At 71, Betawi researcher and author Abdul Chaer still persists in his quest to put together the pieces of the nearly-extinct language and culture of his ethnic group.
Apart from publishing books about Indonesian culture, Bang (big brother) Chaer, as he is known by many, has also written a book on Betawi language and culture. He said he feels the need to “document it, because it will be replaced by a new language.”
The book, which will be published in the near future, includes Betawi idioms, jokes and folklore.
“A lot of young Betawi people don’t know the meanings or haven’t even heard of some of the words that we, the older generation, know and still use. For example, words like ‘teisi’ which means teaspoon, or ‘sundung’ which refers to the yoke one uses to carry grass,” said Chaer, who teaches Indonesian language at universities.
“But [the younger generation] can’t be blamed for not knowing a lot of words in Betawi because they live in the present Jakarta, where people from different ethnic groups and nations come and live, and contribute to the creation of an informal Indonesian dialect, which is widely used,” he added.
Chaer said that it is possible that the Betawi language might disappear in the future, but that small things, like prefixes, suffixes, and pronouns, such as elo (you) and gue (me), would remain and be combined with words in Indonesian and other languages.
“But this should not be seen as a threat [to the Betawi language]. This is reality. A lot of native languages are replaced with new ones because they no longer have speakers,” he said. “That is why I believe documenting Betawi words can, at least, prolong their existence.”
Growing up in an educated and devoted Muslim family, Chaer seems like the unlikely defender of a language that is known to include words that are often considered offensive or rude.
“For words to be considered offensive or rude, it depends on the surrounding society,” he said. “Among the Betawis, words such as bini [wife] is a normal word, but that might not be same for other cultures.”
Chaer was born and has lived in Jakarta all of his life, making him an eyewitness to the city’s evolution.
“A long time ago, long before Jalan Sudirman was built to connect Menteng and Kebayoran, sometime in 1948 or 1949, the area was a kampung [village]. People had farmlands and harvested various fruits. And on what used to be my grandfather’s land, a huge bank building [now] stands,” he said. “In the areas where the Betawis live, you can’t really find the native people. They are gone. Everything has changed.”
Since 1975, Chaer has published 30 books, including dictionaries and other linguistic materials for university students.
On a huge wooden shelf in his living room, Chaer has neatly organized all of the books he has written. They sit next to his extensive collection of works written by other writers.
Many of his books have been used as academic references by foreign students and researchers overseas, mainly in the Netherlands and in the United Kingdom.
“I remember in February 1977, I attended an event at the University of London. A student recognized my name as I was writing it down on the guest book and she asked if I was the same guy who wrote the Jakarta dialect dictionary published a few months earlier. She told me she had used it for her Malay literature studies. I was so happy and proud when she told me that,” he said. “Later on, more and more people said similar things, telling me they have read or used my books as references. It just feels so good every time someone tells me such a thing.”
Chaer said when he writes a book, or gathers words, stories, jokes or legends, he does not think about whether they will sell well after they are published.
“What is more important to me is the fact that I can have a place to transfer all of the things in my head and finish the projects,” he said. “It makes me feel happy and content every time a new book of mine comes out. I hardly think about how many are sold. Although, of course, it would be better if I sell a lot of books so I can earn more, but really, I am happy enough to finally see [the final product].”
In his twilight years, Chaer said he was happy to be kept occupied with writing more books and teaching.
At his quiet home in East Jakarta, he often receives students who need tutorials for their thesis. His wife, Hafsah Oya, said that when students come to visit, the house becomes lively.
“We are happy to have them here,” said Hafsah.
Despite the dozens of books he has written and published, Chaer said he does not think he has done enough, and that drives him to keep learning.
“There are still a lot of things I want to do. My inspirations come from many places — people in the streets, government regulations, the news and much more,” he said.
For his decades of hard work and devotion to preserving Betawi language and culture, the father of two has gained recognition, including from Jakarta governor Fauzi Bowo last year. In 2002 he was granted the “Etnikom Award” from a radio association that covers South Sumatra, Banten, Jakarta and West Java.
“But don’t call me budayawan [cultural observer]” he said. “There is still a lot to do to deserve that title.”