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Indonesia: Language
Country Study > Chapter 2 > The Society and Its Environment > The Emerging National Culture > Language


The major languages of Indonesia are Austronesian. Austronesian is a family of agglutinative languages spoken in the area bounded by Madagascar in the western Indian Ocean and Easter Island in the eastern Pacific Ocean. There is a considerable diversity in the languages used in Indonesia. No less than 669 languages -- the vast majority are Austronesian, the rest are Papuan and found in parts of Timor, Irian Jaya, and Halmahera -- have been accounted for.

Based on very rough estimates that cannot be adequately validated, the primary languages spoken by 1 million or more people included Javanese (70 million), Sundanese (25 million), Malay (10 million), Madurese (9 million), Minangkabau (7.5 million), Bahasa Indonesia (or Indonesian, 6.7 million; see Glossary), Balinese (3 million), Buginese (2.5 million), Acehnese (2.2 million), Toba Batak (2 million), Banjarese (1.8 million), Makassarese (1.5 million), Sasak (1.5 million), Lampung (1.5 million), Dairi Batak (1.2 million), and Rejang (1 million). Additionally, some 2 million inhabitants also spoke one of several dialects of Chinese.

Perhaps the central feature of the Indonesian national culture in the late twentieth century was the Indonesian language. Malay was used for centuries as a lingua franca in many parts of the archipelago. The term Bahasa Indonesia, which refers to a modified form of Malay, was coined by Indonesian nationalists in 1928 and became a symbol of national unity during the struggle for independence. Bahasa Indonesia was spoken in more than 90 percent of households in Jakarta, but outside the capital only 10 to 15 percent of the population spoke the language at home. In Javanese areas, only 1 to 5 percent of the people spoke Bahasa Indonesia in the home. Nationwide, however, some 6.7 million Indonesians used Bahasa Indonesia as a primary language while more than 100 million others used it as a secondary language. In the early 1990s, it was primarily the language of government bureaucracy, schools, national print and electronic media, and interethnic communication. In many provinces, it was the language of communication between Chinese shopkeepers and their non-Chinese patrons.

Although Bahasa Indonesia is infused with highly distinctive accents in some regions (particularly in Maluku, parts of Nusa Tenggara, and in Jakarta), there are many similarities in patterns of use across the archipelago. One widespread feature concerns the variations in speech use depending on the rank or status of the speaking partner. This feature is not as complex as that found in the elaborately hierarchical Javanese language, but it is nonetheless important. Respected elders are typically addressed in kinship terms -- bapak (father or elder) or ibu (mother). The use of second person pronouns in direct address is generally avoided in favor of more indirect references unless speaker and listeners are on intimate terms. There is also a subtle grading of terms employed when offering things to someone and when issuing directives. Different ways of saying "please [do something]" for instance, vary in formality. When speaking Indonesian, it is sometimes awkward to make direct negations of factual states, such as "I have no children" (saya tidak punya anak); it is preferable to treat certain events as being in process and therefore to say "not yet." In casual contexts, however, such as when speaking to cab drivers, street peddlers, and close friends, formal textbook Indonesian often gives way to the more ironic, sly, and earthy urban dialects.

Data as of November 1992

Last Updated: November 1992

Editor's Note: Country Studies included here were published between 1988 and 1998. The Country study for Indonesia was first published in 1993. Where available, the data has been updated through 2008. The date at the bottom of each section will indicate the time period of the data. Information on some countries may no longer be up to date. See the "Research Completed" date at the beginning of each study on the Title Page or the "Data as of" date at the end of each section of text. This information is included due to its comprehensiveness and for historical purposes.

Note that current information from the CIA World Factbook, U.S. Department of State Background Notes, Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Country Briefs, the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office's Country Profiles, and the World Bank can be found on

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Section 54 of 210


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