Skip to main content Accessibility help

The standardisation of the Indonesian language and its consequences for Islamic communities

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  12 January 2015


In the 1940s and 1950s, several organs of the newly independent Indonesian state oversaw the standardisation of the Indonesian national language. In this process, Western-oriented bureaucrats pushed the language towards European normativity, significantly decreasing the influence of Arabic. While this reform carried symbolic meaning, the practical ramifications on Indonesian orthography, spelling, and word selection also carried real, non-symbolic effects on the accessibility of this language to Indonesian Islamic leaders. Standardising orthography to use the Roman alphabet rendered many Muslims illiterate in a language they had been using for decades. Choices in word selection and spelling limited the Islamic meanings that the new language could carry, thus impacting how Muslims could use the national language for religious and other purposes. Indonesian linguistic reform carried serious social and political consequences in addition to the symbolic meanings often studied.

Research Article
Copyright © The National University of Singapore 2015 

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below.


1 Smith-Hefner, Nancy J., ‘A social history of language change in highland East Java’, Journal of Asian Studies 48, 2 (1989): 257–71CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Steedly, Mary Margaret, ‘The importance of proper names: Language and “national” identity in colonial Karoland’, American Ethnologist 23, 3 (1993): 447–75CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

2 Errington, J. Joseph, ‘Continuity and change in Indonesian language development’, Journal of Asian Studies 45, 2 (1986): 329–53CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Landau, Jacob M., ‘The First Turkish Language Congress’, in The earliest stage of language planning: The ‘First Congress’ phenomenon, ed. Fishman, Joshua A. (New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 1993), pp. 271–92Google Scholar; Gottlieb, Nanette, ‘Language and politics: The reversal of postwar script reform policy in Japan’, Journal of Asian Studies 53, 4 (1994): 1175–98CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Thomas, Megan C., ‘K is for De-Kolonization: Anti-colonial nationalism and orthographic reform’, Comparative Studies in Society and History 49, 4 (2007): 938–67CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Anderson, Benedict R. O'G., ‘The languages of Indonesian politics’, in Language and power: Exploring political cultures in Indonesia (Jakarta: Equinox, 2009), pp. 123–51Google Scholar. The exception to this general trend may be the literature on Chinese languages, which takes into consideration very real implications for education and expanding literacy. See, for example, Zhou, Minglang, ed., Language policy in the People's Republic of China: Theory and practice since 1949 (Boston: Kluwer Academic, 2004)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

3 Moeliono, Anton M., ‘The first efforts to promote and develop Indonesian’, in The earliest stage of language planning, pp. 129–42Google Scholar. Indonesia does have a strong plurality ethnicity in the Javanese; for thoughts on why Javanese was not adopted as a national language, see Anderson, Benedict R. O'G., ‘Sembah-sumpah: The politics of language and Javanese culture’, in Language and power, pp. 194237Google ScholarPubMed.

4 Suryadinata, Leo, ed., Sastra Peranakan Tionghoa Indonesia (Jakarta: Gramedia Widiasarana Indonesia, 1996)Google Scholar; Harper, Martin, One nation, one people, one language: The story of Indonesia and Bahasa Indonesia (Macerata: Edizioni Università di Macerata, 2013)Google Scholar, pp. 186ff. I am thankful to Jérôme Samuel for this insight.

5 Contrast the case of China: Kipnis, Andrew, ‘Constructing commonality: Standardization and modernization in Chinese nation-building’, Journal of Asian Studies 71, 3 (2012): 731–55CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

6 Foulcher, Keith, ‘Sumpah Pemuda: The making and meaning of a symbol of Indonesian nationhood’, Asian Studies Review 24, 3 (2000): 377410CrossRefGoogle Scholar, very ably unpacks how the Sumpah Pemuda (Youth Pledge) of 1928, especially its language component, came to be constructed as a national moment later, rather than being a language watershed at the time.

7 Laffan, Michael Francis, Islamic nationhood and colonial Indonesia: The Umma below the winds (New York: Routledge, 2003), p. 236CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

8 Redaksi Pembina Bahasa Indonesia, ‘Kata pengantar’, Pembina Bahasa Indonesia 1, 1 (1948): 1Google Scholar.

9 Redaksi Pembina Bahasa Indonesia, ‘Masuk tahun 1951’, Pembina Bahasa Indonesia 3, 7 (1951): 194Google Scholar.

10 Redaksi Pembina Bahasa Indonesia, ‘Soal menjempurnakan Bahasa Indonesia’, Pembina Bahasa Indonesia 2, 7 (1950): 196Google Scholar.

11 Laffan, Islamic nationhood, p. 13. In common usage, many Indonesians today also use the term huruf arab melayu (Malay Arabic letters) for Indonesian written in the Arabic script.

12 Hijjas, Mulaika, ‘Not just fryers of bananas and sweet potatoes: Literate and literary women in the nineteenth-century Malay world’, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 41, 1 (2010): 153–72CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

13 See their entries in Klinkert, H.C., Nieuw Maleisch–Nederlandsch woordenboek met Arabisch karakter, 2nd ed. (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1902), p. 197Google Scholar.

14 Jeffrey Hadler, ‘Anti-Semitism, syncretism, and the definition of “Indonesia”’, paper presented at the Yale Indonesia Forum spring workshop ‘Inter-religious relations in Indonesia’, 4 April 2009.

15 Mohamad Roem, oral history with A. Rahman Zainuddin, Arsip Nasional Republik Indonesia, Collection SL1 1981, #6.

16 Hamka, Kenang-kenanganku di Malaya (Singapore: Setia Darma, 1957); Jamiluddin Azhar, interview with the author, 27 July 2010, Mataram, West Nusa Tenggara.

17 Za'im Rais, ‘The Minangkabau traditionalists' response to the modernist movement’ (M.A. thesis, McGill University, 1994), p. 39.

18 Hamka, ‘Pengaruh huruf atas bahasa dan bangsa’, Hikmah, 107, 16 Feb. 1952, pp. 18–20.

19 Hadler, Jeffrey, Muslims and matriarchs: Cultural resilience in Indonesia through jihad and colonialism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2008)Google Scholar, p. 70 n. 30; p. 90.

20 H. Sjarifuddin, interview with the author, 21 Sept. 2010, Banjarmasin, South Kalimantan; Muhammad Ideham Suriansyah, interview with the author, 20 Sept. 2010, Banjarmasin.

21 Federspiel, Howard M., Islam and ideology in the emerging Indonesian state: The Persatuan Islam (PERSIS), 1923 to 1957 (Leiden: Brill, 2001), p. 69Google Scholar.

22 Personal communication, Jérôme Samuel, 10 Jan. 2014.

23 Kratz, E.U., ‘Running a lending library in Palembang in 1886 AD’, Indonesia Circle: School of Oriental & African Studies Newsletter 5, 14 (1977): 312Google Scholar.

24 Feener, R. Michael, ‘Muslim legal thought in modern Indonesia: Introduction and overview’, in Islamic law in contemporary Indonesia: Ideas and institutions, ed. Feener, R. Michael and Cammack, Mark E. (Cambridge, MA: Islamic Legal Studies Program, Harvard Law School, 2007), p. 15Google Scholar.

25 Kevin William Fogg, ‘The fate of Muslim nationalism in independent Indonesia’ (Ph.D. diss., Yale University, 2012), p. 253ff.

26 Steenbrink, Karel A., Pesantren, madrasah, sekolah: Pendidikan Islam dalam kurun moderen (Jakarta: LP3ES, 1986), pp. 7071Google Scholar.

27 Burhanuddin Harahap, oral history with J.R. Caniago, Arsip Nasional Republik Indonesia, Collection SL1 1980, #1. The account by Harahap contradicts the statement by Ethan Mark that ‘While no Java-wide order to the effect appears to have been issued, use of Dutch and English languages were strongly discouraged.’ Ethan Mark, ‘Appealing to Asia: Nation, culture, and the problem of imperial modernity in Japanese-occupied Java, 1942–1945’ (Ph.D. diss., Columbia University, 2003), p. 251. Both agree that Indonesian took a place of pride as an ‘official’ language, alongside Japanese.

28 Benda, Harry J., The crescent and the rising sun: Indonesian Islam under the Japanese occupation, 1942–1945 (The Hague: W. van Hoeve, 1958), p. 161Google Scholar.

29 Fogg, ‘Fate of Muslim nationalism’, pp. 161–2.

30 Mulder, J.A., Het Indonesisch–Arabische schrift (Groningen/Batavia: J.B. Wolters' Uitgeversmaatschappij, 1949)Google Scholar; Usman, Z., Kitab lembaga untuk beladjar huruf Arab Melaju (Batavia: J.B. Wolters, 1950)Google Scholar.

31 Poerbatjaraka, R.M. Ng., ‘Tentang edjaan Bahasa Indonesia’, Bahasa dan Budaja 2, 1 (1953): 1823Google Scholar.

32 Banknotes and coins from Indonesia, 1945–1990 (Jakarta: Yayasan Serangan Umum 1 Maret 1949 & Perum Peruri, 1991)Google Scholar.

33 Lewis, Geoffrey, The Turkish language reform: A catastrophic success (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999)Google Scholar.

34 See further Zhou, Qingsheng, ‘The creation of writing systems and nation establishment: The case of China in the 1950s’, in Language policy, ed. Zhou, Minglang, pp. 5570Google Scholar; Gottlieb, ‘Language and politics’.

35 See further Errington, ‘Continuity and change’; Smith-Hefner, ‘Social history of language change’.

36 Muhammad Iqbal, ‘Menyulut api di Padang Ilalang: Pidato politik Soekarno di Amuntai 27 January 1953’ (Skripsi S1, Universitas Negeri-Yogyakarta, 2009), p. 23.

37 Hamka, Rusydi, Pribadi dan martabat Buya Hamka (Jakarta: Pustaka Panjimas, 1981), pp. 207–10Google Scholar.

38 Masnun, , Tuan Guru KH Muhammad Zainuddin Abdul Madjid: Gagasan dan gerakan pembaharuan Islam di Nusa Tenggara Barat (Jakarta: Pustaka al-Miqdad, 2007)Google Scholar; Abdul Hayyi Nu'man, interview with the author, 23 July 2010, Mataram, West Nusa Tenggara.

39 Interviews with Saggaf Aljufrie and Abdul Salam Thahir, 11 Oct. 2010, Palu, Central Sulawesi.

40 Bosra, Mustari, Tuang guru, anrong guru dan daeng guru: Gerakan Islam di Sulawesi Selatan 1914–1942 (Makassar: La Galigo Press, 2008), pp. 164–5Google Scholar.

41 The forwarding letter from the governor's office makes it clear that the letter was disregarded by the governor, and that the local Ministry of Religious Affairs office should deal with any necessary follow-up. Arsip Provinsi Sulawesi Selatan, Collection 11 — Kantor Wilayah Kementerian Agama, #184.

42 The most famous study on this topic is Burhan Djabier Magenda, ‘The surviving aristocracy in Indonesia: Politics in three provinces of the Outer Islands’ (Ph.D. diss., Cornell University, 1989).

43 Stephen Titus Hosmer, ‘The 1955 Indonesian general elections in Java’ (Ph.D. diss., Yale University, 1961), p. 10.

44 Feith, Herbert, The decline of constitutional democracy in Indonesia (Jakarta: Equinox Publishing, 2007), p. 567Google Scholar.

45 Hamka, ‘Pengaruh huruf’, p. 18.

46 Laffan, Islamic nationhood, p. 257.

47 Maksum, M. Nur et al. , Musyawaratuththalibin: Historis, perjuangan dan pergulatan pemikiran (Banjarmasin: Antasari Press, 2007), p. 38Google Scholar.

48 Koto, Alaiddin, Pemikiran politik PERTI, Persatuan Tarbiyah Islamiyah (1945–1970) (Jakarta: Nimas Multima, 1997), p. 46Google Scholar n. 50.

49 Hosmer, ‘General elections’, p. 31.

50 Alisjahbana, Sutan Takdir, ‘Pendahoeloean’, in Kamoes istilah, vol. I, Asing–Indonesia (Jakarta: Poestaka Rakjat, 1945), p. 4Google Scholar.

51 Alisjahbana, Sutan Takdir, ‘Pendahuluan’, in Kamoes istilah, vol. II, Indonesia–Asing (Jakarta: Poestaka Rakjat, 1947)Google Scholar.

52 Redaksi Pembina Bahasa Indonesia, ‘Soal menjempurnakan Bahasa Indonesia’, Pembina Bahasa Indonesia 2, 7 (1950): 196Google Scholar.

53 Prijana, , ‘Kata Pengantar’, Bahasa dan Budaja 1, 1 (1952): 3Google Scholar.

54 Boyd R. Compton, ‘Indonesia's national language’, letter from the archives of the Institute on Current World Affairs, 18 Oct. 1952, p. 3; (last accessed 18 Nov. 2014).

55 Ibid.


56 Ibid.


57 Anderson, ‘Languages of Indonesian politics’, pp. 145–6.

58 Hamka, ‘Pengaruh huruf’, p. 18.

59 Prijana, , ‘Beberapa tjatatan berhubung dengan edjaan Bahasa Indonesia’, Bahasa dan Budaja 2, 1 (1953): 54–5Google Scholar.

60 Ma'ruf, Anas, ‘Sekadar pandangan sekitar persoalan edjaan Bahasa Indonesia’, Bahasa dan Budaja 2, 1 (1953): 16Google Scholar; Purnomo, Abd. C., ‘Masalah edjaan Bahasa Indonesia’, Bahasa dan Budaja 2, 5 (1954): 41Google Scholar.

61 Redaksi Pembina Bahasa Indonesia, ‘Komisi Bahasa dan Komisi Istilah’, Pembina Bahasa Indonesia 3, 6 (1950): 67Google Scholar.

62 Junus, Umar, Sedjarah dan perkembangan kearah Bahasa Indonesia dan Bahasa Indonesia (Malang: Lembaga Penerbitan IKIP Malang, 1965), p. 6Google Scholar. This publication is based on lectures Junus gave starting in 1959, in which Junus singles out Arabic as a point of ridicule, not just Dutch. His conflation of Arabic and Dutch as foreign influences is not well explained in this book. All the same, this attitude can be taken as characteristic of ultra-nationalist politics of the late 1950s.

63 Pane, Armijn, ‘Hubungan bahasa dan berpikir’, in Perkembangan Bahasa Indonesia: Beberapa tjatatan (Jakarta: Lukisan Suasana, 1953), p. 31Google Scholar.

64 It restarted to some extent from the 1980s, however, and has again been in full swing in places like Aceh since the province achieved Special Territory status. I thank Jérôme Samuel for this insight and an anonymous reviewer for developing it.

65 Lubis, M. Arsjad Th., Toentoenan perang sabil ([Medan]: Aboe Hanifah dan Ibnoe Moehammad, 1946), p. 4Google Scholar.

66 Kongres Bahasa Indonesia di Medan ([Jakarta]: Kementerian Penerangan, Bagian Dokumentasi, 1954), p. 40Google Scholar.

67 Koto, Pemikiran politik PERTI, p. 196.

68 Others include غ ظ ط ض ص ش ذ ح ث. Notably, jawi also added a few letters to the common Arabic script to transcribe common sounds in Indonesian languages, such as for /p/, for /ŋ/ (‘ng' in English), for /ɳ/ (‘ny’ in English), چ for /tʃ/ (‘ch’ in English) and for /g/.

69 In jawi, the transcription was also various. These words could be written with a final hamza (common especially if the word was an Arabic loanword originally employing a hamza, but also as with or bapa' for father), with a final ‘qaf’ (ق) to symbolise the glottal stop (thus, or bapaq for father) or without any final letter after the vowel (thus, or bapa for father). All three appear in Klinkert, Nieuw Maleisch–Nederlandsch woordenboek, p. 111, although a final ‘k’ (ك) does not. When an Arabic loanword included a glottal stop, only the spelling with ء was common. The romanised spelling with ‘k’ at the end was not new in the 1950s, but ‘k’ as the only acceptable alternative was new.

70 Naskah/Madjalah, Bagian, Pendidikan, Kementerian, Pengajaran, , dan Kebudajaan, , ‘Pendapat tentang “Edjaan Bahasa Indonesia”’, Bahasa dan Budaya 2, 1 (1953): 33Google Scholar.

71 Vikør, Lars, Perfecting spelling: Spelling discussions and reforms in Indonesia and Malaysia, 1900–1972 (Providence, RI: Foris, 1988), p. 66Google Scholar.

72 Satjadibrata, R., ‘Edjaan Bahasa Indonesia dengan huruf Latin’, Bahasa dan Budaja 2, 1 (1953): 810Google Scholar. Although an apostrophe was still commonly used in the word sja'ir in the 1950s, after the 1972 standardisation of Indonesian spelling, the apostrophe was dropped once and for all, and readers were expected to know that the vowels did not collapse into a diphthong.

73 There are six variants of this word still in Stevens, Alan M. and Smidgall-Tellings, A. Ed., A comprehensive Indonesian–English dictionary (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2004), p. 429Google Scholar: jumaah, jumaat, jumahah, jumahat, jumat and jum'at.

74 On this point, I thank Jérôme Samuel for his cautions, and many Indonesians from across the archipelago for reading these words aloud for me, often repeatedly.

75 For example, Klinkert, Nieuw Maleisch–Nederlandsch woordenboek.

76 Tupanno, A.W.J., ‘Surat’, Bahasa dan Budaya 2, 1 (1953): 1113Google Scholar.

77 Kongres Bahasa Indonesia, p. 16.

78 Thomas, ‘K is for De-Kolonization’.

79 Ghazali Hasan, ‘Sanggupkah Kongres Bahasa Indonesia?’, Tangkas, 27 Oct. 1954, reprinted in Kongres Bahasa Indonesia, p. 30.

80 Vikør, Perfecting spelling, p. 52.

81 Ibid., p. 56.


82 Noer, Deliar, Partai Islam di pentas nasional, 1945–1965 (Jakarta: Grafiti Pers, 1987), p. 83Google Scholar.

83 Ibid.


84 My thanks to James T. Collins for this insight.

85 Kipnis, ‘Constructing commonality’.

86 See further Errington, ‘Continuity and change’; Anderson, ‘Languages of Indonesian politics’.

Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Full text views reflects PDF downloads, PDFs sent to Google Drive, Dropbox and Kindle and HTML full text views.

Total number of HTML views: 31
Total number of PDF views: 226 *
View data table for this chart

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 26th January 2021. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Hostname: page-component-898fc554b-kxqz4 Total loading time: 0.387 Render date: 2021-01-26T13:37:37.372Z Query parameters: { "hasAccess": "0", "openAccess": "0", "isLogged": "0", "lang": "en" } Feature Flags: { "shouldUseShareProductTool": true, "shouldUseHypothesis": true, "isUnsiloEnabled": true, "metricsAbstractViews": false, "figures": false, "newCiteModal": false }

Send article to Kindle

To send this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about sending to your Kindle. Find out more about sending to your Kindle.

Note you can select to send to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be sent to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

The standardisation of the Indonesian language and its consequences for Islamic communities
Available formats

Send article to Dropbox

To send this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Dropbox.

The standardisation of the Indonesian language and its consequences for Islamic communities
Available formats

Send article to Google Drive

To send this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Google Drive.

The standardisation of the Indonesian language and its consequences for Islamic communities
Available formats

Reply to: Submit a response

Your details

Conflicting interests

Do you have any conflicting interests? *