Indonesia’s Lingua Franca Mirrors Pluralistic Heart

By webadmin on 01:06 pm Sep 21, 2012
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Bruce Gale – Straits Times

Speak Sundanese on Wednesdays! That is the message from the Bandung municipal council to the residents of Indonesia’s third largest city.

A new bylaw passed in May requires the use of Sundanese among the public, bureaucrats and officials as a means of oral and written communication in Bandung — one day a week.

Bandung, the capital of West Java province, is the traditional centre of Sundanese culture.

The language is spoken by an estimated 34 million people in the western half of Java, or about 14 percent of the Indonesian population. The council’s move would probably come as a surprise to the nation’s founding fathers, who assiduously promoted Bahasa Indonesia as a means of uniting the nation.

Encouraging the wider use of any of the other languages spoken in the archipelago would also have been very difficult during the New Order period. Under Suharto, Jakarta associated such ideas with anti-national and even secessionist sentiment.

Today, however, with fluency in Bahasa Indonesia nearing 100 percent, the country’s regional languages seem increasingly under threat.

Bahasa Indonesia is the medium of education in all schools. No major newspaper publishes in any regional language, including Javanese, Sundanese and Balinese.

And among millions of Indonesians who continue to use local languages in daily conversation, linguists lament the loss of vocabulary as speakers forget words, replacing them with increasingly familiar Bahasa Indonesia expressions.

Since the fall of Suharto in 1998, an increasing number of writers and artists have begun emphasizing the importance of promoting local languages as a means of preserving the nation’s heritage and cultural diversity.

According to bylaw enactment special committee deputy head Ahmad Nugraha, the Bandung municipal council approved the regulation mandating the use of Sundanese as part of an effort to preserve the language as the mother tongue of the city.

However, the move was largely symbolic. No penalties were listed for those who ignore the bylaw.

The writer and editor most closely associated with the drive to preserve Indonesia’s local languages is Ajip Rosidi, chairman of the Rancage Cultural Foundation.

Since 1993, this foundation has presented annual awards to the writers of books and other literary works in Sundanese, Javanese, Balinese and Lampungese.

Despite increased media coverage of the award ceremonies in recent years, however, there has been barely any significant financial contributions from local and central governments.

That said, most provinces do provide for at least one local language to be taught as a subject in the primary schools.

Putu Wijaya, one of Indonesia’s most prominent literary figures, regards the efforts of people such as Ajip as noble but ultimately doomed to failure. “It will be sad, but that is the reality,” he told me when I met him at his residence in Cilandak, South Jakarta, last month.

A Balinese by birth, Putu has written more than 30 novels, 40 dramas, hundreds of short stories, and numerous essays, articles and television dramas — all in Bahasa Indonesia.

Asked why he does not write in Balinese, he replies simply that he does not feel he knows the language well enough to write confidently in it.

Languages such as Balinese, he adds, are “not well suited to the democratic era” because they require speakers to use special vocabulary when addressing people of different social classes.

The decision to promote Bahasa Indonesia as the national language was also astute because, as a language with few native speakers, its promotion would not be seen by minorities as a form of cultural oppression.

Compared to modern Malay, which has largely confined itself to incorporating foreign loan words, Bahasa Indonesia speakers regularly draw on a wider vocabulary that includes words from Indonesia’s hundreds of regional languages.

Examples include Javanese words such as ‘jago’ (skillful, expert) and ‘canggih’ (sophisticated). From Sundanese comes words such as ‘pengaruh’ (influence) and ‘kesohor’ (famous).

Less well-known languages in the outer islands have also contributed their share. ‘Pasti’ (surely) comes from Manado, while ‘molek’ (cute, pretty) originates from the Batak people of North Sumatra.

And the process is continuing. Asked for more recent examples, Putu pointed to the gradual acceptance of ‘taksu,’ a Balinese word meaning a secret power or unrecognized ability, and ‘mandiri,’ a Javanese word referring to the ability to be independent or stand on one’s own feet.

Whether or not the efforts of Ajip and the Bandung municipal council will have any lasting impact, Indonesians themselves are already ensuring that the country’s lingua franca truly reflects its pluralistic heart.

Reprinted courtesy of The Straits Times