Language and Politics in Indonesia: Creating and sustaining diglossia
‘Diglossia’ is a linguistic term that refers to a situation in which two closely related dialects or languages are used by a single language community.
Bahasa Indonesia, based on ‘revolutionary Malay’, is the national, official language of the Republic of Indonesia. However, there is no standard informal language; the private sphere is filled with various regional languages and dialects. Colloquial Jakartan Indonesian, however, is beginning to acquire the status of the unofficial informal language. The evolution of the relationship between language and politics in Indonesia has created, and continues to sustain, a situation of diglossia.
The Republic of Indonesia is a large nation with great linguistic diversity; it is estimated that one-tenth of the languages in the world are spoken in Indonesia. Such diversity has presented challenges for uniting the nation and developing a national language. As a multilingual polity, Indonesia chose to adopt one of its smaller languages (Malay, renamed Bahasa Indonesia – Indonesian language) as its national language. The Malay language had been the principal lingua franca in the region for perhaps a thousand years; however, it had relatively few native speakers (less than five per cent of the population at the time of independence).
Independence in 1945 saw the establishment of a formal, standardized Indonesian language as a push towards greater uniformity. Article 36 of the Constitution of 1945 declares, “The State language is the Indonesian language.” The birth of the Republic required a means of communication that could “not only express Indonesian nationalism, but Indonesian aspiration, Indonesian traditions and ‘international realities" within the limits of a single vocabulary.”
The diglossic nature of Indonesian has led to a widening rift in society. Mass education and mass communication, along with the omnipresence of government institutions, have created a multitude of domains in which Indonesian is the only appropriate means of communication. Bahasa Indonesia functions as the national, supra-ethnic, official language at the expense of regional languages and dialects that are used for unofficial intra-ethnic communication.
Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital, is not the only major urban population center in Indonesia, but the colloquial Jakartan languages are having an increasing influence on varieties throughout the country. There are two colloquial languages used in Jakarta – bahasa Betawi and bahasa Jakarta. Bahasa Betawi refers to the vernacular of the ‘Anak Betawi’, the original inhabitants of Jakarta, and has developed from the Malay lingua franca. Bahasa Jakarta is the colloquial, informal language used among the Indonesians who have flocked to the city since independence, and is increasingly becoming standardized. Anderson discusses the influence of Jakartan on mainstream mass media by taking the example of newspapers. Newspapers are often divided into two parts: the portion in bahasa Indonesia, which covers all news items, all features, all advertisements and all editorials (about 95 per cent of the newsprint); and secondly, the portion in Jakartan, which covers the pojok (corner-columns) that consist of “biting, anonymous comment on the latest news of the general political or economic situation.” There is immediate contrast between these two sections; the former is “official, ideological, patronizing, and authoritarian” while the latter is “malicious, democratic, humorous, and above all intimate.” Jakartan is the language of everyday communication for the people of Jakarta, a means of self-expression, and Indonesian becomes a language of “political politeness.”
Language and politics are intrinsically linked. The evolution of the relationship between these two entities has served to create and sustain a situation of diglossia in Indonesia. The meanings attached to ‘Bahasa Indonesia’ have evolved throughout Indonesia’s history; its primary role was that of a unifier, however, due to its impersonal and neuter tone it has become the formal language of the public sphere. The private sphere is filled with regional languages, such as Bahasa Jakarta, as an intimate form of expression. For Indonesians, Bahasa Indonesia retains its use as a national unifier. Bahasa Jakarta is, however, increasingly spreading throughout the archipelago.
 Ferguson, C.A. “Diglossia.” Word 15: 325 – 40.
 Sneddon, J. 2003. “Diglossia in Indonesian.” Bijdragen tot de Taal-Land-en Volkenkunde 159: 520.
 Steinhauer, H. 1994. “The Indonesian language situation and linguistics; Prospects and possibilities.” Bijdragen tot de Taal-Land-en Volkenkunde 150: 755.
 Paauw, Scott. 2009. “One land, one nation, one language: An analysis of Indonesia’s national language policy.” In H. Lehnert-LeHouillier and A. B. Fine (Eds.), University of Rochester Working Papers in the Language Sciences 5: 2.
 Anderson, Benedict. 1966. “The Languages of Indonesian Politics.” Indonesia 1: 89.
 Steinhauer, H. 1994. “The Indonesian language situation and linguistics; Prospects and possibilities.” Bijdragen tot de Taal-Land-en Volkenkunde 150: 773.
 Sneddon, J. 2003. “Diglossia in Indonesian.” Bijdragen tot de Taal-Land-en Volkenkunde 159: 526.
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