September 29, 2022

Javanese: Of language and unity

4 min read

MORE people speak Javanese than Malay, Burmese or even Thai. Indeed, 95 million people, or fully 40% of Indonesia’s 265 million strong population, are Javanese speakers.

However, Javanese is not the national language of the Republic. That is Bahasa Indonesia, which is a variation of the Malay language. The two are very different and should never, ever be confused for each other.

Moreover, Javanese is very much alive – both in terms of popular culture and politics. For example, one of the Republic’s most famous popstars, Via Vallen’s song Sayang (Love) has surpassed over 186 million views on YouTube. She was also chosen to sing the theme song Meraih Bintang (Reach for the Stars) for the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta.

Even the 52-year-old Didi Kempot (dubbed the “Godfather of Broken Hearts”) and a quintessential old-school Javanese troubadour has recently developed a huge millennial fanbase.

Separately, all seven of Indonesia’s presidents have Javanese blood – including the recently deceased Sulawesi-born BJ Habibie who was half-Javanese.

But how did this happen? How did Javanese, the language of Indonesia’s largest ethnic group, fail to become the national language?

We have to look at history for the reasons why.

Indonesia’s national awakening (and, hence, its struggle for independence) really took root with the Youth Congress of October 1928, when nationalist youth leaders from across what was the Dutch East Indies converged on Jakarta.

The main outcome of the meeting was the so-called “Sumpah Pemuda” (Youth Pledge). It basically committed Indonesia’s nationalists to fight for one motherland and one people (ie Indonesia) as well as acknowledge one national language: Bahasa Indonesia.

The attendees at the 1928 Congress came from a dizzying array of ethnicities: Javanese, Minangs, Malays, Bataks as well as Banjarese, Bugis, Ambonese, Balinese and Minahassans.

There were two main reasons for the selection of Bahasa Indonesia.

The first was that while the Javanese were the largest ethnicity (47% according to the 1930 population census), they were not an overwhelming majority. Hence, had it been selected it would not have been a unifying force for the fledging national movement. If anything, it would have underlined the unhappiness that many non-Javanese felt about the centralising forces of the Dutch colonial administration based in Jakarta.

The second reason was the feeling that the language was far too complex and feudal for a modern state.

This view was shared by many prominent Javanese thinkers and leaders. Even Indonesia’s founding father, Sukarno (who hailed from Biltar, East Java, but was not present at the Congress) was to write later on: “The different variations of Javanese would make it difficult for people to interact freely. [It is] especially hard for those who are not from Central Java or East Java. Should we use ngoko, krama, or krama inggil, for everyone to speak, regardless of their social status?”.

Simply put, there are three “levels” of Javanese based on their formality: ngoko which is the lowest level and the most common form; madya or krama madya, which is the middle-level; and the highest, referred to as krama.

Further adding to the confusion is that each level has its own subcategories based on the status of the person being addressed.

Krama itself is divided into two forms, krama inggil (high krama) and krama andhap (humble krama). Krama inggil is used at formal events or by people of higher status and krama andhap is used to show respect to others of a higher status by demeaning oneself.

For example, the word “you” in ngoko would be “kowe” but in krama madya it would be “sampeyan”, while in krama inggil one would say “panjenengan.”

This means that communicating in Javanese requires the speaker to be constantly conscious of his or her status as well as the interlocutors’.

The default for strangers would be to use the krama, but even native speakers find using krama challenging.

Given the complexity, Indonesia’s nationalists with their commitment to egalitarianism were concerned about the intrinsic feudalism of Javanese.

By way of comparison, Bahasa Indonesia or Malay (which was the language of the numerically tiny Sumatran Malay community) was the lingua franca of the entire archipelago. In essence, it belonged to all Indonesians. Moreover, it was relatively easy to learn and use.

Indeed, the republic’s Father of Education, the activist Ki Hadjar Dewantara (who later became the country’s first Education Minister), had as early as 1916 advocated that Malay be taught to children rather than Bahasa Jawa. It is significant that Hadjar, who was born a Javanese priyayi nobleman with the name of “Raden Mas Soewardi Soerjaningrat” later dropped his title in a rejection of feudalism.

Bahasa Indonesia has been an incredible success in many ways.

In 2010, around 92% of the population claimed proficiency in Bahasa Indonesia, compared with 40% in the 1970s.

Nevertheless, given the dominance of the Javanese in politics and public life, a grasp of the language and its cultural nuances is critical for anyone hoping to understand the Republic.

Of course, for many, Javanese is seen as having an incomparably rich literary tradition stretching back many centuries to the writings of Mpu Prapanca, Mpu Tantular as well as Ronggowarsito, the royal poet, and the more racy Serat Centhini.

So while Bahasa Indonesian appears to be completely dominant, Javanese remains a powerful and influential undercurrent, infusing public discourse and popular culture with its rich and complex presence, a shadow that often yields far more meaning than one would expect.

As such, one would be well-advised to bear in mind the Javanese proverb: “Ojo kagetan, ojo dumeh” or “Dont be too easily surprised and don’t be arrogant”.

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