The New York Times has an interesting piece, As English Spreads, Indonesians Fear for Their Language. It is dense with the different strands of this story. Basically, upper and upper middle class Indonesians are switching from Bahasa Indonesian to English to give their children a leg up, and are sending their children to English-medium schools. Because these children have a weak command of Indonesian some authorities are fearing for the cohesion of the Indonesian nation. Though the piece alludes to other languages in Indonesia, such as Javanese, it does not emphasize the fact that the widespread knowledge of Bahasa Indonesian was the outcome of a top-down project of nation-building, and that that language is the native tongue of only a minority of the citizens of Indonesia!
Whilst Indonesian is spoken as a mother tongue (first language) by only a small proportion of Indonesia’s large population (i.e. mainly those who reside within the vicinity of Jakarta), over 200 million people regularly make use of the national language – some with varying degrees of proficiency. In a nation which boasts more than 300 native languages and a vast array of ethnic groups, the use of proper or ‘good and correct’ Indonesian (as opposed to Indonesian slang or regional dialects) is an essential means of communication across the archipelago. Use of the national language is abundant in the media, government bodies, schools, universities, workplaces, amongst members of the Indonesian upper-class or nobility and also in many other formal situations.
The origins of Indonesia are complex. Though the islands of maritime Southeast Asia were long part of the Dutch “sphere of influence,” true direct rule came to much of the archipelago only in the early 20th century. Before that local identities were paramount, whether it be Javanese, the various ethnic groups in Sumatra or Sulawesi, and of course the culturally more distinctive peoples to the east on the island of New Guinea (the pre-modern precedent for an Indonesian state is Majapahit, but like the Dutch colonial empire for most of its history, Majapahit directly controlled and influenced only a small proportion of the archipelago).
I think the complexities and peculiarities of Indonesian history before the rise of the nation-state can be illustrated by Blambangan in eastern Java. This kingdom was deeply influenced by, and to a large extent a cultural satellite of, Bali. As such it was the last major Hindu polity within Java in the 18th century (though isolated communities managed to avoid Islamicization, all Javanese political entities had switched to Islam as their state religion except Blambangan). The VOC, the Dutch East India Company, participated and encouraged what was notionally religious war, a jihad against Blamgangan. The Dutch collusion with Muslim religious enthusiasm was purely a matter of self-interest, as the rulers of Bali were major impediments to VOC hegemony. With the fall of Blamgangan this last region of Java was subject to Islamicization and most of the population converted.
The point of recounting this episode is to show that prior to the construction of Indonesian identity after World War II the ties which bound the archipelago together were very loose. Some regions, such as Aceh, had been Muslim for nearly one thousand years. Java, the demographic and cultural heart of the archipelago had switched to Islam far more recently, and retains a strong pre-Islamic stamp to its culture (e.g., Hindu epics remain popular in Java, while the Javanese elite has not repudiated its own mystical tradition which pre-dates Hinduism and Islam). And finally, the eastern islands were only marginally influenced by the Indian and Islamic trends which were prominent in more populous western islands, and their population converted to Christianity during the colonial period. Many Ambonese, who feared Javanese Muslim hegemony in Indonesia because of their support for Dutch rule were relocated to the Netherlands.
Abstract principles such as Pancasila and concrete policies such as the promotion of Bahasa Indonesian, which was already an interregional lingua franca analogous to Swahili, were seen as critical to cementing national cohesion. Despite the national motto of Indonesia, loosely translated as “unity in diversity”, the post-World War II period has seen the spread of a unifying national language, and a deeper connection among many of the nation’s Muslims with international-normative Islam. The rise of santri Islam as Islam qua Islam in Indonesia, and the decline of local Muslim traditions which are strongly inflected by Dharmic and indigenous religious influences, is part of the cultural revolution in uniform manners.
Indonesia’s conundrum is simply a more extensive and contemporary manifestation of what many European nations faced centuries ago. When France was declared a republic some estimate that only 1/3 of the citizens spoke standard French. The proportions of Italians and Germans who spoke the standard national languages may have been even smaller (in the case of Italy I have seen estimates of less than five percent speaking Italian at the founding of the Italian nation-state!). The period of the Wars of Religion in the 17th century may have pushed theological motivations to the back-seat in the game of kings, but it is important to note that religious homogeneity increased due to the migrations compelled by the conflicts, as well as subsequent expulsions in France, and persistent legal and social disabilities for Roman Catholics in England. The emergence of Germany in its modern form, which did not include the Austrian domains, was driven in part by considerations of religious and ethnic homogeneity (the Austrian lands included many more Magyars and Slavs, and would have resulted in Catholic demographic majority, as opposed to a overwhelming Protestant dominance in the Prussian-dominated “Little German” state).
In A Study of History Arnold Toynbee introduced the concept of “still-born” civilizations. The Christianity of the Church of the East, which grew out of the Christianity of the Sassanid Empire, is a perfect illustration of the type. On the eve of the Islamic conquest of Persia there was a vibrant Christian community, which in some ways was engaged in a rivalry with the Zoroastrian state religion. It had pushed beyond the frontiers into Central Asia, to the point where it managed to persist even after the collapse of the Sassanids in the face of the Arab conquests. In the early 13th century many of the Turkic and Mongol tribes of Central Asia were Christians in the tradition of the Church of the East, including one of Genghis Khan’s daughter-in-laws (the mother of Kublai and Hulagu Khan). But this Christian tradition never gained the prominence, the embeddedness within steppe society, to become a religious monopoly and spread its wings with the rise of the Mongol Empire. Though many of the Mongols were sympathetic to Christianity, none of the great leaders died as Christians (though some were baptized at some point in their life), and the Mongol Empire was religiously pluralistic. Without this state support Eastern Christianity did not bloom, and became a minority sect in the lands of Islam and South India, fading away in Central Asia and China after the decline of the first Mongol Empire.
With the rise of the idea of the nation-state, modern communication, and the models of European states in their generation of cohesion via both top-down and bottom-up processes, you are seeing I suspect both the flowering and still-birth of new national complexes bound together by common language. Both India and Pakistan have attempted to forge a national unity with a South Asian language, overlain atop the preexistent diversity. Pakistan privileged Urdu, the traditional language of upper class Muslims throughout the subcontinent, as well as the day to day language of the Muslim population of the Gangetic plain excluding Bengal. At independence only a small minority of the population of the state spoke Urdu as their native tongue, but while in the western provinces there was acceptance of the necessity of Urdu as a link language, in the east Bengalis objected, and the rejection of Urdu became one of the symbolic aspects of conflict which led to the emergence of Bangladesh.* India has not had the same faction due to language, but standard Hindi plays the same role that Urdu does in modern Pakistan. And yet over 60 years since independence English remains commonly used as an elite language among a segment of the upper classes. Hindi is not understood in much of southern India, but since this region is demographically inferior to the north, as opposed to Bengal, which was demographically superior to West Pakistan, the tensions are not of the same magnitude. Additionally, English serves as a prestigious alternative lingua franca for Indians with a weak or nonexistent command of Hindi. Over the long term Hindi may suffer the same fate of Nahuatl and Quechua after the Spanish conquest. Because of the superior communication technologies, as well as the more persistent and powerful integrative institutions introduced by the Spaniards, the language of the fallen pre-Columbian empires actually spread in the centuries leading up the independence of Mexico and Peru from Spain, at the expense of local languages. Only in the modern period has Spanish started to marginalize the elite native languages. Why the change? In The Rule of Empires the author notes that the Peruvian highlands in the centuries after the Spanish conquest was dominated by a local indigenous elite who served as intermediaries between the authorities of the Crown based out of Lima and the vast Andean peasantry. With the rise of international trade, the collapse of the Spanish Empire and greater national integration, and globalization writ large, the power and attraction of such sub-national elite identities faded. Quechua or Nahuatl may have been lingua francas in segments of the Spanish Empire, but Spanish opens up much more of the world to aspirants for status, power and wealth.
It is cliche today to say that the “world is flat,” and that globalization is inevitable. There was famously another period of globalization before World War I, and it took 50 years after its collapse for the engine of international integration to slowly start up. But assuming that globalization and an international political economy is inevitable I wonder as to number of languages which we will stabilize at. Consider religion. Since the rise of Islam there really hasn’t been another great international religious revolution which has given rise to a global civilization. The fracturing of Western Christianity into Protestant and Roman Catholic domains are the closest analog, but do not rise up to the same level of impact (the shattering of the Western Christian commonwealth with the rise of Protestantism was healed in large part by the marginalization of religion in the public realm after the Enlightenment and the acceptance by most Christian groups that religious monopolies enforced by the state were no longer feasible or moral). There are really only four religions of civilizational import, Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, and Buddhism (Judaism is culturally influential, but there is only one Jewish nation, so no Jewish bloc could emerge). Why so few religions, and why such religious homogeneity so early in relation to language? I think this is because world religions are the concern of elites, whose numbers are small, and whose information networks were much more globalized in the pre-modern era than that of the masses. A “republic of letters”, or peregrinations of men such as Ibn Battuta, are only relevant for tiny elites in a pre-modern era because of economic constraints. No longer today; every man is a potential prince of letters with mass literacy and the internet. If the international dynamics which were long operative with world religions are now operative with languages, then will we see the world winnowing down to half a dozen languages? Right now linguistic diversity experts the focus on the small-scale societies and micro-languages hovering at the point of extinction, but over the next century much of the change might occur in the “middle-weight” category. Languages which rose to prominence in the era before globalization as regionally prominent mediums, but which lack comparative advantage set next to global languages. Bahasa Indonesian for many families is a new language, of only the past few generations, so its sentimental value should be relatively shallow. It is a utility, and when a newer utility offers superior services for a cheaper price, why not switch? Well, sometimes the government imposes monopolies and shields native firms. So we’ll see.
* My parents grew up in the united Pakistan, and do recount the imperiousness of Urdu speakers in Bengal during that period. For example, Urdu speakers would demand the best positions on a buses, and berate drivers in Urdu (who likely did not have a good grasp of what they were saying) when their demands were not met. Though both know Urdu, I definitely get a sense that their experiences during this period left them with little sympathy for the idea that Urdu should be the common language of South Asian Muslims.