Languages Lost and Found: Javanese Going to Hell in Handbasket

by Translation Guy on June 29, 2012

When in Java, you must speak Javanese one day a week. It’s the law. Which day of the week has not been mandated, which I guess insures freedom of speech.

The provincial parliament in central Java, the most populous island in Indonesia, took these legislative steps to save the language. There is “a tendency for many Javanese people to not to use Javanese in their daily lives,” according to provincial councilor Muhammad Zain.

With 75 million speakers, it’s hard to think of Javanese as a language in danger. Even though it is not a national language in Indonesia, it is the native language of about 40% of all Indonesians. There is a vast and ancient literature, and Javanese remains a language of instruction in certain parts of Java, is broadcast on TV throughout the Island and can be found all over the Web.

Bahasa Indonesia,  the national language of Indonesia, is the daily language of most Javanese, but is not seen as a threat as the main threat, according to officials. That role belongs to English, the language of the future and gateway to opportunity on the tongues of many young Javanese. “Javanese feels like the past: the language grandma uses to write recipes and your Facebook friends abroad would find iffy. So claim the law’s advocates,” according to Marc Herman of the Pacific Standard.

Javanese usage is devolving to the status of a kitchen language as usage declines. The language has three different levels of politeness, ngoko, is an informal vocabulary used with intimates, madya, a semi-formal mode of expression used when greater social distances are involved, while Krama is a formal mode of expression used to show respect to elders or superiors. Javanese whippersnappers’ krama is crash and burn, say the old timers, since these today just don’t know how to speak politely. Neither can their teachers, say critics, and text books are lacking, but the biggest problem seems to be an attitude among the young is that Javanese is a geezer language, not suited for work or entertainment. The vocabularies of speakers are shrinking as common use of the language decreases.

Bahasa Indonesia faces similar problems in the face of English, at least according to the New York Times. “In 1928, nationalists seeking independence from Dutch rule chose Indonesian, a form of Malay, as the language of civic unity. While a small percentage of educated Indonesians spoke Dutch, Indonesian became the preferred language of intellectuals.

“Each language had a social rank, said Arief Rachman, an education expert. ‘If you spoke Javanese, you were below…. ‘If you spoke Indonesian, you were a bit above. If you spoke Dutch, you were at the top.’

“With Indonesia’s democratization in the past decade, experts say, English became the new Dutch.”

Despite English inroads, Indonesian and Javanese are sure to outlast most of the other 726 languages spoken in Indonesia, with 81 slated for extinction and hundreds more likely to follow.

I hope to hear from my Indonesian readers if these language stories are true or just the gin-soaked fantasies of foreign correspondents gone to tropical seed.


  1. Rita Tropea says:

    Its a shame that so many languages are disappearing to the point governments have to legislate to save them.

  2. I imagine that the Indonesian government could have better spent their time, considering that most evidence leads me to believe this language isn’t actually under threat

  3. Sandy says:

    I really don’t think Javanese is under threat, I think this is just a knee jerk reaction to globalization fueled by anti-Western sentiment

    • Ken says:

      Yup. They’ll do that.

  4. I’m not sure how a law like this could be enforced, given the massive population and that no day is actually mandated.

  5. Great article, I really enjoy being kep up to date on issues like this

  6. Wouldn’t it be a more effective tactic to invest in teaching more people, creating better textbooks, etc. than making this poorly crafted law.

    • Ken says:

      That’s part of the plan too, Paul.

  7. Unwieldy and unenforcable laws aren’t really laws at all

  8. Bob says:

    This kind of thing has been done before in Quebec and Catalonia, but at least there the laws were actually enforcable

  9. Marie says:

    I’ve done trips to the South Pacific for business for decades and have never found a shortage of people speaking their native language, which is problematic for me as a not very multi-lingual guy.

  10. Warren says:

    Legislating something like this is like passing laws as to which way the wind should blow.

    • Ken says:

      Downwind, right?

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