The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Friday, July 22, 2005



Indonesia ranks high on the International List of English Corrupters, even when it’s recognised that many forms of the world tongue are now considered legitimate variations.

Singlish, the singsong language of Singapore belongs to that rich island; linguists say it should no longer be measured against the round-vowel speech of Britain’s Home Counties any more than the drawl of the Southern States should be matched against the nasal twang of New South Wales.

India (Hinglish), Malaysia (Manglish), South Africa, Pakistan, the West Indies, Canada, Australia, New Zealand – each former colony, dominion or whatever has broken away from the mother-tongue as much as it has from the motherland.

It’s not just the accent – each country has developed its own vocabulary and syntax.

Indonesia, which was only briefly ruled by Westminster, has found it difficult to easily embrace the international language. Dutch is no passport to anywhere but Clogland, and first President Sukarno wisely banned it from schools. Unfortunately he also briefly campaigned against English even though he was a polyglot.

So there’s some excuse for signs like KEEP YOUR POLITE (outside a Buddhist heritage site near Malang) and DON’T BE SLOPE TO CRATER (at a volcano). Anyway we get the message.

And we probably understand Juanda airport’s warning that “MANY BAGGAGE REAL LIKE” though maybe this is not the best way for an international gateway to present a professional image equal to Kuala Lumpur or Singapore.

President Susilo and many of his ministers speak excellent English so surely government tourist guides could do better than “The crater of Mt Bromo is largely open with belch of smoke especially from its bottom.” The right words are particularly important when it comes to history: “The incident made the Nederland angry until one of them Mr Pluegman died.”

Sensitive men (aren’t we all?) should beware the Surabaya City Council’s promotion of “the cut of the married couple.” This is “a ceremony to cut boy’s sex to make him grows old and to gives a sign that he has been grown up … The boy who has been feenger has his sex cut, then he was brought around the kampoeng by palanguin.”

Best not be a feenger, or if you are stay clear of the nation’s second biggest city.

The Hindu temple complex at Prambanan near Yogya is a world-class heritage site. It was “apprehensive condition when found” according to the official brochure which is pockmarked with errors. As entry to the site carries a $US10 fee for anyone with a white skin (Rp 7,000 if you look Asian) it seems reasonable to expect that they might get the English right.

The introduction of computer translation software has eliminated the need for copywriters to employ high-cost native speakers to check their language – and it shows:

“Sale location Atom Market is strategic enough, residing the north side entrance. There is about more than 20 merchant which in every day vend the typical home snack of the market. Saturday and Sunday are much waited day, because that day are the most crowded day so the way to get big profit, may simply be collapsible.

“Mostly they have tens of year elaborate typical home snacks. Like the confession of mBok Hajjah Mariyah which come from Madura sell the Mush of Madura and Kelanthing. With her congealed maduranis dialect, he says that, mush of Madura and kelanthing are processed and made by herself.

“The main ingredients are starch rice powder and sugar. By her arms skilled to blend that ingredients turn into typical food and very tease of our appetite.” (Hello Surabaya magazine)

The same journal tried its hand at promoting the Ampel Mosque: “Mosque which its tower boosting high. Is still stand sturdy? It amazed many people and wag tongue to marvel when staring at the tower and its stanchion. That it present a strong mystery to the world, that its buttonhole, can not be it means faded by the epoch.”

Even the top-of-the-pile ad agencies with major clients stuff up the language: “Start all over again today with new classy breed new breed what we wish for ..” If you can decode that then you’ll need a smoke and a good lie down.

Or maybe I’ve got it wrong. Perhaps the idea is to run a few words of English in an ad just to give the product prestige. Because so few people understand English mistakes will go unnoticed. What the words say is of no consequence, like the health warnings on cigarette packs that clearly deter no one.

I wouldn’t want readers to think this litany of complaints represents any sort of linguistic superiority. My Indonesian grammar is a dog’s breakfast. Among my many contributions to the mirthful lives of Indonesians is to confuse murah (cheap) with muda (young), ramah (friendly) with ramai (crowded) and rambut (hair) with rumput (grass). Any salon under my management would probably advertise ‘crowded young grasscuts’.

I have a substantial catalogue of gross mispronunciations but most involve confusion with words about behavior in bedroom and toilet. As this is a newspaper your children may pick up I won’t provide a list. It’s bad enough that adults corrupt both languages; let the kids find their own dirty words.

(Published in The Jakarta Post 14 May 05)


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