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English versus Indonesian: Less Nationalism?

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This is my favourite linguistic quiz – derived from my childhood, which was heavily ensnared by Javanese aristocrats. I resented almost everything aristocratic with their low bows, squat-walks and at least three different levels of Javanese language to master. Being practical, aside from being slightly negligent, I completely mastered only one Javanese language of the lowest class, which was fair enough as it was most widely used. Back to the linguistic game, its original version is played in the low-class Javanese language. The solemn purpose of the quiz is purely to ridicule the richness of the national language, Bahasa Indonesia.

If you can tell me what the literal translation of the following sentence in Bahasa Indonesia is, I’ll be your sex slave for a week. The Javanese sentence is ‘pite kunduran trek’ and the English translation is ‘the bicycle is reversed over by a truck’. Yes, the expression can be found both in Javanese and English, the rich languages with long roots and history. Mind you, the sentences in both languages are in passive form – and literally mean that there is a bicycle that is reversed over by a truck. And no, ‘kemunduran’ is not the literal translation for ‘reversed over’. The best Bahasa Indonesia translation I can come up with is ‘sepedanya terlindas truk yang mundur’, which is pretty close but still is not the same. The Bahasa Indonesia version probably carries a similar meaning but yet the action of the truck is not described in passive form. If we literally translate the Bahasa Indonesia version back into English (yes, I do this everyday, I love to mess up other people’s brains when I have nothing else more meaningful to do), the sentence will be ‘the bicycle was run over by the reversing truck’.

I’m pretty sick of the so-called nationalists relaying their biased criticisms in national newspapers or other media, over Indonesian people who prefer English to Bahasa Indonesia for their daily communication. So tell me mate, what’s wrong with using English in this multiracial country? Is there something infidel about the Queen’s language? As long as those people use the language properly and they have their own reasons to do so, why not?

I mean we have to admit – Bahasa Indonesia is very limited, not very flexible and its initial vocabulary is very basic. In recent years, to catch up with more modern language development, it has derived words from foreign languages, mainly English. This is funny, if an Indonesian converses in English in a public place, he or she will be stamped as a non-nationalist and arrogant, but if an Indonesian speaks say, the Javanese language in a public place, will he or she be critiqued? No, because Javanese doesn’t represent a foreign influence on society. It’s a tad similar to Soeharto’s past actions urging Indonesian businessmen to use Indonesian words to describe their business, while he himself spoke Bahasa Indonesia with heavy Javanese influence.

In the past, I was responsible for a gastronomic section in the Indonesian edition of an international lifestyle magazine. I had to write in Bahasa Indonesia. One night I was invited to attend a Chef’s Table in a restaurant in one of Jakarta’s boutique hotels. With a tiny notebook on my lap, I savoured the food served in front of me, wondering how the hell I’d be able explain the flavours in Bahasa Indonesia. I wanted to write: ‘The lingering flavour of Caesar Salad Soup in my mouth gave a sensational zest of velvety yet crunchy Coz leaves and anchovy’. Try to translate that into Bahasa Indonesia without using the word ‘kriuk-kriuk’ (crunchy) and the lame words of ‘rasa enak’ (‘enak’ is the obligatory Bahasa Indonesia word for delicious, tasty, palatable and one hundred other English expressions for delicious). Basically ‘enak’ means simply ‘nice’.

Without belittling the national language, people who are fluent in both English and Bahasa Indonesia understand how the Malay-based language is sometimes a bit impractical to use. On a lot of occasions I found myself trying to describe something in Bahasa Indonesia and ended up using a dozen words while I could have described the same thing in English in just two words. Like – a family tree? Or what about infidels? Intellectually challenged? Hanky-panky?

I used to work with this Kiwi guy who lived in Indonesia a long time and he spent most of his time learning the language from bar girls. Of course, he thought he spoke the language really well, even with his heavy infamous ‘kampung’ accent and all. When he spoke, he ended all of his Bahasa Indonesia sentences with ‘dong’. One day he called me and started to explain something in Bahasa Indonesia. I had to drop my IQ a few points lower to try to understand what he meant. At the end I told him to stuff his gibberish and explain the situation again to me in proper English. He was offended. He thought I was an arrogant wench. Served him right, he gave Bahasa Indonesia a bad name.

I am not being arrogant at all here. There’s another expression: if you have a Porsche, why would you drive a Toyota? Ouch, that one hurts. What I mean is if you have found the easiest method to express yourself, why chose the more difficult one? It’s just a matter of practicality. It has nothing to do with either nationalism or arrogance or with the ‘O, I have been abroad and I speak English’ attitude. Though I do have to admit that sometimes some Indonesian overseas graduates do have that ‘cleverer than thou’ tendency.

Bahasa Indonesia has been declared Indonesia’s national language. But every Indonesian still has the right to use other languages to communicate, to suit their purposes. Indonesians still have the right to speak Javanese, Sundanese, Papuan, Chinese, English, Dutch, Tarzan or any other language whenever they want to and its use is proper. By using other languages than Bahasa Indonesia, an Indonesian can’t be criticised as someone who has less nationalism than one who speaks perfect Bahasa Indonesia all the time. It is their right, their choice of how to communicate. Like our Yankee brothers said in their First Amendment, freedom of speech is one of every citizen’s basic freedoms.

First published in the Jakarta Post, 30 May 2004.

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