The Javanese language is a dying language

The bond that unites Indonesia

In the run-up to the Frankfurt Book Fair, where Indonesia is this year's Guest of Honor, literary professionals, academics and poets comment on the light and dark sides of the national language Bahasa Indonesia.

"My mother tongue is Sundanese," says Eka Kurniawan, "but I can't write in Sundanese." He tried once and wrote a short story in his native West Javanese language, but it felt weird. “For me, Sundanese is the language I speak with my family, but I write my books in Bahasa Indonesia. That's the language I learned in school. "

Tiger and Tarantino

In the Gramedia bookstore in Jakarta's Central Park Mall, where I meet Eka Kurniawan, his books are in stacks in the display, including the novel “Tiger Man” with his imposing tiger head made of multi-colored paper cut on the cover. The novel will also appear in German this autumn. In it, 39-year-old Kurniawan tells of a young man who bites his neighbor's throat. The murderer later explains that a tiger lives in him. "My books were influenced by Quentin Tarantino," says Eka Kurniawan and laughs. "Above all, I want to tell our Hindu myths anew, which are covered up by today's majority Islam."

His Tiger novel is well received by younger readers, and you can get it anywhere thanks to the dense network of Gramedia branches. Gramedia is the largest bookstore chain in Indonesia and currently has 109 branches on all of the larger islands in the archipelago. These are preferably integrated into the large, air-conditioned shopping malls, where many Indonesians like to hang out and meet up in order to escape the heat, smog and traffic chaos. “I moved out of Jakarta because of the traffic jams,” says the boyish-looking Eka Kurniawan. He drove two hours to get here. His books are not only sold by Gramedia, but also published, because the bookstore chain is also one of the largest publishers in the country. Of course, Gramedia mainly publishes books in Bahasa Indonesia, the official language on all 17,000 islands of the archipelago.

"You can call Bahasa Indonesia an artificial language," says Manneke Budiman and is pleased with my puzzled look. The highly air-conditioned office of the cheerful literary scholar in a batik shirt is located on the campus in the south of Jakarta. The best way to get here is by local train, which continues to Bogor; the quiet, palm-lined campus has its own stop on this route. "Bahasa Indonesia is a pure invention," explains Budiman. “The language is based on Malay, which was spoken in the north of Sumatra and across from the Malaysian peninsula. However, elements from other languages ​​of the archipelago have also been integrated. The purpose was to annoy the Dutch and create a language of their own for the whole country. " Annoy the Dutch? «Yes, because we wanted to set ourselves apart and establish our own national language. Bahasa Indonesia was a means in the anti-colonial struggle. "

In fact, the Dutch had ruled the Indonesian archipelago, which also includes the Moluccas, the long-contested spice islands, for over three hundred years. It was not until World War II that they were ousted from the throne by the aggressively expanding Japanese. After the Japanese defeat in 1945 they wanted to recapture their "Dutch East Indies", but were finally expelled in the Indonesian War of Independence. In 1949 the former colony declared its independence and Bahasa Indonesia became the official language. "We basically had the same problem as India: countless regional languages, but only the colonial language as an idiom that unites nationwide," says Manneke Budiman. “But take a look at India: the different ethnic groups there still speak English to make themselves understood. But we have Bahasa Indonesia! "

Dying regional languages

"The problem, however, is that Bahasa is so dominant today that the regional languages ​​are suffering," interjects his colleague Melani Budianta. “Many parents no longer want their children to speak a local dialect. They should speak Indonesian and learn English so that they can get better jobs later. " Budianta's soft voice becomes a little bit more sharp: “We still have around 700 languages ​​in the country, but some are only spoken by two speakers. One can say that about one regional Indonesian language is currently dying out every month. " The Institute of Literature at Universitas Indonesia therefore tries to collect as much material on these languages ​​as possible. "We often travel across the country," says Manneke Budiman, "and make recordings there with the storytellers and singers of the region."

Khrisna Pabichara is such a singer. He lives in Makassar, Sulawesi Island, and he recites traditional Buginese songs and poems wherever invited. The young man likes to put on a gold-interwoven sarong and a matching hat. He loves the grand gesture and the unctuous lecture. The oral storytelling tradition is strong in Indonesia, but the old stories and chants are quickly endangered if the tradition is not maintained all the time. Incidentally, Pabichara also writes himself: “I've already written around 800 poems. Some of them went into the two books I published. But I know most of the texts by heart; they are primarily intended for lectures. " If the text security leaves him once, he quickly picks up his smartphone, on which he has saved his texts. He wrote many of his own texts in Bahasa Indonesia; but sometimes he also mixes Bahasa and Buginese.

Bahasa is the main language spoken at the annual International Writers' Festival. The four-day festival is a major event for Makassar and takes place in Fort Rotterdam near the shore, a fortification from Dutch colonial times. Because the authors who have come from different islands and the visitors from the surrounding area should understand each other. If foreign authors are present, English is also spoken. The author Leila Chudori casually switches from one language to the other. “I'm a total city kid,” the 52-year-old tells me. «I grew up in Jakarta and studied in Canada. You will probably find me totally boring and unexotic, but I have no other native language than Bahasa Indonesia. " At the literature festival in Makassar, Chudori will present the English translation of her novel “Pulang”, which has recently also appeared in German. In it she tells of a group of left-wing friends who had to go into exile for over thirty years after General Suharto's putsch in 1965. The coup and the dictatorship that followed have been dealt with intensively in Indonesian literature for several years. Chudori lets his friends open an Indonesian restaurant in Paris. In this way they try to stay connected to their home country. In her novel, the author notes that one of the young men also “places great value on speaking Indonesian, which is widely used throughout the country, instead of Javanese with its socially differentiated language levels”. Even in exile, he is committed not only to his home region, but to his country as a whole.

The 46-year-old author Ayu Utami also prefers the Indonesian national language to her mother tongue. When she is not sitting at home and writing - her politically and stylistically groundbreaking novels "Saman" and "Larung" have been published in German - she works at the Salihara cultural center in southern Jakarta. There she regularly gives writing courses in a large, ground-level seminar room, which are particularly popular with students. Of course, Indonesian is used to teach and write.

Hierarchical character

"For me personally, the Indonesian language represents a liberation from my own mother tongue, West Javanese," Utami states in a quiet minute. «Javanese is a very feudal language with different levels of courtesy. When I was young, I even refused to speak Javanese. " Today she regrets it: "As a result, I no longer speak my mother tongue so well and I have the feeling that I have lost part of my cultural heritage." Via a detour, she tried to get a little closer to her mother tongue: “I studied East Javanese for a while because it doesn't have as strong a linguistic hierarchy as West Javanese. I then incorporated that into my books. "

It was in 1928 when the idea of ​​a national language uniting the whole country took shape. On October 28, 1928, around seventy young nationalists from all over the island kingdom met in Batavia, as Jakarta was still called in Dutch colonial times, to swear an oath of allegiance. “One country, one nation, one language” was their motto, which went down in Indonesian history as the “youth oath”. The language for the whole country was supposed to be Malay, which was not only relatively egalitarian as a commercial language, but also widespread as a lingua franca.

Gateway abroad

The Lontar Foundation is also committed to this date, explains publisher John McGlynn on the sunny roof terrace of his publishing house in a quiet residential area in Jakarta. "We deliberately founded the publishing house on October 28th in 1987 - as a tribute to the oath of loyalty made by the young nationalists."

The Lontar Foundation has already submitted translations of around 200 works - mainly classics, but increasingly also contemporary literature - and has thus become the most important English-language publisher for Indonesian literature. Leila Chudori's novel “Pulang” has also been published in English by Lontar. Thanks to a practical print-on-demand system, these books are also easily available in Europe.

"I have had individual texts translated from Javanese and Buginese," explains the Indonesian graduate McGlynn, "but it is not easy to find good translators for these languages." He therefore concentrates on Bahasa works, which were by no means created after the «youth oath»: «Indonesian is a continuation of Malay, and Malay texts have been passed down since the 7th century», he clarifies. "In 1928, no new language was invented, but an already existing idiom was elevated to the national language."