- Discover Indonesia Online

You are currently in > Indonesia > Java island > Language & literature

Java island

Java (Jawa) is an island of Indonesia and the site of its capital city, Jakarta. Once the center of powerful Hindu-Buddhist kingdoms, Islamic sultanates, and the core of the colonial Dutch East Indies, Java now plays a dominant role in the economic and political life of Indonesia. Home to a population of 130 million in 2006, it is the most populous island in the world. Java is also one of the most densely populated regions on Earth.

Language & literature
Subtile expression of respect

On Java a remarkably number of languages is spoken, seen the relative measurements of the island. Sundanese, Jakartan Malay (Betawi), Madurese and Javanese are the main native languages. They all belong to the enormous Malay-Polynesian (also known as 'Austronesian') language families, but do differ from each other as much as English, French, Dutch and Spanish.

Besides this in some areas or some population groups Dutch, English and a number of Chinese dialects, and numerous of Indonesian languages from other islands is spoken. This is being covered by one national language, Indonesian (Bahasa Indonesia ), which is used by the government, education and media. It's a modern variant from the Malay language (Bahasa Melayu ) and contains many English and Dutch words.

In Central-, and East-Java Javanese is spoken mainly. It's the native language of about 80 million inhabitants of the island. Most Javanese speak Indonesian as a second language. In the city it's common to start speaking Indonesian, and when they feel comfortable, they switch to Javanese. Javanese is better for informal conversations and with family and friends. Indonesian is used at more formal meetings because it's neutral en more direct and doesn't know the difficult, status related nuances of the Javanese.

In a modern and business ambiance, for example with conversations about politics, economics and other 'modern' subjects, Javanese is mixed by Indonesian repeatedly. In this way a gado-gado-language is born (gado-gado is mixed vegetables), where Javanese verbs are mixed with the technical vocabulary of the Indonesian language, as soon as recent ideas are talked about.

Adaption to social status

The most remarkable aspect of the Javanese (and also the main reason why people think Javanese is old fashioned) is the adaption of the use of language against the social status of the people. That's why in languages different kinds of languages started to develop.

Persons with a high status use the language with all kinds of forms of respect , the basa or krama. This language has a low vocabulary, and so is the subject of the conversation limited to a few. How more refined the language, the less specific and more limited the kinds of expressions.

If persons of different status are having a conversation, the lower placed person used krama and the other uses the lower language madya or the somewhat rude ngoko. Besides this there are many forms between those three, in which even the subtle differences in social status can be expressed. This can be confusing for the Javanese themselves, especially when it's hard to examine the social status of the other person, or when the subtle changes in words are not clear to the other person.

Now it's not a big miracle that the progressive Indonesian activists with an Western education (many of them were Javanese), which were busy with the question of language. They wanted Malaysian to be the main language, however about 50 per cent of the population spoke Javanese.

Until certain levels the 'feudal' sound of the Javanese is gradually disappearing, because less people are trying to learn krama or high-Javanese. Some intellectual people have special reasons to only speak low-Javanese or ngoko, while more Javanese use the lingua franka, Indonesian.

Old literary tradition

The Javanese literature is as difficult as the language itself. The many-sided oral tradition lives as well on in the city as in rural areas. Folklore and wisdom, number-symbolism and predictions, adventurous stories from the past and above all the extensive repertoire of the always loved shadow play (wayang kulitor ringgit wacucal), with it's modern variants, are still famous, though they lost some ground in the last years because of education and media.

Much more worse is the traditional literature of the old royal house. Even compared with other 'threatened' Javanese forms of art, the traditional romantic and mystical art forms are very bad at this moment. Since the rich royal houses, which stimulated the use of this form of art, cultivated and passed it through, started to deteriorate two centuries ago, it went downhill. After their downfall, it was due to some people and institutions that fought for the of the forms of art.

A big part of the texts are, written in a completely only, literary version of the Javanese language. Written in a poets language that is more different than the Javanese nowadays used than the English of Shakespeare differs from the American language. The texts are completely unexplainable as long you don't understand much of the language. With this another thing it that these texts only were made in manuscripts, and were copied by other people, but they only copied those parts that they liked.

This copying mainly took place in the palaces, which had special people for producing copies until the start of the 20th century. When copying they used Javanese writing, which was of Indian origin and exists out of more than 60 characters, which are based on syllables (ha, na, ca, ra, ka, ect etc). Since the Javanese language uses only Latin characters, the old Javanese is just as strange for them as Chinese. Most of all the younger generation doesn't understand the old writings.

The consequence of this development is that there is virtually no traditional Javanese literarure written anymore, while the number of people that can read the old writings is also smaller and smaller.

In the 20th century a new, modern Javanese literature has developed, inspired on the Indonesian literature, which has been influenced more by Western genres than by traditional forms. Very popular is the short story, but also the novel, essays and poems are beloved. The modern media are playing an important role with this popularization, especially a number of weekly magazines in Central-, and Eastern-Java.

Last revised on December 27, 2009
Your website for tickets in Indonesia!
Looking for e-tickets for flights in Indonesia? Here's your solution! Order your e-tickets at
Add this page to your email, your own blog, MySpace, Facebook, or whatsoever via AddThis:
Bookmark and Share

Additional information, updates or feedback? Send them in!

Feedback Form


12 pictures in this gallery 

Created by · feedback & contact · © 2000-2021
Other websites by · · ·

151,112,280 pageviews Discover Indonesia Online at