Public Speaking: On Indonesian As the Language of the Nation
I n August 1998, an interviewer for an Indonesian news weekly asked Amien Rais, a major figure in national Islamic politics and founder of the National Mandate Party (Partai Amanat Nasional), why he had altered the name of the party from the originally proposed Partai Amanat Bangsa. He replied, “We chose Partai Amanat Nasional because it would be better translated into English as National Mandate Party, not People’s Mandate Party. Because the word people in English has leftist connotations” ( Amien 1998; English words italicized in the original; translation mine). Of course Amien Rais was making a shrewd political calculation in this bid for international support, but it is striking that he expresses the decision with reference to translation so unapologetically. He seems to find it a perfectly ordinary matter to encounter Indonesian as doubly foreign. Having been a childhood speaker of Javanese, he already comes to Indonesian as a second language. In addition, he readily imagines it from the perspective of English. Moreover, he has already, and one assumes unself-consciously, incorporated a socalled loan-word, nasional, into the Indonesian, as if in anticipation of this future translation.
Readers of Indonesian print media will be familiar with this pattern of glossing backward that seemingly views the language from the position of a hypothetical English-speaker—or of an Indonesian unsure of his or her words. What does a national language offer that so easily invites its speakers to take a view from afar? Certainly not the values of incommensurable local particularity. A dominant strand of Indonesian language ideology challenges assumptions that nationhood always demands to be naturalized with clear boundaries, stable locations, and deep origins. On the contrary, Indonesian, like perhaps Swahili or Filipino, and in contrast to many national, ethnic, and religiously freighted languages such as French, Gaelic, Hebrew, or Tamil, is not normally depicted as a language of ancient lineage or as a closely guarded cultural property.1 Nor has any of this seemed to trouble either its promoters or most ordinary speakers, for whom its “modernity” and relatively cosmopolitan character are taken for granted, if sometimes problematic.
The self-conscious modernity and even cosmopolitan claims of Indonesian as a national standard have been inseparable from a certain projection of otherness. This otherness is related to, but ideologically distinct from, the forms of linguistic difference characteristic of, for example, lingue franche, honorific registers, taboo vocabularies, scriptural and high literary languages, or commonplace plurilingualism. Like other linguistic forms, the national standard draws on semiotic features immanent in language per se, which underlie its potential for producing both intersubjectivity and objectification, for being disembedded from and reinserted into particular contexts, for providing speakers with a range of distinctive social “voices,” and for mediating their reflexivity.2 It does so, however, in order to underwrite Indonesian’s apparent potential as a superordinate and cosmopolitan language of purportedly anti-“feudal” (feodal) and reconstituted social and political identities. This promise is inseparable from the imaginability of the nation as a project of modernity and from the semiotics of its possible publics, both domestic and abroad—and it is this promise to which Amien Rais seems to be responding.
The Otherness of the National Language
Indonesian is a language whose ideological value has derived in part from being portrayed to its speakers as a markedly second and subsequent language. If it can seem, in some ways, to demand the sacrifice of one’s first language, or at least its relegation to the past, the private, the local, or the subjective, this potential loss often seems to provoke remarkably little mourning: ethnic language politics or revitalization movements have been surprisingly rare in the archipelago. If the national language does not inspire love in all who claim it, this is largely for other reasons, having to do with general paradoxes of national subjecthood and with the specific violence and tedium of an authoritarian state. And this suggests that the history of Indonesian still contains alternative futures, streams of heteroglossia lost underground that may yet surface as the post-Suharto state loses its centralizing ambitions or, at least, its ability to realize them. Moreover, for all the peculiarities of Indonesian colonial and postcolonial history, the rise of the national language and its attendant ideologies also reflect pervasive problems in the mediation of translocal identities and large-scale publics by semiotic practices.
As scholars such as James Siegel (1986,1997) and Joseph Errington (1998) have pointed out, the perceived otherness of Indonesian has at least two aspects. One is biographical: for most of its speakers Indonesian was acquired as a second language, in marked contrast to languages denoted as “local” (bahasa daerah; see Keane 1997a). The second is cognitive. In contrast to the first language children learn at home, and even to such second languages as are picked up, say, in playgrounds, plantations, or marketplaces, Indonesian is encountered as relatively objectified, something one learns by way of explicit rules. Unlike that first language, it is commonly spoken of as needing purposeful manipulation, to be “developed,” “modernized,” and made into a cosmopolitan literary vehicle.
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Versions of this article were presented at a conference on translation and anthropology sponsored by the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, at the Association for Asian Studies annual meetings, and at the University of Chicago, Columbia University, Cornell University, and the University of Michigan; aspects of the argument were discussed in the Michicagoan Linguistic Anthropology Faculty Workshop. Thanks to Pete Becker, Joe Errington, Nancy Florida, Sue Gal, Goenawan Mohamad, Ariel Heryanto, Mellie Ivy, Henk Maier, Rudolph Mrázek, John Pemberton, Beth Povinelli, Yopie Prins, Vince Rafael, Danilyn Rutherford, Lee Schlesinger, Henk Schulte Nordholt, Jim Siegel, and Amrih Widodo for their comments, and to the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, N.J., and the University of Michigan Humanities Institute for their support. I would like to thank Berg for permission to publish this essay, which will also appear in Translating Cultures: Perspectives on Translation and Anthropology, edited by Paula Rubel and Abraham Rosman (Berg, 2003).
- Bahasa Indonesia, literally “the language of Indonesia,” is a variant of Malay; whether the linguistic distinctions between them matter ideologically is highly context-dependent.
- Foundational texts on intersubjectivity, voice, objectification, and context in language include Benveniste 1971 and Volos?inov 1973; see also Hanks 1996; Lee 1997; Lucy 1993; and Silverstein and Urban 1996.