History of Indonesian

Malay & Indonesian – a brief history

Bahasa Indonesia: The Indonesian Language

Dr George Quinn
Head, Southeast Asia Centre,
Faculty of Asian Studies,
Australian National University

What Is Indonesian?

Indonesian is a 20th century name for Malay. Depending on how you define a language and how you count its number of speakers, today Malay-Indonesian ranks around sixth or seventh in size among the world’s languages. With dialect variations it is spoken by more than 200 million people in the modern states of Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei. It is also an important vernacular in the southern provinces of Thailand, in East Timor and among the Malay people of Australia’s Cocos Keeling Islands in the Indian Ocean. It is understood in parts of the Sulu area of the southern Philippines and traces of it are to be found among people of Malay descent in Sri Lanka, South Africa and other places.

Malay is just one of many scores, perhaps hundreds, of different languages in the area now occupied by the Republic of Indonesia. In 1928 the Indonesian nationalist movement chose it as the future nation’s national language. Its name was changed to Bahasa Indonesia, literally: “the language (bahasa) of Indonesia”. In English we call the language “Indonesian”: it is not correct to call it simply “Bahasa”.

In English we call the language “Indonesian”: it is not correct to call it simply “Bahasa”.

Indonesian is not related, even remotely, to English. Nor is it related to the inland languages of New Guinea, the Aboriginal languages of Australia or the Sino-Tibetan languages of China and continental Southeast Asia. Indonesian belongs to the Austronesian language family which extends across the islands of Southeast Asia and the Pacific. Other languages in this family include Malagasy (spoken on Madagascar off the coast of Africa), Javanese (famous for its extraordinarily elaborate system of honorific speech levels), Balinese (the language of the beautiful Hindu island of Bali), Tagalog or Filipino (the national language of the Philippines), and Maori (the language of the indigenous Polynesian people of New Zealand). Some Indonesian words have been borrowed into English, among them the common words gong, orangoutang and sarong, and the less common words paddy, sago and kapok. The phrase “to run amock” comes from the Indonesian verb amuk (to run out of control killing people indiscriminately).

Unlike Chinese, Indonesian is not a tonal language. As far as pronunciation goes, Indonesian, though far from easy, is relatively straightforward for English speakers. It is sometimes described as “agglutinative”, meaning that it has a complex range of prefixes and suffixes which are attached to base words just as, for example, the English word “uncomfortable” is built up from the base word “comfort”. The core vocabulary of Indonesian is Austronesian, but the language has also borrowed innumerable commonly used words from Sanskrit, Arabic, Dutch, English and local languages, especially from Javanese and Jakartan Malay.

The History of Indonesian

From earliest recorded times Malay was, and still is, the native tongue of the people who live on both sides of the Straits of Malacca that separate Sumatra from the Malay Peninsula. Because the Straits have always been a busy sea thoroughfare, countless travellers and traders came into contact with its language. Over the centuries they bore Malay throughout the islands of Indonesia and the language became a widely used lingua franca, especially in coastal areas. This is one of the main reasons why, in the 20th. century, Malay was chosen as the national language of the Indonesian republic and why it has played such an important role in forging Indonesia’s unity.

Malay has also functioned as a court language. It was evidently the language of the Sumatran empire of Sriwijaya (9th to 14th centuries). It was also the language of the greatest of all medieval Malay states, Malacca. When Malacca was subjugated by the Portuguese in 1511, its traditions were scattered far and wide and inspired the court culture of smaller successor states like Johor-Riau, Kelantan and Aceh. So modern Indonesian, too, basks in the glow of prestige which adheres to the language from centuries of use in indigenous administration and court arts.

Malay has always been a language of trade and business. The medieval city-state of Malacca, like the renaissance European city-states of Genoa and Venice, and the modern city-states of Hong Kong and Singapore, thrived on trade. The Malay language came to be used for commerce throughout the Indonesian archipelago, so much so that a special, “boiled-down” variant of the language developed which became known as market Malay or bazaar Malay (BahasaMelayu Pasar). Thanks to this tradition, Malay seems to have adapted vigorously to the challenges of modern commerce. In modern Indonesia, the Indonesian language is easily the dominant language of business, especially at the middle and upper levels (local languages dominate in the rural market economy).

When Islam came to the Indonesian region it spread along trade routes and through coastal trading cities where Malay was used. Malay became linked with Islam and played a crucial role in the rise of Islam as the majority faith in the archipelago. Malay was also the language most widely used in the propagation of Christianity, especially in the now largely Christianised areas of East Indonesia. In other words, Islam and Christianity helped spread Malay, and Malay helped spread Islam and Christianity. Established religion has an important place in the Republic of Indonesia – there is even a powerful Department of Religion in the central government. Today the Indonesian language is associated with the “modern” religions of Islam and Christianity, and participates in their social prestige and spiritual power.

From the 17th century on, as the islands of Indonesia fell little by little under the control of the Netherlands, Malay came to be used by the European rulers as the most important medium of communication between government and people. Unlike in many other colonies, in Indonesia the language of the European rulers was not forced upon the local populace. Only a small elite of indigenous Indonesians ever learned the Dutch language, and consequently Malay, although still very much a minority language in the Indies, was crucial to the smooth administration of the colony. When the Japanese invaded the Netherlands East Indies in 1942 one of their first measures was to prohibit use of the Dutch language. Since very few Indonesians knew Japanese, Malay (now called Indonesian) had to be used in administration even more widely and intensively than it had been under the Dutch. With this track record of use in modern administration Indonesian easily and naturally assumed the mantle of official language and language of government under the Republic. Today all government business: legislation, administration, justice, defense, education, national development and so on is conducted wholly in Indonesian.

A good deal of the modern prestige of Indonesian comes from its role in the country’s nationalist movement. But in the early years of the century Malay was not an obvious or unanimous choice as the language of indigenous cultural and political revival in the then Netherlands East Indies. At first, nationalism was as much expressed through Dutch, or through the languages of Indonesia’s local cultures, as it was through Malay. It was only with the famous Young People’s Vow (Sumpah Pemuda) formulated at the Congress of Young People in 1928 that the very name “Indonesian” was formally adopted and the language declared the pre-eminent language of Indonesia as well as the language of national unity. When the Indonesian nationalists emerged from the shadow of the Japanese occupation in 1945 to declare an independent republic, the Proclamation of Independence was uttered in Indonesian. Both the state philosophy of Pancasila and the Constitution were framed in Indonesian. The subsequent victory of the Republic in the Revolution (1945-1949) consolidated the prestige of the language and gave its development unstoppable momentum.

The Functions of Indonesian Today

Indonesians are overwhelmingly bilingual, indeed many people have a good command of three of four languages. In infancy most people learn at least one of the country’s many local languages and later learn Indonesian at school or in the streets of cities or from television and radio. It is not clear how many people learn Indonesian in infancy as their very first language, but at the dawn of the 21st. century it cannot be less than 20% of the country’s population, and this percentage is steadily rising. Indonesian tends to be most used in the modern environment of major urban areas. The local languages tend to dominate in rural areas and small towns, and are most used in homes, fields and markets.

Indonesian is the medium of instruction in educational institutions at all levels throughout the country. In the early years of the Republic, local languages continued to be used in some places as the medium of instruction in the first years of primary school but this practice has now almost entirely disappeared. In schools and universities most textbooks are in Indonesian, but at the tertiary level, especially in highly specialised courses and at the advanced level of study, textbooks in English are also widely used.

Although there are several newspapers in English and Chinese, their circulation is relatively small and Indonesian is by far the dominant language in the country’s print media. Indonesia’s domestic Palapa satellite system brings television to almost every corner of the country. With the exception of some newscasts in English and a small number of cultural programs in regional languages, domestic programs are entirely in Indonesian, and almost all programs of foreign origin are dubbed into Indonesian or have Indonesian-language sub-titles. Similarly Indonesian dominates in the very diverse and vibrant domain of radio broadcasting, although there are a small number of specialist programs in English and in some local languages.

In politics, administration and the judiciary Indonesian is the sole official language. It is the language of legislation, political campaigning, national and local government, court proceedings and the military. In some instances, judges may refer to old statutes and court records in Dutch to help them reach their decisions. In some rural areas of the country, for example in the hinterland of Java and in the mountains of West Papua, local languages may also play a role in administration and in the propagation of government policies.

Indonesia hosts a sparkling variety of traditional verbal arts (poetry, historical narratives, romances, drama etc.) which are expressed in local languages, but modern genres are expressed mainly through Indonesian. Modern literature (novels, short stories, stage plays, free-form poetry etc.) has developed since the late years of the 19th. century and has produced such internationally recognised figures as novelist Pramoedya Ananta Toer, dramatist W.S. Rendra, poet Chairil Anwar and cinematographer Garin Nugroho. Indonesian is also the language of the nation’s breezy, inventive popular arts: TV melodrama and comedy, pop novels, popular songs, cartoons and comics.

Indonesian also dominates as the language of modern business. Needless to say, in enterprises that involve expatriate staff or international transactions English, Japanese, Chinese and other foreign languages are widely used, often side-by-side with Indonesian. At the grass-roots level, in the country’s many thousands of village markets, Indonesian has only a marginal role to play and the local languages still prevail.

Given the extraordinary diversity of Indonesia it is not easy to see, even more than half a century after Independence, what Indonesians have in common – what defines Indonesia as a nation. Perhaps more than anything the country’s unity and identity come from its national language. Nevertheless the emergence of separatist movements after the fall of President Soeharto in 1998 reminds us that the nationalist effort to forge a sense of unity and common identity is still unfinished and that the Indonesian language can also be a language of separatist activism, as it has been in areas as disparate as East Timor, Aceh and West Papua.

The Standard Language and Variation

Indonesian is a very diverse language, but it has a broadly acknowledged standard form that is used in formal discourse from one end of the country to the other. This standard form owes its origins mainly to the Balai Pustaka publishing house set up by the colonial rulers of the East Indies in 1917. Balai Pustaka’s titles were (and still are) widely used in schools. In editing the language of its books and magazines the Dutch and Indonesian staff of Balai Pustaka gave priority to the formal, literary Malay of Central Sumatra rather than the very varied and salty language of streets, markets and popular publications across the whole length and breadth of the country.

During the Second World War the Japanese rulers of Indonesia set up a Language Commission (Komisi Bahasa) the purpose of which was to create new terms and to systematically develop Indonesian as a nation-wide language of administration and modern technology. After independence the Language Commission went through several incarnations culminating in the establishment in 1975 of the Centre for Language Development (Pusat Pembinaan dan Pengembangan Bahasa usually shortened to Pusat Bahasa) under the Government’s Department of National Education. The Centre for Language Development continues to undertake research on Indonesian, creating new terms and providing support for the standardisation and propagation of the language. Among its initiatives have been the publication of a standard grammar Tata Bahasa Baku Bahasa Indonesia (A Standard Grammar of Indonesian, 1988) and a standard dictionary, the Kamus Besar Bahasa Indonesia (A Comprehensive Dictionary of Indonesian, 1988). It has encouraged people to use an officially endorsed style of formal Indonesian promoted under the slogan Gunakan Bahasa Indonesia yang baik dan benar (Use good and correct Indonesian).

The way Indonesian is used by high-ranking officials and in government documents also provides models imitated throughout the country. The print media and television too are key sources of models. Indeed the nation’s “serious” newspapers and magazines like, for example, the dailies Kompas and Republika, and the weekly news magazines Tempo and Gatra have made a point of creating new terms and cultivating innovation in formal style.

Like all languages Indonesian displays dialect variation. The main dialect division is between the northern dialect (today called Malay or Malaysian) spoken in Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei, and the southern dialect spoken in Indonesia. The southern variant may in turn be divided into two broad dialect domains, the western and the eastern, each having slightly different patterns of stress and intonation and some differences in vocabulary. The western variant is spoken throughout Sumatra, Kalimantan, Java, Bali, Lombok, Sumbawa and most of Sulawesi. The eastern variant, often referred to roughly and popularly as Ambonese Malay, is spoken in the north of Sulawesi, the islands of Maluku, in Flores, Timor and in West Papua. Within both western and eastern dialect domains there are local dialects shaped by the influence of local languages. Among the easily identifiable smaller dialects are those of the Batak people of north Sumatra, the Minangkabau people of west Sumatra, the people of Jakarta, the Javanese, the Balinese and many more.

Indonesian also displays dramatic differences in register and style. As in all modern languages, there is a general contrast between formal and informal usage. Formal Indonesian is most used in writing, public speeches and in education. It is characterised by use of the full range of affixes and by a big, diverse vocabulary with a high incidence of esoteric terms from foreign or classical languages. Informal Indonesian is used in conversation and is characterised by the dropping of certain affixes, especially the prefix ber-, and the liberal borrowing of idioms from local languages. Informal usage merges into street slang or youth slang peppered with particles like dong, deh and sih, sarcastic or humorous abbreviations, deliberate ‘misunderstandings’ of words, and components borrowed from local languages, like the Jakartan verbal suffix -in and the Javanese first person agent pronoun tak. The Prokem slang of Jakarta, which started out as a secret language of street kids and toughs, has entered the trendy speech of young people throughout the country, giving everyday currency to words like bokap (father, a transformation of bapak ), doi (she/he, a transformation of dia ), and ogut (I/me, a transformation of gua ). In the speech of some people, code-switching is the norm with incessant jumping between Indonesian and a regional language, or (among the educated middle-class) between Indonesian and English.

Writing and Spelling Indonesian

The very earliest records in Malay are inscriptions on stone using a syllable-based script derived from the indigenous scripts of India. With the coming of Islam in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, Arabic script was adopted to write Malay. Called Jawi script (huruf Jawi) or Arab-Malay script (huruf Arab-Melayu), today this script is still used in Malaysia and Brunei in a small number of publications, most notably in the Kuala Lumpur daily newspaper Utusan Melayu.

In Indonesia, Roman or Latin script (the script you are reading now) began to be used to write Malay from the latter half of the 19th. century, and by the early years of the 20th century it had effectively displaced Jawi script. At first the spelling of Malay was chaotic but eventually it stabilised, essentially following the conventions of Dutch spelling. Small adjustments were made to this spelling in 1947 (the so-called Soewandi spelling), and a comprehensive overhaul, called the Updated and Improved Spelling (Ejaan Yang Disempurnakan), was implemented in 1972. The latter reform was significant because, with a few small differences, it united the spelling of the Indonesian and Malaysian variants of the language. For more on the differences the spelling of Indonesia before and after 1972 refer to the box on p.726 below.

A huge number of abbreviations and acronyms are used in official contexts as well as in everyday life in Indonesia. These are described in brief in the box on p.1089.

FROM: George Quinn, The Learner’s Dictionary of Today’s Indonesian. Sydney :Allen & Unwin 2001 ISBN 1864485434