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Rant: Defending Indonesian (was: Re: Newbie says hi)

From:Roger Mills <romilly@...>
Date:Friday, November 1, 2002, 15:44
Mat McVeagh wrote:

>>From: Christophe Grandsire <christophe.grandsire@...> >>Funny that Indonesian seems to attract many conlangers. Maybe because it's >>the >>most successful conlang of all times ;))) . > >I presume you are referring to the fact that Indonesian was kind of >invented? That it was a modified form of Malay (Bahasa Melayu), but that >nobody spoke any such thing until the Indonesian authorities promoted it?
And Teoh wrote (do I detect skepticism?):
> Indonesian is a conlang, eh?
And Christophe replied: It's actually an auxlang based on the multiple languages spoken then in Indonesia (but with a strong input from Malay) and enforced through dictatorial measures, proving that for an auxlang to be successful, you have to threaten the ones who don't want to speak it to death .........> I think one needs to rise to the defense of Indonesian. It is no more a conlang or auxlang etc. etc. than modern English, French, Spanish, Russian, etc. etc. It was not "invented", it just developed-- Mat's "kind of invented" may be "kind of accurate", however. In the legends surrounding the founding of Malacca (probably sometime late in the 1st millenium C.E), there is one that says "we took the best from all the languages of the settlers, and it became Malay" But no Dokter Harapanto wrote a little booklet setting it forth..... While it is true that Malay (and its close relatives) is quite (and somewhat inexplicably) divergent in historical-grammatical terms from most other Western Indonesian languages, there is ample evidence that it has its own history, and the divergences are fairly ancient. As to the causes of the divergences, well..... why are Germanic languages so divergent compared to Greek or Italic? There is no answer. At best, or worst, I'd prefer to think of Malay/Indonesian as a koiné. Çrivijaya, a S.Sumatran empire that flourished in the 600s or so and controlled most of the archipelago, was probably an "early-Malay" speaking affair-- the language would likely have been predecessor of both Minang-Kabau and modern Malay, which are very closely related. There are inscriptions from Sumatra and the mainland dating to the 7-800s in a recognizably Malay language. Then there is the considerable body of literature in (peninsular) Malay contemporaneous with early W.Eur vernacular literatures, and not much more difficult for modern readers than the Chanson de Roland, Dante, Shakespeare or Cervantes. Granted, that form of Malay was a courtly language, but an already standardized one. Peninsular Malay had, and may still have, at least as many distinct dialects as German. (They have been few studies, unfortunately.) And at that time the actual Malay speaking peoples of Indonesia were a definite minority. And of course various forms of Malay were the lingua franca of the 3000 or so islands, clearly from early times. The early Dutch traders took advantage of that and encouraged and spread it-- at least 2 distinct varieties survive, Ambonese or Moluccan Malay and Menado Malay, which might be called true creoles, both centered on major colonial ports and perhaps more significant, both located in extremely multi-lingual areas. In the mid-late 19th C, when the Dutch finally became enlightened and began to educate the native intelligentsia, they chose to do so in Malay simply because it was a language most people already knew; further, there was the pre-existing peninsular literary standard which needed very little tweaking to adapt to Indonesian circumstances. It was referred to in those days as Bahasa Melayu, not Bahasa Indonesia-- that came later, with the rise of a national consciousness in that very same intelligentsia. One could I suppose have chosen to educate everybody in their native language-- Acehnese, Batak, Minang, Sundanese, Javanese, Madurese, Balinese, Sasak, Buginese, Makassarese, 10 or so Toraja languages, the 100s of languages in the Moluccas, the 50 or so languages of Flores, the 10 or so of Timor---need I go on? Sure, the Dutch practiced "divide and conquer" with skill, but even they couldn't see Balkanizing the situation further. The choice of Bahasa Melayu (>Bahasa Indonesia) at independence was entirely logical. Altruistic, in fact-- the majority language, Javanese, was barely considered, due to its perceived difficulty and "undemocratic" status levels. One can argue with the educational system of any country; but I doubt that Indonesia's is any worse than any other. One can even argue (as they are indeed doing) whether Indonesia has any business being a "country". But then, why Ghana, why Nauru? And what is the alternative? The fact that the spread of a national language results in the eventual extinction of many regional languages is lamentable, especially to us linguists. But it is, I fear, inevitable. Again, what is the alternative? And can we westerners hold ourselves up as any sort of fine example?


John Cowan <jcowan@...>
H. S. Teoh <hsteoh@...>