The Linguistic Situation of Indonesia: Development, Features and Current Issues

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The Linguistic Situation of Indonesia: Development, Features and Current Issues

In this essay I analyze the extremely complex linguistic situation of Indonesia. After a brief summary of the characteristics of Bahasa Indonesia and of the historical dynamics that led to the creation and use of this language, the phenomenon of diglossia will be treated. Finally, I analyze the issue of state influence in the language policies, particularly in regards to the current campaign of Pusat Indonesia to promote the spread of “pure” Indonesian, so as to preserve it mainly from Javanese influences. I conclude with a personal opinion about this relationship between the state and language.

Indonesian is a language spoken by more than 200 million people in the fourth most populated country in the world. It consists of thousands of islands and with more than 500 languages, it the second most diverse country in the world in terms of language richness. Bahasa Indonesia is the name of its official language. It is a modern version of classic Malay, with which it shares a great number of similarities, and some smaller differences, which are mostly a result of historical events of the colonial period and modern language policies. Therefore Malay and Bahasa Indonesia are mutually intelligible, the script is substantially the same and even the neologism tends to be the same between the two idioms, because of similar language strategies adopted by both countries. Today Bahasa Indonesia is spoken as first language just by a small percentage of the population, especially in the Malay peninsula and in some areas of Sumatra, while for the majority of Indonesian it represents the second language, which they usually learn trough education.

As already pointed out Indonesia has a great variety of idioms, that belong to eight unrelated subfamilies languages, all falling as Austronesian or non-Austronesian (sometimes classified as Papuan) languages. Beside Indonesian the most spoken languages are Javanese, Sundanese, Madurese, Mingkabau, Buginese, Batak, Balinese, Achenes and Sasak Makassarese, all having more than a million speakers. This language environment is still one of the most interesting and unexplored for linguistics and, although some studies have already been done, there is still plenty of research to do.

The choice of Bahasa Indonesia as the country’s sole official language is remarkable. In the period before national independence indeed, nationalist elites designated Malay as the national official language. Historically Malay was used in the Indonesian archipelago as lingua franca by traders, and since 1600 the Dutch used it to rule on the Dutch Eastern Antilles. Then in 1928 a group of proto-nationalists designed Malay as the national future language and in 1945 this selection was formalized. But Javanese at the time was more widespread than Malay, and as the idiom of the major ethnic group, was also more culturally rooted. Thus this decision was taken to avoid giving the dominant ethnic group privilege as it always had political, ethnic and cultural dominance. This choice of Bahasa Indonesia was also used as a unifying element, detached from regional realities or ethnic heritage, on which to build a national identity.

The colonial experience, the presence of big foreign communities and the multiethnic dimension of Indonesia strongly influenced the shape of its language. Today, in fact, there are many words derived from Dutch, Chinese, Portuguese, Arabic and Dravidian (Tamil).

Diglossia is another factor that further complicates the linguistic situation in Indonesia. It is a recent phenomenon as it originated mainly in the 20th century. Ferguson (1959:336) defines diglossia as a language situation where two varieties of the same language are used in different situations and social contexts. Usually a superposed variety, called high (H), is taught by the education system, used in written forms and in formal situations,...
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