Indonesian is a standardized register of “Riau Malay”, which despite its common name is not the Malay dialect native to Riau, but rather the Classical Malay language of Malacca. Originally spoken in Northeast Sumatra, Malay has been used as a lingua franca in the Indonesian archipelago for half a millennium. Although it might be owed to its ancestor, the Old Malay language, that can be traced back to the 7th century Kedukan Bukit Inscription, the oldest surviving specimen of Old Malay, the language used by Srivijayan empire. Since the 7th century, the Old Malay language has been used in Nusantara (Indonesian archipelago), marked by Srivijaya inscriptions and other inscriptions using old Malay language in coastal areas of the archipelago, such as those discovered in Java. The trade contact carried by some ethnics at the time was the main vehicle to spread the Old Malay language, since it was the communication device amongst the traders. By then, the Old Malay language had become a lingua franca and was spoken widely by most people in the archipelago.

It was elevated to the status of official language with the Indonesian declaration of independence in 1945, drawing inspiration from the Sumpah Pemuda (Youth’s Oath) event in 1928. Indonesian (in its standard form) is essentially the same language as the official Malaysian and Brunei standards of Malay. However, it does differ from Malaysian in several aspects, with differences in pronunciation and vocabulary. These differences are mainly due to the Dutch and Javanese influences on Indonesian. Indonesian was also influenced by the “bazaar Malay” that was the lingua franca of the archipelago in colonial times, and thus indirectly by the other spoken languages of the islands. Malaysian Malay claims to be closer to the classical Malay of earlier centuries even though modern Malay has been heavily influenced, in lexicon as well as in syntax, by English. The question of which branch of Malay language; High Malay (classic court Malay) or Lower Malay (marketplace/bazaar Malay) was the true parent of the Indonesian language is still in debate. High Malay was the official language used in the court of the Johor-Riau Sultanate later developed by Riau-Lingga Sultanate, while Lower Malay was commonly used in marketplaces and ports in archipelago. Some linguists have argued that it was the more common Lower Malay that become the base of the Indonesian language.

Whilst Indonesian is spoken as a mother tongue by only a small proportion of Indonesia’s large population (i.e. mainly those who reside within the vicinity of Jakarta and other large predominantly Indonesian-speaking cities such as Medan and Balikpapan), over 200 million people regularly make use of the national language, with varying degrees of proficiency. In a nation which boasts more than 300 native languages and a vast array of ethnic groups, it plays an important unifying and cross-archipelagic role for the country. 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.

Standard and formal Indonesian is used in books and newspapers and on television/radio news broadcasts; however, few native Indonesian speakers use the formal language in their daily conversations. While this is a phenomenon common to most languages in the world (for example, spoken English does not always correspond to written standards), the degree of “correctness” of spoken Indonesian (in terms of grammar and vocabulary) by comparison to its written form is noticeably low. This is mostly due to Indonesians combining aspects of their own local languages (e.g., Javanese, Sundanese, Balinese, and Chinese dialects) with Indonesian. This results in various ‘regional’ Indonesian dialects, the very types that a foreigner is most likely to hear upon arriving in any Indonesian city or town. This phenomenon is amplified by the use of Indonesian slang, particularly in the cities.


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