A recent article in The Jakarta Post caught my eye: “Taking Action to Preserve Javanese Language.” It was about a youth community in Yogyakarta, working with Wikipedia in an effort to revitalize the Javanese vernacular. Such ventures are nothing new in linguistically-diverse Indonesia where, since even before independence in 1945, the credo of “One Language, One Nation,” has served to strengthen national unity—but at the expense of local languages. While Indonesian is taught in schools and other learning institutions, local languages have been relegated to secondary importance. What is new today seems to be a growing awareness, even alarm, that the loss of a home tongue may spell the end of local culture and identity.
The data on local languages throughout Indonesia is mind-boggling: 726 languages—second in the world only to Papua New Guinea, which has a whopping 823. The number of speakers of these vernaculars vary considerably. Only 13 have a million or more native speakers, accounting for 69.9 percent of the total population. Those include Javanese (75.2 million speakers), Sundanese (27 million), Malay (20 million), Madurese (13.6 million), Minangkabau (6.5 million), Batak (5.1 million), Buginese (4 million), Balinese (3.8 million), Acehnese (3 million), Sasak (2.1 million), Makasar (1.6 million), Lampung (1.5 million) and Rejang (1 million). The remaining 713 languages have a total of 41.4 million speakers.
The Indonesian Linguistic Society (Masyarakat Linguistik Indonesia), a professional organization founded in 1975 with the goal of developing a scientific study of language, is currently in the process of mapping the country’s indigenous written languages, of which there are 540.
The effort to restore and revitalize movement Indonesia’s local languages seems to have caught the interest of non-Indonesians too. Concerned about the potential disappearance of Balinese, American scholar Alissa Stern set up the non-profit Basa Bali Foundation to promote Balinese language and culture and has created a formidable library and archive of Balinese-language books and documents while working with schools and other institutions to disseminate relevant information.
We at Lontar have been doing our part by translating and promoting regional languages and literature. Take, for instance, I La Galigo, a retelling of the Buginese classical tale by Muhammad Salim. Or Blossoms of Longing, written in classical Javanese. And, of course, Illuminations, Lontar’s landmark work on the various writing traditions found in Indonesia. And very soon we will launch In the Small Hours of the Night, the first-ever anthology of Sundanese short stories in English translation. Be on the lookout for this newest release of Lontar!