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Language & literature
From treebook to tape

Sumatra's big shapes and cultural differences are being reflected in the richness of languages, varying from the elegant and difficult royal Malay, which is still being spoken in the former palaces of Palembang and Riau, to the quick disappearing dialects of a number of orang laut (sea-nomads) which live on boats at the shore. Most Sumatran languages are closely related and belong to the enormous family of Austronesian languages, which stretches from the range of islands along the eastern African coast towards Easter Island in the Pacific Ocean.

In northern Sumatra one and a half million people speak Acehnese, and Gayo is spoken by a much smaller group. More south, around Danau Toba, is the heart of the Batak with it's many dialects, which can be so different sometimes that they almost form separate languages. The most spoken dialects is the Toba Batak, followed by Karo, Angkola, Mandailing, Dairi, Simalungun and Alas.

In the fertile highlands of western Sumatra live the four million Minangkabau, the biggest language group after only one. Further south, in the provinces of Riau, Jambi and Sumatra Selatan, numerous dialects of Malay is spoken. In parts of Bengkulu, Rejang is the most spoken language, and in the southern tip of the island people speak Lampung The four groups of islands along the western coast (Sumeulue, Nias, Mentawai and Enggano, know their ofn separate languages.

Malay has been the lingua franca for the Indonesian archipelago for centuries, and is the predecessor of the current language, the Bahasa Indonesia. The language is always used in the eastern part of the island, and 11 million people speak it as their mother-language. Malay has spread all over the archipelago as the language of the trade and Islam, and replaced the local languages of the kingdoms of Aceh, Western Sumatra and Riau.

At the other end of the social range, Malay served as the trading language in the cosmopolitan air of Sumatran harbour cities. The first Malay language guide for foreign traders, printed in Amsterdam in 1609, contains example conversations for buying goods, weighing peppers, and getting money from people who are not paying very well, as well as colourful phrases for tough negotiations.

Traditional literature

Traditional Sumatran writings are decided into two types. Some are written in an originally Southern-Indian writing, the others in an Persian-Arabic writing. The earliest example of the last one is an old-Malay stone inscription from the 7th century Srivijayan kingdom. The destroying effects of the tropical climate didn't let any other kind of inscriptions survive the times.

The Batak-, and Lampung-writing also belong to these Southern Indian group, and are still being used sometimes. The arrival of Islam lead to the development of an adapted form of the arabic writing, known as Jawi. The Jawi-writing was used until the start of the 20th century to write Malay, Acehnese and Minangkabau.

Sumatran manuscripts do have many sizes and shapes. Besides paper, bamboo, tree bark, palm leaves and bone were also used. The most important literature of Sumatra is written in Malay. The writings contains historic stories and romances, stories about the envoy Muhammad and the Islamic heroes like Alexander the Great (in Malay known as Iskandar Zulkarnain), and theological, judicial cases.
Picture: Pustaha
Hikayat Raja-raja Pasai, which tells about the arrival of the Islam to the northern coast of Sumatra in the 13th century, is known to be the oldest piece in the Malay language. The two most important genres of the Malay poets are the telling syair and the pantun. These stories of four sentences of the Syair are probably from Hamzah Fansuri, a mystical poet which lived in Barus in the 16th century.

The pantun also is a story in four sentences, but it has another end actually. Written literature also consists of Acehnese proza (haba) and poets, as well as in Minangkabau with as most important epical poets the Kaba Cindur Mata. As well as somewhere else in Indonesia the borderline between written and told literature is hard to distinguish, because the teksts were usually written down to be told to the people later on.

Professional Sijobang-singers on Western Sumatra are still asked frequently to weddings, circumstances and other festivities where the stories that are told about Anggung Nan Tungga take the entire night. Sumatran populations have a rich folklore with proverbs, manthra's and stories about animals in which a small deer is an hero.

The pustaha, the tree bark books of the Batak, are most probably the most intriguing writings of Sumatra. These harmonica-shaped books are about magic, medicine and fortune tellings and were used by student-medicine men during their study at a Batak priest or dato. It contains important information for preparing a chickens entrails or to predict signs about a child's birth-date, and also receipts for love-drinks and poisons.

Modern Literature

At the beginning of the 20th century the modern Malay literature got contaminated with western influences. Medan became the centre of appearing books about almost everything. Stories which showed much similarity with Jules Verne and Arthur Conan Doyle.

In the 1920's the Balai Pustaka (a Dutch colonial governmental printer) started to print books in Malay; the first ones were from Minangkabau writers. Many books concentrated on the cultural collision between the refreshing Western education and the prearranged marriages of the traditional Minangkabau community. As well as in the period before the independence as after it, the Sumatran writers found themselves in the front lines of Indonesian literature.

Armijn Pane's Belenggu (Boies), which was spread in 1940, was acknowledged to be the first Indonesian psychological book, and poets like Chiaril Anwar and Rivai Apin were influenced by I.S. Eliot and W.H. Auden. Still Sumatra is much used in the writers stories, the forests from their childhood, the images from Danau Toba and much more regularly form a background in a book.

Last revised on September 02, 2011
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