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Preserving the Cia-Cia Language and Hangeul's Unexpected Role

Participants in traditional Korean attire holds signs using the Korean Hangeul script — used to document the language of the Cia-Cia ethnic group, which has no written form — on Buton island, Southeast Sulawesi, Indonesia, on Oct. 14. | AFP-JIJI

The Cia-Cia language, spoken by a community in Southeast Sulawesi, Indonesia, faced the risk of decline due to its lack of a written script. In an innovative move to preserve this language, the Korean alphabet, Hangeul, was adopted. This unique approach not only aimed to safeguard the Cia-Cia language but also represented a remarkable cross-cultural exchange.

The Cia-Cia Language and Its Challenges

The Cia-Cia language is an essential part of the cultural fabric of Baubau city in Southeast Sulawesi, Indonesia. Despite its significance to around 80,000 speakers, the language faced a critical challenge – the absence of a standardized written form.

Traditionally, the Cia-Cia language thrived through oral transmission, but as modernization encroached, the need for a written script became increasingly apparent. The challenge was finding a script that could accurately represent the unique sounds and structure of the language. The Latin alphabet, commonly used in Indonesia, was not a perfect fit due to the language's syllable-based structure.

In this context, the adoption of Hangeul, the Korean alphabet, emerged as a novel solution. Hangeul's unique design and adaptability made it suitable for transcribing the distinct sounds of Cia-Cia, offering a path to preserve this language for future generations.

Adoption of Hangeul as a Solution

The journey towards adopting Hangeul for the Cia-Cia language began in 2009, stemming from a unique cultural exchange between Baubau city and Korean scholars. This collaboration marked a significant turning point for the Cia-Cia language, introducing a practical solution to its lack of a written system.

Hangeul, developed in the 15th century by Korean King Sejong, is known for its simple design and phonetic basis. Its structure, comprising of consonants and vowels that form syllable blocks, proved to be an effective tool for representing the sounds of the Cia-Cia language. The syllable-based nature of Hangeul made it a more suitable choice than the Latin alphabet, which had previously posed challenges in accurately transcribing Cia-Cia.

To facilitate this linguistic transition, Baubau city undertook significant efforts. Teachers and students were sent to South Korea to learn Hangeul, ensuring they could effectively teach and use the script for the Cia-Cia language. A Hangeul-based dictionary for Cia-Cia was also developed, further solidifying the script's role in preserving the language.

The adoption of Hangeul for Cia-Cia is a profound example of how a script can transcend its cultural origins and serve as a bridge between languages and communities.

Challenges and Criticisms

The adoption of Hangeul for the Cia-Cia language, while innovative, has not been without its challenges and criticisms.

Some community elders and linguists have expressed worries that using a foreign script might lead to a loss of cultural identity. There's a belief that the traditional oral transmission of the language is a crucial part of the Cia-Cia heritage. Critics argue that the adoption of Hangeul could be seen as a form of cultural imperialism, potentially diminishing the indigenous cultural values and practices of the Cia-Cia community.

Linguistically, while Hangeul's phonetic structure fits well with Cia-Cia, some argue that a script used by another Sulawesi dialect could have been more linguistically and culturally appropriate.

This resistance highlights the delicate balance between preserving a language and adapting to new methods of communication. Despite these challenges, the initiative has brought significant attention to the Cia-Cia language and its preservation needs.

Current Status and Future Prospects

Hangeul is currently used in educational settings from elementary to high school levels in Baubau, bringing the Cia-Cia language into the realm of written communication.

Proposals have been made for expanding the use of Hangeul in the community, including creating a comprehensive Cia-Cia dictionary in Hangeul and developing a language center containing Korean and Cia-Cia literature. These efforts, if realized, could significantly contribute to the preservation and evolution of the Cia-Cia language.

The adoption of Hangeul by the Cia-Cia community stands as a unique example in the field of language preservation, showcasing the potential and challenges of cross-cultural linguistic collaboration.

The story of the Cia-Cia language and its adoption of Hangeul is more than a linguistic experiment; it's a narrative of cultural resilience and adaptability. This initiative has shown how a small community in Indonesia and a script from Korea can come together to create a solution that bridges cultures and preserves linguistic heritage.


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