Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

The Standardisation of the Indonesian Language and Its Consequences for Islamic Communities

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

The Standardisation of the Indonesian Language and Its Consequences for Islamic Communities

Article excerpt

Anthropologists and historians of nationalism and of the postcolonial era have often studied linguistic changes, including language selection as well as orthographic or vocabulary reforms, for what they mean about an individual's position in society (1) or about national or regional identity. (2) The great insights available through this kind of examination of linguistic change have caused scholars to overlook what linguistic reforms do. In other words, given the context of societies where not all members can or will use the newly changed or newly selected language, what are the intended or unintended consequences in actual power (rather than just symbolic power)?

This essay seeks to document the disempowerment of a class of indigenous leaders in Indonesia as an unintended consequence of the standardisation of their national language. Ironically, these Muslim scholars and leaders, despite being the former guardians of the inter-ethnic language of interaction that formed the basis of Indonesian, became alienated from the new national language because of linguistic reforms imposed by the bureaucracy of the newly independent government. Intertwined with this narrative are some interesting insights into the quirks and characteristics of that language as it became formalised in the 1940s and 1950s.

The story of the development and public uptake of Indonesian (Bahasa Indonesia) is a unique case in how the language was standardised and spread in the mid-twentieth century. Unlike French, Hungarian, or even Vietnamese, where a majority ethnic language was formalised into a national language, Indonesia has no majority ethnicity, and the roots of its national language were in a language used for trade and colonial schooling. (3) The language had few historical roots and lacked a literary tradition to draw upon for its modernisation, with the exception of marginal literary movements like Sino-Malay novels and bureaucratic uses in the Dutch colonial state. (4) At the same time, that made Indonesian a relatively clean slate, an open opportunity to craft it however the nationalist project wanted. Finally, the standardisation of Indonesian, happening shortly after independence in 1945, was done entirely intentionally and consciously, not a language standardisation as the side effect of other unifying forces elsewhere in society such as education or communication media. (5)

As various state organs standardised the Indonesian language in the 1940s and 1950s, they made choices that resulted in restricting access to power for traditional Islamic leaders. By choosing romanised orthography as normative, they rendered many Islamic leaders illiterate; this impacted their ability to participate in government and in society more widely. By preferring non-Arabic sources for loanwords, the state organs moved Malay away from Islamic modes of thinking, and made Islamic texts and their authors seem backward, thus sidelining them in national discourse. The early standardisation of Indonesian spelling, forcing it to conform to certain European forms, demonstrated the Western orientation of the language bureaucracy and the disappearance of Arabic influences.

Background of the Indonesian language

In 1928 a congress of nationalist youth in Batavia pledged to 'uphold the language of unity, the Indonesian language', but such a language did not yet exist. (6) Instead, students were making this pledge in what was (up until the moment of their oath) a popular dialect of the language indigenous to the Strait of Malacca and used more broadly for trade, Dutch-run indigenous schools, and religious teaching. This dialect, called school Malay, had also been 'the language most associated with Islam and its dissemination throughout the lands below the winds', and its use throughout the archipelago 'represented a continuation of the tradition of Islamic scholarship in the region'. (7) School Malay was very much tertiary in the Dutch colony, though, behind Dutch as the official language of administration and local languages as popular vernaculars. …

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