The Indonesian language has an extremely important role in the Republic of Indonesia, where it serves as the official national language and acts as a unifying force as the common tool of communication in a country where hundreds of languages coexist.

Relationship to the Malay Language

The Indonesian language is technically a dialect of the Malay language, a member of the Indonesian branch of the Austronesian, or Malayo-Polynesian, language family. The Indonesian language, also known as Bahasa Indonesia, traces its roots back to the literary Malay language that was used by royals in the Riau-Jambi region of Sumatra.

The earliest known examples of the Malay language are found in the Kedukan Bukit inscription dating to the 7th century. Found on a small stone, the inscription was discovered in the early 1900s by the River Tatang.

Indonesian and Malay: A Close Relationship

Indonesian still has much in common with other Malay dialects as well as the standard Malay language, the official language of Malaysia. The primary differences between standard Indonesian and Malaysian exist in pronunciation, vocabulary, and accent. Differences between the two languages are believed to have developed due to various influences, as the Dutch and Javanese languages came to influence the Indonesian language and the English to influence Malaysian.

Still, the two languages retain close ties. In order to facilitate communication and commerce between Indonesia and Malaysia, in 1972 the two countries’ governments agreed on a revised standardized spelling of the language that would be used in both countries. This allowed for the free exchange of Malaysian and Indonesian literature and improved communication between the countries.

Dutch Colonization of Indonesia

Contact with the Dutch via trade and later colonization has left a lasting impression on Indonesia and its language. A form of Malay pidgin known as Bazaar Malay, literally “market Malay,” became the basis for the language used by the Dutch in Indonesia during colonization.

As early as 1602, the Dutch East India Company was competing with Portugal and England for dominance over the trade market in Indonesia. Over time, the Dutch penetrated the area of Java and expanded their regime over other regions of the Indonesian archipelago. It was not until after the World War II that Indonesia gained its independence.

Indonesian Independence 1945: Indonesian as an Official Language

Since the early 20th century, the Indonesian language has been widely accepted throughout Indonesia. The language was accepted without question thanks largely to the fact that it has no distinct associations with social hierarchy or the domination of any one ethnic group.

The Indonesian language played a significant role in Indonesia’s 1945 independence, as it was the language used by members of the nationalist movement who orchestrated revolution and independence for the country. Upon independence, Indonesian was also declared the official language of the country. Since that time, Indonesian has served as the primary language of print media, educational institutions, scientific research, popular culture, and political communication.

Multitude of Languages in Indonesia

Of the several hundred languages spoken throughout Indonesia, the Bahasa Indonesian language is the most prominent. The majority of the languages in Indonesia share Austronesian language family roots, although there are exceptions.

The multitude of languages in Indonesia is truly amazing. For example, in eastern Indonesia every island has its own language and, in most cases, individuals from one island are unable to understand those from another. Such vast linguistic differences also can be found among villages in some regions of Indonesia.

The Indonesian Language as a Unifying Force Today

Due to fact that so many diverse languages are spoken throughout Indonesia, the Indonesian language has a very important role as a unifying force throughout the country. Indonesian is spoken as a mother tongue by only a small minority of the country’s population; however, many of Indonesia’s residents claim it as a second language.

The importance of the Indonesian language to the country’s unity cannot be underestimated. In a country where literally hundreds of languages coexist, Indonesian serves as an essential common language throughout the archipelago. It is used in government, schools, business, and popular culture throughout Indonesia.

“Proper” Indonesian Language

While it serves as a common tool of communication throughout Indonesian, the “proper” standard Indonesian language is rarely used in everyday speech. Standard correct Indonesian can be found in print media, television and radio programs and literature, but few Indonesian speakers make use of the correct Indonesian language in their daily lives.

Most inhabitants of Indonesian tend to combine characteristics of “proper” Indonesian with elements of their local languages or dialect. This has greatly contributed to the vast variety of dialects found within Indonesia, as has the prevalence of Indonesian slang found in more urban areas.

Written Indonesian Language

The Indonesian language is written using a Latin alphabet. For the most part, spelling is phonetically precise, so that words are spelled as they sound. The standard Indonesian has undergone a number of spelling change since independence. Spelling reforms of 1972 were undertaken with Malaysia, in an attempt to facilitate communication between Malaysia and Indonesia.

Some examples of such changes are the replacement of “oe” with “u” and of “dj” with “j.” Although these spelling changes rid the Indonesian language of some of its Dutch influence, evidence of Dutch influence still can be found today, especially in proper names.

Loanwords in the Modern Indonesian Language

The modern Indonesian language makes use of many loanwords from a wide variety of other languages. The influence of former Dutch colonialism is still evident, as Indonesian claims thousands of loanwords from the Dutch, more than any other single language.

Other languages from which Indonesian has borrowed words include Persian, Chinese, and Arabic, to name only a few. Although the Indonesian language has many loanwords, the majority of its vocabulary is derived from its Austronesian heritage.


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