Back to Index

The Breakup of Languages, Indonesia



     Don Emmerson, a specialist on Indonesia, describes the almost unique linguistic situation there:
     The example of the national language of Indonesia--bahasa Indonesia, " the Indonesian language"--shows that intralinguistic standardization across dispersed places and peoples is entirely possible. Imagine a very long distance phone call between an Acehnese speaker of Indonesian in his homeland on the northwest tip of Sumatra in far-western Indonesia, and a Papuan speaker of Indonesian in her homeland just west of the easternmost border of Indonesia. Although the two speakers would be 5,000 kilometers apart, they would almost surely understand each other, assuming fluency, differences in pronunciation and usage notwithstanding.
     That this is so reflects several factors, including (1) the popularization of the Indonesian language by the colonial Dutch, who published a (politically anodyne) literature in it; (2) its identification by Indonesians as a badge of identity against the Dutch, as in 1928 when a famous Youth Oath hopefully proclaimed "One Nation, One People, One [Indonesian] Language"; and (3) not least, the fact that the native speakers of Indonesian (i.e., those whose first language it was) were a numerically tiny and politically inconsequential group of Malays on the east coast of Sumatra. This third consideration meant that Indonesian could not be feared as a vehicle of prospective domination by one ethnic group over the others.
     Comparable to Swahili in East Africa, Indonesian grew up as a trading language. Unlike Javanese, which maintains three distinctive core vocabularies that one must choose between, depending on whether one is addressing a person who is socially inferior, equal, or superior to oneself, Indonesian is structurally egalitarian. It spread, through trade, along the archipelago's coasts. Roughly half of all 216 million Indonesians are ethnolinguistically Javanese, and most of these people live on the core island of Java. Had the Javanese language been declared the tongue of the republic of Indonesia upon the latter's juridical birth in 1950, many non-Javanese would have felt linguistically, culturally, and politically estranged in their own new home. The civil wars of the 1950s would have been far harder for the national government to put down. Indeed, had the Javanese stuck to their guns, lexically and literally, Indonesia in its present spatial breadth would probably not exist.
     As for the future, I note that the leaders of ex-Indonesian East Timor who are planning that half-island's independence appear to prefer Portuguese to Indonesian as their prospectively national language. If Aceh someday becomes an independent country, its leaders would probably reject Indonesian in favor of Acehnese. Nevertheless, one cannot deny the remarkable success of bahasa Indonesia in becoming a lingua franca across so much space and so many people while retaining internal intelligibility not only in written but also in spoken form."

Ronald Hilton - 2/26/00


Webmaster