- Discover Indonesia Online

You are currently in > Indonesia > Sulawesi island > Language and literature

Language and literature
Wealth of idiom and ideology

Compared to other parts of Indonesia, Sulawesi is very complicated in a linguistic way. An astonishing number of 80 languages are spoken; Java only has five. The languages on the island all belong to the huge Austronesian family, which stretches over almost half the world from Madagascar to Easter Island.

The biggest groups can be found in the densely populated South-Sulawesi. The people speak five related, but separate languages: Makassarese, Mandarese, Toraja, Massenrempulu and Buginese, the biggest language of Sulawesi which is spoken by about four million people.

As well as in other parts of Indonesia these languages are slowly replaced by Bahasa Indonesia, te national language of Indonesia. Most inhabitants of Sulawesi do have some knowledge of Indonesian. A growing number of youngsters have it as their mother tongue, which is caused by a strict language policy which is used in all layers of Indonesian education. Malay - the predecessor of modern Indonesian - has played an important role for trade and religion for centuries. Important Malay dialects, among them Manado and Makassar Malay, are still spoken in Manado and Makassar.

Writing since 1400

Written history can only be found in South-Sulawesi and on Buton. Of the last, written in Wolio language and mainly consisting of poems and religious work, only little is known. The Makassarese and Buginese literature are much more examined.

All three disclose a wealthy literary heritage. They are written in a syllable-writing, which comes from an Indian system. Similar writings, named ka-ga-nga after their first three characters, were once used on Sumatra and the Philippines, but the Buginese, Makassarese and Mandarese used it long after other populations had migrated to Arabic or Roman systems. Syllable writings have 23 characters, which' meaning can be changed by adding dots and lines. Manuscripts in this writing were originally written on leaves from the lontar (papyrus); the saves texts are usually on paper now.
Writing, based on a South-Sumatran writing, seems to have developed around 1400. At least two writings - predecessors of the modern South-Sulawesi writing and the old Makassarese one - were in use until the end of the 17th century. The writing was probably first used to write down genealogies. On an ongoing stretch of palm leaf, single-lined remarks were made; the stretches were then glued together and put on a large roll or in wooden frames.

Due to the bad climatological circumstances, manuscripts over a century old are rare. Fire and rats also had their fair share in destroying them. Many of the still existing old manuscripts are kept in European libraries; mostly copied, made for European scientists, from borrowed originals. A Scottish administrator, which was put to work in Makassar in 1810, seems to have stolen the original manuscript of the Buginese love story I La Padoma; the copy as well as the original one were sold to a British museum in 1846.

Literary genres

The Makassarese and Buginese literature are very varied, but can be put in two categories: metric and non-metric. Metric texts are long poems to heroes (tolo) in metra of eight syllables. Non-metric texts contain myths, historic stories, books of law, tractates, diaries and wise speeches. There are also tales and variations from Malay and Arabic literature, and many islamic legends.

The Makassarese as well as the Buginese are known for their tradition of written history. Each principality had it's own written history, which described the founding of the state, it's successive rulers and the events during their government. This chronological history are usually to be trusted. Most date from the 17th century, but are based on earlier sources. Supernatural events are rare and explained declarations normally overrule.

The written history of Wajo, for example, the writer distanciates from a story about the sale of a turtle, which is said to make gold; he repeats the disappointment of the buyer, which didn't get what he wanted. Unusual as well are the state diaries, dayly registers, which were maintained by high officers or sometimes even the king himself.

I La Galigo

Only few know, that the longest literary work can be found on South-Sulawesi. It's a huge epic cycle in Buginese, known as I La Galigo. It's size is estimated at about 6,000 folium leafs, written in a metrum of five and sometimes four syllables, and tells about events in pre-islamic, 14th century Luwu', center of the Buginese culture. It consists of dozens of episodes, each with it's own main character and spans several generations. Using a wide scale of literary conventions, the epos tells about the history of the arrival of gods and adventures of their descendants. The most important main character is Sawerigading, the Buginese cultural hero.

Last revised on September 04, 2012
Your website for tickets in Indonesia!
Looking for e-tickets for flights in Indonesia? Here's your solution! Order your e-tickets at
Add this page to your email, your own blog, MySpace, Facebook, or whatsoever via AddThis:
Bookmark and Share

Additional information, updates or feedback? Send them in!

Feedback Form


10 pictures in this gallery 
MySQL connection failed.