James T. Collins: 'Don't worry, Indonesia!'
Syamsul Huda M.Suhari
The Jakarta Post
For over 40 years, he has toured nearly all parts of the Indonesian archipelago, observing and admiring the Malay language spoken in very diverse ways and yet so widely understood with ease.
In 1969, he visited Indonesia for the first time, a young nation with the largest number of Malay speakers in Southeast Asia ' a language known in this country as Bahasa Indonesia, the unifying language.
His love of Malay eventually led him to become professor of Malay-Polynesian linguistics at many famous universities in the world. He is James Thomas Collins, the author of Bahasa Melayu, Bahasa Dunia (Malay, the World Language), who maintains that Malay, the embryo of Indonesian, was first written in the seventh century.
As old as English, Malay, according to him, has functioned not only as a commercial language involving large populations, but also as a medium of communication to spread religious teachings from Islam to Christianity.
Formerly, Malay was on an equal footing with English. Various manuscripts are witness to the heyday of Malay, including two letters in Malay using Arabic characters, which were sent by Sultan Abu Hayat, the ruler of Ternate, Maluku, to Portuguese King John III in the 16th century.
A century later, Sultan Iskandar Muda in Aceh sent a diplomatic letter in Malay to King James I of England, also written in Arabic characters, in a very elegant fashion. Therefore, Malay was such a flexible means of message conveyance between places separated by great distances.
Bahasa Indonesia, he believes, has as bright a prospect as the future of Malay. 'It's a great language; don't worry about its status. With loyal speakers of over 250 million, this language is established,' he told The Jakarta Post on the sidelines of an international conference on the Malay language in Gorontalo recently.
For the same reason, Collins harbors no anxiety whatsoever over what people frequently refer to as threats to the continuity of the Indonesian language, such as from foreign languages.
Jim, as he is intimately called, holds the opposite view of that maintained by conventional circles about the ever-dreaded erosion of Bahasa Indonesia by different foreign vocabularies.
In his view, linguistics has long indicated that all major languages in the world always include and borrow the vocabularies of various other languages to enrich their own.
Similarly, the phenomenon of urbanites in major cities mixing up Indonesian with English in daily speech is for him not enough to be seen as a threat to Bahasa Indonesia, let alone its unnecessary link with nationalism.
The language sensation in the style of Vicky Prasetyo that caused a stir recently, for instance, is something that will soon elapse, just like prokem (youth language) and slang, which comes and goes.
Such tendencies aren't strong enough to adversely affect the strength of Indonesian. 'It's only fashion that won't considerably influence Bahasa Indonesia. Such language at most contributes two or three words only, with no more effect thereafter,' he pointed out.
In the 1980s, he recalled, a trend for the Dutch language prevailed among a number of wives of generals, only to disappear later. The senior researcher at Cornell University ( 1984 ) described all world languages as having long undergone such a 'language hodgepodge' phenomenon.
English is undeniably one of the world's most important languages widely spoken to explain something, frequently also for entertainment purposes. 'But if we open English dictionaries, perhaps only 15 percent of its vocabulary is genuine, the remainder comprises loanwords from French, Latin and different others, which is normal,' said Jim.
To Jim's mind, the tendency of the Indonesian government to issue lists of local equivalents to replace foreign words won't have any significant impact, especially on speakers of Indonesian.
'Just let the public choose the words to be used in daily conversation, as in this way Bahasa Indonesia will be even more enriched,' said Jim, a professor and senior researcher at the ethnic studies institute of the National University of Malaysia (UKM).
In the New Order period many policies of former president Soeharto regulated the use of Bahasa Indonesia in public places and facilities, as if the language police had been deployed.
Today, he asserts, the fate of Bahasa Indonesia is determined by its speakers, whether they wish the government to keep regulating the use of Indonesian, and how far they want to close themselves off so that no natural growth will be experienced by Bahasa Indonesia.
His other interesting criticism concerns the Indonesian media's tendency to exaggerate the issue of cultural theft by Malaysia, such as that of regional songs and traditional dances believed to belong to Indonesia.
'How can some culture already spreading for centuries be later claimed, while many Javanese and Sumatra people have settled in Malaysia for generations, with two Malaysian ministers even of Bugis descent? Malaysians could then be banned from cooking rendang [West Sumatra beef dish] or sayur lodeh [Javanese soup],' remarked Jim.
Apart from all that, behind his love of the Malay language, Jim admits his unwillingness to change his citizenship. 'I remain an American, what other person can I be? I shouldn't and won't hide my identity. I have my ancestors whom I should respect,' he concluded.
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