Indonesian Language History

In Indonesia, there are over 700 living languages, and the official Indonesian language is known as Indonesian Bahasa, a standardised form of Malay. Many Indonesian words are borrowed from other languages, including Javanese and Sundanese. In fact, most Indonesian people speak an alternative Indonesian language day-to-day, and they learn Indonesian Bahasa as a second language.

Despite the prevalence of local languages,Yet despite the many local language groups, Bahasa Indonesia is the lingua franca of the country, spoken fluently by most of the population. Indonesia is one of the largest nations globally, with 270 million people living across the various Indonesian islands. Therefore, the Indonesian language is one of the most widely spoken languages, despite the low number of first-language speakers.

The prevalence of many local Indonesian language groups is unsurprising when we consider that the country is the largest archipelago in the world. It consists of over 18,000 individual islands, of which only around 6,000 are uninhabited. As a result, many different dialects containing unique Indonesian words and pronunciations have emerged, making it one of the most linguistically diverse nations on our planet, second only to Papua New Guinea.

If you are interested in learning Indonesian language history, you are in the right place. This article looks at the evolution of the Indonesian Bahasa. We travel back to the origins of the first Indonesian words and explain how this language grew to become the standardised dialect used officially across the extensive island group.

Indonesian Language Origin

The Indonesian language is a Malayic language, a subgroup of the Austronesian languages spoken in the island nations of Southeast Asia. All Malayic languages can be traced back to 1000 BC Borneo when Proto-Malay split off from other Austronesian languages. This makes Proto-Malay (also known as Ancient Malay) the oldest known ancestor of Indonesian Bahasa.

Indian influence on the Indonesian archipelago saw Ancient Malay evolve into Old Malay during the 7th century. This early version of the Indonesian language was heavily influenced by Sanskrit due to its role in Indian culture. In particular, many Indonesian words were adopted from Hindu-Buddhist culture and religion, including dosa, pahala and surga.

Old Malay evolved into Classic Malay by the 14th century. Islam gained control in the region, and many Persian and Arabic words were added to the vocabulary. It quickly became the lingua franca of the Malay Empire, and many foreigners began learning Indonesian due to its role in diplomatic and missionary activities. Early European colonisation in the 16th century caused further changes to the language and Christianisation of the region.

Modern “Indonesian Language”

The European influence in the Malay archipelago continued to impact the language, which entered the pre-Modern Malay era in the 1800s. The British and Dutch wanted to learn about local Indonesian words and phrases as well as established many Indonesian learning centres in Europe. Meanwhile, the invention of the printing press saw a surge in Malay literature, classical writing and newspapers.

The thriving literature of the 19th century resulted in the evolution of Modern Malay in the British colonies of Malaysia and Brunei. Meanwhile, Indonesian Bahasa emerged in the Dutch colony of Indonesia. When Indonesia declared its independence in 1945, it was made the official language. However, Bahasa was only spoken by around 5% of the population at the time; Javanese was the primary Indonesian language, spoken by 45% of Indonesians.

The reason Bahasa became the official language is due to political concerns. Despite Javanese being widely spoken, the government did not want to favour one ethnic group. With thousands of islands in the archipelago, they needed a unifying language. Bahasa was an obvious choice as the primary language used across the islands for commerce and travel. It remains the official language of the country today.

Indonesian Bahasa Alphabet

Historically, the Malay language was written using various scripts. Old Malay was written in Pallava, Kawi, Rencong and Surat Ulu scripts. After the spread of Islam across the archipelago, these scripts were replaced by Jawi. The Jawi script is based on the Arabic script and is used for writing many Southeast Asian languages today, including Modern Malay, Acehnes, and Banjarese.

Modern Indonesian Bahasa, however, is written in the Latin alphabet. The Latin script was brought to the region during the Dutch colonial reign and consists of all 26 letters (A-Z). Initially, the Indonesian language used Dutch spelling. However, this changed in 1947 when the characteristically Dutch “oe” was changed to “u.” Further changes to official Bahasa orthography occurred in 1972, forming the spelling system used for Indonesian today.

You are taught to write using this Latin script when learning Indonesian words. However, Muslim communities still use the Jawi script for Bahasa in an unofficial setting. Around 14 other scripts are also used throughout the country to write other Indonesian language groups that you may see when travelling to the islands or learning Indonesian history. Examples include:

  • The Balinese script – an abugida used in Bali
  • The Javanese script – a traditional script primarily used in Java

The Alifuru script – a writing system originating from Maluku

Regional Language Variants

There is only one official language: Indonesian Bahasa. It is used by the government, in educational settings, in commerce, and in administration. As such, nearly every Indonesian person speaks Bahasa to some degree. However, we cannot neglect the other indigenous regional languages spoken in the archipelago on a day-to-day basis.

There are over 700 indigenous languages in total, with the number of speakers ranging from a few hundred to several thousand. Javanese is the most spoken Indonesian language with around 31.8% of the population speaking it. The next most prominent languages are Sundanese, Malay, Madurese and Minangkabau, whereas rarer languages include Tae and Tolaki.

Sadly, many of these rarer languages are endangered, and Indonesian words are being lost forever. Currently, it is predicted that 63 Indonesian language variants are dying. To combat this, it was ruled in 2013 that learning Indonesian local languages would become part of the national curriculum. Learning Indonesian in school hopes to keep these local languages – a crucial part of Indonesian culture and history – alive.

Indonesian Translation Services

When it comes to Indonesian language translation, Bahasa is the usual option. It is the only language spoken throughout the archipelago and it is the best way to communicate with populations across all the islands. It is also the best choice for official government translations or regulated industries, including medicine, healthcare and law.

If you need to translate to or from Indonesian Bahasa, Renaissance Translations can help. We have a panel of qualified translators that are native speakers. We can quickly translate your Indonesian documents, promising a high-quality, affordable and 100% accurate translation.

Contact us today to discuss your Indonesian translation project. Alternatively, browse our full range of language services online or request a quote here.