Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Miracle of Bahasa Indonesia and Arabic

Nikolaos van Dam / Jakarta Post
October 13, 2011


It has always been the dream and wish of many Arabs that everyone should speak the same classical Arabic. Arabic dialects are considered by some Arab linguists to be a degenerate form of the language of the Koran, or of the Arabic supposedly spoken by the Prophet Muhammad.

In reality, however, Arabic dialects have always existed, even during the time of the Prophet Muhammad. It would actually have been an anomaly if the Arabian Peninsula would have been a homogeneous linguistic area.

For it is only normal that there are regional varieties in languages spoken over a larger territory. The Arabic of the Qur'an, therefore, was one of many varieties, also in the past. Language variations that existed at the time of the rise of Islam are even reflected in minor differences in readings of the Qur'an.

The Arab Islamic armies coming from the Arabian Peninsula and conquering Greater Syria and Mesopotamia, as well as North Africa, all brought their particular dialects with them, and they and their descendants “Arabized” the populations in the conquered regions in their own particular ways. Arabic dialects subsequently developed separately, growing further apart also as a result of language mingling with the various languages then spoken in the conquered territories; the highly diverse Arabic language of today is its natural result.

Among Arab nationalists, the ideal continues to be that all Arabs should speak the same classical language variety. The reality is, however, that nobody speaks classical Arabic, or modern, standard Arabic, as a mother tongue, be it at home or in other informal social environments. It would be unrealistic, therefore, to expect that classical Arabic will ever become the unified social language of the Arabs, which it has never been. Nevertheless, this desire remains of undiminished central importance as a unifying factor for the Arab world.

The development of Indonesian, (originally Malay), has historically been rather different from that of Arabic. A century ago, Malay was spoken only by a minority in the territory, which today constitutes the Republic of Indonesia. Less than 10 percent of the population spoke Malay as their natural, mother tongue; it was a majority language in particular parts of Sumatra only. From there, and from the Malaysian Peninsula, or the “Malay motherland” in the wider sense, it spread via tradesmen to limited areas elsewhere in the Indonesian archipelago where, over the centuries, it developed as a kind of traders’ lingua franca (Melayu pasar). It was only during the 1920s that Malay started to be developed into a new standard language, which was later named Bahasa Indonesia.

The initially somewhat artificial language was based on the former official language used in the royal correspondence of the Malay Johor-Riau Kingdom. This formal language, which was not a spoken, daily language like the Malay dialect of the Riau area, was further developed, initially by Dutch colonial linguists like Van Ophuijsen.

At a later stage, Indonesian nationalist linguists started playing an important role, some with a Sumatran Minangkabau Malay background, like Sutan Takdir Alisjahbana, as well as Indonesians from other regions. It resulted in a very successful example of “language planning”; it was a miracle that this language, originally labeled General Cultivated Malay, became, within a century, the official language all over Indonesia, from Sabang to Merauke.

It was a new language in the sense that it had not generally been written, let alone spoken, in this form in Indonesia before the Sumpah Pemuda, or Youth Pledge, of Oct. 28, 1928, or before the end of the Dutch colonial era. The language succeeded in attaining the strong position of a unifying language for most Indonesians.

Although it had apparently been the official intention to teach everyone the same standard Bahasa Indonesia, in practice various forms of colloquial Indonesian dialects developed as well. Malay dialects, which had already been spoken previously, remained relatively unaffected. Jakartan Indonesian developed into the most prominent and prestigious dialect. (It should be noted that Jakartan is not the same as Betawi, which is a much older Malay dialect spoken in Jakarta, formerly Batavia).

In theory, there had been the possibility for Bahasa Indonesia to achieve the ideal, which many Arabs had envisaged for their language, namely to have everyone speak one single official language as a mother tongue. In practice, however, things did not work out that way. This was probably also the result of the fact that teachers of Indonesian mixed the official language with regional elements of their own languages, or with their various Malay dialects.

Having studied only the official form of Bahasa Indonesia, I was surprised to discover that it is nowhere spoken spontaneously in its pure form as a home language or mother tongue. The differences between Bahasa Indonesia and the so-called dialects, whether considered “slang” or not, are generally big enough for non-Indonesians (who only know the official Indonesian) to not fully understand varieties of informal language. Conversely, something similar applies to less educated Indonesians, who may have difficulty in completely understanding the official language.

Is this a negative phenomenon? I think it just reflects the reality that dialects tend to develop next to an official language, and will almost inevitably keep existing alongside it.

This phenomenon, called diglossia, is known to exist in many countries, and as such, is to be perceived as a very normal thing, although this fact is not always recognized or acknowledged. Next to Bahasa Indonesia and a variety of colloquial Indonesian, there are also many Indonesians who know a regional language, such as Javanese, Sundanese or one of the other hundreds of local languages. In a language situation of this sort, we might even have to speak of triglossia, or even multiglossia. For instance, Javanese Indonesians are expected to be able to switch between three varieties, depending on the social context.

There is not much that can be done against diglossia or triglossia, or even multiglossia, except for — in the Indonesian case — creating a strong awareness that a high-level Bahasa Indonesia should be taught in schools and other educational institutions, with the message that it is a very beautiful and sophisticated form of Indonesian, which has played a vital role in uniting the people of Indonesia. This unifying role deserves to be well maintained, just as is the case with Arabic.

Language purists tend to want to enforce certain formal language forms. They can never dictate, however, what people speak at home, and efforts to impose their linguistic standards may even help create a dislike for the official language. What they, and others, can do, however, is to stimulate a strong affection for Bahasa Indonesia in such a way that the people of Indonesia will like to also speak this language in their daily lives.

* The writer is a former ambassador of the Netherlands to Indonesia (2005-2010), as well as to Germany, Turkey, Egypt and Iraq. A fully updated edition of his best-known book, The Struggle for Power in Syria, was published recently. He studied Arabic and Indonesian language and literature at Leiden University in the Netherlands.


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Recognising the Closeness Between Christians and Muslims

Dicedok dari: Michael Thomas/IDS
August 4, 2011

The French film "Des Hommes et Des Dieux" (Of Gods and Men), is the best film of the year.

It thoroughly examines religion and fanaticism, and it is especially timely in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Oslo committed by a professed Christian.

It is the true story of French monks who were murdered in Algeria in the 1990s during a period of civil unrest. The brothers decided to stay in their small town, even at great personal risk. Pressures to leave the little town surrounded the monks.

Their love for the Muslim people around them and their unwillingness to fear the tyranny of death were the chief motivations to stay. And stay they did. The film is a beautiful meditation on love and hope, brotherhood and fidelity. It also demonstrates the potential closeness between Muslims and Christians.

In the film, the Catholic brothers and priests are invited to Muslim religious celebrations and consulted in times of trial. One of the brothers is a doctor for impoverished Muslims in the community, and young people from the town help the monks with their gardens.

In the village of Tibhirine, between Muslim citizen and Catholic monk, there is mutual love. The Quran is quoted in the film to the same effect: “The nearest to the faithful are those who say ‘We are Christians.’ That is because there are priests and monks among them and because they are free of pride.”

The identity of the brothers’ killers is still a mystery. Some speculate they died at the hands of Muslim religious fanatics. Others argue the monks were murdered by the state. I would have to side with the second suggestion.

Local military leaders hate the monks for their willingness to treat wounded terrorists and for their unwillingness to allow military protection in their monastery. However, Muslim terrorists who broke into the monastery for medical supplies left the monks in a spirit of fellowship and respect. Muslims and Christians are not enemies. Muslims and Christians are together enemies of violence and hatred.

They are both the enemies of secularism. When the French Abbot was threatened by a Muslim terrorist, he quoted the passage above from the Quran.

In other words, he was not dismissing Islam as violent, but calling this Muslim man to live his own religion more faithfully. The two parted unharmed.

The terrorists in the film were responsible for violence, certainly. They did so because they did not live up to their own creed: that of the state.

Whenever secular military leaders committed violence, they did live up to their creed. Anders Behring Breivik recently murdered people in the name of Christianity in Oslo. He did not behave as a Christian in the same way that Muslim terrorists in Tibhirine did not behave as Muslims.

Rather, these violent actions committed in the name of two great faiths are perversions of their teachings. Instead of dismissing all religious people as fanatics — or religion as breeding fanaticism — it is better to recognize that some fanatics happen to consider themselves to be religious.

This remains true­ whether you’re in Norway or Algeria, or whether you call yourself a Muslim or a Christian. What is more powerful than any violence is the love these religions have brought to the world.


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