Batak script (history, types, origins and distribution)

Batak script (history, types, origins and distribution)

Batak script and its history

Batak letters are often classified as a syllabogram, but this is clearly a misnomer because the Batak script – like other scripts in the archipelago – is part of the Brahmi (Indian) family of writings which can more properly be classified as abugida (a combination of syllabograms and alphabets). An abugida consists of a character representing a consonant while a vowel is attached to the character as a diacritic. Abugida is a type of writing that is phonetic in the sense that every sound of the language can be represented accurately.

The Origin of the Batak Script

Paleography is the study of ancient writings. In many written societies, there are ancient texts that can reach hundreds or even thousands of years old. The scripts found in ancient texts are generally different from the scripts found in newer texts. By comparing the scripts found in old texts, we can construct a kind of script lineage.

Most writing systems in Africa, Europe, and Asia originate from a single source, namely the Old Semitic scripts which became the ancestors of both Asian (Arabic, Hebrew and Indic) and European (Latin, Greek, etc.) writings.

The Batak script belongs to the Indian written family. The oldest Indian script is the Brahmi script which derives two groups of writing, namely North India and South India. The Nagari and Palawa scripts come from the northern and southern groups respectively and both have been used in various places in Southeast Asia, including Indonesia (Casparis 1975). The most influential is the Palawa script. All original Indonesian writings are based on this script.

In the following figure, you can see where, in general, the place of the Batak script is in the genealogy of world writing.

Script lineage

Batak letters consist of two sets of letters, each of which is called ina ni surah and anak ni surah. This writing system is also used by all Indian alphabets and their derivatives. And indeed the Batak script and so are all other archipelago scripts which are based on the Indian script). [1] However, the closest relatives of the Batak letters are the Nusantara scripts, and especially those in Sumatra. The original Archipelago writings can be divided into five groups:

1. Hanacaraka script

(Javanese, Sundanese, Balinese)

These three scripts are very similar and are called Hanacaraka after the first five characters. According to De Casparis, the three scripts originate from the Old Javanese script (Kawi), while the Kawi script is directly derived from the Palawa script (Casparis 1975).

2. Ulu letter

(Kerinci, Rejang, Lampung, Lembak, Pasemah, and Serawai)

The Ulu letters, which are sometimes also called the Ka-Ga-Nga script according to the sound of the first three characters, are very similar to each other and are used in a very wide area which includes four provinces namely Jambi, Bengkulu, South Sumatra and Lampung. The Kerinci script (incung letter) is used in Kerinci Regency, Jambi province, around the city of SungaiFull. This plateau in the Bukit Barisan mountains borders the provinces of West Sumatra and Bengkulu provinces.

The script in Rejang-Lebong district, Bengkulu Province, is also known as the Rencong script. Still in Bengkulu district and on the Bengkulu-South Sumatran border, there are several ethnic groups whose script is almost the same as the Rejang-Lebong script, namely the Lembak, Pasemah, and Serawai scripts. Lampung script differs slightly from Surat Ulu, but still has many similarities.

3. Batak letters

(Angkola-Mandailing, Toba, Simalungun, Pakpak-Dairi, Karo)

4. Sulawesi script

(Bugis, Makassar and Bima)

In Sulawesi, there are two different scripts. The first is the Old Makassar script. Manuscripts written using this script are very few in number because it has not been used since the 19th century. The second script is the Bugis script which is also used by the Makassar people to replace the Old Makasar script. In essence, the Bugis-Makassar script is exactly the same, the difference is only in the number of letters because the Bugis have four additional characters. The Bugis-Makassar script was also used in Bima and Ende (formerly Makassar-conquered areas), but manuscripts from these two areas are very rare. As in Sumatra, the Bugis people also call their script letters: Bugis letters.

5. Filipino script

(Bisaya, Tagalog, Tagbanwa, Mangyan)

As is the case with the three groups above, the Filipino script is also a group that has several writing systems that show many similarities to one another.

The four scripts are Sulat Bisaya, Sulat Tagalog, Surat Tagbanwa, and Surat Mangyan.

The oldest manuscripts were generally written on durable materials such as stone or metal plates. The oldest inscribed stone in Indonesia is the inscription of King Mulavarman found in Kutai, West Kalimantan which was written in 322 Saka (400 AD). Almost as old (450 AD) is the inscription of King Purnavarman found in Ci Aruten, West Java. The two inscriptions are written in Palawa script and are in Sanskrit. Sriwijaya inscriptions from the 7th century also still use the Palawa script, but the language is different, namely Old Malay. Gradually the Palawa script changed its form so that in the eighth century it brought down the Kawi script (both in Sumatra and Java). The Kawi script is still relatively similar to its parent script, but throughout the centuries the script developed again and the forms of the letters changed. As a result of these developments, in the 14th century several allied scripts were formed, including Sumatran (Adityawarman inscription) and Javanese (Majapahit inscription) which were very different from the Palawa script. Meanwhile, the Javanese hanacaraka script (eighteenth century to the present) is also very different from the Kawi script of the Majapahit era. If we look at the changes that have occurred throughout the centuries, it becomes clear that these changes did not occur suddenly but were continuous. As an example, let's look at the history of the development of the letter Na. including Sumatra (Adityawarman inscription) and Java (Majapahit inscription) which are very different from the Palawa script. Meanwhile, the Javanese hanacaraka script (eighteenth century to the present) is also very different from the Kawi script of the Majapahit era. If we look at the changes that have occurred throughout the centuries, it becomes clear that these changes did not occur suddenly but were continuous. As an example, let's look at the history of the development of the letter Na. including Sumatra (Adityawarman inscription) and Java (Majapahit inscription) which are very different from the Palawa script. Meanwhile, the Javanese hanacaraka script (eighteenth century to the present) is also very different from the Kawi script of the Majapahit era. If we look at the changes that have occurred throughout the centuries, it becomes clear that these changes did not occur suddenly but were continuous. As an example, let's look at the history of the development of the letter Na.
In the Batak script, four forms of Na are found. The form can be considered the oldest because it is still similar to the forms of the Palawa and Kawi scripts (columns 2–4). This ancient Na has variants that show developments towards new forms and .

In the first column of the table above you can see the letter Na as it was written in India in the early and mid first millennium. The second column shows the same script about a thousand years later (14th century). It turns out that within a thousand years the form of Na Majapahit has not changed much from that of Palawa; the bottom is still almost the same, but the top is simplified. The 3rd and 4th columns show two script forms which are also from the 14th century, but used in Sumatra, specifically in Dharmasraya, on the border of West Sumatra and Jambi. Although the form is different, the two characters come from the same time and place. Both were used in the 14th century in the Malay kingdom. The first was written in the Tanjung Tanah script from Dharmasraya, and the second was found on the back of the Amoghapasa statue written by Adityawarman and found in Dharmasraya as well. The form of Na of the Tanjung Tanah script is not much different from the form of the New Balinese script but New Javanese is getting farther away from its original script.

It is clear here that the Palawa and Kawi scripts are still very similar, and also that Batak , namely Na-kuno, is still quite close to the Palawa and Kawi scripts, while Batak (Na-Baru) is a simplified form .

With the existence of a number of ancient manuscripts, especially inscriptions and manuscripts written on copper or gold plates, the history of the Javanese script can be traced back to the early development of the Kawi script. The Batak, Rejang, Kerinci, Lampung, Bugis, Makasarese and also Filipinos in general do not recognize metal inscriptions or scripts, and only use easily weathered materials such as bamboo, bark (Sumatra), and palm leaves (Sulawesi). Manuscripts that still exist are generally no older than 200 years, so we don't know much about the history of the development of these Indonesian scripts. It is suspected that all the writings of the Archipelago outside Java and Bali originate from the same source which is considered to be in southern Sumatra during the heyday of Sriwijaya.

Among the Nusantara scripts closest to the Batak script are the Kerinci script (incung letters), the Lebong, Lembak, Lintang, Pasemah, Rejang, Serawai (ulu letter) scripts, and the Lampung script. Similar to the Batak areas, these areas are also rather remote in mountainous areas so they are less affected by foreign influences that are brought from across the sea and slowly spread from the coast to the interior. One of the influences of foreign culture is the entry of Islam. Simultaneously with the spread of Islam, Arabic script spread, which in Malay is known as Jawi writing. The "bald Arabic" script quickly replaced the original Sumatran script which later disappeared altogether. Because the areas mentioned above are inland and somewhat remote, then the new Islamic influence was felt in the 19th century so that the original script could still survive until the 20th century. It is very likely that the Minangkabau and Malay scripts also existed, but were later replaced by Arabic-Malay scripts so that they disappeared without a trace.

The letters of the letters ulu in southern Sumatra have many similarities with the Batak letters. The letters Ka, Ga, and Ha are almost the same in shape, and the letter Da still shows many similarities.

Equation of Batak Letters, Ulu Letters, and Incung Letters

Some of the letter names are also very similar. In addition, all Sumatran scripts, including some Sulawesi and Philippine scripts, have structural similarities that distinguish them from Indian, Southeast Asian, Javanese and Balinese scripts. A distinctive feature of the Sumatran, Sulawesi and Philippine scripts is their simplicity.

Compared to Indian scripts, which have forty characters plus dozens of diacritical marks, Nusantara writings are much simpler. Javanese and Balinese scripts have 20 scripts and 10 diacritics, Lampung scripts have 20 scripts and 12 diacritics, Makasarese scripts have 19 scripts and 5 diacritics, and Tagalog scripts only have 15 characters and two diacritics.

Indian writings as well as Sundanese, Javanese and Balinese writings have a "pair" sign, which is a diacritical mark that marks a consonant written to close another consonant in front of it. Archipelago writings outside Java and Bali do not use pairs so that the number of letters that must be memorized is much reduced.

Simplicity in the form of the characters is also a special characteristic of the characters. When compared to Javanese or Balinese characters, it appears that Sumatra, Sulawesi and Philippine characters have a simpler form. The curved shape has been replaced by a more square shape that is more suitable for writing on hard surfaces such as bamboo skin.

These characters also introduce something new, namely characters preceded by nasal sounds. Batak (Karo) has two additional letters, namely Mba and Nda, while the Kerinci and Rencong scripts add two more, namely Ngga and Nja. The Bugis script also has four scripts that are nasal, namely Ngka, Mpa, Nra, and Nca. It should be noted that this symptom does not exist in Batak scripts other than Karo, and also does not exist in Lampung, Makassar and the Philippines.

Because of the aforementioned similarities, it can be assumed that all Indonesian archipelago scripts outside Java and Bali originate from one ancient script. The ancient script was most likely created in the area of ​​southern Sumatra during its heyday and around the Srivijaya area. It is certain that this ancient script was created under the influence of the Palawa scripts that had developed in the region, but was processed in such a way that the form became simpler to make it easier to learn, more suitable for the local languages ​​(which are much simpler in sound than Indian languages), and also more suitable for writing on bamboo. How exactly did the Sumatran script develop further, how did it relate to its other relatives in the Philippines and on Sulawesi,

Although our knowledge of the past of the Batak script is very limited, we can learn a little about the history of the development of the Batak script by comparing the Batak scripts with one another, and also with other Indonesian scripts. It turns out that such research, which has never been carried out until now, is very useful in increasing our knowledge about the development and direction of the spread of the Batak script. This analysis begins in this letter.

Script (Ina ni Surat)

Van der Tuuk argues that the development of the Batak script occurred from south to north, and that its origin was in Mandailing (Tuuk 1971:77). Parkin (1978:100) also thinks so for the following reasons:

The characters Nya, Wa and Ya symbolize the three sounds found in Mandailing language, while in Toba language there are no [ny], [w], or [y] sounds. Thus the three letters are actually redundant because there are no sounds in the Toba language. For example, Mandailing vegetables become saur in Toba, manyurat become manurat. In Pakpak and Karo languages ​​there is no [ny] sound and there is also no Nya character. His existence in the Toba script proves that the Toba script comes from Mandailing.

Parkin's argument makes a lot of sense. If the Batak script was originally created in Toba, it could not have written Nya, because there is no such sound in the Toba language. In Tanah Karo – the northernmost area, the letter (the one in the south reads Nya) changes its meaning to Ca. It turns out that the order in the alphabet remains the same as His position is between La and I. Thus, the letters indicate that the development of the Batak script is from south to north. The theory is also supported by other factors:

The diversity in script variants is greatest in Mandailing, followed by Toba and Karo. However, in Karo, this diversity is caused by relatively recent developments such as variations in the letters Sa, Da, and Ca, and mainly due to the existence of a number of new scripts such as the three variants of Mba , and the two variants of Nda ( and ). All of these variants are new developments and do not exist in other Batak areas.

The letter Ma has various variants in Toba and Angkola-Mandailing: , , and , while in Pakpak, Karo and Simalungun there is only one form each. Of the three variants, the usual form is used in Angkola and Mandailing, but it is somewhat rarely used in Toba, who tend to use and . The diversity in script variants in Toba, and especially in Mandailing, points to the high age of writing in that area. As an example I will present two characters, namely Na and Ja.

As already indicated in

above, the form of Na in the Kawi script is very similar to the variants found in Mandailing and Toba. This does not mean that the Batak script comes from the Kawi script, but rather shows that the two scripts still have the same ancestor or that there is Javanese influence on the history of the development of the ancient Batak script. The existence of a variant that Voorhoeve called "ancient Na" in Mandailing and Toba also shows that the development of the Batak script was from south to north.

The form of the character Ja ( ) is the same as the character Da ( ) plus a horizontal line. The same thing applies to da and ja in the Kawi script, but not in the Palawa script, so it can be concluded that in the early stages of the development of the Batak script there must have been Kawi influence. The script was then simplified so that in the area north of Toba only the form existed.

If we compare the two southern scripts (Angkola-Mandailing and Toba), it turns out that there are only slight differences. The Toba script lost several variants of the Sa and Ha scripts, but new developments took place in the Toba area by introducing the Ta variant ( ) and the Wa variant ( ). However, it is also possible that and is an older form which in Mandailing and parts of Toba later changed to the Ta variant ( ) and the Wa variant ( )!

Based on the assumption that t and is an older form, and a new development, the two variants then spread northward to Pakpak-Dairi ( ) and Karo ( ). It must be acknowledged that theoretically there is a possibility that the v variant is a new development in Pakpak-Dairi which then spread south and is then used in parts of Toba. However, this possibility is only small. As will be shown later, there are too many indications that the development of the Batak script was from south to north and not vice versa.

One thing to note here is that the Simalungun script has several similarities with the Mandailing. For example, the Sa, and , and also the Ha variants (which are very similar to the Angkola-Mandailing and ) variants are found in Mandailing and Simalungun, but not in Toba. This shows that there is a high probability that the Batak script from Mandailing entered Simalungun very early. The shape of the letter Ya with curved horizontal lines also shows Mandailing influence. According to Van der Tuuk, the two Toba variants for the letters Ta and Wa are used in "East Toba", while the and variantsused in the area of ​​"West Toba". Unfortunately Van der Tuuk did not explain which areas are meant by West Toba and East Toba, but if Van der Tuuk is right, we can draw the following conclusions:

The Batak script originally developed in the Angkola-Mandailing area, perhaps not far from the West Sumatran border. From there the Batak script spread northward to form an ancient Toba-Timur-Simalungun script (later called Toba-Simalungun) in the fertile and densely populated area between Parapat and Balige. The Simalungun script then did not show any significant development, but changed its shape a bit so that all the scripts looked as if they consisted of separate lines, as can be seen in the letters Ma and Ra.

The ancient Toba-Simalungun script derives two types of letters: East Toba which uses southern Ta and Wa: , and , and West Toba which uses northern Ta and Wa: and . This northern form can be considered as a later development that entered from West Toba to Pakpak-Dairi ( and ) and Karo (only ). It should be stressed here that there is no definite line between 'East Toba' and 'West Toba'. Manuscripts that can be ascertained the origin is too little. After all, which letterform one uses also depends on the teacher. Datu's wandering nature helped blur the boundaries between regions.

The Karo area can be ascertained as the area that received the Batak script most recently. But precisely in this area, his writing flourished. Hundreds of Karo manuscripts stored in various collections around the world prove that not only datu (in Karo they are called teachers) can read and write. There are also many Pulas – a kind of anonymous letter which in the Karo area is also known as the enemy of běrngi (enemy at night). But the strongest proof that the Batak script is quite commonly known by Karo men is the habit of writing love lamentations (bilang-bilang) on ​​bamboo poles. Perhaps precisely because the Batak letters in Karo became so popular, new developments took place as evidenced by the Karo letters Mba and Nda.

Diacritical Marks (Children of this Letter)

Each child of this letter has its own name which varies depending on the area. This comparative study of diacritical names turned out to be very useful in determining the direction of the spread of the Batak script and also showed some similarities with diacritical names in South Sumatra and in Java.

BE (Java Taling, Lampung Keteling, Rejang Katiling)

In Mandailing, this diacritic is called talinga – almost the same term used in Java, Rejang and Lampung.

In Simalungun, the diacritical name is added with the prefix ha- and the suffix -an so that it becomes hatalingan. Karo kětělengěn probably came from Simalungun hatalingan.

In Toba and Pakpak, hatalingan becomes hatadingan. The reason is perhaps that taling means nothing in the Batak language, whereas tasing means 'stay'. Thus hatadingan can be interpreted as 'missing', and the naming makes sense considering that the diacritic is to the left of the main letter, so it seems as if it 'lagged' behind.

It is very likely that the term hatadingan did not come directly from Mandailing, but through Simalungun hatalingan. Given that the Simalungun area is not directly adjacent to the Angkola-Mandailing area, it can be concluded that the term hatalingan "was born" in the Toba-Simalungun border area. This is in accordance with the hypothesis that the Toba and Simalungun scripts originated from the ancient Toba-Simalungun script in the area between the cities of Parapat and Balige. In simple terms, the distribution of these diacritical names is as follows [2] :

M ear
S Hatalingan T Hatadingan
| |
K Kětelengan P You left
of , u


Diacritics in the form of x have the meaning [o] except in Karo where the sound is [u]. In Mandailing this diacritic is called Siala Ulu. Siala has no meaning, but ulu means 'head', perhaps because it is the one that 'heads' the parent letter. Apart from this diacritic, there is another diacritic /i/ which has the same position, and also has a slightly similar name, namely ulua.

In Toba, siala ulu is shortened to just siala, and there is also a second name for this diacritic, namely sihora. In Pakpak-Dairi the name is exactly the same (when written), but it is pronounced sikora because the meaning of the letter h in Toba is [ha] while in Pakpak-Dairi it is always [ka]. Simalungun Sihorlu, and Karo Sihorlu still sound similar to Sihora, but it's not clear how to say for sure:

M Siala Ulu
T Siala T Sihora
P Sikora (S Sihorlu, K Sikurun)
u _

Bu (M, T, S, P) Be (K, P)

This diacritic occurs twice in Pakpak, once as a sign representing the sound [u] and once as a sign representing the sound [ə], namely ě-pepet. The first is called kaběrětěn, the second is kaběrětěn podi. The genealogy of this script is very clear. The word kaběrětěn comes from the Mandailing boruta (also called buruta) which derives from the Toba forms haboruan and haborota. These two names are the result of the interpretation of the words boruta and buruta. Boruta is clearly considered a combination of the word boru 'daughter' and the ending -ta 'we'.

As can be seen in Mandailing talinga which becomes Simalungun hatalingan, and Mandailing amisara which becomes Toba hamisaran, there is a tendency to add additional ha-…s. Thus boru=ta becomes ha=boru=an. As also happens in the case of hatalingan which becomes hatadingan (i.e. interpretation of meaning based on its location), this diacritic also gets its second name haborotan (ha=borot=an) because it is united or 'tied' (meaning borot is 'mooring') to the main letter.

M Boruta (Buruta)
T Haboruan T Haborotan
| |
P Cabaret [u],

P Cabbage Pod [ə] S News [u]
K Kěběrětěn [a]


B ^ (India Anusvara)

The name of this diacritic is amisara in Mandailing which sounds very similar to the name of this diacritic in India, namely anusvara. In Toba and Simalungun, it is added with a nasal sound [n] and the suffix ha-…-an becomes haminsaran. Because the sound of minsar is similar to binsar (pronounced 'bitsar' or 'bincar'), in Pakpak-Dairi this diacritic becomes kěbincarěn (T binsar and P bincar mean 'rise'). In Toba there is also a second name – paminggil which means 'high pitched sound'.

M. Amisara
T Hamisaran TS Haminsaran T Caller
of P Kebinca
To Kebincarén


Bi (J Ulu, L Olan, R Kaluan)

In almost all of Indonesia, the meaning of ulu is 'head' (only Malay/Indonesian uses 'head' which comes from Sanskrit). Perhaps this diacritic is called ulu because it "heads" the parent letter. The names in Mandailing and Toba are ulua, and in Toba there are two names that are still similar, namely hauluan and haluain. The basic word ha=ulu=an is ulu plus the suffix ha-…-an, while haluain is somewhat deviated. Pakpak-Dairi Kaloan and Karo Kělawan are descended from Toba Haluain or Simalungun Bow.

M Uluwa
T Uluwa T I wanted (Hauluan), S I want
P Kaloan K Kělawan

the (or)


L Help (au), R Help (au)

In Lampung and Rejang there are diacritical marks for the diphthongs /au/ which are called kětulung and katulung which are clearly the same as Simalungun hatulungan. Simalungun is the only area that has its own diacritic for the diphthong [ou]. The diphthong [ou] is also found in Karo, but not in other areas. But in Karo, there is no special diacritic for the [ou] sound. Nevertheless, Karo has two variants that mark the sound [o], namely BO and Bo. Both are named kětolongěn. It is very likely that in the past Karo used to distinguish the writing of [o] and [ou] as it is still the case in Simalungun today.

Due to its similar name to Lampung kětulung and Rejang katulung it can be ascertained that these diacritics are not a new development, and also supports my hypothesis that the Simalungun script (or more precisely the Ancient Toba-Simalungun script) is older than West Toba, Pakpak or Karo.

M T (?)
S Support [ou]

K Kětolongen [o]

If described, the direction of the spread of the Batak script is as follows:
Figure 15: The Direction of the Spread of the Batak Script

source :
[1] What is meant by "archipelagic script" are scripts derived from India found in the islands of Southeast Asia.

[2] K = Karo, P = Pakpak-Dairi, S = Simalungun, T = Toba, M = Angkola and Mandailing.