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

Sunday, April 16, 2006



And farewell Miss V, you won’t be missed either.

Who are these curious characters? They appear in Indonesian women’s magazines and newspaper Agony Aunt columns where the authors coyly slither past the correct terms for male and female genitalia.

Miss V is a misnomer. In a nation where sex, like investment is not permitted without a certificate, surely she should be Mrs V?

Fortunately the Initial Family won’t be here much longer according to modern linguists. They reckon these nudge-nudge, wink-wink dodos are doomed to extinction.

Just as ‘WC’ has been replaced by the more direct word ‘toilet’, so we’ll start to call things by their proper names as we feel more relaxed.

So welcome penis and vagina to the real world. You shouldn’t be so shy. Both have a place in the Education Department’s Kamus Besar Bahasa Indonesia (KBBI). This is the Soviet-sounding authoritative reference to the language so your legitimacy is assured.

I’m sorry you’ve been kept under cover for so long and hope you enjoy your newfound freedom. It may be short-lived. Beware the proposed anti-pornography bill; if this becomes law you may have to be euphemised again. Or should that be euthanised?

Why are so many words now in English? Maybe because the choice is so limited. There are only around 80,000 Indonesian words and now almost one million in English.

No wonder bi-lingual viewers are often nonplussed when listening to the English soundtrack on a film while reading the translation beneath.

‘Give it a shake!’ said an impatient character to her boyfriend in the film Urban Myths shown on local TV. The translation was cepat-cepat (hurry, hurry) which wasn’t too bad. But it didn’t quite catch the scent of the original as in this scene the man was paying a call to nature. In other words, urinating.

Along with stories about floods, landslips, corruption and demonstrations, another regular theme appears in the news: Demands to cleanse Indonesian of the avian influenza of English now sweeping the globe.

In multilingual countries one language is always considered higher and more advanced than the others. Using imports is supposed to show you’re educated and technically literate, in the fast lane.

If the English word is shorter and easier to say – like ‘stop’ instead of berhenti or ‘sorry’ in place of ma’af, then people will use the foreign term.

‘Say No To Drugs’ is snappy and taut. That would take two polysyllabic lines in Indonesian and we always prefer the minimalist approach. Look at narkoba (drugs). This is the telescoped version of narkotika dan obat-obatan terlarang (narcotics and prohibited drugs.)

In 1995 the KBBI said words from regional languages should be used when there were no suitable Indonesian equivalents. Now the policy is to jump straight into English if there’s nothing to wear in the local word wardrobe.

Computer technology and the Internet are giving Indonesian an awful hammering. The purists would like us to use laman (from halaman – backyard) but it can’t compete with ‘homepage’. Nor will balikan (return / change) oust ‘feedback’.

The most widely used English-Indonesian-English dictionary remains the one written by John Echols and Hassan Shadily. The first edition was in 1960.

It seems scholars in Indonesia are too busy translating Harry Potter to prepare a new one. Or is the language being anglicised so rapidly a dictionary will be redundant?

Don’t assume a purloined phrase maintains its virginity once it enters the Archipelago. If you think travel is a verb you’re in for a surprise. In East Java it’s been given noun status, meaning a mini-bus that takes you door to door.

Many linguists reckon there’ll eventually be an Indonesian English, just as Singlish has developed in Singapore. It took ten years in the Fine City – perhaps it will take 25 to evolve here, lah.

Pedants propose rules. But it’s impossible to legislate the preservation of language or force people to lay their tongue to certain words. The pressure is bottom-up.

Woops! Let’s make that ‘use certain words’ and ‘from the grassroots’ just in case prudes think this column is a supplement to the Karma Sutra. The only position being promoted here is the liberation of language from the corsets of conservatism.

(First published in the SundayPost 2 April 06)


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