In the article “Why no-one speaks Indonesia’s language” published in BBC Travel, BBC correspondent David Fettling claims that “Bahasa Indonesia has fewer words than most languages.” How does he know? He doesn’t. Instead, he relies on Endy Bayuni of The Jakarta Post, who has written that foreign translations of Indonesian novels tend to read better, while Indonesian translations of foreign novels sound ‘verbose and repetitive’.
I completely agree with Mr. Endy Bayuni, but this is simply because Indonesia is indeed lacking good translators – to my knowledge there is no university with a program or centre for interpretation and translation studies.
According to Endy Bayuni “many foreign translations of Indonesian books read much better than their original version because the translators have more words at their disposal.” and he continues “Try reading one of Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s books in Indonesian and compare it with its English translation.”
Why does Endy chooses Pramoedya as an example, and not a contemporary writer? Pramoedya wrote his first books shortly after the second world war when modern Indonesian was still in its infancy. Pramoedya is from a generation where the majority of Indonesians learned Indonesian as a second language. Pramoedya’s first language is Javanese, and he only started to learn Malay, as Indonesian was then called, as an adolescent. Yet, Pramoedya is without any doubt a powerful writer who has contributed a lot to create a modern Indonesian language by breaking radically with the style of pre-war literature.
To be fair, Endy should not have referenced Pramoedya Ananta Toer, but a modern writer such as, for instance, Ayu Utami, who successfully explores the richness of the Indonesian language in all its nuances in her novels Saman and Larung.
David Fettling also quotes Dr Nancy J Smith-Hefner, associate professor of anthropology at Boston University who, according to Fettling, claims that “because Indonesians learn Bahasa Indonesia in school, then hear it as adults primarily in political speech, they associate it with homogeneity”.
Indonesian is indeed a prescribed subject at Indonesian schools, but what Smith-Hefner infers here is that Indonesians grow up with a regional language as their mother tongue, and then learn bahasa Indonesia baku (formal Indonesian) at school. This was usually, but not always, the case 50 years ago. Today, the majority of Indonesians live in mixed ethnic urban communities and young Indonesians typically grow up in bilingual environments, and an ever increasing number of Indonesians only know Indonesian, and cannot communicate in any regional language. In 2010, 21.6% of all Indonesians claimed that they speak exclusively Indonesian at home. [see my article Indonesian Native Speakers – Myth and Reality]
The claim that Indonesians primarily hear Indonesian in political speech is completely baseless as everybody knows who has ever lived in Indonesia.
Indonesian is a multi-facetted language that does not only consists of bahasa Indonesia baku (formal Indonesian), and this formal register of Indonesian is not static, but constantly changing and adopting words from regional languages, Jakarta Malay, classical Malay, Malaysian Malay, and from foreign languages.
Fettling also claims that Indonesian is a monolithic language : “Bahasa Indonesia was heavily promoted during the Suharto dictatorship that ruled from the mid-1960s until 1998 and stifled many forms of individual and cultural expression. Because of this, those who speak it risk looking ‘theatrical, bookish or pompous’, explained Nelly Martin-Anatias of the Institute of Culture, Discourse and Communication at the Auckland University of Technology.
I know Nelly Martin-Anatias quite well. Before pursuing her doctoral degree at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, Nelly was my teaching assistant at the University of Hawaii during the academic year 2005-2006. In the same year I also had a second teaching assistant, Sumi, to teach Malaysian language classes. Until world-war II Indonesian was called Malay, and formal Indonesian and formal Malaysian are essential one language (or slightly different dialects of the same language). Colloquial Indonesian, however, draws heavily from Jakarta Malay, and is hence substantially different from colloquial Malaysian – as different as colloquial American and colloquial British English. Nelly is ethnic Minangkabau, which is a Malay language, but as Nelly grew up in Jakarta, the language that she speaks is Jakarta Malay. Sumi, on the other hand, is ethnic Javanese, but she speaks Kuala Lumpur Malay. When Nelly and Sumi met, something very extraordinary happened. The two, who shared one dorm room, only spoke English to each other, each of the two claiming that they do not understand the other. They could have easily communicated with each other by using standard Indonesian and standard Malaysian, but apparently they were reluctant to do so as it does not feel natural to use the formal register when talking to someone of one’s own age.
So, how can Nelly claim that Indonesian, the only language she knew when she grew up in Jakarta, is “theatrical, bookish or pompous”? Well, formal Indonesian (bahasa Indonesia baku), to which Nelly referred, will sound bookish because it is a written language, and if you speak bookishly you will sound odd (“theatrical, pompous” in Nelly’ words) in any language. Bahasa Indonesia baku is never used in colloquial speech, and hence Nelly’s refusal to speak to her Malaysian flat-mate in the formal register is understandable. Formal Indonesian is used in writing and for delivering formal speeches, and not for normal oral communication for which colloquial Indonesian is used.
Fettling rightly claims that “Bahasa Indonesia was heavily promoted during the Suharto dictatorship that ruled from the mid-1960s until 1998 and stifled many forms of individual and cultural expression.” Yes, Indonesian was the language of the oppressors, but what Fettling fails to see is that Indonesian was also the language of the resistance. It was the language of the NGOs who opposed the exploration of Indonesian natural resources by American and international corporations, the language of critical intellectuals, the language of labour activists and their lawyers, and the language of university students who in 1998 revolted against Suharto and his cronies.
Every language, and English is no exception, has formal and informal registers, and judging a language solely based on its formal register, as Fettling does, does not do the language any justice.
Fettling seems to argue that “Bahasa Indonesia” only refers to the formal register. A view, which is still popular in certain conservative or puritanical circles, that want to defend “proper” Indonesian from any colloquial influences that they dismiss as ‘slang’. There are still teachers of Indonesian, and textbooks of Indonesian, who share such an antiquated view of the Indonesian language, but their number is steadily declining.
The Indonesian mass media has long left the territory of bahasa Indonesia yang baik dan benar, and has moved on to create a particular language of the media that can best be described as a relaxed, and highly innovative version of formal Indonesian.
Fettling also claims that “people dissatisfied with Bahasa Indonesia have plenty of options. There are hundreds of regional languages and dialects, sometimes spoken intact, sometimes blended with Bahasa Indonesia”.
People who do speak a regional language will of course use it in familiar contexts, but as soon as the topic becomes either technical or slightly formal, they immediately switch to Bahasa Indonesia.
What Indonesians do is in fact exactly the opposite of what Fettling claims. The regional languages, even the ones that once had a rich written register such as Javanese, have been downgraded to oral languages with limited capacities. When Indonesians need to convey anything that touches on the sciences, administration, politics, etc, they have to revert to Indonesian as the more efficient vehicle to communicate the needs of the modern world.