Jawi was the standard script of the Malay language from the fourteenth century till the twentieth century. With trade expansion and the arrival of western colonialisation in the Southeast Asian region, the Jawi script was consigned strictly within the confinements of religious education as the language began to adopt the Latin-derived romanised script for daily general usage. There was no effort to establish a standardised spelling system during the nascent stage of the shift which resulted in many spelling variations.
The first major orthographic reform of Malay romanised script was initiated by a British scholar-administrator, Richard J. Wilkinson in 1904. The system was known as the Willkinson spelling. Shortly after, efforts to improve the spelling system led to a second major reform called Za'aba in 1924, promulgated by linguist Zainal Abidin Ahmad. The Za'aba system was complete and thorough and thus became the official orthography used in Malaya during the 1930s. Despite being constantly challenged from threats by other less successful reforms, it continued to be of use until 1972.
New Rumi Spelling (Malay: Ejaan Rumi Baharu) is the latest spelling reform instituted by the Malaysian and Indonesian governments after the end of Konfrantasi, the Indonesian-Malaysian confrontation, in 1966 as an act of détente. Prior, the spelling systems of each country were heavily influenced by the orthographies of the separate British and Dutch empires during the colonial period. Though minor spelling differences still exist, the Rumi system is widely used by Malay-speaking nation-states and vernacular communities in Southeast Asia today.
The old medical manuscripts used in our research mainly handwritten in the Jawi script not only calls for transliteration efforts, but knowledge in Malay medical terminology and archaic words less familiar to readers of the twentieth century. Sourcing old dictionaries published in the late 1800s to early 1900s, such as 'A Dictionary of Malay Language' (Hugh Clifford & Frank A. Swettenham, 1894), 'Malay-English Dictionary' (R. J. Wilkinson, 1901), and 'An English-Malay Dictionary' (William G. Shellabear, 1916) facilitates the identification and familiarisation process.
Blog entry by Sharifah Nur Alhabshee
Image of old Jawi manuscript with a brush from Unsplash