Why Indonesian is Malay and Not Javanese?

Why Indonesian is Malay and not Javanese-

You just started studying Indonesian, and one day you go to Malaysia. You notice that a lot of words are familiar to you. You know from sources you read that Indonesian and Malaysian are basically one language. Why is that so?

Since a long time ago, Malay language that was spoken in northeast Sumatera has been used in Indonesian archipelago for hundreds of years. As lingua franca, it is mainly used as the language of trade even by some of the eastern part of now Indonesia (of which the native languages are of Western Papuan Family).

During colonialization, Malay was significantly used as a trading and political language. The Dutch were reluctant to promote the use of their language, and so Malay was popular among the commoners while Dutch is used by the elite, in contrast to other colonialists (the French, Portuguese, and even the British). This was probably done because the Dutch did not want the Indonesians to see themselves as equals to them.

Despite the Youth Congress in 1928 which agreed on the use of Indonesian language as the unification language, the Dutch language was still dominant in a lot of formal aspects. However, in 1938 Indonesian was used in the people’s council (Volksraad) much to the Dutch’s chagrin. By the time the Dutch realized that the use of Indonesian language is a threat to their interest, it was too late.

Now, the question here is why didn’t Indonesian founding fathers choose Javanese? Javanese as an option really made sense. First, Javanese kingdoms were powerful and dominant. Second, It was (and still is) the language with the most number of first speakers in the whole archipelago. Third, a lot of the founding fathers are Javanese, including the first president (whose father was a Javanese aristocrat).

The reason is very simple. Javanese is not a simple language. It’s very impractical. When you learn Javanese you have to learn three different styles; Krama inggil, krama madya, and ngoko. If you think it’s easy, think again! Those styles are basically different languages not because of verb inflections (changes in the verbs to signify different functions); they have different sets of vocabulary. For every one thing (or idea), you have to remember three different words! Not only that, you also have to know where and when you should use those languages.

Have I mentioned that even though you are using krama inggil (the most polite and formal style), you have to be able to choose when to lower yourself or honor someone else. There are different words for that also. In fact, what’s confusing is that you can answer using a krama inggil verb to show your superiority by using honorific verbs. Confusing? I know.

Now you know why Malay is more preferred and practical and why it was chosen as Indonesian.

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Language Abandonment : An Issue in Indonesian context

Language Abandonment

Language death happens when the last speaker of the language dies. Its process is usually gradual, and most commonly occurs when the native speakers of a language start using a second language (usually imposed by the majority or voluntarily done due to political or economic reasons) until they stop using their first language.

As a country with very diverse ethnicities, Indonesia has more than 700 local languages. With people speaking different languages that mostly are not mutually intelligible, Indonesia chose Malay language, dubbed as Bahasa Indonesia (Indonesian language), as the language of unity. The choice was made not because Malay language was spoken by the majority, nor was it the language of the forefathers; in fact, Javanese was and is the largest ethnic group in Indonesian and most of the forefathers are Javanese. Malay was chosen because it was the lingua franca of the whole archipelago and considered to be practical. It was and still is more practical than Javanese. Now, more and more people speak Indonesian as its first language.

As a national language, Indonesian is used in everyday life, in government offices, in education, and interacting with people, especially from other ethnic groups. Places with economic or educational significance are usually where people from different ethnicities gather. In these places, Indonesian serves as a uniting element.

With Indonesian used widely, the existence of other languages are threatened, to some extent. In 2009, 16 languages died in the course of two years (from 742 languages in 2007 to 726). Because people think that learning and getting used to Bahasa Indonesia will contribute to a better life, better accessibility, they stop using their local languages; they assimilate. Furthermore, some people avoid using their local languages, because they’re afraid that other people might disparage them. This shift in using Indonesian has taken its toll on the largest local language in Indonesian, i.e. Javanese. Many young Javanese people now forget specific vocabulary, e.g. those related to animals’ offspring, flowers, specific actions, certain sounds (onomatopoeia), etc.

Let’s think of a hypothetical condition where Indonesian is not used; it doesn’t exist. It does make sense, since Indonesian language doesn’t really have a long history compared to some other local languages. A local language with the largest groups of speakers would be Javanese. Due to its historical significance, its enormous number of speakers, the distribution of the Javanese people all over Indonesia (not to mention those who live in Suriname), the importance of Java Island in education, economy, and politics, Javanese language will most likely take over the role of Indonesian language as the language of power and unity.

Besides Indonesian language as its national language and Javanese as the language with most speakers in Indonesia, Indonesia also has at least twenty local languages that are spoken by more than one million people. Even without the existence of Indonesian language, these languages can serve as lingua franca on smaller levels, which then contribute to language abandonment of other minority languages.