Happy birthday Indonesian language ‘Selamat ulang tahun bahasa Indonesia’

Indonesian may be the only language in the world that has a birthday. Bahasa Indonesia was born on 28 October, 1928, so today Indonesian is 83 years old. The language was born by way of the ‘youth pledge’ or soempah pemuda which was made by delegates to the youth congress held in Bandung that year. The soempah pemuda is still celebrated today as a kind of founding moment of Indonesian nationalism. In the pledge, the youth promised:

  • Firsrtly: We the sons and daughters of Indonesia, acknowledge one motherland, Indonesia.
    Secondly: We the sons and daughters of Indonesia, acknowledge one nation, the nation of Indonesia.
    Thirdly: We the sons and daughters of Indonesia, respect the language of unity, Indonesian.
youth pledge participants bandung 1928

Participants at the Indonesian Youth Congress held in Bandung, October 1928

Before Indonesia was colonised by the Dutch, there were over 700 diffferent languages spoken across the archipelago, and of course none of these was an ‘official’ language. Javanese probably had the most speakers. According to the 2000 Indonesian census, Javanese had over 80 million speakers so it still has more speakers than any of Indonesia’s other ‘local languages’ today. Way back before any of the future colonisers found their way to Southeast Asia there was already another language that was well known right across the region. Although it certainly had less native speakers than Javanese, there were a lot of people who spoke Malay as a second language, and it was widely used for interethnic communication as a ‘lingua franca’. Different varieties of Malay were used in different parts of the country but mostly people could understand each other well enough.

The Indonesian youth in Bandung who made their pledge recognising ‘Indonesian’ as the language of the state they were fighting for knew that by choosing Malay (and renaming it Indonesian) knew they were making a powerful move towards national unity after independence. Indonesian is a very unusual national  language in the post-colonial landscape. In most of Africa, newly decolonised nations chose the languages of their former colonisers as their official languages, but Indonesia didn’t choose Dutch. In  parts of Southeast Asia, such as Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, a dominant ethnic group’s tongue became the national language, but Indonesia did not choose Javanese. The Indonesian language truly is a language of national unity whatever other problems there might be in maintaining a unified state across such a huge and ethnically diverse  territory.

There’s a lot more that could be said about how Indonesian became the national language of Indonesia, and about what a remarkable, successful, and highly unusual choice it was at the time. No doubt I will write more about it later. For today though, we can just acknowledge the wise choice made by the participants at the 1928 Youth Congress in Bandung and wish the Indonesian language a happy birthday. Hip-hip, hooray!