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Classification: Austronesian, Western Malayo-Polynesian. Javanese is more closely related to those members of Western Malayo-Polynesian spoken in the island of Java, or on neighboring islands, namely Sundanese, Tenggerese, Madurese and Balinese.

Overview. With close to one-hundred million speakers, Javanese is the largest language of the Austronesian family and one of the main regional languages of Indonesia. It should not be confused with Bahasa Indonesia, the national tongue of the country which is a form of Malay. Javanese has, after Malay, the oldest records within the family and the richest Southeast Asian literature, albeit barely known in the West. Like almost all Austronesian languages it lacks tones and is non-inflected, employing affixation and reduplication to convey grammatical information and to create new words.

Distribution. Javanese predominates in central and eastern Java as well as in a strip along the north coast of west Java (except around Jakarta); in the rest of west Java, Sundanese is spoken. Migrants have carried Javanese to other parts of Indonesia (Sumatra, Kalimantan, Sulawesi) and outside the country to Malaysia, New Caledonia and Suriname. Javanese speakers migrated to Malaysia mainly from 1880 to 1930 relocating in the peninsula (parts of Perak, Selangor, and Kedah) though there are also some in the province of Sabah in the northern area of Borneo. Migrant workers arrived to New Caledonia, in the Pacific, between 1900 and 1938. In Suriname, a former Dutch colony in South America, plantation workers were brought from Java between 1890-1939.

Speakers. Javanese is spoken by about 95 million people and is, thus, the largest regional language of Indonesia. Outside Indonesia, many Javanese speakers live in Malaysia, where there are around 600,000, also in Suriname (90,000 or 15 % of the population) and in New Caledonia (7,000).

Status. Javanese is a regional language of Indonesia, but not the official one. It may be losing ground to Bahasa Indonesia, a form of Malay, used as a lingua franca and promoted as the national tongue of the country.


Varieties. Javanese has several regional and socio-linguistic varieties:

a) Regional varieties:

  1. 1.Kejawen, the central dialect of Solo and Yogyakarta, considered the standard form of Javanese.

  1. 2.East Javanese which includes the dialects of Surabaya and Malang cities.

  1. 3.West Javanese which includes the dialect of the province of Banten as well as those spoken in the  cities of Cirebon and Tegal.

  1. 4.Banyumasan spoken in Purwokerto is conservative, preserving many words from Old Javanese including Sanskrit loans.

b) Socio-linguistic varieties. Different levels of speech are employed depending on the relative social status of the speakers. They have they same syntax and grammar but differ in vocabulary:

  1. ngoko (low) is basic Javanese, learnt at home as a child. It is appropriate between people of the same status or for addressing somebody of lower status. It is also used in the press.

  1. krama (high) it is used to speak to someone of higher status (young people to their elders, to social superiors) and in formal situations.

  1. madya (middle) is intermediate between ngoko and krama; it is often used among strangers.


9th-13th c. Old Javanese. Deeply influenced by Indian culture and Sanskrit. It is represented by inscriptions, and in literature by the kakawin and parwa compositions (see below).

14th-15th c. Middle Javanese. The foreign elements recede, and original literary forms, like kidung and royal chronicles, appear.

16th c.-present. Modern Javanese. It begins with the fall of the Majapahit kingdom and the Islamization of Indonesia.

Oldest Document. It is a stone inscription found in the area of Sukabumi, East Java, dating from 804 CE. The oldest text written entirely in Javanese (with Pallava script), it mentions the construction of a dam.


Word structure. Content words are typically disyllabic. Consonants tend to alternate with vowels: CVCV is the most common sequence, followed by CVCVC. Consonant clusters combining a nasal + sonorant (mb, nd, ndh, nj, ng) are allowed at the beginning of a syllable.

Vowels (6): Javanese has six vowels of which two are articulated in the anterior part of the mouth, two in the middle, and two in the back. It has no diphthongs. [e] appears only in unstressed syllables; [a] is realized as [ɔ] in penultimate and ultimate syllables; [e] and [o] are realized in certain contexts as [ɛ] and [ɔ].


Consonants (21). Javanese has  stops articulated at six different places, being classified as labial, dental, retroflex, palatal, velar and glottal. The palatal stops are, in fact, affricates. Every series of stops (except glottal) includes voiceless and voiced consonants, though for many scholars  the "voiced" consonants of Javanese are pronounced like voiceless stops with breathy voice of the following vowel. The stops b, d and g at the end of a word are pronounced as the voiceless p, t and k, respectively.


Stress: falls on the penultimate syllable, except when it contains e, falling then on the last.

Script and Orthography

1. The traditional Javanese (kawi) script, developed in the 9th century, was based on the South Indian Pallava script.

2. From the 14th century, with the arrival of Islam, the Arabic script was used.

3. In the 17th century the tjarakan Javanese alphabet developed but after World War II it fell out of use.

4. In the 20th century the Roman script was adopted (between brackets the phonetic equivalents of each letter are shown):

  1. the retroflex consonants [ʈ], [ɖ] are written th and dh, respectively.

  2. the glottal stop is not usually marked in Javanese spelling.

  3. the nasal palatal [ɲ] is written ny.

  4. the nasal velar [ŋ] is written ng.

  5. the vowel [ə] is written e, [e] as é, and [ɛ] as è in some language books (and here) but are not usually distinguished in the script.


Nouns and verbs have no inflections at all. Their morphology is based on affixing (prefixing, infixing, suffixing) and reduplication (partial or total).

  1. Nominal

  2. Nouns and adjectives are not inflected for gender, case or number. Definiteness may be indicated by adding the suffix -(n)é to a noun; indefiniteness by reduplication of the noun. Total reduplication may also be used to express plurality and partial reduplication to derive a noun from an adjective e.g. peteng ('dark') >  pepeteng ('darkness'.)

  1. Abstract nouns can be formed by attaching the prefix ka- combined with the suffix -an to a concrete noun, an adjective or a verb e.g. rosa ('strong') > karosaan ('strength'). Another combination of a prefix (pa-) with a suffix (-an) attached to verbs or nouns yield a noun of place. The suffix -an, on its own, added to certain verbs produces nouns that are the result of their action (nandur (['to plant'], tanduran ['a crop']) or indicate the instrument by which an action is carried out. Adjectives also can be formed by -an or other affixes e.g. jamur ('fungus'), jamuren ('mouldy').

  1. Personal pronouns in Javanese have no plural forms, except for the 1st person plural kita which is a borrowing from Indonesian. If required, plurality can be expressed by lexical means e.g.:

  2. awaké dhéwé (body-the own=we)

  3. dhèweké kabèh (he all = they).

  4. Instead of the second and third person pronouns, titles, kinship terms or proper names are preferred.

  1. In Ngoko, possessive pronouns are produced by adding the suffixes -ku (1st person), -mu (2nd person) and -(n)é (3rd person) to the personal pronouns. In Krama, -(n)ipun is the suffix for 3rd person possessive.

  1. Demonstrative pronouns include iki, kien ('this'), iku, kuen ('that'), ika, kaen ('that over there').

  1. Verbal

  2. Verbs are not inflected for number, gender or tense. They can be transitive or intransitive. Intransitive verbs occur generally as unaffixed root words. Transitive verbs can take active or passive voice. Most transitive verbs have nasalized forms and can be suffixed with -i or -ake. The suffix -i appended to the verb establishes a relationship between the verb and its direct object. It can also indicate repetition of the action and can make causative and adjective or verb. The same suffix appended to a noun may convert it into a verb. The suffix -ake makes a verb transitive with, usually, a causative meaning; it can also mark the indirect object.

  1. Aspect/tense might be indicated by adverbial markers preceding the verb: tau for remote past, wis ('already') for past, bakal/arep ('will') for future, tansah ('always') for habitual action, lagi (in the process of doing) for an ongoing action. Negation is expressed by adding aja ('don't'), durung ('not yet'), ora ('not'). Ya is an imperative marker.

  1. Reduplication of a verb may imply repetition, a prolonged action or a joint action, or, sometimes, convey a different meaning than the non-reduplicated form. The passive voice is frequent but it cannot be used with nasalized verbs. It can be formed in several ways:

  1. a) with different prefixes for the 1st, 2nd and 3rd person (da-, ki- and di-, respectively). For example, njupuk ('to take') has:

  1. 1st p: dakjupuk (taken by me)

  2. 2nd p: kojupuk (taken by you)

  3. 3rd p: dijupuk (taken)

  1. As the agent is not specified in the last form, one may be added after the verb e.g. dijupuk kancaku ('taken by my friend').

  1. b) A more formal passive is formed by adding the prefix ka- to the verb.

  1. c) A literary passive, favoured in poetry, inserts the infix -in- after the first consonant of the verb if the verb starts with a consonant or if the verb starts with a vowel the prefix ing- is required:

  1. gawé ('make')→ ginawé ('made')

  2. utus ('send')→ ingutus ('sent')

  1. d) Another passive, made with the prefix k(e)-, refers to an accidental action.


The normal word order in Javanese is Subject-Verb-Object (SVO). It doesn't have a copulative verb. Like most SVO languages, it uses prepositions, and modifiers follow their head-noun. In the nominal phrase the order of its constituents is: noun-adjective-numeral-demonstrative pronoun. Two nouns in a relation of possession are linked using -(n)ing. In Krama the object possessed is placed, without any marker, before the noun or pronoun indicating the possessor e.g. serat kula ('my letter').


Across its twelve centuries of recorded history, Javanese vocabulary has reflected the cultural and political changes experienced by Java. The first Javanese states were Indianized and many Sanskrit words entered into the language. With Islamization in the 15th century, Arabic words were adopted too, and the same happened with Dutch loanwords during Dutch colonization. Since Independence and the proclamation of Malay, in the form of Bahasa  Indonesia, as the national language, many Malay words have crept into Javanese.

Basic Vocabulary (Ngoro)

one: siji

two: loro

three: telu

four: papat

five: lima

six: nem

seven: pitu

eight: wolu

nine: sanga

ten: sapuluh

hundred: satus

father: bapak

mother: simbok, mamak

brother/sister: sedulur

elder brother/sister: mas, kakang, kang

younger brother/sister: adik, adi

son/daughter: anak

head: sirah

face: rai

eye: mata

hand: tangan

foot: sikil

heart: ati

tongue: ilat

Key Literary Works

Traditional Javanese literature was written, during the Old and Middle periods, in East Java with the only exception of the Ramayana which was composed in Central Java. The main genres were kakawin (artistic poetry inspired in Sanskrit works), parwa (prose adaptations of Sanskrit epics, particularly from the Mahabharata), semi-historical chronicles and kidung (poetry in native forms).

  1. late 9th c.    Ramayana. Anonymous

  2. Is the earliest kakawin and the only one composed in Central Java. It is based on the famous Indian epic, narrating the exploits of Rama, though not on the original version attributed to Valmiki. In fact, it follows quite closely the Bhattikavya, a mahakavya (long poem) written in Sanskrit by the Indian poet Bhatti. In contrast with its model, the Javanese Ramayana is vivid and exciting, full of tension and drama in several key episodes, like the anguish of Rama's father when he has to allow his son to leave for the perilous mission of protecting a hermit from demons, the near derangement of Rama when his wife Sita is abducted, the decisive debate between the leader of the demon's army, Ravana, and his brother Kumbhakarna, the farewell of the demons before entering into a deadly battle...

  1. 12th c.    Ghatotkacasraya (Ghatotkaca to the Rescue). Mpu Panuluh

  2. A kakawin based on an episode of the Indian epic Mahabharata, which introduces for the first time in Javanese literature the figure of the panakawans, clownish servants and amiable rogues, who lighten the narrative with a dose of humor.

  1. 13th c.    Bhomāntaka (The Death of Bhoma). Anonymous

  2. A long kakawin, consisting of nearly 1500 stanzas, relating the war of Krishna, incarnated in the Javanese king, with Bhoma, the leader of the demons. It symbolizes the eternal conflict between the god Vishnu, as guardian of the cosmos, and the powers of destruction.

  1. 13th c.    Calon Arang. Anonymous

  2. Calon Arang was a powerful witch who couldn't have her beautiful daughter married because everybody was afraid of her. Angry, she causes an epidemic. An advisor of king Airlangga (1019-42) finally marries her and everything returns to normal. The second part of the narrative tells about the abdication of Airlangga who becomes an anchorite. Though most of the story is fantastic, descriptions and setting are realistic.

  1. 13th c.    Pararaton (The Book of Kings). Anonymous

  2. A semi-historical chronicle, composed in Middle Javanese, relating the origin and events of the Singosary dynasty of East Java. A great part of this quite short prose work concerns Ken Angrok (1222-1292), the founder of the Singosari kingdom, and his mythical adventures before his accession to the throne. In the late 15th or in the 16th century an extension referring to the next dynasty (the Majapahit) was added.

  1. 14th c.    Sutasoma (Tale of Sutasoma). Mpu Tantular

  2. This kakawin is a sort of religious epic poem preaching tolerance and showing a blend of Buddhism, Tantrism and Shivaism. It reflects the religious make-up of the island in the Majapahit era.

  1. c. 1365    Nagarakertagama. Mpu Prapanca

  2. It is a long panegyric poem composed in honor of Hayam Wuruk (1350-1389), the then reigning king of the East Java kingdom of Majapahit. It was authored by the royal chronicler Prapanca who, mixing legend and history, gives an account of the first years of his and of his ancestors' reign, particularly that of Kertanagara (1268-92), great-grandfather of Hayam Wuruk and the last king of the previous Singosari dynasty. Besides its historical value, the poem reflects the influence of Buddhism and Hinduism in the culture of Majapahit.

late 18th c.   Babad Tanah Jawi (History of the Land of Java). Anonymous

  1. Babads are court chronicles, in prose and verse, relating the history of Indonesian islands from the beginning of Creation. They are partly mythological and partly historical fusing Indian and Muslim traditions with indigenous ones. This is the official chronicle of the kingdom of Mataram which had its hey-day under Sultan Agung in the first half of the 17th century.

  1. © 2013 Alejandro Gutman and Beatriz Avanzati                                                                               

Further Reading

  1. -'Javanese'. M. P. Oakes. In The World’s Major Languages, 819-832. B. Comrie (ed). Routledge (2009).

  2. -'Javanese'. B. Nothofer. In Concise Encyclopedia of Languages of the World, 560-561. K. Brown & S. Ogilvie (eds). Elsevier (2009).

  3. -Javanese Grammar for Students. S. Robson. Monash Papers on South East Asia 26. Monash University (1992).

  4. -A Descriptive Study of Javanese. I. Suharno. Pacific Linguistics, Series D, no. 45. Research School of Pacific Studies (1982).

  5. -'Old Javanese Literature'. J. Gonda. In Handbuch der Orientalistik I, 187-245. Brill (1976).

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