Language and Indonesian Regionalism

On Thursday, Joe Errington gave a fascinating presentation entitled “In Search of Middle Indonesian” at the SEAP Brown Bag. Joe is a linguist and an anthropologist, yet his presentation hit on a number of basic and enduring political science themes about the construction of national identity in the post-colonial world.

Alas, there is no recording, and no paper to circulate, but I did jot down some snippets that capture the message of the talk. The basic facts, which generate the fascinating puzzle, are these: On one hand, “everywhere you go people believe that [the language we know as Bahasa Indonesia is] self-evidently and legitimately the language of Indonesia and that everyone should speak it.” On the other hand, there is “no native-speaking models of Indonesian” which means that “when linguists want to characterize ‘colloquial Indonesian’ they must describe the language of a place.” Yet in common practice “non-standard language use is not understood to be different from some standard” even though there actually is a standard variety of formal Indonesian that Indonesians learn in school.

So the following linguistic repertoire is common for people who grow up outside of Jakarta or various provincial capitals.

LOCAL ETHNIC LANGUAGE: e.g. Javanese, or Sasak, or Uab-Meto, learned at home and used in everyday life

FORMAL LANGUAGE: “proper” Bahasa Indonesia, learned in school, seen on national TV

But when people like this move to a city (Joe’s example was Kupang in West Timor) they find that people do not speak either the local language or formal Indonesian. They speak something else, a regional koine with no official status but which usually cannot be easily understood by speakers of formal Indonesian yang baik dan benar (“which is good and proper”) even though it is clearly (like Indonesian) some outgrowth of a Malay-based lingua franca. I gather that this what Joe means by Middle Indonesian, and that the point is that there are many Middle Indonesians.

MIDDLE INDONESIAN: Jakarta Malay, Kupang Malay, etc., not formally recognized by most speakers as languages or even dialects but rather as some sort of diminished or improper thing, like a slang

This means that even when Indonesian census takers report that there are now people who speak Indonesian as their first language, what they really mean is that there are people who speak Jakarta Malay, Kupang Malay, etc. as their first language.¬†Both JMP and I have some experience navigating this uneasy distinction between Jakarta Malay and the language that we learned in school. I often find myself hanging out with Jakartans and not being able really to follow what they are saying, at which point they consciously switch to standard Indonesian and apologize. Many times I have been told by Indonesians that my Indonesian is very good, and it took me awhile to realize that they don’t mean that I am good at speaking Indonesian, but rather that I am speaking a good kind of Indonesian adequately!

So why is this political? Because the standard story of Indonesian is that the entire idea of Bahasa Indonesia is political: Bahasa Indonesia means “Indonesia language” and can only be understood as something which emerged to reinforce the idea of Indonesia itself. Formal standard Indonesian is not the native language of anyone—Joe called it “un-native Indonesian”—even though more than 90% of Indonesians speak it fluently and it is “self evidently and legitimately the language of Indonesia.” It is not an “ethnic” or “regional” language, and notice that this means that “all ethnic languages are equivalent, and in an equivalent relationship to the standard language, because they are regional languages.” So Javanese = Uab-Meto, and both are subordinate to Indonesian. This only makes sense as part of a project to subordinate Javaneseness and Timoreseness to Indonesianness.

But Joe argues that in the same way that Indonesian generates a sense of we-ness for Indonesians, Middle Indonesians are generating senses of we-ness for regional communities too. We now see billboards, for example, written in Kupang Malay, which means that this mode of speaking is believed to be meaningful for the people who read it. And this means that there is a group of people who are excluded: all the non-local Indonesians who cannot easily use Kupang Malay.

Now here is where Joe’s presentation ends and my editorial comment begins. What remains to be seen is whether the “we-ness” that Jakarta Malay and Kupang Malay generate today has the same sorts of consequences for Indonesian regional identities that Indonesian had for the Indonesian national identity. We will see this especially in the cities, where a new generation is growing up speaking these Middle Indonesiansbut not formal standard Indonesian—as their native language. It remains to be seen whether Kupang Malay and the other Middle Indonesians are merely interesting linguistic phenomena, or politically meaningful origins for regional identities.

My guess is that the latter is unlikely, at least in my lifetime. I bet that over the next two or three decades, Jakarta Malay will become the high-status register and that the other Middle Indonesians will be used in parallel as low-status registers in the regions, as markers of place and perhaps class, rather like Geordie or Scouse, but not of political identity in any consistent way.

Comment 1

  1. Jessica April 15, 2012

    I certainly wish I had been at that talk–simply fascinating in light of the role that Bahasa Indonesia has played in the construction of the Indonesian nation. I didn’t really notice before I read this post, but I recall commercials and ads written in regional dialects while in Aceh and Ambon now that I think about it.

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