Why no-one speaks Indonesia’s language

The woman stood in her roadside stall in a quiet neighbourhood in the Indonesian city of Yogyakarta, chopping tomatoes, beans and spinach, plus one red chilli. Mixing everything in a peanut sauce, she handed the salad, called lotek, to customers who puttered up on motorbikes and waited on blue plastic stools. She was curious about me, full of questions, and the feeling was mutual. It was to chat with people like her that I had moved to Indonesia and enrolled in intensive language study. Yet after hundreds of hours of classes, I couldn’t understand what she was saying.

Everything she said sounded to me like it had half a syllable. I did make out familiar words, but painfully rarely. I wondered what her life was like in this city, how she felt about escalating political and cultural tension in this young democracy and the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation. But I wasn’t to find out.

She handed me my meal wrapped in newspaper, the text of which I could understand. ‘Bahasa Indonesia baku’, I thought to myself – textbook Bahasa Indonesia. My teachers had referred to the language as ‘baku’, or ‘standard’, in class, emphasising that it was this version of Indonesian, the nation’s official language, we were learning. The addendum hadn’t struck me as overly important, but it should have.

Bahasa Indonesia’s antecedent, Malay, evolved and spread during the last millennium because of the need in maritime South-East Asia – where hundreds of languages are still spoken across the thousands of islands that now comprise the modern nations of Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore – for a lingua franca for trade and other exchanges. Malay was seen to be grammatically simple, non-hierarchical and easier to learn than other regional languages. It was the mother tongue of few, but as people travelled around the region, it became their accepted means to communicate.

Then, in the early 20th Century, Indonesian nationalists, plotting independence from Dutch colonial rule, agreed that a reformed version of Malay, with an expanded vocabulary and a new name – Bahasa Indonesia – should become the official language of the soon-to-be independent nation. Malay, according to Cornell University Indonesian scholar Benedict Anderson, was “simple and flexible enough to be rapidly developed into a modern political language”.

The goal for Bahasa Indonesia was to break down communication barriers and facilitate inclusion of more than 300 ethnic groups in the new nation, whose independence was officially recognised in 1949. Because no major ethnic group, including the Javanese (whose highly complex language was at the time spoken by about 40% of the population), would have its mother tongue as the official language, inequality would not be created or reinforced. Bahasa Indonesia would help draw unity out of diversity.

Read more: BBC Travel

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