The Indonesian Melting Pot – The Indonesia Babel

Indonesians speak such a variety of different language that the exact number would largely depend on an arbitrary definition of what constitutes a distinct language.

As opposed to a dialect. Most estimates place the total above 300 only a handful of which have been adequately studied. Languages such as-Javanese, Balinese and Indonesian (the national language, which derives from a literary dialect of Malay) are closely related, belonging to the Malayo-Polynesian branch of the Austronesian language family, but they are as different from one another as are French, English and Spanish.

The Austronesian family is an enormous grouping of about 800 tongues spoken over more than half the globe – from Madagascar in the west to the eastern Pacific islands. About 200 or so are spoken in Indonesia, the rest being found maily in the Pilippines and the island of Oceania. Another linguistic family, the Papuan group, contains almost as many distinct languages even though it is spoken by only about there million people, most of whom live on the huge island of New Guinea.

Statistical studies have revealed that linguistic diversity actually increases moving eastward across the archipelago, so that not only are there more languages in the eastern island, but these languages are also increasingly distinct from one another. This seems to tie in with the physical evidence, but it also has another, rather surprising implication. Linguists have long postulated that great linguistic diversity means an area has been setted and stable for a very longtime. In fact, one of the purposes of lexico statistical studies (the comparison of related languages to determine the percentage of words they share) is to locate the ancestral homeland of a language family – assumed to lie in the region of greatest diversity. Within the scattered Austronesian family, this ancestral homeland appears to be located in western Melanesia (an area between the north coast of New Guinea and the Soloman Island) – at least according to a massive study undertaken by Isidore Dyen in the early 1960s with the aid of computers.

For this reason, some scholars have begun to speculate that the Mongoloid inhabitants of Indonesia migrated not via mainland Southeat Asia (Indochina), as had previously been thought, but rather from southern China via Taiwan, Hainan and the Philippines to Melanesia. From here, so the theory goes, there occurred a diaspora of Austronesian speakers some of whom sailed east to pupulate the Pacific Island, others of whom travelled west to Indonesia and even across the Indian Ocean to Madagascar. No definite time frame is given for these migrations, but they are thought to have begun around 7,000 years ago, and to have greatly accelerated over the 3,000 years leading up to the Christian era.
“A picture gallery taken from the eastern end of the Indonesian. Moving from left to right: native from Timor, Flores, Siberut and Irian Jaya.”

This is an interisting hypotheis, one which needs to be examined and tested in detail, but it still does not yield very much about Indonesia’s ethnic groupings. In fact, linguistic boundaries often have a way of confusing rather than clarifying the issue of ethnic distinctions in Indonesia, for the simple reason that closely related peoples often speak quite differend languages (and conversely, some very different peoples speak closely related dialects). For a clearer exposition of the whole problem of Indonesian ethnic typologies we must turn to the complex and rather controversial field of cultural anthropology.

–> Read Also : The Indonesian Melting Pot – The Typological Debate

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