I Dewa Putu Wijana

Faculty of Cultural Sciences, Universitas Gadjah Mada



This paper deals with Javanese riddles which are very popular among  the Javanese speakers who exploit them for achieving various communicative purposes. From the data collected from web sites and Javanese lesson books, it is found that there are three types of riddles, namely analogous riddles, pun riddle, and pragmatic riddle. The first type is created on the basis of cognitive cultural  similarities existing between the riddle’s questions and the answers. The second type is constructed by various kinds of verbal plays, such as ambiguities, synonymy, acronyms, etc. The third type is created by violations of pragmatic presumptions which are unconsciously considered by the addressee. Finally, Rhyming and complicated syllabic patterning also play  important parts that make the riddles interesting and easy to recollect.


Key Words: riddle, ambiguity, and verbal play 



One among many things  that differentiate between human beings and other creatures  is their ability to play. Playing constitutes the most important element in human life. It is a part of human learning process before achieving maturity. Even after becoming matured people, they do not stop to play. For this ability human beings are called  “homo luden”. For fulfilling this habit  human beings create  various kinds of games using varieties of device founds surround their life, including the language they use as means  of communication. As far as the language is concerned, various genres of verbal formulas can be found in either traditional and modern societies. One of them is riddle which constitutes the study object of this paper with focuses of attention on traditional riddles found in Javanese society. There are two main reasons that underlie the choice of it. First, in this global era these traditional formulas are relatively easy to find in websites Second, there are still a lot of problems, such as category,  play on words, rhyming, communicative functions  that should  be clarified because up till now, there is still no serious study carried out by experts  concerning these matters. This paper will focus its attentionon on the first matters, i.e . riddle category, and try to relate it with play on words and rhyming exploited in creating the riddle amusements.         

Eventhough a lot  riddle materials   have been compiled in relation of local languages, such as Bengkulu, Lampung, Basemah, Acehnese, Batak, Nias, Dayak Toraja, Madura, Sundanese , Tabaru, Alfuru, Javanese, etc. (Stokhof, 1981, Wijana, 2014, 6), only few serious studies are found discussing riddle matters seriously. Those studies are done by Stokhof (1981) about  100 Woisika riddles, one of 13 languages spoken in Alor Isles; Wijana (2014a) about Modern Indonesian riddles, and (2014b) about Timpedan and Jejangkitan, two types of riddle found in Bali. This rareness is caused by the vehement opinions of the modern societies which regard that everything related to humorous discourses, including riddle is trivial and not serious. These opinions are rotted from very long history in which aristotle  saw the pun as  a danger of philosophy. The literary critics consider pun as the fatal Cleopatra which spoilt Shakespeare’s plays, and William Empson described puns as not ‘manly’ (Cook, 2000, 81). All these opinions are obviously unfair for they do not objectively see that such kinds of word play are not essentially different from ones found in literary works although they intended to achieve different goal. Play on words in humorous discourses are mostly for creating jokes while ones in literary works for aeshtetic effects. And, both  types of discourses play important roles for its own community.            

Theoretical Frame Work

No one so far can deny that humorous discourses, including riddles, have a lot of communicative functions in maintaining the social cohesion among their speech community members. Riddle is one among many traditional formulas bearing local wisdom in  a given community (Rahyono, 2015, 201-213). Their existence amid the society members is not merely intended to create jokes for amusing them but also for more significant purposes depending on the speech situations:  who,  where, when, and to what end the riddles are performed. The influence of riddle discourse in ritual, art, religion, and magic has been deeply discussed by many scholars (cook, 2000, 87). Mostly riddles in the past time are considerably different from children’s riddles which are infantile and feeble such as (1) and (2) below:        

(1) + What goes up when the rain comes down?

– An umbrella

(2) + Why did the bull rush?

- Because it saw the cow slip

Example (3) below is a riddle found in Sophocles: Oedipus the King which is full of myth and magic.

(3) + There is a creature that moves upon the earth, on two feet, on four, and on three.

-  Person

In more recent time, in the 1950s (3) is modified and used as joke among the Scottish school children, regardless of its origin (Opie & Opie 1959: 76; Cook, 2000, 79). Consider the following (4):

(4) - Walks on four feet   

On two feet, on three.

The more feet it walks on

The weaker it be

+ person: crawling, walking, and walking with stick in old age

The centrality of riddle roles  with regards to ritual and process of transformantion  in  several communities has been informed by Hasan-Rokem and Shulman (1996), and Handelman (1996), 49. Hasan-Rokem and Shulman (1996) reports that among the Gonds of central India, riddles are recited at the village border when one of their member is dying accompanied by the beating of drum. Meanwhile Handelman’s study  (1996, 49) on Africa, Carribean, and South-East Asia reports that the riddle are played in various sacred ocassions, such as marriages, funerals, and the choice of a king. In Finland, the use of riddle is inseperable part of courtship, education, greeting, narratives, and songs. Eventhough the riddling activities are not found in ritualistic ocassions, the Javanese society has many types of riddles as a reflection of its obsessed people to enjoy play on words (See Wijana, 2003, 1). This brief paper will try to discuss Javanese ridlle with the focus of atention on the types, analogy and various play on words included within which have not been satisfactorily explained by the experts.            

All data presented in this paper are collected from website and Javanese lesson books. They are further be classified according to the types and play on words exploited by the creators for concealing the solution of the riddles problem. To make ease of understanding the riddle, two stages of glossing, i.e  “word to word” and “free translation” are carried out.     

Research Findings

A close and careful examination toward the Javanese riddles in the data collection shows that based on their types, Javanese riddles can simply be at least distinghuised into 3 types. Those are analogical riddle, pun riddle, and  pragmatic riddle. Each type will be described in detail in the following sections.

Analogous Riddle

Analogous riddle is any riddle created by analogically resembles the question that constitutes the riddle problem with the answer or the riddle solution. With regards to the answer, this type of riddle covers various themes, such as fruit,  plant and food, animal, house utensil,  human beings and their activities,  clothe, playing instrument, etc. For example, see (5) s.d. (10) below:      

(5) + Bapak Demang                   klambi   abang  yen disuduk   manthuk-manthuk.

   Mr.      Village headman    shirt       red        if     stabbed  nooding

   ‘Mr. Village headman wearing red shirt, and nodding when it is stabbed’

Jantung   pisang

Heart       banana

‘Banana bud’

(6) + Bocah  cilik      nggendong   omah.

   Child    little     carrying         house

   ‘A little child who always carrying his/her house’

                 +  Siput


(7) + Bocah   cilik    blusak blusuk       nang   kebon.

    Child     little   goes in and out   to        garden

                   ‘A little child goes in and out of garden’



(8) + Dijupuki           malah   dadi              mundhak  gedhe

                   To be taken   instead      becoming    increase   big

                    ‘It is continually taken, yet getting bigger’

Wong        nggawe      jogangan

A person    digging      a hole

(9) + Dikethok      malah        tambah      dhuwur

    To be cut      instead      becoming   long

                   ‘It is cut, yet getting longer’  



(10)   + Kayu      mati       ginubed       ula mati.

                   Wood   dead       is twisted   snake dead

                   ‘Dead wood is twisted around by dead snake’


‘a top’

In riddle (5),  a banana bud,  part of plant,  is resembled with a village headman wearing red shirt which is likely nodding when it is stabbed using bamboo pole. In (6), the snail and its shell are perceived similar as a little child carrying a house everywhere. In (7) the needle moves in sewing or stichting activities are conceived as a child coming in and out of a garden. In (8) the earth taking in hole digging activities apparently will make the hole bigger instead of  turning it smaller as used to be in any other activities. In (9) the pants will actually become shorter if it is cut, but higher when it is worn. Finnaly a wooden top in traditional game is look like a piece of dead wood twisted around by a dead snake (10).         

Eventhough, nearly all of Javanese literatures regard riddles found in various genres of Javanese song (asmaradhana, kinanthi, pangkur,and pucung) as  separate category from analogical riddle, this type of riddle, based on its semantic characteristics, seems more appropriete to be included under the the same category with such type of ridlle, except its analogical similarities is much longer than ones found in common analogical ridlle. The songs themselves are charactirized by complicated rhyming pattern.   Consider riddle (11) and (12) below:      

(11) + Wonten   ta  dhapur sawiji; Tanpa sirah   tanpa tenggak;   Mung gatraning weteng bae;  Miwah

   There       particle      one;    without  head  without  neck; only    shape       belly     just;   and          

                 ‘There is  something; without  head and without neck; It shapes only a belly; and              

                  Suku kalihira; Nging tanpa dlamakan;         Kanthaning bokong  kadulu; Rumaket ing para priya

                  Leg   all two;  but       without sole of foot;  shape          buttock  visible; close to          men

                 Both are legs, but without sole of foot; it shapes  a visible buttock; and it is attached to men.’




(12) + Wonten   putri luwih ayu;     Tan ana    ingkang  tumandhing;  Sariranira sang retna  Owah-   owah

There     girl    more beautiful;     no  there  which     to compare;   body her   the girl;      changed

‘there is a more  beautiful girl; No one to be compared with; Her body   always changes

saben ari; Yen rina   kucem kang cahya; mung ratri mancur nelahi  

every  day; if   day     pale     its     shine;  but     night shine   very bright  

every day; in a day time its shine is pale; but it  shines brightly in night’




Because of its relatively longer formula, the riddles found in Javanese song (tembang) use more analogies to compare the characteristics  between something being asked and the answer. In riddle (11) the entity being asked is characterized by 6 atttributes, while in (12) by 4 atrributes.

Pun Riddle

As denoted by the name, pun riddles are ones that are created various kinds of play on words. Mostly this type of riddle is uttered to evoke humor or elicit jocular situation. Pun riddle simply can be distincted into types, namely “pun riddle based on acronym” and “pun based on ambiguity”. Acronyms used to create riddles in Javanese are ones formed by penultimate and or ultimate syllable bulging , as shown in (13) to (15) below:

(13)  Burnas kopen  >  Bubur       panas     kokopen

                               Porridge   hot         eat with your mouth close to the bowl

                               ‘Hot porridge,  enjoy it  with your mouth close to the bowl!

(14)  Gowang pelot > Jagone ana   lawang  cempene mencolot

                               Rooster  be  door      lamb         leap

                              ‘The rooster  is  close to the door, and the lamb leaps’

(15)   Itik pertis ibu perbeng ijah perlong > Tai     pitik         memper petis,                     tai      kebo

                                                                    Shit  chiken      like          soya bean sauce,  shit  buffalo

                                                                    memper ambeng, tai gajah         memper golong                                        

                                                                     like         big tray,  shit elephant  like          big lump

                                                                     ‘chiken shit is like permented soya  bean sauce, buffalo    shit is like a big tray, and elephant shit is like a big lump’

Sometimes the created acronyms entirely or partly, phonologically homonymous with other Javanese expressions, such as manuk biru (bird-blue) in (16) can also mean  ‘blue bird’, buta buri (giant-back) in (17)  ‘back giant’, and gerbong tulis (railway coach-writing) ‘writting coach’  in (18), but the intention meanings are totally different. Consider (16), (17), and (18) below:

(16)  Manuk biru: Pamane            punuk   bibine           kuru

 Bird blue:     uncle  article     hump,  aunt article  skinny

 ‘Blue bird: The uncle has hump, the aunt is skinny’      


(17)  Buta buri:   Tebu              ditata  mlebu lori

Giant back:   sugar cane   to be arranged            enter  lory

Back Giant:   the sugar cane  is arranged and put in the lory

(18)  Gerbong          tulis:      Pager kobong   watune        mendhelis

Railway coach writting:  fence is burnt  stone aricle  coming out

‘Writting coach: the fence is burnt, and the stone is visible.’         

Because of  the final rhyming of  the question and answer, acronym riddle can also found in Javanese traditional songs, such as seen in the following (19):

(19)   Tulung-tulung ana      gedhang  awoh           gori;  

 Help, help           there  banana   bear  fruit     jack fruit

 ‘Please help, there is a banana bear  jack fruit’

 Ana       pitik     ndhase telu;    Gandhenana               endhase;

 There   chiken  head     three;  Mallet  (imperatif)   head  the

 ‘Theree is a chiken has three heads; Hit its head with mallet  

                Ki dhalang        yen mati  sapa sing mikul;                           Ana  buta  nunggang grobak;

                Mr puppeteer  if    dead  who that  carry;                          there giant  ride           cart

                ‘Mr. Puppeteer, if you were dead  no one would  carry you; there is a giant riding a cart’

                 Selawe           sunguting gangsir.

                Twenty five    antenna    mole cricket

                ‘Mole cricket has twenty five antennas’

Riddle (19) apperently does not bear any sensation if the addressee  can reveal   its alternative meaning that is based on acronymic punning consisted in each line. The acronyms are  as follow:

                 Gedhang  awoh  gori  >  Gedhang awoh           ditegori

                                                              banana   bears  fruit    is fell down

                                                              The bearing fruit banana is fell down

                 Pitik ndhase telu > pitik      ndhase    dibuntel                 wulu

                                                    chiken  head its   to be wrapped      feather

                                                     ‘the chiken heads is covered by feathers’

                   Dhalang > kadhal     lan      walang                                  

                                       Lizard     and      grass hopper

                                       ‘Lizard and grass hopper’

                    Buta > tebu              ditata        

                               Sugar cane   to be arranged

                                The piled up sugar cane

                    Selawe > sa        lawe  

                                  Piece   thread

                                  ‘Piece of thread’

It is certainly very common or not surprising if the head of chiken is covered with feather;  No one will bear the carcass of lizard and grass hopper to the cemetry; The piled up sugar cane is put in a cart ; and the mole cricket’s antenna is big as a piece of thread.

Different from acronym riddle, ambiguity based riddles rely their wit on various plays of ambiguous linguistic expressions, such as shown by (20) to (21) below:

(20)  + Urang         sapikul                      matane     pira?

                    Prawn     one carrying pole    eyes their how many?

                   How many eyes does one carrying pole of prawn contain?



(21)   + Domana                      silithe,  bubutana                   wulune, katik   isa    mabur?

                    needle (imperative)  anus,    pull up (imperative)  feather,   why   can  fly

                    ‘sew the anus with needle, pull up the feather, but  why  can it still  fly?  

One carrying pole of prawn (shrimp) in (20) will presupposedly have plenty more of eyes, but the answer nem  ‘six’ is made possible because urang sapikul  can be phonologically ambiguos with urang  ‘prawn’, sapi ‘cow’, and (ka)kul ‘snail’.  Meanwhile riddle (21) is also ambigous because domana ‘sew with a needle’ , bubutana ‘pull up the feather’, and katik ‘why’ can have another meaning. Domana phonologically ambigous with dom ana ‘needle has’, bubutana with bubut ana  ‘coucal has’, and katik ‘pigeon’. In other ocassions, katik is replaced by kok ‘why’ which is also ambiguous because of its possibility to be related with ble(kok) ‘heron’ through firts  syllablic deeletion. So, (20) can also be interpreted as (22) and (21) as (23) below:

(22)  Urang, sapi, lan kakul matane        pira?

Prawn, cow, and snail  eyes their   how many

               How many eyes,  do prawn, cow, and snail have all together?  

(23)  Dom      ana silite, bubut ana          wulune,    katik           isa     mabur.

                 needle  there anus, coucal there  feather,    pigeon       can     fly

                 Needle has hole, coucal has feathers, pigeon can fly

The ambiguity played by the creators is not only limited on linguistic expressions that have identical sound (homophone), it can also involve other semantic relations, such as polysemi, synonymy, and combination among them. For instance, see the following (24) and (25) below:  

(24)  + Lawa telu   kalong  loro  ana        pira?

     Bat   three     reduce two   there    how many

     ‘Three bats   minus one. How many bats left?




(25)    +   Ing   sadhuwuring      lawang  ana      cecak.                          Yen cecak   iku       lunga,

        On   the top                 door       there   small house lizard.    If     lizard   that     go

        ‘On the top of  a door, there was a small lizard . If it went by

         Cecak iku       dadi kewan      kang isa mabur           

         Lizard that  become animal  that can fly

         The lizard would become a flying animal.  

  - Lawa


Riddle (24) relies its wit on the synonymous of Javanese word  lawa ‘bat’ and its informal equivalent ‘kalong’. Kalong itself accidently has another meaning, namely  ‘is reduced or minus’ from ka-  (passive marker) plus long ‘reduce’. So, in spite of the presupposed/logical answer  siji  ‘one’, this riddle can also be answered  papat ‘four’. Meanwhile,  in (25), the creator exploits the complicated Javanese spelling system. The word cecak ‘small house  lizard’ is ambigous with cecak that means  Javanese spelling diacritic (‘) symbolizing dorsovelar nasal sound [η] in closed syllabic position. This diacritic is placed on the top of symbols to be marked/closed.  By playing on the various meaning of lunga ‘go’ which can also be used to mean ‘to be deleted/taken off’, the word lawang ‘door’ will become lawa ‘bat’.

Ambiguities can also arise from the combination of linguitic elements. This phenomenon is commonly called grammatical ambiguity.  For example, there is no ambiguity of lexical items consisted in the following (26) , (27), and (28). However, the way they are combined can be exploited to mislead the person to whom the riddle proposed  to. Riddle (26) and (27) might bring sensational news if the tempe and the coconut seller are the goal of the hitting act, instead of the merchandises, i.e  tempe ‘soya bean cake’ and  klapa ‘coconut’. So do (28) if the dead person who are laughing, instead of the people watching over.    

(26)  Wong      dodol   tempe                    ditaleni

Person      sells      soya bean cake    to be tied

‘A person selling soya bean cake is tied’


(27)  Wong       dodol  klapa       dikepruki

 Person       sells    coconut   to be smashed

‘A person selling  coconut is smashed’


(28)  Wong mati      ditunggoni            wong       mesam-mesem

Person dead      to be watched     people     smiling

‘A dead person being watched (by the people) is smiling’ 

These three riddles can also be interpreted respectively  to mean ‘the people selling tied soya bean cekes’  (26), ‘A person selling smashed  coconuts’ (27), and  ‘A dead person is watched by smiling people’(28). All of these three interpretations are common phenomena, and  not potential to evoke sensation because they presuppose the same propositions as those assumed by the hearer(s).    

Pragmatic Riddle

Pragmatic riddle is one created by implicative proposition raise by the answer which is usually  not to be fully aware by the addressee because (s)he has never taste cat meat. His/her answer are merely based on society’s costumary habit  that their community members are not used to slaught a cat. The answer that  has been uttered will bring him/her into embarrassment after being expleined by the addresser. Consider riddle (29) below:   

(29)  Enak         endi       daging    kucing   karo daging pitik?

Delicious   where   meat      cat         with  meat   chiken?

‘Which is more delicious  cat meat or chiken?’

The addressee’s answer tend to be chiken but (s)he does not realize that the given answer will necessarily bring a consequence that (s)he has ever tasted cat meat. In other words, being able to judge that chiken meat is more delicious than cat meat implies that the addressee has ever enjoyed the taste of the animal meat with which it compare.     

Riddle Rhyming

In spite of unexpected answers which all riddles may have in order to violate  the addressee’s  pragmatic presumptions, the beatiful rhyming seems to be an important  elements which can make some types of riddle interesting, and easy to remember by the language  speakers to which they belong. As far as the rhyming pattern are concerned, it can be created  through various complicated ways. The rhyming can be found either among the words forming the line, or among the lines forming the riddle couplets. The rhyming can constitute final sound harmony or the number of syllables or words composing the riddle lines. Examples (30), (31) (32), and (33) below consecutively show those phenomena:

(30)   + Abang-abang            dudu   kidang,   pesegi dudu   pipisan.         

                    Red (reduplication)  not     deer,       square  not    herbal medecine grinder

                    ‘It is redish in color but not a deer, it is square but not a herbal medecine grinder’

                 - Bata


(31)  + Anake           diidak-idak,   emboke       dielus-elus

     Child  its      stepped on,   mother its  is caressed

                   ‘Its child is   stepped on, but its mother is ceressed’

                 - Andha


(32)  +  Ing ngisor   kedhung,   ing dhuwur payung

     In    below   lake,           in   above    umbrella

                  ‘Below is a lake, above is an umbrella’

Wong   nanak      nasi

Person  cooking  rice

                     ‘A person is steaming rice’

(33)  + Wit       Adhikih  woh      adhakah;  Wit      adhakah woh   adhikih.

                    plant   small        fruit    big;              plant  big           fruit   little

                    ‘The plant is small but the fruit is big; The plant is big, but the fruit is little

Semangka karo ringin  

‘Water melon  and banyan tree’

Riddle (30) consist of two parts, each of which is composed by three words having 8 syllables. The first part has final syllabic rhyming, abang-abang  ‘redish’ and kidang ‘deer’. Riddle (31) is formed by two clauses that have identical verbal pattern, i.e. antonymic reduplicative passive, dielus-elus ‘to be caressed’ and diidak-idak  ‘to be stepped on’. Each verb predicates antonymic subject  anake  ‘the child’ and emboke ‘the mother’. Riddle (32) is composed by two parts that consisting of three words containing equal number of rhyming syllables, i.e kedhung ‘lake’ and payung ‘umbrella’. Each part begins with antonymic prepositional phrases, ing ngisor ‘below’ and ing dhuwur ‘above’. Finally, inspite of the identical number of syllble consisting of each riddle part,   the nicety of riddle (33) are created by permutaion of words containing vocalic alternation,  wit ‘plant’ and its  part  woh ‘fruit’  and adakah ‘big’ and its antonym adikih ‘small’.


Every society has riddles which are used by the community members to meet the need of various communicative purposes, starting from the most trivial funtions such as playing and joking up to the most serious ones, such as educating and conducting ritual activities. Although, no riddle functioned to carry out ritual activities found in Javanese society, the people of this society create various types of riddle for mostly fulfilling the need of verbal contests and amusements in order to release the heavy  daily  life burdens. Javanese riddles can simply be classified into three types, namely analogousl riddle, pun riddle, and pragmatic riddle. Analogous Riddle is created on the basis of cultural cognitive similarity between entities consisted in the question (problem)’s and answer (solution)’s formula. Some analogous riddles riddles are used to compose various genres traditional songs. Different from analogous riddle, pun riddle is created through many kinds of verbal play, such as lexical and grammatical ambiguities, antonymy, Synonymy, and acronyms. Pragmatic riddle is created by implicatures which is unconciously conveyed by the addresee’s answer to the riddle problem given by the addresser. Some riddles are difficult to classify because they combine several creating techniques (punning and analogy) that made them possible to include to either  analogous riddle or pun riddle. In spite of the unique relation that holds between the questions and answers, many riddles are also composed by syllabic and phonological rhyming for sound nicety and  recollection ease.                         



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