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Language and Politics in Indonesia: Creating and sustaining diglossia

Maighdlin Doyle

Society and culture | Southeast Asia


‘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.[1]

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.[2] 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.[3] 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).[4]

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.”[5]

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.[6] 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.[7] 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.”[8] 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.”[9]

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.

[1] Ferguson, C.A. “Diglossia.” Word 15: 325 – 40.

[2] Sneddon, J. 2003. “Diglossia in Indonesian.” Bijdragen tot de Taal-Land-en Volkenkunde 159: 520.

[3] Steinhauer, H. 1994. “The Indonesian language situation and linguistics; Prospects and possibilities.” Bijdragen tot de Taal-Land-en Volkenkunde 150: 755.

[4] 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.

[5] Anderson, Benedict. 1966. “The Languages of Indonesian Politics.” Indonesia 1: 89.

[6] Steinhauer, H. 1994. “The Indonesian language situation and linguistics; Prospects and possibilities.” Bijdragen tot de Taal-Land-en Volkenkunde 150: 773.

[7] Sneddon, J. 2003. “Diglossia in Indonesian.” Bijdragen tot de Taal-Land-en Volkenkunde 159: 526.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

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How to answer the dreaded question: ‘What was the best part of exchange?’

Society and culture


SOPHIE HEWITT, a second-year Laws/Asia-Pacific student at ANU, reminisces about her semester in Indonesia and her experiences with the world-renowned UNPAR University Choir.

Every returning exchange student gets bombarded with questions: ‘How was exchange?’ ‘Are you glad you’re back?’ ‘Did you get homesick?’ As vague and broad these questions are, probably the worst question is, ‘what was the best part?’ How on earth can you choose one single moment that narrows an entire six months into one single experience? While it’s unfair to categorise your exchange from best to worst, I think there is an indicator for what your most valuable experience is: the thing you miss most when it’s over, was probably your ‘best experience’. After having various bouts of food poisoning, spraining my ankle, having flights cancelled, homesickness and general confusion about Indonesia’s transport situation; my worst moment in Indonesia was when I arrived home after my choir concert. I felt miserable because the rehearsals and performances which gave me so much joy could never happen again.

For the first six months of 2015 I studied at Universitas Katolik Parahyangan in Bandung, Indonesia. I studied at UNPAR through ACICIS (The Australian Consortium for In-Country Indonesian Studies) on a New Colombo Plan Mobility Grant. This program was targeted at teaching Australian students about Indonesia’s perspectives on international relations as well as cultural and language immersion.

It was here that I joined Paduan Suara Mahasiswa UNPAR (PSM UNPAR): the university choir. As an internationally renowned choir, they have competed in and won various international choir competitions in Europe, as well as national Indonesian competitions. Their repertoire is intense: as well as the majority of songs being in English, the students’ second or third language, other songs were in French, German and Latin. The songs are technically difficult with key changes, unusual timing, complex dynamics and eight-part harmonies. Understandably, the obligatory annual auditions are a constant fear for most members.

To become a member of PSM UNPAR is a relatively lengthy process. The first step includes two months of rehearsals (two hours per day, five days per week) and then an audition of those pieces. If you pass the audition, rehearsals for the final two months require attendance four hours per day, seven days per week. If you miss too many rehearsals, don’t tell the conductor you’ll be absent, arrive late, or forget your music, you will be fined. (While the fine was only the equivalent of AUD$0.40, it still made me very nervous). The purpose of all this rehearsal is to perform at the Internal Concert which was comprised of 20 songs, two costume changes, choreography and standing still in stilettoes for long periods of time. If you survive all this, you’re a life-member of PSM UNPAR.

[caption id="attachment_1145" align="alignnone" width="300"] PSM UNPAR at their Internal Concert, Bandung, 2015.[/caption]

PSM UNPAR taught me invaluable language skills. While I study Bahasa Indonesia back in Australia, it cannot compare to the language skills you pick up in country. When I first arrived in Bandung, I was extremely hesitant about speaking Indonesian because I was shy and embarrassed about making mistakes. However, because all instructions in PSM rehearsals were in Bahasa, all online communication was in Bahasa, and most of the members’ jokes were said in Bahasa – I was forced to absorb informal language structure, vocabulary and Indonesian accents. And when there were things I didn’t pick up, I just became much better at guessing. In addition, all members were extremely forgiving and generous when I tried to speak or message them in Bahasa. Thus through their patience, I was able to gain a deeper understanding of the language and build my confidence in my conversational skills.

PSM also gave me valuable friendships. As I’m sure other exchange students have found, the people you meet on exchange influence how much you enjoy your time there. As with anything which is long, difficult and tiring, the group in which you do it with inevitably become your friends. I also believe these friendships are testament to the caring, happy and welcoming nature of the choir members I met. In fact when my mum visited me in Bandung, she commented that the choir members ‘looked much happier than Australian university students!’ Whether they’re more welcoming or not, the choir environment was conducive to making friendships. Because I was the first ‘bule’ (white person) to join PSM and did so alone, it obviously forced me to extend myself and make more friends than I otherwise would have.

To be fair, there a probably other ways to discover what your best experience was. For example if you felt irrationally angry when it snowed in Canberra in July (as I did), you probably thoroughly enjoyed the weather in Indonesia. If you look at Australian food and think everything looks too fresh and vitamin-rich (as I do), you probably enjoyed Indonesian food. If you have downloaded your Indonesian choir’s songs onto your iPod and listen to them every day (as I do), you probably enjoyed your Indonesian choir. Because exchange is a mixed-bag of weird and wonderful experiences, future-exchange students should take-part in every experience they can. While it’s difficult to choose one thing as your defining ‘best experience,’ I think it’s telling that even when a fantastic experience is over and you feel that loss, the memories are so rich that’s it’s almost like you’re back on exchange again. Almost.

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Taiwan archaeology and the Zou people

Will Zou

Society and culture | East Asia


Taiwan is an island-bound by many narratives. I would like to share with you one academic narrative and one personal anecdote from my three weeks spent in Taiwan. I was in Taiwan under the auspices of the ANU in-country learning course, aptly titled ‘Archaeology in China’. We toured by bus around almost every major city, and certainly every archaeological museum in Taiwan. The archaeology of Taiwan retraces the stories of the Austronesians, peoples who settled in Taiwan over 7000 years ago.

Austronesians are everywhere today, according to academics. They are the progenitors of a constellation of people spread from Madagascar to the Pacific Islands, and as far as Hawaii (see Figure 1). How they sojourned across the oceans remains a mystery.

[caption id="attachment_926" align="alignnone" width="300"] Figure 1: Austronesian dispersal from Taiwan (in bracket is the approximate year of dispersal)[/caption]

Evidence from the fields of archaeology, linguistics and genetics tell the same story — the Austronesians migrated far and wide across the span of five thousand years. Pottery and earrings dug up by Archaeologists on many of these disparate countries share distinct features (see Figure 2). For example, the double animal-headed earrings excavated in Vietnam and the Philippines were formed out of a particular type of jade. The jade is produced naturally only in Taiwan. Similarly, linguists believe that the people across these island countries form a part of the larger Austronesian language group. That is, the languages across the Pacific, Oceania and other regions once shared morphological, phonological and lexical innovations. Aside from the excavated evidence and linguist reconstructions, preliminary genetic research suggests the indigenous population on these disparate islands were once very similar to Taiwanese Austronesians. The Austronesian migration theory suggests that Taiwan has its own unique and enduring history. As the evidence suggests, this is a compelling narrative.

[caption id="attachment_927" align="alignnone" width="300"] Figure 2: The largest excavation site in Taiwan — Beinan[/caption]

Politics pervade Taiwan’s many narratives. That Taiwan has a history unique to mainland China is a narrative propagated in contemporary Taiwanese history, too. The National Museum of Taiwan History is one such locale where this story is apparent. Beneath the veneer of ‘scientific’ history, the museum promotes Taiwan as a unique island with a distinct and heterogeneous history and identity. Taiwan’s various ‘colonisers’ of the past four hundred years (from the Dutch, albeit for trading purposes, the Ming dynasty, the Qing dynasty, Japan and the Republic of China) are equally represented despite the fact that some of them only stayed in Taiwan for a relatively short period of time. For example, the Dutch were in Taiwan for less than thirty years, yet their representation in the museum is equal to that of the Qing, who administered Taiwan as a part its own province for over one and fifty years. The Museum attempts to enjoin its visitors (many of whom are Taiwanese students) to believe that Taiwan is uniquely different to People’s Republic of China. As a result, Taiwan’s indigenous voices and its own people’s agency are drowned out. Visitors leave the museum with the sense that Taiwan is helpless in the face of its various ‘conquerors’. The primacy and agency of Taiwan’s indigenous people, and its own agency are obscured through such a lens. Instead, what I found far more interesting was the Japanese Emperor’s speech of surrender pronounced to his people at the end of World War II. Now that was a historical moment of freedom, albeit brief, in Taiwan’s history! (See Figure 3)

[caption id="attachment_928" align="alignnone" width="300"] Figure 3: National Museum of Taiwan History — Japanese Emperor's WII surrender speech, translated into classical Chinese on the bottom half of the picture[/caption]

Culture does not live in museums. I arrived in Taiwan a weekend before the course began. A fortuitous meeting on the bus to Mt. Ali, one of the most popular tourist destinations in Taiwan, led to a weekend spent living with an indigenous community on the mountain. The Zou are one of nine officially recognized indigenous groups in Taiwan. Over the next two days, I lived with, dined with, explored with, learned from, listened to and prayed with the Zou community. They treated me with great hospitality, and they showed me how they adapted to modernity as they wished. When pesticides sprayed in tea plantations ravaged them with insidious health problems, they planted organic farms. They debunked the stereotype that tea was traditionally grown on the Mountain, tea plantations in the region began only in the past three decades. Instead, they drink coffee. In 2007, one of their brightest young entrepreneurs won the national coffee growing and brewing contest. Ever since, coffee is their source of pride.

I witnessed the power of the Christian Priestess, who spoke English, Japanese, Mandarin, Hakka and the Zou language. She was a natural leader. The church is the epicenter of the community, and a space for adults to teach their children the Zou language. With the help of others, the Priestess spent sixteen years translating the Bible into the Zou language. For her, the government’s minority language education policy could hardly be relied upon to ensure the continuity of the Zou language. After all, successive governments change education policy at a whim. For the priestess, the Church, made up of her and her own people, will last longer than any incumbent government’s policy directive.

Museums used to educate the public of living cultures. Jeff, an archaeologist research student, told me that in the 17th and 18th century, museums displayed things from living cultures, brought back from abroad, to educate the public about other parts of the world, educating them of a culture that was still thriving.

As for me, I would rather speak to, listen to, and feel the power and presence of a people who are alive and who are adapting according to their needs. A people whose concern arise from the solemn sadness in their eyes, and whose joys pulsate above the chorus of their hymns.

We are restless spirits. Our inclinations are the same as Austronesians on Taiwan, both in the past and in the present. The memories I keep are those found on the road. Below are some mementoes.

[gallery type="slideshow" size="medium" ids="929,930,931"]

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