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Tearing My Hair Out Over Jawi

Posted by on 25 August 2010

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.

18 Responses to Tearing My Hair Out Over Jawi

  1. witsandnuts

    This is very interesting. At first glance, parang purely Arabic nga. Attending to your kids’ Jawi homework is challenging. :)

  2. Mimi

    ‘Challenging’ is an understatement :)

  3. sheng

    I don’t understand a thing, haha, pag andyan siguro ako, maloloka ako sa pag-iintindi, kahit sa pagtawid ng daan!

  4. Mimi

    Don’t worry, Sheng. All road signs/placards are in Roman letters :) Jawi is just an addition. And even that, it’s only limited to certain street signs. Very few ppl can read Jawi now.

  5. syed heidzir

    salam kak mimi,

    nice write-up on featuring the usage of jawi that almost reaches extinction. i, myself can read jawi prescription, but i am all rusty at writing them. the erosion of interest towards jawi writings boils down to its spelling system that is inconsistent and unstructured and sometimes can be mind boggling..

    just like our chinese, japanese, korean and thai friends who are proud of their native prescription/characters/writings, the malays should be proud of jawi prescriptions too.. though it is not originally rooted from the malay archipelagos (borrowed from the arabs), at least it gives some sort of jati diri or ‘proud of root’sense to the malay peeps..

  6. Mimi

    syed: you are right. jawi *is* something for the malays to take pride of. i hope children of future generation will continue to learn it and find a way to use it. and as you said, i hope the rules get more structured and/or simplified, just as chinese writing is being simplified now.

  7. ramizah

    Mi, the word “jawi” in Kelantanese dialect has two meanings; 1st one is jawi writing and the other one is…?

  8. Sapawi

    I’m a bit good when reading Jawi but not the Arabic language. However the today’s Jawi is a bit weird to me due ‘too many’ word of Alif though it’s much easier to learn.
    I can still remember how my friend’s younger sister wrongly spelled the word ‘RAKYAT’ as “RO ALIF KAF YA TA” (RAKIT) instead of the correct “RO AIN YA TA”
    I like the Jawi as written during the heyday of Utusan Melayu.
    However, your children are lucky to have you as a mum because you give them additional knowledge of Malay language.

  9. Dawn

    I remember studying Jawi back in Standard 1 through 6. Boy did I hate going for that class. For some reason, non Malays have to study Jawi in my school on top of Chinese, another headache! But Chinese was just for Chinese students. I really, really tabik you for learning jawi to help with your kids’ homework.

  10. arlini

    the letters looked all the same to me hehe

  11. a-moms-diary

    I learnt Jawi when I was 5yo attending a predominantly Malay kindy in a kampung. But of course, I know nuts about it now :-)

  12. nyssa

    salam (:
    hey, cool ! i was reading the jawi and i loved it alot ! thank you so much and even i knew jawi when i was in kindergaten till im 17yrs old now(: keep it up !

  13. nadiya

    Thank you so much for this. reading your writings have been such a warming experience. i couldnt believe it but i became more malaysian after reading your blog.

  14. Mimi

    If other people elsewhere in the world are fighting to keep certain languages from dying away, the Malays must do their part in making sure Jawi stays alive, as well!

  15. Jennifer

    I’m another desperate mother looking for help to teach my kid jawi. Am only grasping some of the rules on writing jawi; also struggling with the “i”, “u”, “a”, “e”. And my kid’s Malay isn’t that good either. Double the problem. Good to see that I’m not alone with this issue. :-)

  16. laila

    hi can you tell me what Arabic book that is please i have been searching for one and that looks like to what i have been looking for thank you

  17. Aziz

    Dear Friends,
    1. Looking for Arabic/Jawi/Quranic fonts?
    2. Looking for a reference to Malay Language in Romanized and Jawi scripts?
    3. Looking for Malay/English/Arabic Dictionary?
    4. Looking for Arabic/English/Malay Flowers?
    Go explore my files here:
    Happy exploring!

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