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A brief history of Bahasa Indonesia

Updated: Jun 15, 2021

woman picking up seaweed in Nusa Penida Bali

The 6th most spoken Language in the world

Bahasa Indonesia, the national language of Indonesia, is the 6th most spoken language in the world (after Mandarin, English, Hindi, Spanish and Arabic). Even though Bahasa Indonesia is the first language to 'only' 43 million people, mostly in urban areas, it is the second language of another 154 million people, in a country that flaunts 700 languages. If you include the sister language Malay, they boast over 250 million speakers worldwide.

A bit of historical background

Bahasa Indonesia comes from Bahasa Melayu which is the root language of Malay and has existed for 700 years. It is an Austronesian language and shares roots with Malagasy, the language of Madagascar, Maori from New Zealand, and Filippino. It has been the Lingua Franca (1) of the region for over 500 years allowing traders to communicate and Christians and Muslims to spread their faiths. Bahasa Indonesia finds its roots in what is referred to as Market/pasar Melayu or traders Melayu, which was enriched with words from Dutch, Javanese, Arabic and more. During the colonial era, the Dutch East India Trading Company (VOC) adopted the Malay language as their administrative language since it was already so widely spoken in the area for trade purposes.

Birth of a Nation, birth of a language

When the Indonesian nationalist movement rose up to declare an independent nation in 1945, a national language needed to be found. It couldn't be Dutch, the language of the colonial oppressors and it couldn't be Javanese, because it had to unify all the islands and people of Indonesia. The young independentists' movement soon settled for Bahasa Indonesia, which was already known to many as a second language, and they simplified and standardized it. In 1945, Bahasa Indonesia was born, along with the new Nation of Indonesia. The Proclamation of Independence, the state philosophy of Pancasila and the Constitution were all uttered and framed in Bahasa Indonesia. By the end of the war for Independence in 1949, the prestige of the language was secured and its unifying force unstoppable. It was to become an essential part of Indonesian identity, even though it is a second language to most of the nation's (bilingual) population.

Modern Indonesian

Indonesian displays dramatic differences in register and style. As in all modern languages, there is a general contrast between formal and informal usage. Formal Indonesian, Bahasa baku, is mostly used in writing, public speeches, administration and in education. Informal Indonesian tends to drop the affixes, much used in its formal counterpart, and to borrow words and styles from the local languages. The use of the suffix 'in' instead of 'kan' for making verbs transitive, for instance, comes from Javanese. Informal usage merges into street slang and is peppered with particles like dong, dehand sih, sarcastic or humorous abbreviations and deliberate ‘misunderstandings’ of words. Indonesian slang is very colorful, and though mostly coming from Jakarta, each island has its idiosyncrasies.

It remains a relatively easy language to learn and one which brings many rewards since Indonesians love to chat and if you can speak just a little of the language, you are sure to learn a lot of about this fascinating country, make many new friends and never have a boring journey or wait.

Ayo, mari kita bicara Bahasa Indonesia!

Definition of Lingua Franca

1: often capitalised: a common language consisting of Italian mixed with French, Spanish, Greek, and Arabic that was formerly spoken in Mediterranean ports

2: any of various languages used as common or commercial tongues among peoples of diverse speech. English is used as a lingua franca among many airline pilots.

3: something resembling a common language 'movies are the lingua franca of the twentieth century'— Gore Vidal


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