Javanese millennials in Indonesia embrace local language varieties their way

Javanese still is used in art performance. Here is Javanese dance jathilan in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, March 2017. Aditya_frzhm/Shutterstock

Javanese millennials in Indonesia embrace local language varieties their way

There have been concerns that more young Javanese in Indonesia appear to be less able to speak Javanese properly.

Numerous studies show that the language is starting to fade way, specifically its sub-system of High Javanese (Javanese Krama).

But what’s less observed is that many of the young generation of Javanese researchers, teachers, activists and public speakers are showing interest and creating movements to get back to their roots as Javanese people.

I carried out a research on attitudes of millennial Javanese towards Javanese Krama. I found that, despite their limited skills in Javanese Krama, the young generation of Javanese is still passionate about learning Krama.

Disappearing languages

Language does not only function as a tool for communication. It also frames the way people think and feel about the world. A loss of language means a loss of perspective in perceiving the world.

Many languages in the world are fading away since their speakers no longer exist. UNESCO’s interactive atlas lists 2,464 languages worldwide that are in danger. Some 144, or 5.8% of them, are in Indonesia.

Indonesia is the fourth-most-vulnerable country for maintaining local languages, after India, the United States and Brazil. With over 700 living languages, Indonesia faces challenges in keeping minority languages alive. People migrate to urban areas and see that their financial and social progression is attached to the use of Indonesian, and even English, in regular daily existence. It makes them become less inclined to keep using their mother languages.

Javanese language is biting the dust

Over 80 million people speak Javanese language. It has three speech levels: low, middle and high. The successful functioning and elaboration of the Javanese language system requires a detailed knowledge of the social standing of each individual in the speech act, which members of the young generation are rarely exposed to. To use the speech levels correctly, it is essential for a Javanese person to consider where, when and to whom he is talking to.

An activity can be expressed in three different ways in Javanese, depending on the speech level. For instance, the word “go” is lunga (low Javanese/Ngoko), kesah (middle Javanese/Madya) and tindak (high Javanese/Krama).

In his 1998 study, Joseph Errington detected the loss of Javanese Krama in two big Javanese-speaking areas, Yogyakarta and Surakarta.

The use of Javanese language changes rapidly not only in urban cities, but also in villages. Javanese parents use Indonesian as conversational language at home. They believe that Indonesian language can provide better opportunities for the future of their children.

Speak in “proper” Javanese

For my research, I interviewed 12 participants in Kediri, East Java. I found that younger participants, below 25 years of age, prefer using Indonesian language when speaking to older speakers of Javanese, even in a Javanese-speaking area.

They perceived themselves to have limited skill in actively speaking Krama. The main reason is they feel anxious in picking the right words during conversations.

Older participants, those over 35 years old, echoed the under-25s’ sentiment. “It’s better for them to use Indonesian language than using improper Javanese.”

Nevertheless, the good news from the research is that, regardless of their limited skill in Krama, they are eager to learn the language. This is not only to embrace local wisdom, but some of them enjoy the practical advantage of using Krama in daily life.

Javanese language in the millennial era

Language has its time and generation; how people use language inevitably changes over time.

Some languages might not disappear; they simply change to another form, just like water into ice.

In a linguistically pluralistic society, the public recognition of a language is closely related to domains of where the language is used. Teaching it in schools is good, but applying regional languages as conversational languages is another matter. In short, “teaching” and “accustoming” are different things.

Some people may argue that English or even Indonesian language is the silent killer of Javanese and other regional languages in Indonesia. Yet, in fact, a language cannot kill another language. The speakers do. When speakers of a language decrease, the language fades away, often without ever being documented.

Nonetheless, looking at the current state of Javanese language, I think it will stay with us for a long time.

A number of Javanese millennials create and share content in Javanese. YouTuber Bayu Skak, music composer Eka Gustiwana and hip hop musician group Jogja Hip Hop Foundation (JHF) are examples of young Javanese artists who are passionate about promoting Javanese culture through various media, such as music and movies. They spread their works through social media to millions of followers and subscribers.

A national newspaper reports that the Ministry of Religious Affairs translates the Quran, the holy book of Islam, in regional languages. This shows that the preservation of regional languages is done not only through formal education, but also through a religious approach.

Furthermore, Javanese Krama is used as one of the official announcement languages in international airports where people from various places and nationalities gather. At least two international airports, Adisucipto Airport in Yogyakarta and Dubai International Airport, promote Javanese as an announcement language.

The positive attitudes of the Javanese community towards Javanese Krama could be perceived as a good sign for revitalising the language in daily life.

We should realise that the use of Javanese Krama is declining from time to time and this is worthy of our concern. Even so, we should not stay pessimistic about the young generation’s capability to sustain this “threatened” language sub-system.

This article was originally published in Indonesian