don’t know what language they broadcast in, but the music is great.


  1. David Eddyshaw says

    The language (apart from French, of course) spoken in Dapaong is Moba.

    (We used to go shopping there sometimes, and I used to operate there once a month. There was a very nice Vietnamese restaurant. At one point I had a bank account in Dapaong, but it must have gone the way of all dormant bank accounts by now.)

    Naataann means “kinship, brotherhood” in Moba, which may or may not be significant.

  2. I was hoping you might know! (Somehow I’m not surprised you’ve been there.)

  3. J.W. Brewer says

    Surely the way of all dormant bank accounts in West Africa is to provide tremendously lucrative opportunities to anyone who can assist the extremely sincere nephew of the former minister of finance with some small logistical problem related to accessing the funds?

  4. David Eddyshaw says

    I’m not sure if ca. 500 CFA francs (IIRC) is quite enough to tempt the punters with, given the opposition, but I suppose I could try.

    Dear Friend!

    I hope you are both well.
    You may be surprised to hear from me …

  5. David Eddyshaw says

    50,000 francs. I’m not that cheap. And that may look better on the 419 emails, especially if I leave out “CFA.”

  6. January First-of-May says

    And that may look better on the 419 emails, especially if I leave out “CFA.”

    IIRC, all the places that are still using francs after 2002 have a direct descendant of the pre-1960 French franc as their currency, with corresponding exchange rates. Though I agree that the (100 times larger) 1960-2002 French francs are probably the most salient in most Western people’s minds (outside the Benelux, anyway).
    [EDIT: oh, right, forgot about the very salient Swiss franc. Derp.]
    [EDIT 2: apparently there are a few other extant francs that don’t descend directly from the French colonial franc, though as far as I can tell all of those also have very low exchange rates.]

    Dapaong is only about 50 km from Bawku (though probably far more than that by whatever passes as road in those places), but I hadn’t realized that the borders are/were porous enough for you to regularly go there (and also to nearby areas of Burkina Faso, IIRC).

    Which reminds me: there’s a proposal on Geohashing Wiki to rename the 11,-0 graticule to “Bawku, Ghana” (from its current name “Tenkodogo, Burkina Faso”).
    Normally the graticules are named after their largest city, and Bawku is larger than Tenkodogo, but in this case there’s a complication that almost all of the area is in Burkina Faso.
    What’s your opinion?
    (Any other graticule (re)naming suggestions would probably also be helpful.)

  7. David Eddyshaw says

    In the 1990’s travel between Ghana and Togo was mostly unproblematic, although there were periods when political developments on the Togolese side led to fairly prolonged closures of the entire border (the most relevant issue being that the Ewe people are currently divided between Ghana and Togo, a state of affairs which does not please all parties; the Ewe are also the single most numerous group in the south of Togo, whereas the Eyadéma presidential dynasty are Kabiyè, from the north.)

    In practice, the borders are indeed pretty porous in those parts as far as the locals are concerned*, though I had to do things in a more respectable way than perhaps would otherwise have been altogether essential, on account of being engaged in actual medical work in those countries. The (very helpful) staff of the Burkinabé embassy in Accra were both pleased and slightly bemused that I went to the trouble of actually getting proper visas for my many visits.

    On the Geohashing issue, I am unworthy to speak. Also conflicted: while I am always in favour of proclaiming the glory of Bawku (as Hatters may have noticed), I am fond of Burkina Faso as a country too. I used to visit Koupéla to do cataract surgery a couple of times a year, which involved passing through Tenkodogo, but I never spent much time there. It’s certainly more central. Perhaps the conflict could be encapsulated by calling the graticule after Zabré (which actually means “conflict.”)

    *The Moba language has quite a lot of Western Oti-Volta loanwords, which seem to be from Kusaal specifically (as opposed to Mooré or Mampruli) in most cases where it is possible to tell. This surprised me when I first realised it, but in retrospect it shouldn’t have done.

  8. David Eddyshaw says

    The graticule seems to be centred rather neatly on the heartland of the (Mande-speaking) Bisa ethnic group, but I would imagine that actually calling it “Bisa” would be pretty problematic. “White Volta” or “Nakambé”, maybe?

  9. marie-lucie says

    “Dapaong” and other “.. aon …”

    When I was still in the “lycée” (approximately senior high school) our school had a number of students from various African countries. One of them, who I think was from Togo, had the last name “Foliaon” which everyone pronounced “fol-ya-on”, but this may not have been how he would have pronounced it n his own language. I was not a linguist yet and did not think of asking him. Later I thought that this name must have been of Portuguese origin, with a Portuguese-style diphthong locally written “aon” but probably not pronounced “a-on” as suggested by the French-style spelling. Now seeing “Dapaong”, unlikely to be Portuguese, makes me reconsider. DE, are you able to enlighten me?

  10. January First-of-May says

    Graticules aren’t usually named after ethnic groups; IIRC, they are, sometimes, named after rivers, but the White Volta is far larger than the graticule.

    Though you’d probably be happy to know that the 52,-3 graticule, whose largest town is Oswestry, is named “Mid Wales, United Kingdom” – apparently one of the relatively few cases of a compromise name.

  11. David Eddyshaw says


    The name Dapaong represents Moba Dāāpààùng. In Moba, such diphthongs only occur before velars, and result from umlaut before a lost final -u; all cases seem to involve the singular noun class suffix *gu, as in dááɔ́g̀ “log”, plural dáád ̀. Pretty much exactly the same process occurs in Kusaal (dàug “log”, plural dàad), and also in Mooré, in which the original final vowels are still present in citation forms (ràoogó, plural ràadó.)

    “Foliaon” certainly isn’t a Moba name, but it may well represent the same sort of spelling convention in a Francophone context. The convention of writing ao for /au/ or /aʊ/ certainly operates in Burkina Faso: witness for example “Ouedraogo” for the Mossi royal clan name Wèd-ráoogo “Stallion” (= Kusaal widdaug.)

    The only Foliaon I can find on WP was born in Bohicon in Benin:

    That may mean that the name is Fon, but it doesn’t seem to help much with what the spelling is meant to represent, although if it is Fon that would at least mean that the -n marks nasalisation rather than representing /n/.

  12. David Eddyshaw says

    the White Volta is far larger than the graticule

    Very true: I’d forgotten that it’s still the White Volta after the Red Volta joins it. There are no Pink Voltas.

    I think that “Nakambé” only refers to the part in Burkina Faso, but that’s pushing things a bit too far.

    Ouargaye is too far east, I think; also currently not very populous or impressive, although its chiefly line is actually senior to the Ouagadougou branch historically, according to the chief himself (p.c.)

  13. David, in this here year 2021, what is the status of polities still existing in West Africa under the rubric of chieftainships, kingdoms, and the like? Where do chiefs/kings still have any power? Does it anywhere compete with that of the state?

  14. January First-of-May says

    Very true: I’d forgotten that it’s still the White Volta after the Red Volta joins it. There are no Pink Voltas.

    Indeed, but even just the Burkina Faso part is still too large. (There’s a reason the country used to be named “Upper Volta”.)

    Ouargaye is indeed (slightly) too far east, and instead competes with Cinkassé (and its cross-border sibling Cinkansé), Pama, Natiaboani (my current best guess on the largest, though Cinkassé/Cinkansé combined would be larger, I think), and a few other places for the (currently unnamed) 11,0 graticule. (The border between them is the Prime Meridian, which is weird to think about; in particular, the meridian of Bawku also passes through western London.)

    Incidentally, Wikipedia, along with some other sources I googled based on the (very brief) Wikipedia reference, tell(s) me that Bawku is also known for the (apparently) only recorded meteorite fall in Ghana, which occurred in its vicinity in 1989. Were you already in that area at the time?

  15. David Eddyshaw says


    This is a very complex question (which, in a way, is your answer, right there.)

    It’s a long time since I actually lived in West Africa, so my first-hand knowledge is certainly out of date. However, FWIW:

    The first and most important thing to say is that It varies enormously from place to place and from culture to culture – and always did. There are cultures that never had chiefs to begin with, like the Igbo and indeed the Kusaasi. Islam has also changed things, and has often been associated with the introduction of chieftaincy, or with a significant building up of its importance (it is much tied up, though in a complicated and ambivalent way, with chieftancy in the Mossi-Dagomba states.) The emirs of the old Sultanate of Sokoto in Nigeria remain politically very important (and very rich), both for historical reasons and because of Islam; however, Islam can also tend to undermine their power, as Islamic reformist movements can adjudge them to be inadequate as Muslim rulers.

    In West Africa, the British and the French had differing colonial ideologies which have also greatly affected the actual power of chiefs. The British “indirect rule” system often deliberately bolstered chiefly power during the colonial period (including in places where the “chiefs” were actually artefacts of British misunderstanding of traditional cultures, effectively creating chiefs – as the Brits conceived the concept – where there were none before.)

    The power of chiefs with regard to modern states has also been undermined by the colonial tendency to draw lines on maps that ignored ethnological reality. Most West African states are so diverse internally that even when a traditional culture has vigorously survived it’s in no position to dominate the entire state; if anything, as in Nigeria, it’s been a cause of division. But the obverse of that coin is that is difficult to maintain political power without some sort of backing from older traditional power structures.

    The Brits tended to regard traditional rulers as analogous to the Brit upper classes and nobility, and tended to push for transitional power-sharing arrangements where chiefs, emirs and what have your were awarded House-of-Lords-style constitutional roles. Such arrangements often persisted after independence for some time, and (as in the British case) even where the formal political roles have been reduced over time, the economic and social advantages remain firmly entrenched.

    Many (maybe most) of the West Africans you actually come across in Europe or America are from very hifalutin families back home. Think royalty and nobility. Peasants don’t have the kind of connexions or money to end up being educated in Europe. There’s a reason that half the Yoruba you’ve ever heard of have names beginning with Ade “Crown.”

    Ghana and the part of Burkina Faso that I am familiar with have local cultures which are very much alive and well (none of your “Lonely African” bollocks) and this often involves well-established traditions of local chieftainship/kingship. The Ashanti king has at the very least the kind of respect among Ashanti that the British monarchy has among very traditional Brits; potentially, though they could not dominate the whole of Ghana, they could cause serious problems for whoever was trying to run the country. Fortunately for the country, all recent Asantehenes have been extremely careful not to abuse their position and have exercised a distinct moderating influence. This matters in Ghana exactly because the country is relatively homogeneous ethnically, and the Ashanti and their kindred constitute a very large part of the the total population.

    Burkina Faso is similar in that, although ethnically very diverse, there is no doubt but that the single most populous and politically powerful group are the Mossi. The Mossi king has little power compared with the President, but again the traditional culture is alive and well, and if he were prepared to make trouble that would be a big problem. (The then Moro Naba refused to cooperate with the Vichy régime, showing remarkable loyalty to a French state which can hardly be said to have treated him or his people well.)

    On a local level, in the areas I used to visit in northern Ghana and eastern Burkina, chiefs remain extremely influential. Even in Burkina, where the ideology has long been the francophone one of centralisation, with Paris the spiritual centre of the universe, when I first went to work in a town where I was new, I would be taken to see the mayor, the bishop and the chief; and the greatest of these three was the chief.

  16. David Eddyshaw says

    Bawku is also known for the (apparently) only recorded meteorite fall in Ghana, which occurred in its vicinity in 1989. Were you already in that area at the time?

    Sadly, no.

  17. marie-lucie says

    DE, thank you! I guess the stress was on the -a- not the -on.

    The student I knew was also named Ayivi Foliaon, but he was definitely a male. He did not have a French Christian name, but perhaps he did and chose not to use it in the school, especially if his native name showed he was from a prominent family, which the high position of Florence (his sister? his wife?) perhaps suggests. As Togo and Benin (formerly Dahomey) are next to each other, it is not surprising that the same name should be found in both countries, perhaps through intermarriage.

  18. Thanks for the detailed essay, David. It sounds like where they do exist, they have a stabilizing influence, with localised power to counter the distant bureaucrats in the capital. It sounds healthy.

  19. David Eddyshaw says

    What is surely more and more changing things in West Africa with regard to traditional power structures is urbanisation (just as it did, long ago and much more slowly, in Europe.) There are certainly West African cities which are not particularly diverse ethnically, but the tendency is still clear. Loyalty to chiefs is not a thing for citizens, so much.

  20. An ELDP project on ceremonial language in Bafut (here, you need to manually navigate to “Bafut”) describes it as the “culturally rich but highly endangered system of Bafut royal honorifics”. This suggests a fraying of the social support in this particular case.

  21. Anatole Abragam ones volunteered to go to a conference on onomastics under the condition that someone explained to him what “onomastics” was. Following in my better’s steps, I offer to give my unvarnished opinion about naming graticule 11,-0 if someone explains to me why they should have names.

  22. Gerald Durrell visited the Bafut royals and wrote a wonderfully amusing book “The Bafut Beagles”.

    Would make great sequel to The Durrells show.

  23. …and a sequel, A Zoo in my Luggage. It starts out with him worried if the Fon had been insulted by his portrayal in the first book. He hadn’t.
    I got to see Durrell give a public talk once. He was very funny.

  24. PlasticPaddy says

    @de, ml
    Could this name Foliaon be from Yoruba, i.e., version of the name Folahan (fola = honour)?

  25. Re: Foliaon (@marie-lucie, @David Eddyshaw). The Lusophone connection in Togo, Benin and Nigeria — as I’ve just realized thanks to marie-lucie’s Foliaon query — is not limited to Portuguese slave trading. Thousands, perhaps dozens of thousands, of Afro-Brazilians moved to West Africa and settled in coastal towns from Accra to Lagos and possibly beyond, in the XIX and early XX centuries. This makes Folhão > Foliaon superficially plausible.

    On the other hand, Robert Cornevin’s L’Histoire du Togo (1960) mentions chiefs called Foli (Foli Bébé, Foli Dekpo, Foli Alofa, etc.) ruling over the Glidji region in the southwest, near the present-day border with Benin (“Les Guin de la région d’Anécho”). Also, Basilia Chantal Codjo writes (in “Les pratiques sexuelles chez le peuple «GƐn» et Mina d’Agoué” – Agoué is on the Benin side of the border but pretty close):

    Au fil du temps, Comlangan et sa cour, qui ont déjà érigé leur dynastie à Agoué, demandèrent à Folioaon [sic] de quitter Agouègan pour s’installer en permanence à Agoué avec eux. Foliaon accepta leur demande et s’installa définitivement à Agoué, dans le quartier appelé aujourd’hui Folicomè (le quartier de Foli).

    Aujourd’hui les descendants de Comlangan et ceux de Foliaon revendiquent les uns et les autres la fondation d’Agoué sur fond de tension sociale, le roi contesté d’Agoué est un descendant de Foliaon.

    If I understand correctly, that Foliaon moved to Agoué in the 1820s. His descendants/relatives are probably considered blue blood today.

  26. David Eddyshaw says

    People called Ayivi seem to come from the south of Togo whenever I can identify their origin, so that part does indeed look like a Gbe name (Gbe being the dialect chain that comprises Ewe, Fon etc.) It’s certainly not Yoruba.

    Unfortunately I know nothing about Gbe personal names. The dreadful Mouton Grammar Library volume on Fongbe is written by two people with an evident total absence of interest in Fon culture and contains no useful information on this or indeed on anything much else of value; the two Ewe grammars I’ve seen are competent but very short and don’t treat of such things.

    This Agoué Foliaon certainly looks like the man. It wouldn’t be out of the question for a coastal West African to bear a Portuguese name by any means. “Big Leaf” seems an odd name, though.

  27. David Eddyshaw says

    Foli seems to be an Ewe name given to eldest sons.

  28. John Cowan says

    effectively creating chiefs – as the Brits conceived the concept – where there were none before

    “When the white man came to this country [the U.S.], the first mistake he made was to assume that any Indian who made a speech had to be a chief.” —me, talking to an African American taxi driver some years back

    Loyalty to chiefs is not a thing for citizens, so much.

    That’s exactly how towns (and later cities) got started in England: people occupied town houses that belonged to feudal lords, but for which they paid cash rent, and it was typical for your house to belong to one lord and your neighbor’s house to another. Later it became law that a serf who lived in a town for a year and a day unmolested became “seised of his freedom”, and his master could not reclaim him.

  29. As I commented at the Log, Radio Garden offer very little in the way of radio stations in China, but they DO let you listen to the control tower at Beijing Capital Airport.

  30. David Marjanović says

    a serf who lived in a town for a year and a day unmolested became “seised of his freedom”, and his master could not reclaim him.

    Stadtluft macht frei was supposedly a widespread saying.

  31. @David Eddyshaw: “Foli seems to be an Ewe name given to eldest sons.”

    This is most likely the key to the puzzle. The Guin-Mina language is very close to Ewe, if I understand correctly.

    Of course the Portuguese connection is tempting to explore (BTW folhão could be from folho, not just folha) — once you start paying attention, traces of Portuguese are everywhere around the globe. But this one must be a false lead.

  32. David Eddyshaw says

    The Guin-Mina language is very close to Ewe, if I understand correctly.

    Yes: another part of the Gbe dialect continuum.

  33. Stu Clayton says

    Loyalty to chiefs is not a thing for citizens, so much.

    To this day it remains strong in the theory and practice of monotheistic religions, even for city denizens. In times of social unrest it tends to escape its ecclesiastic bonds and, as Goa’ulds do, take over large parts of the population.

    Trump’s insistence on loyalty is a carbon copy of that of the other irascible, vindictive, erratic personality in the Old Testament

  34. David Eddyshaw says

    carbon copy

    Graven image.

  35. Stu Clayton says

    Let’s not get distracted by technological advances. American evangelicals immediately recognized in Trump the type of their Big Bible Bully. That is his appeal for them.

    Catholic organisations for the most part remained demurely silent in the media. I suppose they’ve seen it all before, and not forgotten.

  36. American evangelicals immediately recognized in Trump the type of their Big Bible Bully.

    A point that can’t be overemphasized. People puzzled by Pmurt’s appeal to evangelicals don’t realize how much he resembles one of their favorite preachers, not the smooth-talkers on national television but the ones that bleat, bark, bellow and roar on every Sunday morning in Middle America.

  37. Catholic organisations for the most part remained demurely silent in the media. I suppose they’ve seen it all before, and not forgotten.

    Trump is very popular with conservative Catholics, who seem increasingly to be dominating the US Catholic Church these days.

  38. marie-lucie says

    Stu: the other irascible, vindictive, erratic personality in the Old Testament … their Big Bible Bully

    I think the personaity of the OT god may have been the main reason why the Catholic church (the only Church at the time) did not want its adherents to read the OT without the expert guidance it gave its priests (and so it forbade the Book to be translated into local languages – some translators were burned at the stake), as it wanted the faithful to focus on the admirable qualities of Jesus. It is hard to conclude from reading the OT without previous indoctrination that the Creator is or was a beneficent deity.

  39. Stu Clayton says

    Marie-Lucie: that seems plausible ! Of course other motives might be urged, but as I see it, preventing access to the OT functioned as you say, no matter what the motives. I refer here to the distinction between purpose and function (as set out by Luhmann in 1968).

  40. Mare-Lucie, Stu: It was not only true of the Catholic Church! Apparently (Can someone point to a source?), none other than Wulfila, in his translation of the Bible into Gothic, quite deliberately chose not to translate certain parts of the Old Testament which he thought were too “un-Christian” and too similar to the warrior ethos of the Goths.

  41. Stu Clayton says

    Etienne: on the little I know, only about 190 pages of the codex argenteus still exist, and a few fragmentary copies from 200-300 years later. Most of it is NT, very little OT.

    “Quite deliberately” sounds quite speculative. Some biblical scholar may have leaned so far out the window that he defenestrated, but his rumor survived.

  42. David Eddyshaw says


    This comes from Socrates Scholasticus:

    who says that Wulfila translated all of the Bible except the four books of Kings, which (he says), Wulfila indeed left out so as not to exacerbate the warlike tendencies of his people.

    Joseph Wright points out that the explanation given by Socrates is implausible, given that Wulfila translated Joshua and Judges, and thinks that it is more likely that Wulfila simply didn’t live long enough to finish the translation.

  43. The claim that Ulfilas deliberately did not translate the Books of Kings comes ultimately from Philostorgius, 368 – c. 439 (via Photius’ epitome as the original is lost).

    Book 2, Chap 5 from

    “Being sent by the then king of the Goths on an embassy to the court of the emperor Constantine, (for the barbarous tribes in those parts were subject to the emperor,) he was ordained bishop of the Christians among time Goths, by Eusebius and the other prelates that were with him. Accordingly he took the greatest care of them in many ways, and amongst others, he reduced their language to a written form, and translated into their vulgar tongue all the books of holy Scripture, with the exception of the Books of Kings, which he omitted, because they are a mere narrative of military exploits, and the Gothic tribes were especially fond of war, and were in more need of restraints to check their military passions than of spurs to urge them on to deeds of war.”

    So while the story may be false it comes from a time when more of the Gothic Bible is likely to have been extant and any omissions more likely to be deliberate.

  44. David Eddyshaw says

    (I’ve just been looking at the actual text of Socrates, which is all available online not only in the original Greek but also in translation into both Latin and Barbarian in these wondrous days: although he says that Wulfila translated the Bible (IV:33), I can’t see anything about leaving out Kings, let alone his supposed reason for doing so. Joseph Wright, in his Gothic grammar, expressly attributes all this to Socrates, though.)

    [EDIT: anhweol explains the mystery. Looks like Wright was Wrong.]

  45. David Eddyshaw says

    Gary Miller, in the Oxford Gothic Grammar, says that there is no clearcut evidence that Wulfila actually translated much of the Bible himself at all, but thinks on balance that he probably translated most of it, probably as part of a team of scholars.

    The Bologna fragment, only discovered in 2010, cites Old Testament passages in Gothic:

  46. John Cowan says

    Irene has just gotten back her (commercial, not medical) genetic analysis. Her birth parents are both Puerto Ricans, yet some noticeable fraction of her ancestry turns up Portuguese, who it seems do appear in the founding European lineages of P.R.

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