Indonesian National and Local Languages

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Most languages spoken in Indonesia fall into the Austronesian language family, comprised of more than one thousand languages. The result of maritime migrations starting roughly five thousand years ago, Austronesian languages span a vast reach across the Pacific Ocean from Madagascar in the west to Hawaii in the east. Only twenty five of those Austronesian languages - Indonesian being one—have more than one million native speakers (Sneddon 2003:25).1 The current geopolitical boundaries of Indonesia, like those of many former European colonies in Asia, Africa, and the Americas, essentially were created by colonial conquests between the seventeenth and twentieth centuries. What is now Indonesia was ruled by the Dutch as the Netherlands East Indies. The adjacent nation of Malaysia was ruled by the English as the British East Indies. These were boundaries on a political power grid, not natural ethnic divisions. In 1928, Malay was selected to become the national language of the Dutch East Indies by a youth congress of pro-Independence nationalists. Indonesian is essentially a dialect of Malay. Thus the national languages of Malaysia and Indonesia are, for the most part, mutually intelligible. A quick glance at a map of Southeast Asia shows that the westernmost Indonesian island of Sumatra, especially the Riau area, is separated from the Malay Peninsula by just a narrow strait. Parts of Sumatra are much closer ethnically and linguistically to western Malaysia than they are to many of Indonesia’s eastern islands such as Sulawesi, Maluku, Timor, or New Guinea. These latter islands, by contrast, are closer in linguistic, genealogical, and geographical features to the Philippines, or to the Pacific island region called Melanesia. Although only about 5 percent of the Netherlands East Indies population spoke Malay in the 1920s, it was selected to be Indonesia’s national language for political and social reasons (Sneddon 2003). While Dutch was used by the educated elite, it also was the language of the colonial oppressor and did not offer the international advantages of more widely dispersed European languages such as English or Spanish. Javanese was spoken by the largest population of Indies residents, roughly 40 percent, but this seemingly obvious choice was rejected. Nationalists were interested in a language that would unite an ethnically plural nation, and the Javanese were feared to be too dominant. Even most Javanese leaders found their language unsuitable for national status because of its dauntingly hierarchical character. Javanese often is considered the purest example of a language in which the relative status of the speaker and the listener is encoded within the vocabulary of different speech levels. Every word in some sentences must vary according to the relative status of the speakers (Geertz 1976; Wolff and Poedjosoedarmo 1982). Such complexity and feudal leanings were not considered promising for the national language of a modern, twentieth-century nation of equals. By contrast, Malay had been used as a trade language along island Southeast Asian maritime routes, spread for centuries, first by seafaring merchants and later by the Dutch colonial administration. Thus, Malay’s rudimentary conversational forms—greetings, travel or market bargaining, family-life questions, and the like—already served as a basic lingua franca in coastal regions of colonial Southeast Asia. Finally, Malay seemed the best choice for the new nation’s governmental and educational purposes because it had been transcribed in the Latin alphabet and increasingly was adopted by popular journalists and literary writers (Anderson 1991). In much of Indonesia, however, children still grow up speaking regional languages, most of which are significantly different in grammar and vocabulary from Indonesian. Indonesian is thus a second language learned in primary school and through exposure to the mass media. That was the situation in highland Central Sulawesi, where I conducted anthropological fieldwork first from 1986 to 1989. My academic preparation for fieldwork was to study Indonesian, but I needed to learn a very different local language when I settled in Sulawesi. Another quick glance at a map will show why Sulawesi languages are closer to Philippine languages than they are to Malay. The Central Sulawesi language spoken where I lived is technically known as Uma, named by colonial European missionaries after the word for no, which varies throughout the island. The language also sometimes is called Pipikoro (meaning “banks of the Lariang River”) or, more broadly, a Kulawi District language. Uma is an unwritten language spoken by an estimated 17,000–20,000 speakers. The Pipikoro dialect was studied thoroughly by a linguist translating the Bible (Martens 1988), but no study guides existed when I went there. So, after I arrived in the Tobaku highlands, I composed lists of words and sentences, which I initially asked Tobaku people to explain to me in Indonesian. My aim was to use Indonesian as little as possible as quickly as possible.2 Numerous Tobaku people told me that the two things they most appreciated about me as a visitor was that I could eat their local food and that I spoke (or tried to speak) their language. For me, partaking of the local cuisine, even at its most challenging, was by far the easier of those two enterprises. Being human, I was frequently hungry. In truth, I was thankful that eating required no special talent or hard-learned skills. By contrast, mastering a mostly unwritten language that differed grammatically from any language I had previously studied was exponentially more daunting. Most Indonesian government and church mission visitors arriving in the highlands from the provincial capital expected to be fed large portions of specially cooked meats—no pork if they were Muslims, and different, generally less spicy, cuisine if they were Christians. By contrast, I was a grateful and “unfussy” guest with a strong stomach for the highlanders’ mounded plates of hill rice with side dishes of hot chilies and seasonal vegetables. While their cuisine and language seem to embarrass Tobaku people, they also serve as points of local pride. Just as U.S. travelers often expect everyone else in the world to learn English, most Indonesians visiting the Sulawesi highlands expect residents to speak Indonesian. In the 1980s, Tobaku people always spoke to each other in Uma, even if they knew Indonesian fluently and their guests did not. Their language was a source of local ethnic identity, a litmus test of responsible membership and moral knowledge that few outsiders could ever pass. Tobaku people jokingly call their language basa mata, which literally translates as the “green,” “unripe,” or “raw” language. With this phrase they imply that their language is unrefined (kasar, Indonesian) and not as sophisticated as Javanese or Indonesian languages.3 But the lack of a “please” or “thank you” in Uma is not the result of its rural speakers’ self-conscious coarseness or lack of educational refinement. Nor, as it turns out, is the absence of these words just a local linguistic or cultural phenomenon.




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