The Lontara script is a Brahmic script traditionally used for the Bugis, Makassarese and Mandar languages of Sulawesi in Indonesia. It is also known as the Bugis script, as Lontara documents written in this language are the most numerous.
It was largely replaced by the Latin alphabet during the period of Dutch colonization, though it is still used today to a limited extent. The term Lontara is derived from the Malay name for palmyra palm, lontar, whose leaves are traditionally used for manuscripts. In Buginese, this script is called urupu sulapa eppa which means "four-cornered letters", referencing the Bugis-Makasar belief of the four elements that shaped the universe: fire, water, air and earth.
Lontara is a descendant of the Kawi script, used in Maritime Southeast Asia around 800 CE. It is unclear whether the script is a direct descendant from Kawi, or derived from one of Kawi's other descendants. One theory states that it is modelled after the Rejang script, perhaps due to their graphical similarities. But this claim may be unfounded as some characters of the Lontara are a late development.
The term Lontara has also come to refer to literature regarding Bugis history and genealogy, including the Sure’ Galigo creation myth. Historically, Lontara was also used for a range of documents including contracts, trade laws, treaties, maps, and journals. These documents are commonly written in a contemporary-like book form, but they can be written in a traditional palm-leaf manuscript also called Lontara, in which a long, thin strip of dried lontar is rolled to a wooden axis in similar manner to a tape recorder. The text is then read by scrolling the lontar strip from left to right.
Although the Latin alphabet has largely replaced Lontara, it is still used to a limited extent in Bugis and Makasar. In Bugis, its usage is limited to ceremonial purposes such as wedding ceremonies. Lontara is also used extensively in printing traditional Buginese literature. In Makasar, Lontara is additionally used for personal documents such as letters and notes. Those who are skilled in writing the script are known as palontara, or writing specialists.
Lontara is an abugida with 23 basic consonants. As of other Brahmic scripts, each consonant of Lontara carries an inherent /a/ vowel, which is changed via diacritics into one of the following vowels; /i/, /u/, /e/, /ə/, or /o/. However, Lontara do not have a virama, or other consonant-ending diacritics. Nasal /ŋ/, glottal /ʔ/, and gemination used in Buginese language are not written. As such, text can be highly ambiguous, even to native readers. For instance, ᨔᨑ can be read as sara 'sorrow', sara' 'rule', or sarang 'nest'.
The Buginese people take advantage of this defective element of the script in language games called Basa to Bakke’ ᨅᨔ ᨈᨚ ᨅᨙᨀ ('Language of Bakke’ people') and Elong maliung bəttuanna ᨕᨒᨚ ᨆᨒᨗᨕᨘ ᨅᨛᨈᨘᨕᨊ (literally 'song with deep meaning') riddles. Basa to Bakke’ is similar to punning, where words with different meanings but same spelling are manipulated to come up with phrases that have hidden message. This is similar to Elong maliung bettuanna, in which audience are asked to figure the correct pronunciation of a meaningless poem to reveal the poem's hidden message.
Lontara is written from left to right, but it can also be written boustrophedonically. This method is mostly applied in old Buginese journals, in which each page are reserved for record of one day. If a scribe ran out of writing space for one day's log, the continuing line would be written sideways to the page, following a zig-zag pattern until all space are filled.