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, August 11, 2006



In 11th century Britain King Canute took his throne to the seashore and ordered the tide to stop rising. Or so the legend goes.

The ruler’s smart idea was to crunch the court sycophants who were always praising his regal powers. Not surprisingly the waves kept coming and the point was made: There are some things mortals cannot do, however grand their titles.

Perhaps Education Minister Bambang Sudibyo should read a little history and ponder the Canute story. He might be joined by his colleagues from Malaysia and Brunei who signed a commitment to revitalise Malay as the region’s national language.

The subtext reads: Let’s stop evil English creeping up the beaches of the archipelago, polluting the people and swamping our lovely language.

Good try chaps; we wish you well, but won’t be taking bets on your success anytime soon.

Of course it’s necessary to ensure high quality Indonesian is spoken at official functions, though in East Java many events are conducted in Javanese, particularly when ordinary electors are present. Politicians hustling for votes know they have to use the language of the village and kampung, whatever the martinets in Jakarta say.

The decision by Sukarno and the founders of the Republic to make Malay the national language was a masterstroke in nation building – but it hasn’t stopped regional languages being the first tongue for most Indonesians.

If Mr Bambang is serious then we’re going to hear some bizarre speeches as the words Presiden, demokrasi, delegasi, perspektip, kampanye, informasi, problem, sistem, partisipasi, strategic planning, sosial, politik, ekonomi, krisis, teori, fakta and scores of others get deported.

Can you imagine any official harangue which doesn’t contain most of the words above – all lifted from English with the spelling warped to satisfy local palates? You’re welcome to the plunder – we’ve been hijacking other countries’ words for centuries. How do you think we learned to run amuck?

Mr Bambang’s staff may fossick for replacements drawn from the rich vein of local languages – but they’re unlikely to gain currency.

That’s because language is a living entity. Like the tide it has a force of its own that no minister can change, however splendid his or her position or majestic the legislation.

Linguist Deny Arnos Kwary heads the English diploma program at Surabaya’s Airlangga University, East Java’s top public tertiary institution. He’s also a translator and has turned seven management and accountancy texts from English into Indonesian.

His job isn’t made easier by the disproportions: Almost one million English words and only around 80,000 Indonesian. No wonder film-fans get bemused when a long English discussion gets reduced to a one-line subtitle. Dubbed voices are even weirder when the lips keep working but the voice doesn’t.

Deny remembers one character rejecting a proposal with the statement: ‘That’s out of the question.’ It was translated as di luar pertanyan which is literally correct but quite wrong. Tak mungkin would have been appropriate.

“Language can follow one of two rules,” Deny said. “Either its prescriptive or proscriptive. It depends how we want to use it.

“I’ve got no problem with English words invading Indonesian particularly when there’s no appropriate local word. Language evolves, and people want to use English because it’s a status language.

“Nor do I have problems with magazines using English headlines above Indonesian text or as advertising slogans. In many cases it’s so much more efficient.

“English is also polite. You can choose from so many words to make a point, and you can also use it to maintain secrets in front of others who are monolingual.

“In multilingual countries one language is always considered higher and more advanced than the others. And of course that’s English.

“So if you use English words and phrases in your speech it shows you’re educated and technically literate, up to the minute. If the English word is shorter and easier to say then people will use the foreign term.”

Deny studied at the University of Indonesia at the feet of the renowned linguist Professor Anton Moeliono. According to Deny in 1995 the Kamus Besar Bahasa Indonesia (KBBI) Indonesian Dictionary policy was to introduce words from regional languages when there was no suitable Indonesian equivalent.

For ‘curiosity’ the professor proposed cabaran, but it never caught on because it wasn’t widely known. So we’re left with ‘kuriositas’.

The other trend is to preserve the English spelling and not Indonesianise the introduced word.

“There have been problems when a word like restructure is written as restrukturisasi which translates back as restructuring,” Deny said.

Although only 31 Deny is already sensing his age. His teenage students are using jayus which he thinks means ‘is that right?’ – but he’s not so sure. It could be a corruption of jaya (successful, prosperous, triumphant). And for a while he was confused by BT (bad temper).

“Eventually there’ll be an Indonesian English, just as Singlish has developed in Singapore,” he said. “It took ten years there – perhaps it will take 25 to arrive here.

“People complain and propose rules. But it’s not possible to legislate to preserve language or force people to use certain words. The pressure is bottom-up.”

The standard English-Indonesian-English dictionary remains the one written by John Echols and Hassan Shadily published 45 years ago by Cornell University and revised three times since. There’s hardly a page without a word that didn’t come from English. Or from French, Dutch, Arabic, Portuguese and other languages.

Which might lead us to assume that Indonesian is like Indonesia: It enjoys unity through diversity and will thrive in its own way – whatever the politicians say.

For the incoming tide read: Globalisation.


(First published in The Jakarta Post 11 August 2006)


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