"So if I am able to preserve this writing of mine…I would like you to give it the title 'House of Glass.'"

Languages of Indonesia

I’ve revamped the language section of this blog in attempts to make it more readable and more interesting. This version is slightly longer than the old version, but I think the information is a lot more personal. I think I’ve transcribed this information in a way that tells a little about the history of the country and my life in it now.

1 (SATU!)

The number of national languages in Indonesia. Indonesia is a vast archipelagic nation consisting of 15,000+ islands (Whoa!) that span over 5000 km of longitude at the equator. There are hundreds—maybe thousands—of local languages amongst the country’s ~250 million people, but there is only one official language.


The century in which Bahasa Indonesia formed. Bahasa Indonesia did not actually come into existence until the twentieth century. Residents of the Dutch East Indies—a group of islands that had never before been autonomously unified—started to show notable resentment towards their colonizers in the mid nineteenth century. Intellectuals wrote editorials on nationalism and colonialism, but most of their work was published in local languages for small populations or in Dutch for sympathetic Europeans. Newspaper writers realized that freedom writings needed to be spread to all ends of the archipelago, so they began to write in a modified version of Bahasa Malayu (Malaysian)—a language that was known across the region during that time. Today, Bahasa Indonesia and Bahasa Malayu are almost completely identical except for the fact that Indonesian has influences from Dutch and Malaysian has influences from British English due to different colonial histories (more on the reunification of spelling between these languages later). As for other influences, I can only speak for Bahasa Indonesia, which also takes words from Arabic, local languages (mostly Javanese), and some Japanese.

The level of similarity between Indonesian and Malaysian is best observed in the children’s cartoon Upin dan Ipin. The cartoon is produced in Malaysia but broadcasted throughout Indonesia as well. When aired in Indonesia, the original Malaysian audio is kept in tack because it is so close to Indonesian. The audio is different enough, however, that stations still include Indonesian subtitles. Thus, watching the show was an enjoyable way for me to practice listening to and reading child-level language during PST.

The grammar and depth of Indonesian is fairly simple due to its young age. You could say that Indonesian is still waiting for its Shakespeare. My family had a calendar one year with cartoons that were limited almost entirely to the 2,000+ words and phrases coined by the seventeenth century poet. As Indonesian evolves, I hope that ideas such as “maybe” and “probably” bifurcate into their own words from mungkin—the word that vaguely expresses both sentiments at the current moment.


The percentage of people in Indonesia who can speak Bahasa Indonesia. Indonesian was not formed until the early twentieth century and did not become an official language until the country’s independence in 1945. Therefore, many elderly folks speak only local languages and no Bahasa Indonesia. The rest of this percentage is children under the age of seven. Indonesian is not taught or used in school until that age, so most young kids are only comfortable with their local languages. I learned this early on when I was trying to speak to a four year old neighbor in Bahasa Indonesia during the first week of PST. The little kid just kept staring at me blankly. I won’t discount the possibility that I completely terrified her, but it was also the case that she didn’t understand anything I was saying.


The percentage of people who speak Bahasa Indonesia natively. As I’m told, there is a small population of people who do speak Bahasa Indonesia as their first language. Most of the time, I’m told this occurs mainly in Jakarta. I like to imagine that this occurs when two people from different islands (or different countries) move to and meet in Jakarta. Their only common language would be Indonesian/Malaysian, and thus, their child picks it up natively. I’ve only met one person who said Indonesian was their first language, and that person was indeed from Jakarta.


The number of languages I’m liable to hear on a daily basis around Genteng. As I mentioned before, Bahasa Indonesia is neither people’s native language nor their preferred language. Outside of classroom education, TV, governmental affairs, and public signage, people use local languages. The most common local language on Java is Bahasa Jawa (Javanese), but Javanese actually has four distinct levels. I will explain the levels in greater detail later, but for the purpose of the statistic in this section, I count each level of Javanese as a separate language because they are mutually unintelligible. The seven languages I will undoubtedly hear on a daily basis are Bahasa Indonesia, Bahasa Jawa Ngoko, Bahasa Jawa Kromo Inggil, Bahasa Osing, Bahasa Inggris, Bahasa Madura, and Bahasa Arab.

Seven is a conservative estimate because there are many other languages floating around the area. There are two additional standard levels of Javanese and one form of Old Javanese that was used in ancient courts. Neither of these is commonly used at my site, so I don’t count them in the main seven. There are also other local languages including Bahasa Bali and Bahasa Sundan. On top of that, Bahasa Osing, Bahasa Madura, and Bahasa Bali each have three levels. I would bet that Bahasa Sundan has more than one level as well, but I don’t know. Japanese is taught at my school, so it is not uncommon to see characters or hear a word or two. Counting all of the languages and levels mentioned above, the total number of languages that might reasonably be spoken in my town is nineteen. A break down of usage follows…

  • 1. Bahasa Indonesia—This is used in government, education, and public media across the country. It is one of the most widely spoken languages on the planet as Indonesia is the fourth largest country by population in the world. Considering the fact that it is almost identical to Bahasa Malayu and the fact that Malayu is spoken by a large number of people, Malayu is also one of the world’s most commonly spoken languages.
  • 2-6. Bahasa Jawa (4 levels + 1 ancient court level)—This is used conversationally across much of Java (see breakdown of Javanese levels in the next section). It is one of the most widely spoken languages on the planet as Java includes a majority of Indonesia’s population.
  • 7-9. Bahasa Osing (3 levels)—This is a local language unique to Banyuwangi. Supposedly, it is a combination of Bahasa Jawa, Bahasa Madura, and Bahasa Bali. Banyuwangi is right in between Madura and Bali, so the languages have sort of coalesced. From the little that I know of Bahasa Osing and Bahasa Jawa, it seems as if a lot of the vocabulary is the same but the pronouns are different.
  • 10-12. Bahasa Madura (3 levels)—Madura is a small island off the northern coast of East Java. It is technically a part of East Java Province, but it has its own linguistic history. There are many Madurese transplants on Java who have brought their language with them. Several teachers at my school and people around town grew up speaking Madurese (either because they were born there or were born to Madurese parents living on Java). I was on an angkot the other day with a staff member from the Raung Observatory. We were trying to find a trail head in a regency neither of has had either been to. I figured with Mukijo’s ability to speak Bahasa Jawa, there is no way we would have trouble communicating (I am confident in my ability to speak Indonesian, but if I had come across an old man or woman who only spoke Javanese, I would have been stuck). As fate would have it, Mukijo and I ended up somewhat lost in an ankgot with an old woman who only spoke Madurese. What are the chances? (Not bad actually)
  • 13-15. Bahasa Bali (3 levels)—Bali is the island immediately to the east of Java, and though it is its own province, there are many Balinese transplants in Java who have brought their language across the narrow strait. I don’t know any Balinese, and I can’t say much about it other than it once used a traditional script similar to Thai and Javanese.
  • 16. Bahasa Arab—All Muslim children learn to read and pronounce Arabic for the purpose of reading the Qur’an. Arabic is also taught at Islamic high schools, including mine. Five-time-daily calls to prayer are broadcasted from mosques in Arabic. It is unclear to me how much comprehension is taught or emphasized with the general Muslim population, but some people are fluent. My host father in Genteng is fluent. Colloquially, many Arabic expressions are used in Indonesia as they are in other Islamic countries. Assalamu’alaikum is the standard greeting here, and other phrases such as Ya’Allah or Alhumdulilah also pervade the vernacular.
  • 17. Bahasa Jepang—The Japanese Empire ruled Indonesia for three years during World War II. With self-serving intentions, Japan encouraged Indonesian freedom movements from the Dutch, helped popularize independence characters such as future first president Sukarno, and aided the populace revolution. After the Dutch were expelled, Japan maintained control over the newly formed Indonesia. Though Indonesians still celebrate their Independence as the date of liberation from the Netherlands, the three years under Japanese rule are widely regarded as being more brutal than the three hundred years of the Dutch colonial era. The Japanese Empire eventually fell and Indonesia maintained its sovereignty despite the Netherland’s attempt to regain their colony. The Dutch government still recognizes 1947 as the year of Indonesia’s official independence. Today, Bahasa Jepang is taught in most local high schools (including mine) as many tourists from Japan (during periods of economic wealth) visit Indonesia.
  • 18. Bahasa Sundan—Sunda is an ethnic area in West Java/East Sumatra that includes modern day Jakarta. There are not many people from Sunda in my area, but I’ve met a few—most notably the wife of my tailor—who say that Sundanese is their native tongue.
  • 19. Bahasa Inggris—English is taught in schools and is widely regarded here as a global language. Most of my students struggle with it or care less to learn it, but all of my counterparts and a few students speak it quite well. Signs at my school are written in Arabic and English but, for some reason, do not include Indonesian. Occasionally, I’ll meet an adult around town who either picked up English in school or during their time working in Bali. It’s also common for people to have spent time working in Singapore, Saudi Arabia, or Malaysia. Those people generally learned English as a way to communicate with other foreign workers while they were there.


The number of levels in Bahasa Jawa (4) plus the one ancient Javanese court language. Each of the four levels in Javanese is meant to be used in a specific context. The determination of which level to use is dependent on the relationship between the people speaking. As a rule of thumb, one should address their elders and superiors in Kromo Madyo or Kromo Inggil, while Ngoko Kasar or Ngoko Halus is used when speaking to close friends, peers, or those younger than you. A more specific breakdown as I understand it follows…

  • Jawa Ngoko Kasar—the lowest form of Javanese, a.ka. Ngoko. It is considered “coarse” language and would be used insultingly or disparagingly.
  • Jawa Ngoko Halus—halus means smooth, thus Ngoko Halus is a smoother version of Ngoko Kasar. Ngokko Halus is the lowest “conversational” form of Javanese. This level is considered polite if you are speaking to close friends, peers, or those younger than you. However, it would still be rude or insensitive to use Ngoko Halus with a superior.
  • Jawa Krama Madya—a “higher” level of Javanese; a.k.a. Krama; pronounced and sometimes written as ‘Kromo Madyo’. Kromo Madyo is used in formal settings or when speaking to elders or superiors. This is the highest conversational level that is used across much of Java.
  • Jawa Krama Inggil—Inggil is the equivalent of halus, thus Krama Inggil is the smoothest version of Java’s language hierarchy; pronounced and sometimes written as ‘Kromo Inggil’. Kromo Madyo is the highest conversational form in most parts of Java and most people can not speak or understand Kromo Inggil. In these areas, Kromo Inggil is still used by the educated few in very sophisticated situations or during theatre. The area that I live in is a little strange in that Kromo Inggil is actually used as the standard form for speaking to elders and superiors. Everyone can speak and understand Kromo Inggil, whereas Kromo Madyo is hardly used at all.
  • Bahasa Kawi—ancient court language of Java. Most people do not consider Kawi as a part of the Javanese language hierarchy because they consider it an entirely different language. Originally, it was written in an entirely different script than ancient Javanese. From my limited knowledge of the spoken language, however, Kawi is just as close to the other four levels as the other four levels are to each other. Kawi is rarely used, and very few people understand it. The most well educated dhalangs (wayang kulit puppet masters) still use Kawi for their performances even though most of the audience will not understand. My PST host-father in Malang was a rare example of a person who was fluent in Kawi.

The separation of these levels is fascinating to me, especially in the way that some levels are considered halus and others or not. I’ve been told that grammatical structures become a little more complicated in Kromo Inggil, but I haven’t seen any real evidence of that yet. So far, it seems that the determination of halus is purely a subjective assignment to a particular set of vocabulary.

I assume that the stratification of linguistic levels comes from the social milieu implemented during Hindu rule of Java. It makes sense that there would have been different levels of appropriate language to go along with the different castes. It’s also easy to imagine a completely different language for the royalty and court officials governing the kingdom. In some ways, an entirely different court level of Javanese doesn’t seem too different than the esoteric form that legislation and legal documents take in English.

Learning Javanese has been a bit of an adventure for me. The level that I spent learning for two weeks in Malang has been completely useless to me at my site. Everything I have learned has come organically, and it wasn’t until recently that I started to make a real effort. I write all of the phrases that I learn in notebook. I color-code Ngoko Halus and Kromo to make the distinction easier to reference on the fly, but I have to use a lot of white-out when people debate which words belong to which level.

The interest in Javanese is appreciated, but I feel an immense pressure to be very conscious of the level I am using when I speak to various people at my school. Is he/she close enough in age to me? Should I still consider him/her a superior? What if a superior is also a close friend? Is it better to err on the side of politeness or do I run the risk of sounding hoity-toity and less-intimate if I use Kromo Inggil with a friend? These are all subtleties that I haven’t figured out yet. Luckily, people are forgiving and find my attempt to speak Javanese (or maybe just my accent) entertaining enough that I don’t think the level is of too much importance.

Outside of the context of a bule learning a few Javanese phrases, the level of Javanese you use with another person is important. The social role of Javanese linguistic hierarchy is emphasized in the literary works of Pramoedya Ananta Toer. Much of the drama in This Earth of Mankind—a book that deserves to be mentioned in the same vein as Into the Hart of Darkness and A Passage to India—is driven by the language that certain characters use with other characters.

7 (TUJUH!)

The number of ways I am expected to know how to use the word ‘you’ at my site. Perhaps the most important distinction between levels of Javanese and other local languages are the pronouns. Here are all of the forms of ‘you’ that I’ve learned at my site…

  • Kamu (B. Indonesia)—informal “you” that is used with close friends, peers, or those younger than you (Indonesian does not have entire levels like Jawa, but the pronouns are stratified as such).
  • Anda (B. Indonesia)—formal “you” that is used with elders and superiors or in formal settings.
  • Koên (B. Jawa Ngoko)— coarse form of “you” that is generally insulting or disparaging.
  • Sampeyan (B. Jawa Ngoko)—informal “you” used for close friends, peers, or those younger than you; Kamu can still be used in Jawa for the same purpose, but Sampeyan is more formal
  • Panjenengan (B. Jawa Kromo Inggil)—formal “you” for elders and superiors.
  • Riko (B. Osing)—the equivalent of Kamu or Sampeyan in Bahasa Osing.
  • Ndiko (B. Osing Halus)—the equivalent of Pangenengan in Bahasa Osing.
One major difference between the “you’s” of Indonesia’s languages and English is capitalization. In Indonesian and Javanese, “you” is always capitalized: Kamu, Anda, Sampeyan, Pangenengan, Riki, Ndiko (though I don’t know about Koên—it would be ironic to respectfully capitalize a coarse word). Words for I, however—saya, aku, and kulo—are never capitalized in the middle of a sentence.


The number of affix combinations that can be added to Indonesian root words in order to change the meaning. Ber+, me+, me-kan (di+), me-i, ke-an, -an, ter-, memper-, memper-kan, memper-i, pe-, pe-an/per-an, se-/se-nya, ber-an, ber-kan.

Indonesians learn these naturally, but they have been confusing for me. I spent twenty five hours in a classroom over four days with six other volunteers to study each of these prefixes during my ninth month of service. Each affix combination has a specific function that changes the root word that it is applied to. There are actually multiple functions for each affix that depend on whether or the root word is an adjective, noun, or verb.  This who system is not as complicated as it may seem, and it’s actually not too different from English.  Still, some of the lesser used affixes don’t come easily to me.  I’m afraid I’ll bore you if I explain things any further, but I’ll end by adding that I have made at least one mistake where I incorrectly used an affix and unknowingly turned a root word into an unflattering innuendo directed at myself.

 4 (EMPAT!)

The number of alphabets/spelling phonetics used by Javanese and Indonesian in the twentieth century. The original script of Java is a lacy alphabet called Hanacaraka. I don’t know much about Hanacaraka other than it looks very similar to Thai and Balinese and is quite beautiful. I also know that the main alphabet consists only of consonants. Vowel sounds are indicated by adding diacritics to each consonant.

Harcaraka is rarely used today. Students in SD (grade school) and SMP (junior high school) learn the script in their cultural lessons, but very few people end up being able to actually use it. My PST host father in Malang is a rare example of someone who is still literate in the old script. He still had a magazine subscription to a Javanese cultural publication that printed its articles in Hanacaraka.

There was another instance with Hanacaraka during IST (In-Service Training) when John A and I ended up in a back-alley buying dinner from a local warung (back-alley stories don’t usually go where I’m about to take you). The penjual (food seller) had a poster with the Hanacaraka alphabet that John and I were both eyeing closely. The man caught our curiosity and began a lengthy explanation of each character. He spoke quickly, used mostly Javanese, and didn’t seem interested in slowing down to ask if we understood. John and I left that warung with almost no new knowledge about Hanacaraka. Between my PST host-father, the guy in the alley, and a few other people who can write the script, I have never seen anyoneuse it to write down a note or anything else. Latin has completely replaced Hanacaraka as the dominant writing form across Indonesia.

Even the Latin alphabet has undergone some changes since it was introduced to the Javanese and Indonesian language. When Indonesian was first written, it used a Latin alphabet that was based on the Dutch alphabet, but many variations in spelling existed due to the fact that the language was not yet standardized. A phonetic spelling system was officially set when Indonesia declared independence and adopted Indonesian as the national language. The original orthography was still based on Dutch spellings. In the 1970’s, Malaysia and Indonesia came together to standardize their two spelling systems that had diverged during English and Dutch colonial rule. That system, which is still used today, eliminated all diacritics but they still crop up when teachers and students write in Indonesian and Javanese. The diacritics are especially pronounced when Javanese is written, and now that I think about it, I wonder if there even is an official Javanese alphabet for Latin characters.

The differences between Javanese and English phonetics plus the three alphabet pronunciation systems used during the course of Bahasa Indonesia’s history has resulted in several spelling permutations for places, historic figures, and even common words. Discrepancies are most evident when people write Javanese, but the teachers at my school argue regularly over the spelling of both Javanese and Indonesian words when they teach me new vocabulary.

The most well known example of various spellings is the multiple transliterations of Yogyakarta, the cultural capital of Java. The official government spelling is ‘Yogyakarta’ but it is also commonly spelled ‘Jogjakarta.’ I pressed and pressed my PST language teacher, a woman from Jogjakarta, on which form was better, but she insisted that both were fine and that she often used both. Still, other variations exist. During colonial times, the city’s name took the written form of ‘Djogdjakarta,’ a spelling that still survives for nostalgic and novelty reasons. In addition, the city’s name is often shortened to ‘Yogya,’ ‘Jogja,’ and sometimes ‘Djogdja.’ Common misspellings such as ‘Jogyakarta,’ ‘Yogjarkarta,’ etc. litter the internet making things even more confusing.

I’ve known of Jogjakarta before I knew anything about Jogjakarta or Indonesia. It was just one of those odd places that stuck out to me on maps mainly because it looked weird no matter how it was spelled. For what it’s worth, I prefer the spellings ‘Jogjakarta’ and ‘Jogja.’ For some reason, I’m biased towards the letter ‘j’.

Another spelling example from Indonesian history is the name of the country’s first president. During his lifetime, Sukarno used the colonial spelling to write and sign his name: ‘Soekarno.’ Today, the modern alphabet and the man’s name use a ‘u’ to signify the same sound as ‘oe’ did in the past spelling system. As far as I know, Soekarno/Sukarno’s daughter who served as president between 2001 and 2004, has only ever written her name as Megawati Sukarnoputri (the daughter of Sukarno), which I find interesting since it means she decided to spell her father’s name differently than the way he did.

Hopefully you found some or all of that interesting. There are a lot of different languages floating around Banyuwangi, so it would be almost impossible to write a short post about them. This is the context in which I teach English. It’s always perplexing to me when a counterpart ridicules our students for not being able to learn English even though “Pak Jay can learn Indonesian.” The truth is, my students know way more languages than I do and have course work in three other languages to distract them from their English studies. It’s a miracle any of them learn anything at all.


One response

  1. Hi Jay, nice to found you here, and i impressed to your article.. thanks being written about us, i’m from Jogja 😀
    sorry, my english is bad..

    2012 March 14 at 00.42

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