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War of Bahasa Bali

by Bali Cartoon Teller

Balinese language is one of more than 700 local languages spoken in Indonesia. It is spoken by less then 4 millions people and less than 1,5 % of more than 240 millions Indonesians.

A Bit of History

In October 1928, some intellectuals and students who belonged to regional and tribal organizations in colonial era when Indonesia was still called Nederlandsce Indie declared that they only belonged to one nation called Indonesia, one country called Indonesia, and spoke a unifying language called Indonesian language (Bahasa). This idea was then propagated and adopted massively by many other young Indonesians. When Indonesia declared its independence on 17th August 1945, the declaration was written and uttered in Indonesian by Soekarno, our founding father. Bahasa or Indonesian language has become our formal national and educational language.

Bahasa is derived from Malay (Melayu) language, a language spoken by a small tribe in Sumatra, Indonesia. Melayu is actually a name of a river in Sumatra. But Malay in English does not only signify Malay tribe or Malay language but Austronesian people in general. Indonesians, Philippines , Malaysians are Malays. Once Philippines founding fathers almost named their country Malaysia. Indonesian founding fathers preferred other named; Indonesia that means roughly archipelago. Malaysia as a name of a country was than taken by Malaysia whose many of its sultanates had been established by noble men originated from ancient Indonesian kingdoms.

Indonesian founding fathers and their intellectual predecessors chose Bahasa as the unifying language because since many centuries Malay language had been used as a lingua franca in Indonesian harbors. Sriwijaya empire from Sumatra who had been reigning ancient Indonesia and it neighboring countries had popularized this language from 7th to 13th century. Since it was a “lingua franca”, it becomes a simple language which is free from feudal hierarchies. We just need to speak it politely for communicating with a stranger or a superior unlike Javanese or Balinese.

As a part of Indonesia, Bali adopted Bahasa as the formal and educational language. Traditional Balinese who pronounce t as th, speak Bahasa with strong accent. Some comedians make a kind jokes about this thing. But by and by Balinese are very familiar with Bahasa and speak it better than their mother tongue. Some parents believe that their children should be able to speak and understand Bahasa as early as possible and speak Indonesian in daily conversation with them. Balinese in many Balinese families do not become mother tongue. Some intellectual Balinese parents who are fluent in English or believe that they are fluent in English even raise their children in English. At school, Balinese learn their Balinese language and alphabet from elementary to high school. But it last only one or two hours a week. The worst is that some modifications have been made in Balinese writings for the practical reasons since the independence, so that a Balinese in general hardly read ancient text.


Recently some video clips about foreigners speaking Balinese gone viral in Instagram and other social media. Some Balinese love to see “Bule” (a popular term for foreigners in Indonesian and Balinese slang) speaking Balinese. And they consider it funny and is a part of popular online entertainment. Some say that it reflects Balinese and Indonesians who keep their colonial inferiority to white people. In Indonesia, many people love to see actors having a bit or a lot of western foreign looks. Indonesian actors and actress having western descents have a special place in television soap operas and movie films. Foreigners who convert to Indonesian religion are often well praised and showed on TV.


Peh believes that foreigners speaking Balinese, even though some of them them only use the colloquial and grotesque words, is a good thing for Balinese language preservation. It means that other people from other culture are also interested with our language. Language is culture and losing our local language means losing our culture. We should introduce Balinese as mother tongue, we should encourage our children to write in Balinese alphabet.

Peh Bali Cartoon Magazine’s Cartoonists drew cartoons of some foreigners speaking Balinese renowned in Youtube and the videos of them are embed with this article.

Writer: Guntur Suyasa, Art: Putu Ebo

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