Is Bahasa Indonesia stagnating, and impeding the nation's progress? The Jakarta Post

A woman street vendor who sells drinks and food walks on the street in Jakarta Sept 1, 2015.
A woman street vendor who sells drinks and food walks on the street in Jakarta Sept 1, 2015. PHOTO: REUTERS

Failure to develop the national language could explain the sense of stagnation in society, including in the arts, literature and culture.

Endy M. Bayuni

The Jakarta Post/Asia News Network

My three-year old grandson speaks a lot, probably too much for his minders who have to listen to him and answer his questions all day long.

By now, he must have mastered about 100 words - mostly Indonesian and a few English words, and one or two Javanese and Minang - and he learns new words every day and tries to use them all to express himself.

It's fascinating to see how his speaking skills evolve and develop - starting with his first word Abu, which is what he calls me, his grandpa, to his ability to string words into complete sentences.

But with a vocabulary limited to only 100 words, he tends to repeat himself throughout the day.

If the number of words he masters and uses reflects his ability to express himself, could this also be true about Bahasa Indonesia? I mean, if the number of words in the Indonesian language is limited, or even decreasing, are we not limiting our ability to express ourselves?

This coming week, as the nation celebrates Bahasa Indonesia as a uniting language, we should give some thought to the possibility that our failure to develop our national language could explain why there is a sense of stagnation in society, including in the arts, literature and culture.

On Oct 28, we will be marking Sumpah Pemuda, the historic day in 1928 when youth representatives from all over what was then the Dutch East Indies gathered in Jakarta to recite the Youth Pledge: One country, Indonesia; One nation, Indonesia; one language, Indonesian."

Indonesia then became the rallying cry for independence, which Indonesia proclaimed on Aug 17, 1945.

In celebrating Sumpah Pemuda, we rightly take pride that Bahasa Indonesia is the one uniting force that has kept this nation together despite the over 700 languages and dialects spoken across the archipelago.

We may fight and we may argue among ourselves constantly, but as long as we do it in the same language, the majority of us still believe in Indonesia.

There is no danger of the country disintegrating, not now after 70 years of shared nationhood.

But the time has come for us to celebrate Bahasa Indonesia more critically and stop taking it for granted.

If language is the most important form of expression, are we treating Bahasa Indonesia as we should? Is Bahasa Indonesia developing as time passes?

If the number of words in a language's vocabulary is a measure of its strength, then does the fewer than 100,000 words in the official Indonesian dictionary indicate that the language is stagnating?

And is the nation as a whole stagnating along with its language?

Without going into the question of which language in the world has the largest number of words (because of different definitions of what constitute a word), we can say with certainty that Indonesian has one of the fewest.

Going by the analogy of my three-year grandson, we may not feel we have a problem expressing ourselves, but we are likely to repeat ourselves.

Granted, like the debate about penis size (excuse my French), it's not the size of your vocabulary that matters; it's how you use it.

But anyone whose profession involves writing know that the more words you master and use, the better you are at expressing yourself.

And those in the business of translating Indonesian books into major foreign languages, or translating foreign books into Indonesian, can tell you about the disadvantage of having so fewer words compared to, say, English or German.

The Indonesian translations will likely end up verbose and repetitive.

On the other hand, many foreign translations of Indonesian books read much better than their original version because the translators have more words at their disposal.

Try reading one of Pramoedya Ananta Toer's books in Indonesian and compare it with its English translation.

Minister of Education and Culture Anies Baswedan suggested earlier this year that we should allow Bahasa Indonesia to expand and embrace new words for it to become accepted as one of the global languages.

Anies drew fire when he said we should allow slang words used by young people, or what they call alay language, to be added to the official dictionary.

Bahasa Indonesia is as much their language as it is the older generations', since they will inherit the language anyway, he said.

The Bahasa Indonesia gatekeepers, whose job includes adding new words into the official dictionary each year as they come into common usage, should be more relaxed about expanding the language's vocabulary.

Anis also said Indonesia should explore from the more than 700 languages found in the archipelago for new words and expressions, and adapt them into Bahasa Indonesia.

Since Indonesian has embraced words from Sanskrit, Arabic, Portuguese, Dutch and now English, why not embrace foreign or indigenous words even more aggressively to enrich our language.

But how many words we add each year depends on how much we as a nation read and write.

And therein lies the main problem.

As a nation we do not read and write as much as many other nations.

Increasing national literacy will no doubt spur the development of Bahasa Indonesia.

Writers and the literary word will be the first beneficiaries of a rapidly expanding vocabulary in Bahasa Indonesia, and the nation will be all the richer for it.