Tuesday, 22 June 2010

The New Babel

According to an article in the New York Times, New York is home to as many as 800 languages with many of them in danger of disappearing, making the city a laboratory of world languages in decline. As national languages all over the world tend to dominate a country’s main language and English creeping in to even the most remote corner, many local languages are fast dying out at their places of origin.

New York on the other hand, finds itself a Babel for all sorts of exotic languages and dialects brought over by immigrants who came to the US for various reasons and who kept the language alive, at least, while there are enough people around who remember how to speak it. Apparently Bukhari, a Bukharian Jewish language, has more speakers in Queens than in Uzbekistan or Tajikistan. While a professor searching for the language of Mamuju, found a native speaker not in Indonesia, but in 67 year old Husni Husain from Queens who learned the language as a child when he grew up in West Sulawesi.

A large number of these hundreds of ethnic languages are fast disappearing however, as the original native speakers grow old and die, burying their languages with them. Efforts are being made by the professor to record and identify these dying languages, that often have no written alphabet, and to encourage native speakers to teach them to compatriots.

It’s always sad to hear about anything dying out. However the thing about a language is that it can only last, develop and thrive if it is used as an active medium of communication. In a world becoming increasingly multi-ethnic and globalised many ethnic languages are already becoming strangers in their own homeland as the culture become marginalised and perhaps even abandoned altogether. ‘Betawi’ used to be the spoken language in Jakarta. Now it is rarely heard except in the fringes amongst low income native Jakartans. People living in Jakarta speak in ‘Bahasa’, except when they’re at home with their parents or return to their home villages.

Why am I interested in languages? It is because many of us are now brought up in a multi-cultural environment speaking or exposed to different languages. Through mixed marriages, through upbringing, through education and through our social environment. A language is a window to an identity, it’s culture, character and tradition: Even the speakers’ general temperament, sense of humour and values. However, when the language you speak is different to that of your parents,’ that sense of continuity diminishes.

When my parents were alive they would speak to each other solely in the West Sumatran Minang language. Being born and raised in Bandung, West Java, and never been to their villages in West Sumatra, I naturally assumed it was their own special language as everybody else around spoke in the local Sundanese dialect or Indonesian with a Sundanese accent. They themselves would speak to me in ‘Bahasa’.

When we moved to England my parents continued to speak to each other in Minang while they switched to talking to me in English as my ‘Bahasa’ diminished with the passing years. So, while my parents continued to hold on to their identity until the day they died, they were Minang through and through, my identity however, was not so clear. At school in England, when I referred to ‘we’ it was not referring to myself and my parents, but myself and my little English friends in our home country in England. (None of them then knew where or what Indonesia was anyway).

I speak in Bahasa to the family, however, if people ask me where I’m from, if they are Indonesian I would always say I’m Minang. I understand the Minang language. It’s just that I don’t speak it or have ever lived there. My stomach cannot even tolerate the hot and spicy food. It’s just one of those things.

Meanwhile, I have a niece who now lives in Taiwan and speaks Mandarin, and another studying French in Paris. My sisters definitely don’t speak to them in Minang. None professes any desire to live in the home village though we are fiercely proud of it.

My good friend has an even more complicated identity. Her father is Batak from North Sumatra (who speaks Batak with his side of the family), while her mother is German. She understands German when her mother speaks to her but rarely responds in German. Similarly, she understands a bit of Batak but doesn’t really speak it or has ever lived in the region. The language she feels comfortable conversing in is in Bahasa and in English. And she would describe herself as either Batak or German whenever it is to her advantage, but for the most part, she feels neither.

As more and more of the older generation in the village pass away, while more and more of the younger people move out to settle in the cities and raise their families elsewhere, it is also only a matter of time before the language goes into a decline and fade away for good… and it might one day be discovered by a professor in New York who’s compiling a list of endangered languages.

(Desi Anwar: First Published in The Jakarta Globe)


  1. Hi Desi, it is a good article. I am just curious if you had any information how many languages do we have in Indonesia. Is it as many as the tribe are or we had even more?

  2. As far as I know "bahasa" means "language".
    You never said "saya bisa bahasa", you say "saya bisa bahasa Indonesia", oder?

    *made the same mistake a long time ago*


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