Universiteit Leiden

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Lecture | Sociolinguistics Series

Translanguaging practices, vulgar language, and metalinguistic comments in late-colonial Indonesia

Thursday 5 December 2019
Cleveringaplaats 1
2311 BD Leiden


What can colonial-era texts tell us about these phenomena? What analytical tools do we have to study them? In an attempt to address these questions, I call attention to a semi-digital corpus of vernacular Malay texts from the former Netherlands Indies. The authors of these novels, newspapers, poems, advertisements, and theatre plays predominantly came from Indonesia’s Chinese minority, although other Malay-literate communities were among their readers and writers too. Unlike the elitist “standard Malay” literature – which was promoted by the colonial government and aimed to “improve” the intellectual level of the Indonesia’s subjects – the so-called “Sino-Malay” literature was commercial, popular, and unapologetically hybrid. To the chagrin of language purists, Sino-Malay texts were deeply translingual, incorporating elements from Javanese, Sundanese, Dutch, English, French, Mandarin, and Hokkien (the Sinitic variety many Chinese-Indonesians originally spoke).

Several factors prompted writers to explore their linguistic repertoire to the fullest. The use of multiple languages – including in the same texts – served as a strategy to attract readers from different plurilingual backgrounds, such as local-born Chinese, middle-class Eurasians, and indigenous elites. This obviously came with economic benefits, as journalism had developed into a flourishing enterprise from the mid-nineteenth century. This led to a conscious rejection of top-down efforts to force the Malay language into a prescriptive straitjacket, as colonial administrators and indigenous literati would have it. Language-mixing also ensured linguistic creativity and playfulness. Word choice – including the use of pronouns, translingual puns, and swearwords – was crucial to produce popular writings. Spelling played an important role as well. Printed in the Latin rather than Arabic-derived alphabet, Sino-Malay texts could represent the accents and other linguistic peculiarities of individuals in meticulous detail. The authors and texts thus provide instances of linguistically encoded manifestations of humour, irreverence, and selfing and othering in a language variety no longer in use.


Tom Hoogervorst is a researcher at the Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies (KITLV). His research interests include historical linguistics, language contact, and youth language, with a focus on Indonesia and Malaysia. He is currently finishing a book on the language history of Indonesia’s Chinese minority. He has also published on loanwords and their importance to understand cultural contact in the Indian Ocean World.

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