Om swastyastu, a common Balinese greeting. (Image by author.)
In a previous post, we introduced the Balinese Lontar Project that PanLex is managing, in coordination with the Internet Archive and Udayana University. We have some exciting updates from the last two months. The team at Pusat Kajian Lontar at Udayana has given us great feedback, PanLex’s transcription platform is now live at palmleaf.org, and the Kahle/Austin Foundation (run by Internet Archive founder Brewster Kahle and his wife Mary Austin) has agreed to fund the initial phase of work! Over the next few months, we will be working with Udayana and possibly other interested parties in Bali to transcribe complete lontar works.
Finding the right fonts to work with
PanLex has needed to solve several unanticipated but fascinating problems in order to create a viable online transcription platform. In the previous post, we said that “good Balinese fonts have only recently become available”; we meant Google’s Noto Serif Balinese font. However, the experts at Udayana informed us that Noto Serif Balinese was hard to read. They suggested that we instead use Bali Simbar, which is the most popular font currently used in Bali to write Balinese script. That turned out not to be possible, as it does not use Balinese Unicode, the only way to make Balinese text readable and searchable on all platforms. In fact, few Balinese fonts are available with Unicode support, and most are incomplete. Since the goal of the Balinese Lontar Project is to make lontar works accessible to all, we had to solve this problem.
The term onomatopœia, derived from the Greek ὀνοματοποιία (ὄνομα (ónoma), “name” + ποιέω (poiéō), “to make, to do, to produce”), refers to words whose phonetic forms originate from the sound of the thing or action the word represents. Common examples from English are “oink”, “beep”, and “hiccup”. Japanese is known for having a very large set of onomatopœias, covering a wider range of topics than the onomatopœia of other languages. For example, どきどき (doki doki) means “with a racing heart”, in imitation of a rapid heartbeat. Some Japanese onomatopœias represent a metaphorical sound, such as the rather amusing しいん (shiin), meaning “the sound of silence”. One fascinating aspect of onomatopœias is that, although they derive from non-linguistic sounds, cross-linguistically they often differ. For example, the English representation of the sound of a pig is “oink”, but in Mandarin it is 哼哼 (hēng hēng), in Swedish it is nöff, and in Thai it is อู๊ด (úut).
Angel in her Berkeley back yard. (Image by Donald Anderson.)
As we reported in February, we were honored to contribute the entire PanLex Database to the Arch Mission Foundation’s Lunar Library™, a 30-million-page archive of civilization contained in a long-duration time-capsule that traveled to the Moon last month aboard the SpaceIL Beresheet lunar lander.
In 2011, the Internet Archive photographed nearly the entire collection of Balinese palm-leaf manuscripts (130,000 leaves in all) as part of an effort to bring out of the shadows the lesser-known literatures of the world and to inspire others to do the same.
These traditional Balinese texts were inscribed with a special triangular iron stylus on treated Lontar palm leaves that come from the Borassus fabellifer family of palms. Subjects span a variety of aspects of life, including religious ceremonies, guidelines, and magic; medical, astrological, and astronomical knowledge; epic stories, histories, and genealogies; and the performing arts and illustrations. Many of the texts are centuries old and have been re-copied many times over the years, as the leaves themselves break down over time.
Lontar palm leaf book in Balinese script. (Image by Tropenmuseum.)
The island of Halmahera is a spider-shaped island located in Indonesia’s Maluku Islands. It was these islands, the so-called “spice islands”, that several European nations sought in the 15th and 16th centuries as the source of cloves, nutmeg, and mace. Along the east coast of Halmahera, the closely related Austronesian languages Patani and Sawai (among others) are spoken. Patani has 10,600 speakers and Sawai has 12,000. I did a few days of fieldwork on Patani (in 2015) and Sawai (in 2018) and uncovered some interesting things.
An interesting feature of Patani and Sawai is that when expressing possession — expressing who owns or is associated with something, as in English “my house” or “their friends” — it is necessary to distinguish between edible and inedible items. (Many Oceanic languages, which are related to Patani and Sawai, do this as well.) But what exactly does it mean for something to be edible? The answer isn’t as obvious as it might seem.
View from the beach in Lelilef, a Sawai village. (Photo by author.)