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Tuesday March 28th 2017

Toward an Ecology of Sundanese

Language | Saturday, 20 August 2011 | sundanesecorner.org

Hawé Setiawan

WORRYING about the future of their mother tongue, Sundanese speaking community has been for years lamenting the so-called language destruction. By the end of 19th century, for instance, Moehamad Moesa, a prominent literary figure who helped develop modern Sundanese literature, gloomily anticipated the possible situation in which Sundanese is said to be ‘contaminated’ by Javanese, Malay, and Arabic.

It is from such a purist perspective, perhaps, that the term kamalayon has often been used. The term is derived from the word malayu (Malay). It is usually expressed to describe Sundanese vocabulary or sentence structure that is influenced by foreign languages. A Sundanese utterance that is said of being kamalayon will undoubtedly be considered as a failure to express oneself in a well-composed language.

Behind this sort of xenophobia apparently lies an assumption of the purity of language. Sundanese speaking community presumably imagines the existence of a true language in the sense that it is unaffected by other languages. The intrusion of alien words into the language is considered as something that could reduce its purity.

This purist view is, however, hard to be defended. It fails to recognize the fact that Sundanese, as well as other languages, grows and develops through its interaction with various languages. Just take a look at Sundanese dictionaries, from Jonathan Rigg to Hardjadibrata, and we can easily find several words that were derived from other languages.

The view also fails to recognize the fact that every language has always changed naturally, both in its vocabulary and in its structure. In old English, for example, the word typewriter —as I read the other day—is used to be expressed in the sense of present time ‘typist’ or ‘secretary’. Hence, without recognizing this reality, standardized language may be frozen.

The Influence of Crystal’s Findings

Recent issues attached to the conservation of Sundanese have apparently moved from the idea of language purity to the notion of language extinction. The idea implies a situation that is much more fatal, but not without factual references.

In this relation, the notion of ‘language death’ conveyed by linguist David Crystal, especially in his book entitled Language Death (Cambridge University Press, 2003), echoes around Sundanese speaking community of West Java.

‘A language is said to be dead when no one speaks it any more. It may continue to have existence in a recorded form, of course—traditionally in writing, more recently as part of a sound or video archive (and it does in a sense “live on” in this way)—but unless it has fluent speakers one would not talk of it as a “living language”,’ writes Dr. Crystal in his book (p. 11).

Indeed, the expert recognizes the difficulty of getting accurate data on the number of languages and their speakers throughout the world. Even the existence of Sundanese has not been yet observable on his map.

However, he tries to anticipate the symptoms of language reduction. He notes that ‘just 4% of the world’s languages are spoken by 96% of the population’. That is, ‘96% of the world’s languages are spoken by just 4% of the population’.

‘A middle position would assert 50% loss in the next 100 years…  50% is 3,000 languages. 100 years is 1,200 months. To meet that time frame, at least one language must die, on average, every two weeks or so. This cannot be very far from the truth,’ Crystal writes (p. 19).

As far as I know, there has been no independent survey over current Sundanese speaking community. Even if there are figures about them, the data is usually the result of interpretation of other data, e.g. population of West Java, which in 2007 are about 41.48 million.

However, Crystal’s observations seem to be quite effective for global public, not least Sundanese people who are worrying about the future of their mother tongue.

Imagining the Ecology of Sundanese

In reading Crystal’s work, I can think about not only the horrible notion of language death but also the more important thing, namely his suggestion for language conservation to creatively adapt ecological principles into the field of linguistics.

Such a suggestion is undoubtedly based on the fact that advocates for biodiversity has successfully aroused global awareness of the crucial threats to biodiversity. Hence, it is better if the linguists and native speakers, especially in West Java, could learn to environmental experts and activists.

The idea of the importance of biodiversity itself relies on the notion of ecosystem. In this relation one realizes that life depends on a complex relationships among various organisms, plants, animals, bacteria, etc.. If one element is damaged, then the whole system will suffer the consequences.

‘If diversity is a prerequisite for successful humanity, then the preservation of linguistic diversity is essential, for language lies at the heart of what it means to be human. If the development of multiple cultures is so important, then the role of languages becomes critical, for cultures are chiefly transmitted through spoken and written languages,’ Crystal says (pp. 33-34).

The notion of language diversity is one of several notions put forward by Crystal. The remaining notions emphasize, among others, the importance of language as the expression of cultural identity, local history, and humanity itself.

It is clear that Crystal’s findings and suggestions are of significant value for Sundanese speaking community in particular, and global society in general, in preserving and developing their right to live a sustainable life as well as the role of their languages in the future.***

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