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Through the Eyes of Researcher: Balinese Language  

by on Saturday, 22 March 2008No Comment | 9,491 views

Here is an interesting piece of writing on Balinese language which is taken from Scott A Johnsen’s thesis which is entitled From Royal House to Nation: The Construction of Hinduism and Balinese Ethnicity In Indonesia:

A man from Denpasar explained to me the rise in importance of the Balinese language: “It used to be taboo to use too much Balinese in school, but now, because of regional autonomy, people use more Balinese. Balinese is the mother language (basa Ibu), [we] can’t forget.” Most people in Bangli told me that a renewed sense of the importance of preserving the Balinese language began in the 1980s. A number of radio shows use only Balinese; the host of one such show, Warung Bali, has said that this is intended specifically to increase the use of the local language. The Balinese government has made a number of efforts to expand the use of Balinese, including designating certain days as “Balinese language days” at offices.


These attempts to make Balinese the equal of the national language, Indonesian, have led to some interesting attempts to invent Balinese terms for things that could only be expressed in Indonesian. I was taught to say “good morning/afternoon/night” in Balinese (rahajeng semeng/sore/wengi), in phrasings copied from Indonesian models. Some people in Bangli found this very amusing, because these are high language forms heard mostly in media; they still sound forced to many Balinese. Brahmana priest Gunung, head of HC-Bali, has a good time making fun of such new Balinese words and phrases by making up his own:

The Indonesian language continues to be turned into Balinese: “Ratu Singgih Bupati (“Oh most exalted Regency Head”) [laughter – a form of address usually used towards Brahmana priests]; “Prabu Wewidangan” (local head official) [laughter – absurdly high Balinese terms]; “Tumpang Kalih Gianyar” (an administrative level in Gianyar regency) [laughter – spelling out “level two” (meaning regency level) in high Balinese]. This sort of language is a disaster. If it keeps on like this, Balinese will become like an ancient language, rarely used.

Bali Television experimented with doing the news in Balinese. They decided to do two news shows of almost identical content, one in Indonesian and then one in Balinese. The Balinese news, Orti Bali, routinely coined new words based on Indonesian forms, sometimes simply putting Balinese prefixes and suffixes on Indonesian verbs. I got most of my television news from Orti Bali in order to hone my Balinese, and then would bring up a few new words in conversation at local food stands. Words I had never heard before were, as often as not, words nobody had ever heard before. People of all castes would tell me that I was asking about rare words that nobody would ever use in conversation. I will leave a more thorough analysis of television news Balinese to a linguist, but many of the forms were of a higher language level than would be used in conversations with many high caste persons, and often used literary forms out of general usage. In many ways it was a new language level, Balinese at “media official discourse” level.

Besides innovations in language, Orti Bali experimented with translating all Indonesian in interviews into Balinese, ultimately stopping this practice. Across Balinese media, one can find shows entirely in Indonesian but rarely is anything entirely in Balinese. On call-in shows, some callers will use Indonesian even if the hosts respond in Balinese. Brahmana priest Gunung often switches between languages, and Balinese speakers in general freely lift words from Indonesian into their Balinese. Interestingly, Orti Bali often included more religious news than its nearly identical Indonesian twin. Many popularizers of Balinese feel that its strong association with religion limits the language, they want it to expand it to all domains like Indonesian. This has led them to the sorts of Indonesianizations that Priest Gunung ridicules above, making the task of “equality” for Balinese quite difficult.

The Balinese Language Conference of 2001 set forth a number of guiding principles, of which I have excerpted a few here:

  • The government has a duty to maintain the Balinese language and culture
  • Balinese should be used in different domains, including family, custom (adat), religion, the arts, etc.
  • Any Balinese groups using Balinese should be monitored by the Balinese government
  • We need print media that use Balinese
  • The Balinese language can increase the solidarity and identity of the Balinese people
  • Language levels should be kept as a form of respect
  • We need a computer program of Balinese characters, a Balinese dictionary [entirely in Balinese, not Balinese – Indonesian, etc.] and an encyclopedia in Balinese

I spoke with a high-caste man who had participated in this conference, and he was emphatic that Balinese language levels should be maintained as a form of respect. Many Balinese now view language levels as a “feudal” imposition on ethnic solidarity. This man’s point was that language levels need not only be used according to kinship/caste rank, they can also be used towards high government officials or other non-hereditary positions.

Whether or not this new model of language levels becomes dominant, the new fascination with the Balinese language has little to do with these levels. Language in this new sense has a different sort of reality, best conveyed through Balinese comments:

…Balinese culture is identical with the Balinese language. The Balinese language cannot be separated from Hinduism and Hinduism can’t be separated from the Balinese language. …the Balinese language is the mother language (bahasa ibu). Who wants their mother to die, surely they want her to have a long life? (…) Remember, national unity is preceded by local unity (persatuan daerah), and so national language has its roots in local languages. Guarding local languages means guarding the national language, and guarding local culture means guarding national culture. This is our duty. (…) I support the idea of “Balinese Language Day,” it is like being hot and thirsty for years and then being showered with holy water (tirta amerta).

  • letter from Putu Maniaka S.Pd.
  • Besides the clear equation of the Balinese language with the emic culture concept, language here assumes a position reminiscent of that of land in nationalism, as a parent. Evoking what Handler calls “the negative vision” (Handler 1988:47), language becomes equated with a threatened Balinese existence. The writer also applies the layered logic of culture just explicated above, in which local forms support national ones. Finally, the writer equates language with holy water, again invoking the principle of life.

    Pursuing this theme of threatened life, a writer in Sarad makes clear that language follows the model of cultural heirlooms: “If [the Balinese language dies out], the Balinese people… will no longer have the key to unlock the chest containing the cultural inheritance of the ancestors.”43 Finally, a writer in the Bali Post conceives of language along the lines of what I have called a substance/similarity, using phrasing that simply could not embody this concept more clearly:
    [Local language] is like a heart that pumps culture (ibaratnya ia tak lain sebagai jantung yang mendenyut-denyutkan kebudayaan). It carries the local culture from moats to the rivers, and from lakes to the sea. Local language flows like water, collecting below and then pooling above (lokal – nasional – internasional).

  • A.A. Gde Putera Semadi, Bali Post
  • Language and culture are equated first with blood, and this is the sort of parallel with models of substance that I have in mind with the concept of substance/similarity. This writer also unmistakably applies the Balinese cosmology of waters flowing downstream to the sea and returning to the sky – and then, wonderfully, equates this three-part cycle somewhat loosely with the spread of local culture to a national and international level. Ideas of the “three waters” clearly evoke kinship concepts: the flow of ancestors and semen, as well as agricultural water (Schulte Nordholt 1986:21). Thus, language is here equated directly with blood, and indirectly with ancestors and semen.

    Since Balinese is clearly of vital importance, maybe anyone who comes to Bali should be required to know it:

    In Holland new citizens are required to study Dutch language and culture. Can’t we do this in Bali for those who come for jobs? They should be required to study Balinese. It should also be required for those who marry Balinese.

  • letter from Ignatius Suharto, Denpasar
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