Connect to share and comment
In an effort to preserve their language, the Cia-Cia people of Indonesia try adopting the Korean alphabet.
SEOUL, South Korea — When King Sejong the Great set out to create a Korean alphabet for his people during the Joseon Dynasty in the 15th century, he did so out of the goodness of his heart.
Previously, only highly educated Koreans were able to write using Chinese characters that differed greatly from the spoken language.
“I have created 28 new characters out of pity [for those who cannot express their desires in Chinese], so that everyone can easily learn and use them with ease in their daily lives,” King Sejong said when announcing the creation of his letters.
Little did he know how far that sentiment would stretch.
Today — thousands of miles away, and hundreds of years later — Indonesian schoolchildren on the small island of Buton are setting to work learning his letters. With their unwritten language on the road to extinction, the native Cia-Cia people are making an effort to see if the Korean alphabet, called Hangul, can be their alphabet, too.
Because the Cia-Cia have a purely spoken language, they were an ideal experimental group for a society of Korean scholars, who specialize in Hangul and were looking to spread their native characters to populations that are still without a written system. “Language is one of the treasures of humankind. It’s like a treasure box that holds the wisdom of its native people. What we’re trying to do by sharing Hangul is to delay that treasure from disappearing,” said Kim Juwon, president of Hunminjeongeum Society, which propelled the adoption of Hangul in Indonesia. Hunminjeongeum is what Hangul was first called in the 15th century.
The project began just over a year ago. After learning that almost six or seven minority groups did not have an alphabet on Buton island, northeast of Jakarta, the group approached one of the native people, the Cia-Cia.
To their surprise, the city government of Bau-Bau, where roughly 4,000 Cia-Cia people reside, agreed to adopt the East Asian alphabet. Most of the Cia-Cia above the age of 40 are able to speak their language fluently, according to Kim, but the younger generations are more likely to only understand what is being spoken to them, and more often communicate in Indonesian.
Indonesian officials were not available to provide statistics on how many Cia-Cia still speak their native tongue.
The Cia-Cia, who are mostly Muslim, have tried over the years to adopt several different written scripts in an effort to preserve their language. There is evidence that they experimented with Arabic, without much success. They are also said to occasionally use the English alphabet to spell out certain words, but they never developed the practice into a systematic way of writing.