This may look like Arabic to you, but it’s not.
This is Jawi, previously the standard script for writing the Malay language. Adapted from the Arabic language, it uses all of the original 28 letters of the Arabic alphabet. In addition, Jawi has six unique supplementary letters: va (same as wa but with a single dot on top), cha (same as jim but with 3 dots), pa (same as fa but with 3 dots), ga (same as ka but with one dot), nga (same as ghain but with 3 dots), nya (same as ya but with 3 dots). Those 3 dots are a direct giveaway that the text is in Jawi instead of Arabic.
And just like Arabic, Jawi is written and read from right to left.
But while Arabic relies on symbols to indicate the vowel to be used with each letter (e.g. symbol on top is for ‘a’, at the bottom for ‘i’, a fat comma-like symbol to indicate ‘u’, known as fatha, kasra, and dhamma, respectively), with Jawi, there are no such symbols. Just take a look at the introduction of RoundBoy’s Jawi textbook:-
In contrast, take a look at this book with Arabic letters duly marked with fatha, kasra, and dhamma to guide students who are new to Arabic.
Although, I must clarify, more advanced Arabic readers can do without those symbols, simply relying on one’s knowledge of Arabic vocabulary to decipher the right word.
With Jawi, words with ‘i’ sound are normally spelled with a letter ‘ya’ after it, words with ‘u’ sound are written with a ‘wau’ after it, words with ‘a’ are written with ‘alif’ after it. The tricky part is, some words don’t use any of those letters. I’m very new to Jawi myself and don’t understand all the rules. So you can just imagine my predicament whenever I try to help my children with their homework.
Take the case of the word ‘ibu’, which is Malay for ‘mother’. It’s spelled as:
alif + ya = ‘i’
ba + wau = ‘bu’
But if you don’t know head or tail about Jawi, you could very well end up reading that word as ‘ay-bu’.
So now you have an idea of how much of a struggle it has been for me to assist my children with their Jawi homework, considering how terrible their Malay is compared to their Filipina mother. Because Jawi requires knowledge of the actual script, as well as adequate Malay vocabulary in order to figure out the correct word. Otherwise, you just might end up reading a word as kelapa (coconut) when it actually spells kepala (head)!
Jawi is still used in road signs in many places in Malaysia (which created quite a controversy here, but which I shall not delve into) and is still in day-to-day usage in the states of Kelantan and Terengganu. Muslim marriage certificates in Kelantan, for instance, are wholly written in Jawi.
Sadly, it seems the usage of Jawi has been tapering in the recent years. Many Malays often get duped into thinking that an Indian restaurant is a kedai mamak (Indian Muslim) simply because the said restaurant’s signboard has Arabic-looking text on it, when actually it’s just something else in Jawi.
Despite all the controversies that swirl around Jawi, it would definitely be a shame if this essential piece of Malay culture dies away.