Old Sundanese 101: Part III — Reading a Line of Poetry

Fig. 1 — The first line of “Bujangga Manik”. Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Jav. b.3. (R), f.1v. (f.?r on the Bodleian site.)



The letters of the Roman alphabet — or really any alphabet — come in two basic flavours: vowels and consonants. Alphabets are intended to replicate the phonemes of a language so that there’s a one-to-one correlation between phonemes (the smallest distinguishable units of sound in a language) and graphemes (the smallest distinguishable units of writing in a script). It doesn’t work that well in English, but that’s the idea.

Fig. 2 — The syllable ⟨ka⟩ in the Old Sundanese “lontar” script. This isn’t composed of two separate signs, one for ‘k’ and the other for ‘a’; it’s one inseparable sign for the whole syllable.

BM 1

Now, here’s BM 1, the line in Bujangga Manik from above, marked up to show the divisions between these aksaras. The line includes both ‘naked’ and ‘vowel’ aksaras (Figure 3):

Fig. 3 — BM 1, with boxes showing the divisions between each aksara.
Fig. 4— BM 1 in the manuscript, marked up to show the values of the aksaras.
Fig. 5 — Three diacritics in BM 1. These change the syllables a bit.


The first diacritic in BM 1 adds an ⟨-r⟩ to the end of the syllable. It’s called panglayar in Sundanese. It floats above the aksara it modifies, and in isolation it looks like this (Figure 6):

Fig. 6 — The “panglayar”, representing ⟨-r⟩, in isolation.
Fig. 7 — The “panyecek”, representing ⟨-ng⟩, in isolation.
Fig. 8 — The “panghulu”, representing ⟨-i⟩, in isolation.
Fig. 9 — All the signs and marks in the first line of “Bujangga Manik”.
Fig. 10 — Now you ought to be able to ‘read’ all the signs. Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Jav. b.3. (R), f.1v.


Old Sundanese is a predicate-initial language. For the most part. What that means is that, like in Irish and Classical Arabic and other such noble languages, the verb comes first in the sentence. This is not the case with modern Sundanese, and it isn’t always the case with Old Sundanese — but it is to some extent the standard word order. Lines in Old Sundanese poetry are typically complete (if simple) sentences comprising a subject and a verb or other predicate, although they can also be noun phrases or serial verb constructions.


The verb here is saur ‘word; to say’. As you can see, it’s the first word in the line/sentence.


The subject of this line is sang mahapandita ‘the great sage’.



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Medieval Indonesia

Medieval Indonesia

Posting about ancient and medieval Indonesia, up to ~1500 CE. Mainly into 14th & 15th century stuff, but earlier is fine too.