Real Indonesian

I watched a TV program the other day called Binar, which is a compression of the words Bahasa Indonesia Benar, meaning "True Indonesian Language."  It’s sponsored by the Ministry of Education here, and it is aimed at helping Indonesians to learn how to speak their language properly.  It seems to be aimed primarily at teenagers.  It features a very common device in Indonesian cultural propaganda: a well-dressed 50-something woman who speaks slowly, calmly, and knowledgeably as sort of a fountain of information and a symbol of Javanese propriety.  (This is the image that former President Megawati Sukarnoputri presents.)  I don’t know what the program normally deals with, but this time it was about the use of foreign words in common parlance–and how this is a bad thing. 

Indonesian is a language which, like English, is well known for its propensity through history for borrowing words from other languages.  Sanskrit, Arabic (and thereby Turkish and Persian), Chinese (mostly Hokkien, some Cantonese), Portuguese, and Dutch have contributed hundreds (if not thousands) of words each to Indonesian.  Currently Indonesian is borrowing words from English, and the program was focused on trying to stop this practice by reminding people of the "proper" Indonesian words for things commonly referred to using English.  It was funny because these proper Indonesian replacements are very transparently recent borrowings from other European languages.

Some examples, drawn from a mock dialog on planning a wedding:

email should be pos el (pos was borrowed from the English "post," and el is a short form of "electric")
calling should be  menelpon (the root of this word is telpon, from "telephone," and the prefix me- has been added as the Indonesian way of turning nouns into verbs)
by faks should be  melalui faksimile (faksimile from French is distinguished from faks and faksimali from English)
client should be  klien (the same word borrowed from Dutch a hundred years earlier)
wedding organizer should be  pengelola pesta pernikahan (pesta was borrowed from the Portuguese fiesta, and means "party"; pernikahan is a abstract noun constructed from the Arabic root nikah, or "wedding")
office should be  kantor (borrowed from Dutch)

There were of course a couple of examples of English borrowing that have entirely Indonesian replacements (exhibition = pameran, visitor = tamu, print = cetak, invitation = undangan).  But it was very interesting that the characters on the show kept saying "OK" to signal agreement or understanding.  And they saying that people using English words were attempting to put on airs (gengsi, from the Arabic ghinsi).  In my view, Indonesian, like French or any other language, has no hope of resisting English linguistic imperialism.

Comment 1

  1. Mom June 25, 2008

    It’s always fun when your linguistics background peeks through your poli sci persona. Those of us who love words and their derivations enjoy it. Oh, the futility of trying to keep a language “pure” in the flat world we now live in!

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