About Fikrun

    Fikrun wa Fann was a cultural magazine published by the Goethe Institute from 1963 to 2016 that supported and shaped the cultural exchange between Germany and Islamic countries. Together with the publishing of the last issue, “Flight and Displacement” (issue 105), in autumn of 2016 the maintenance and updating of this online portal was ceased.

    One Land, One Nation, One Language: Indonesian as a Lowest Common Denominator in the Largest Island Nation in the World

    Divination book from northern Sumatra
    Scarcely another country in the world boasts a tangle of languages as complex as that in Indonesia, where around five hundred ethnic groups speak roughly the same number of different languages and dialects.

    When the state of Indonesia was founded after the Second World War, the creation of a national language was a top priority. And although many inhabitants of the country still only learn ‘Bahasa Indonesia’ as a second or third language, it is nonetheless a success story.

    ‘Without Indonesian I would be completely lost in my own country. Sometimes I don’t even understand people in the next town, if they speak in their local language,’ says Paul Kadarisman. The 34-year-old photographer himself comes from a multi-ethnic family: his father is from the central Javan city of Surakarta, his mother from Manado, the regional capital of northern Sulawesi. His fiancée lives on Bali. ‘I can just about get by in Javanese. Minhasa [the language of Manado] I can only understand a little. I can’t speak Balinese at all. My own language is definitely Indonesian.’ Kadarisman himself grew up in the Indonesian capital Jakarta and speaks the common slang of the Betawi – the name given to natives of Batavia, as the capital was called under Dutch colonial rule. The Betawis, however, are not an indigenous tribe but a mixture of immigrants of many different origins. Coolies, merchants and adventurers of every kind converged over the centuries from the more than 17,000 islands of the archipelago, as did Chinese and Malaysian traders and sailors. The Jakarta vernacular is therefore a mixture of as many languages as the ethnicities of its inhabitants – and is thus an excellent representative of modern Indonesia.

    Scarcely another country in the world boasts a tangle of languages as complex as that in Indonesia, where around five hundred ethnic groups speak roughly the same number of different languages and dialects. Even before the colonial era it was therefore necessary to have a lingua franca, a common language for commerce and trade, so that the tribes in the territory of what is today Malaysia and Indonesia could communicate with each other. Since as early as the first century after Christ the inhabitants of the diverse island communities communicated in Malay – the language of the residents of the Straits of Malacca, which even then was already one of the most important routes for maritime trade. Malay was the court language both of the powerful Sriwijaya Kingdom on Sumatra (ninth to thirteenth century C.E.) and of the wealthy Sultanate of Malacca (fourteenth and fifteenth centuries C.E.) in modern-day Malaysia. This lingua franca also enabled the world religions to disseminate themselves effectively in this part of the world: first Hinduism and Buddhism, then Islam, and finally Christianity.

    When the Dutch gradually colonised the archipelago from the seventeenth century onwards, Malay remained the general language of communication. Unlike other colonial powers, the Dutch East India Company (VOC) did not impose its language on the local people. Only a few high-ranking civil servants and intellectuals learned Dutch. ‘The Europeans came here to conduct trade – so they also needed a language for traders,’ explains the American South-East Asia expert Ron Hatley. ‘With Dutch they would not have got very far with the island peoples – and a feudal language like Javanese doesn’t go down well in the bazaar. Malay, on the other hand, is a very egalitarian language.’

    Malay, from which Indonesian and Malaysian later developed, belongs to the Austronesian linguistic family which also includes, among others, the languages of Madagascar (Malagasy), the Philippines (Tagalog), and of the Maori in New Zealand. Today, around two hundred million people worldwide speak Indonesian or Malaysian – in other countries such as Brunei and Singapore, in southern Thailand and the Philippines, in East Timor, and on the Australian Cocos and Christmas Islands. Malay is thus one of the seven most-spoken languages in the world. Some of its expressions have become part of the global vocabulary, such as gong, orang utan, sarong, sago, or amok. Malay is not a complicated tonal language like Chinese or Thai. The Malay grammar has neither conjugations nor declensions; it does not distinguish genders or different degrees of politeness, which – in Javanese, for example – precisely define the social status of both speaker and addressee. ‘Malay is a very direct language, in which the interlocutors are both on the same level,’ explains Kiswondo, a researcher in literature and sociology at the Sanata Dharma University in the central Javan city Yogyakarta. ‘That was certainly also a factor in the decision by the independence movement in favour of Malay as the national language. What was more important, though, was the fact that in this way no locally delimited language would be given preference, and all the tribes would, at least linguistically, have equal rights.’

    One land, one nation, one language

    The founders of the Indonesian independence movement had already realised as early as the beginning of the last century that the binding element of a common language would be a decisive factor for the unity of a multiethnic state. On 28th October 1928 more than seventy young nationalists from across the whole archipelago met in the Indonesian Clubhouse of what was then Batavia to lay the foundation for an independent Indonesia. Satu nusa, satu bangsa, satu bahasa – one land, one nation, one language – was the abbreviated form of their so-called youth pledge (Sumpah Pemuda), which to this day every Indonesian schoolchild has to learn from the first class onwards. Then, for the first time, the term Bahasa Indonesia (Indonesian language) officially replaced the term Bahasa Melayu (Malayan language). The name ‘Indonesia’, invented by the English ethnologist George Earl – a combination of the Latin word Indus (India) and the Greek word nesos (islands) – was officially used for the first time two years earlier, at an international peace conference in Paris, as a geopolitical designation for the nation we know today. Since the declaration of independence on August 17th 1945 the country has been called the Republic of Indonesia, with Indonesian as its national language.

    Ever since, politicians and academics throughout the world have praised this choice as very clever and far-sighted. No other former colony has managed as effectively to switch not only the administrative and education systems but also the national consciousness over to a non-colonial language. ‘When one considers that almost half of all Indonesians are Javans, and also that the majority of the independence fighters came from Java, it really is remarkable, despite all the advantages mentioned above, that Malay was adopted with such ease as the national language,’ says Kiswondo. However, the scholar of literature also points out that since the Suharto era there has been a strong Javanisation of the Indonesian language. The former president’s strictly hierarchical regime not only drew on the socially delimiting forms of address in Javanese, it also introduced terms to differentiate between the sexes.

    As an international lingua franca, Malay was always exposed to a variety of influences. The oldest records bear witness to the fact that the language of the time was strongly influenced by Sanskrit, and this is still evident today in words like guru (teacher) or sastra (literature). From the thirteenth century onwards the recognisable influences are mostly Arabic (e.g. hakim – judge, or nikah – to marry). The first written testimonies in Ancient Malay from the seventh century are still written in Sanskrit characters, but from the fourteenth century onwards the Arabic script was used almost exclusively. In the centuries that followed, with the arrival of the colonial powers, European influences increasingly became part of the mix. From the east of modern-day Indonesia came the Portuguese, who also invaded the linguistic realm and left behind terms such as gereja (church) or metega (butter). Then later the British and the Dutch fought for supremacy over the archipelago, which was coveted primarily because of the spices that grew there.

    During this period Malay began to develop in two different directions. In what is now Malaysia the British introduced English as the colonial language. Bahasa Melayu was regarded as old-fashioned, and its sphere of influence effectively dwindled away. It was only after Malaysian independence in 1957 that it became a national language once again, alongside English – enriched with thousands of neologisms. Since 1969 it is called Bahasa Malaysia (the Malaysian language). In the region of modern-day Indonesia, on the other hand, Malay was always the primary lingua franca, but Dutch expressions were increasingly incorporated into the language (e.g. kantor – office, or handuk – towel), as were words from local languages. Above all, things that were first introduced by the colonial masters – technical inventions, for example, such as cars, trains, or electrical objects – were given names derived from the Dutch (or, in Malaysia, from the English). A car exhaust, for example, is called knalpot in Indonesian, in Malaysian paip ekzos (from ‘exhaust pipe’). Over the years Malaysian and Indonesian have moved so far apart that they now qualify as two individual languages. The differences, though, are primarily in colloquial speech; if both sides make the effort to speak their language at a higher, more formal level they are still perfectly able to communicate with each other.

    Roman script instead of Arabic

    Unlike Malaysia, where Malay was written in Arabic script until after the Second World War, the Dutch introduced Latin script to their territories in 1901. To this end the Orientalist Charles Adriaan van Ophuysen developed an orthographical system for a standard language, which he took from the ancient scripts of Riau – the so-called Malay heartland. Seven years later the Dutch founded the publishing company Commissie voor de Volkslectuur (Commission for Popular Literature), which was renamed the Balai Pustaka (House of Literature) in 1917. ‘The colonial rulers wanted to make certain that books were published that were according to their tastes, and that in this way they could subtly disseminate their political message,’ explains the German Indonesia scholar Katrin Bandel. ‘What’s ironic about it is that the colonial novels that were written then are today still regarded as the beginnings of modern Indonesian literature.’ Anyone who did not stick to the standardised colonial language was automatically excluded from the state publication system – this was the case especially for Islamic and Chinese writers. The author Kwee Tek Hoay, for example, who is of Chinese ethnic origin, took the view that the written language should correspond to the spoken language, and thus orientated himself when writing according to the colloquial language of his environment. Like all Sino-Malay works that did not correspond to the linguistic standard, his books were therefore relegated to the margins as minority literature.

    The new standard language initially asserted itself primarily as a written and administrative language. Some small alterations were made in 1947; then in 1972 there was a spelling reform that remains valid today, in which the written forms of Bahasa Malaysia and Bahasa Indonesia were standardised. Today, Indonesian is the language of the media, contemporary theatre, cinema, poetic works. Throughout the country Bahasa Indonesia is the only officially recognised administrative language; teaching in schools is only in Indonesian. Yet for most Indonesians it is only their second or third language: 80% of the population learn their local mother tongue first. Children of ethnically mixed relationships often speak two languages before they have to switch to Indonesian in school. ‘My parents come from central Java, so we always spoke Javanese at home. But I grew up in western Java, where they speak Sundanese. I only learned Indonesian properly as a third language in school,’ says the journalist Fitriani Dwi Kurniasih. ‘Nowadays, though, Indonesian is my first language, because this is the only one in which I can write.’ Very few Javans are able to write in their mother tongue, especially if, as is the case with Javanese or Balinese, the language is written in the Sanskrit alphabet. These ancient scripts are publicly used only in a very few places – for example on street signs in the ancient Sultanate cities of Surakarta and Yogyakarta. Generally the local languages, together with their scripts, are taught as individual subjects only in the first two years of primary school, and then only once a week.

    ‘The local languages will increasingly disappear from daily life; already today many people only know simple verbal expressions,’ says I Dewa Putu Wijana, head of the linguistics department of the renowned Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta. ‘Maybe the government should make the local languages a bigger part of the curriculum once again. Otherwise these languages will soon only play a role in the traditional arts, such as shadow puppetry, or in remote rural areas.’ Meanwhile, children in the big cities are increasingly growing up with Indonesian as their first language. Young people here often develop a slang in which Indonesian is mixed with the predominant local language, as well as global – above all English – influences (e.g. ngechat – to chat, or klabing – clubbing). ‘There is scarcely another language in the world that absorbs as many foreign terms as Indonesian. That’s probably because it was originally a commercial language that was constantly having to adapt itself to new circumstances,’ explains the linguistics professor Putu Wijana. ‘But that’s not fundamentally a bad thing, it’s just a normal development that takes place all over the world.’

    A little bit of everything

    For everyday Indonesian in Jakarta, this means: a little bit of everything. The rather crude slang of the capital city mixes terminology from various native languages with words from English and French, Arabic or Chinese. This Bahasa Prokem (colloquial language) has very few grammatical rules, and swallows or alters the pre- and post-syllables that are so important in Indonesian until they are completely unrecognisable to the uninitiated. Because of the large media presence in Jakarta, this metropolitan slang has now spread throughout the country, via pop music, soap operas and movies. The upper classes, on the other hand, like to distinguish themselves by mixing at least a couple of English expressions into every sentence.

    This linguistic confusion naturally results, for some young people, in identity conflicts. ‘We always used to speak Indonesian at home, although we’re actually a Batak family. The Batak language is considered vulgar, while Indonesian stands for nationalism – and my father was in the military,’ says the writer Saut Situmorang, who grew up in Medan, the provincial capital of northern Sumatra. ‘As a result I only know a few words of Batak. When we went back to my family’s home village I was always regarded as arrogant, because I could express myself better in Indonesian than in my supposed mother tongue.’

    Yet although the inhabitants of some of the provinces identify primarily with their ethnic background and regard themselves only secondarily as Indonesians, nowadays no tribe can manage without the Indonesian language. ‘On the small islands in the east of the country, everyone, from small children to their grandparents, speaks Indonesian. Without the common language, hardly anyone would be able to understand even their neighbours on the other side of the mountain,’ explains the sociologist Kiswondo. The example of East Timor has shown how hard it is to do away with a lingua franca. After the eastern half of the island gained independence in 1999 in a referendum supported by the United Nations, the new government declared Portuguese and the local language Tetum as the national languages; the language of the hated occupiers was, from then on, simply a ‘working language’. However, after twenty-four years of Indonesian rule the younger generation were proficient above all in Indonesian as their written language, and scarcely knew a word of the former colonial language, Portuguese. Furthermore, the small island republic is economically dependent on its large neighbours Australia and Indonesia, and can hardly avoid engaging in official communication in Indonesian and English. The reintroduction of Indonesian as another official language is now being considered.

    South-East Asia expert Ron Hatley made similar findings while researching other parts of Indonesia that are seeking independence. ‘When I asked students from Papua what they regarded as their national language, they replied: the language with which they had grown up and in which they could communicate all across Papua – Indonesian. They would, however, call it Bahasa Papua.’ Difficult as it is to unite all the many different peoples and cultures of Indonesia in one republic, it seems clear that they do at least all share one common feature: the Indonesian language. ‘Without a common form of communication it would be impossible to hold this country together as a nation,’ says the photographer Paul Kadarisman. ‘These days I can make myself understood on even the smallest of the islands. In this sense Indonesian has to be described as an extremely successful language.’
    Christina Schott
    is a reporter based in Jakarta. She is the Indonesia correspondent for Art&Thought.

    Translated by Charlotte Collins
    Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
    June 2009

    Your opinion concerning this topic? Write to