About Jawi and Rumi
The Malay language has two writing systems in modern use: the romanised script Rumi and the Arabic script Jawi. Presently, Rumi is by far the more common of the two, but Jawi continues to be used for various cultural, religious, and administrative purposes, and in parts of Malaysia and in Brunei the script is co-official with Rumi. Jawi was the dominant script for writing Malay from around the 14th century until the 20th century. Prior to that, Old Malay scripts, Kawi and Rencong, were derived from Sanskrit. Letters in Jawi largely correspond to those in Arabic, with modifications made; in particular, the addition of extra letters to represent sounds absent in Arabic. The absence of vowels sometimes results in ambiguity that is not present in Rumi. For instance, ڤيلو is either pilu (sadness) or pilau (a native boat), and the reader decides the pronunciation depending on context. Similarly, there may be a single Rumi spelling that has multiple Jawi spellings, such as merah which can be written مره or ميره; the difference here being that the second form uses ي ("ya") for the e vowel in merah.
Jawi’s rise coincided with the arrival of Islam, which explains why its use today is often in religious contexts. However, the script is not inherently tied to Islam nor to the Arabic language, just as how Rumi is not inherently tied to any European traditions. After its adoption, Jawi became the dominant writing system in maritime Southeast Asia; the script of choice for legal documents, communications between kings, trade agreements, treaties, tax records, religious tracts, non-fictional and creative writings. One genre of texts that used this script was Malay medical manuscripts, known variously as Kitab Tib, Kitab Obat-Obatan and Kitab Mujarrabat. Surviving manuscripts show that the script was used to write prescriptions that draw from multiple religious traditions. Islam was a primary influence in this medical system but words for charms and mantras for healing also alluded to deities or spirits from Hindu-Buddhist and indigenous-animist tradition. Jawi was thus used to articulate texts for multiple functions and expressed diverse religious ideas.
The romanisation of the Malay language was likely a consequence of European imperialism in the region. Antonio Pigafetta, an Italian explorer who accompanied Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan in circumventing the globe, was one of the first to generate a list of Malay terms in Roman letters, providing their meanings in Italian in the early 16th centuries. More Romanised vocabulary lists emerged as the Portuguese and later, the Dutch and the British, intensified their colonial projects in the region. Unlike Jawi, which developed without an authoritative centre directing spelling and orthography, in the early twentieth century, British and Dutch colonial authorities standardised the Romanised spellings (Rumi) through the Wilkinson spelling system and the van Ophuijsen spelling system respectively. These systems were adopted as standard for communication within these colonies, pushing Jawi to the margins. The marginalisation of Jawi persisted after decolonisation, aided by the Western educated leaders in Malaysia and Indonesia for whom a Rumi system of writing was more advantageous than Jawi, which would have privileged an Islamic educated class.
Although Malaysia’s 1957 Declaration of the Independence was written in Jawi, the writing system was not widely used in government administration. The status of Rumi was further elevated through the National Language Act in 1963 that formally instituted Rumi as the national writing system for the Malay language. Jawi retreated into religious schools and specialist language newspapers. In Indonesia, similar developments took place; the writing system virtually disappeared from official documents, textbooks and creative writing in the public sphere by 1956. Calls to re-establish the Jawi script as a national writing system or in school textbooks emerged periodically in Malaysia – the latest as recent as 2019 – where such pressure was usually linked to a political agenda for Malayisation of the nation. To date, however, the ability to read and write in Jawi is a skill that at least two generations of citizens in both states are not widely conversant with. This Jawi-Rumi converter reflects that need for a tool that could make these writings systems legible to all speakers of the Malay language and facilitate the reading of historical sources.
Melebek Abdul Rashid and Moain Amat Juhari, Sejarah Bahasa Melayu, (Kuala Lumpur: Utusan Publications and Distributors, 2006).
Alessandro Bausani, “The First Italian-Malay Vocabulary by Antonio Pigafetta,” East and West, 11:4 (1960), pp. 229-248.
James T. Collins, Malay, World Language: A Short History, (Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, 1998)
Kevin Fogg, “The standardisation of the Indonesian language and its consequences for Islamic communities,” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, 46:1, (2015), pp. 86-110.
Andries Teeuw, “The history of the Malay language: A preliminary survey,” Bijdragen tot de taal-, land- en volkenkunde, 115:2, (1959), pp. 138-159