There are several confusing and surprising things about the Javanese language. First, a lot of people confuse it with Japanese, or with Java, a programming language. Also, with over eighty million speakers, it is one of the ten most widely spoken languages in the world, yet it is not an official language in any country or territory.

Illuminated manuscript of Babad Tanah Jawi (History of the Javanese Land) from the 19th century.

Javanese is mainly spoken in Indonesia, on the island of Java, which gave its name to a popular variety of coffee. The only official language of that country is Indonesian, but Javanese is the main spoken language in its area. It is used in business, politics and literature. In fact, its literary tradition goes back to the tenth century, when an encyclopedia-like work titled Cantaka Parwa was written in it. Another Javanese encyclopedia was published in the nineteenth century, titled Bauwarna.

This tradition is being continued today by Wikipedians who speak that language: every day they strive to improve and enhance the Javanese Wikipedia, now having over forty thousand articles. One of them is Benny Lin. In addition to writing articles and explaining to people the Wikipedia mission, Benny’s special passion is making the Javanese language usable online not just in the more prevalent Latin alphabet but also in the ancient Javanese script.

This ancient script also known as Carakan was used for over a thousand years, and numerous books have been published in it. These days there’s little book publishing in it, though it is still used in some textbooks, in some Facebook groups and in public signs. Elsewhere the Latin alphabet is used more frequently. The younger generation is starting to forget the old script and this rich heritage becomes inaccessible. Benny hopes that transcribing classical literature for Wikisource and writing modern encyclopedic articles in this script, will revive interest in it and help the Javanese people achieve greater understanding of their own culture, and make these largely unknown treasures of wisdom accessible to people of all languages and cultures.

Javanese Wikipedia article about Joko Widodo

Benny presented a talk about this at Wikimania in Hong Kong, the international gathering of Wikipedians. There he also worked with Santhosh Thottingal and myself, developers from Wikimedia’s Language Engineering team, to improve the support for the Javanese script in Wikipedia. Thanks to this work, Wikipedias in all languages can now show text in the Javanese script, and the readers don’t have to install any fonts on their computers, because the fonts are delivered using webfonts technologies. The exquisite Javanese script has many ligatures and other special features, which require the Graphite technology for displaying. As of this writing, the only web browser that supports it is Firefox, but Graphite is Free Software, and it may become supported in other browsers in the near future.

Benny also completed his work for Javanese typing tools for Wikipedia, so now the script can not only be read, but also written easily. This technology can even be used on other sites and not just Wikipedia, using the jquery.ime library.

He sees his work as part of a larger effort by many people who care about the script. There are others, who design fonts, promote the script in different venues and research its literature. Beeny saw that he could contribute by making the fonts and typing tools more accessible through Wikipedia, and he just did it.

Wikimedians believe that the sum of all knowledge must be freely shared by all humans, and this means that it must also be shared in all languages. Passionate volunteers like Benny are the people who make this happen.

Amir E. Aharoni
Software Engineer, Language Engineering team