Endangered Languages Case Study #2: Buginese, Indonesia by Jana Korn C'18


In the third article of a four part series, Jana Korn continues to explore the impact of globalization on languages around the globe.    

Indonesia is a country known for its language diversity. There are at least seven hundred living languages spoken across the country and possibly more that are yet to be classified. The official language is Indonesian, which is used primarily in commerce, administration, education, and the mainstream media; however, most Indonesians speak other languages at home. The linguistic situation in Indonesia is complicated because the country only recognizes a single official language and most other languages are recognized neither on  the national nor regional level. According to the Ethnologue, while sixty-three of these seven hundred languages in Indonesia are classified as dying, the challenges of language endangerment are felt by speakers of every native language. Buginese is one of these languages.

    The Bugis are an indigenous Indonesian group living primarily in the southern part of Sulawesi, one of the largest islands of the archipelago. The Bugis primarily make their living by hunting, fishing, farming, raising livestock, and making handicrafts. Their livelihoods depend on the topography of where they live -- those who live in the mountain ranges often work the soil, while those who live along the coast are often fishermen. The Bugis speak Buginese, a language with no connection to neither Javanese, the country’s largest native language, nor Indonesian. Buginese is spoken by around 5 million people.

Although few of their written records exist, the Buginese people trace their history in Indonesia to 2500 BCE, when they believe their community on the island was founded. There was no outside knowledge of the community until the nineteenth century when the Dutch colonized the archipelago. The colonial social order was based on very rigid racial and social structures, which limited the interactions that were possible between the Dutch elite and their indigenous subjects. A relationship did develop, however briefly, between the Dutch and the Bugis, in which the Bible was translated into Buginese. Although most Buginese, like most Indonesians, now practice Islam, this is evidence of the first encounter of the Western world with the Buginese language.  

The Bugis people have always been very proud of their self image. From colonization through Indonesian independence, they have consistently been active in keeping alive their culture and their heritage. For example, many of their traditional customs remain highly esteemed, such as those who serve will never turn their backs on those who eat, and nobody will ever leave a dining area until the entire meal is finished. It has proven much more difficult, however, to do the same with the Buginese language. The Buginese language is evidence that, despite having a very large number of speakers and very positive language attitudes, all indigenous languages face threats and challenges.

Until recently, the indigenous communities of Indonesia received no support from the Indonesian government for language education in primary schools. In 2013, Indonesia’s Minister of Education and Culture supported for the first time including the teaching of local languages as school subjects as part of the national education curriculum. This statement represented a controversial change in policy, although many speakers of local languages believe that it is too little and too late. In the Bugis community, for example, the younger generations cannot speak the language due to assimilation, intermarriage, and lack of education. Assimilation and intermarriage are threats unique to a language with such a large population, because the culture is much more widespread, including pockets of Bugis who live outside the country.

The Bugis language is incredibly special because it contains preserved within it ideas and worldviews that are unique to the Bugis people and unparalleled in any other culture. Most famously, the Bugis people have a very unique way of thinking about gender, which we can understand through learning the language. The Bugis people divide their society into five separate gender: Oroané, Makkunrai, Calabai, Calalai, Bissu. The Oroané are analogous to cisgender males while the Makkunrai are analogous to cisgender females. The Calabai and Calalai are slightly more complicated to define, but they can be roughly compared to transgender females and males, respectively. The Bissu are unlike any Western idea. It is a cultural belief of the Bugis society that all five genders must harmoniously coexist, so the Bissu represents all aspects of gender combined to form a whole. This concept is proof that every society approaches the concept of gender and sexuality differently.

The Bugis idea is one that cannot be translated out of Buginese, evidence of the risk that we face of losing an entire worldview when losing a language.