Languages, Scripts, Transliteration and Pronunciation

Languages, Scripts, Transliteration and Pronunciation.

Notes on the languages.

Although the objects under discussion are mostly from Indonesia, the appropriate terms may be in various languages such as Indonesian (I), Malay (M), Kawi (K), Javanese (J), Sanskrit (S) or Pali (P).  Sanskrit and Pali words may be rendered in Devanagari or Roman letters.  In explanation of the use of these languages during the Hindu-Buddhist era and before the establishment of Indonesia as a modern state, it should be understood that the Javanese language then spoken was enriched with Sanskrit words brought by Hindu and Buddhist traders and religious teachers.  This language is referred to as Kawi (Old Javanese).  Many of these words still remain in Javanese and some entered Malay and Indonesian and are still in use. For those who are not familiar with Javanese, Malay or Indonesian languages, the letter c is always pronounced as ch as in church.

The use of many Sanskrit words, especially those of religious significance declined in Javanese, after the Hindu kingdoms were replaced by Moslem ones and Arabic words were brought into the language in the 16th century.  This was not the case in Bali, where the Balinese language still retains most of the ancient terms.  Nevertheless in Java many of the Kawi words were retained in the plays and dances originating from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, which remained popular.  Some bronze figurines from Java represent characters in the Ramayana or Mahabharata, whose names have been changed from the original Sanskrit names used in India to local names adopted in Java.  An example would be Bathara Guru, king of the gods, as an avatar of the Indian god Shiva.  Similarly Bathara Kala, god of the underworld, who would be known as Yama in India and is considered to have been born of the seed of Bathara Guru.

Some of the terms or the interpretation of the significance of certain characters were changed to fit in with Islamic culture.  The apsara is an example.  Now, in performances of the Mahabharata in Java, these heavenly maidens, who were sent to comfort fallen heroes in the Hindu-Buddhist tradition, are now perhaps considered to be like the houris (Arabic:  حورية‎), who await in heaven for a martyr (Arabic:  شَهيد  šyahīd)‎,  who died in the cause of Islam.  Interestingly the words used for heaven in local languages:  surga (I), syurga (M) and swarga (J) are taken from the Sanskrit word स्वर्ग svarga, the Hindu name for heaven.

The transliteration of Sanskrit and Pāḷi words.

Many of the terms used on this site have their origins in Sanskrit, Hybrid Sanskrit and Pali, which were used to record the ancient texts such as the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, the Mahayana Sutras and the Pali Canon.  These texts may be found, written in Devanāgarī script.  However, its Romanisation presents many issues, when trying to transliterate the up to 53 letters used.  Earlier systems, developed more than 200 years ago were modified by Hunter, presented in 1872 and adopted by the Government of India as the national system of Romanisation.  In the computer age, several ASCII[1] schemes have been developed. Some of these comply with ISO 15919[2].  After reviewing, the best system appears to be the IAST[3], which is a sub-set of ISO 15919.  This transliteration scheme allows a lossless Romanisation of the Indic scripts employed for writing both the Sanskrit and the Pāḷi language and can be given alongside the Devanagari.  However, IAST does not allow those unfamiliar with the diacritics used, to immediately read it with the nearest English pronunciation.  For this reason the old Hunterian transliteration without diacritics will be employed in the general text.  With Devanāgarī script, the final consonant will always include an ‘a’, if otherwise unmodified, but in modern Hindi this is usually dropped e.g. Mahabharata becomes Mahabharat.  In Romanised Sanskrit the final ‘a’ character is retained, which will result in the correct pronunciation in Sanskrit.

Notes on spelling and pronunciation of the Javanese language

Most of the terms in the Javanese language used on this site are from the Old Javanese or Kawi language. The correct spelling of these words will usually follow Sanskrit. Some words, after entering new or modern Javanese, have changed in spelling or pronunciation with an ‘a’ becoming an ‘o’, e.g. Rama becomes Romo and Majapahit becomes Mojopahit, or at least when spoken. One cannot help but recall the comments made almost 200 years ago by John Crawfurd F.R.S., who visited Java from 1811 to1817 and at one time had resided at the court of the Sultan of Java:  “An European is most struck with the absence of the letters f and v, and of that sound for which sh stands in our own language. With respect to the vowels, the greatest peculiarity is the frequent substitution of the vowel o for the a of other languages, or rather the transformation of the latter into the former. The Indian words kama, love, and sama, with, become, in the enunciation of the Javanese, komo and somo.”.


1.  ASCII  Acronym for the American Standard Code for Information Interchange.
2.  ISO 15919  Transliteration of Devanagari Indic scripts into Latin characters.
3.  IAST Acronym for the International Alphabet of Sanskrit Transliteration.
4.  John Crawfurd F.R.S., History of the Indian Archipelago, vol. 2 1820 p. 4.


Back to top

Recent Posts