Monday, November 19, 2012

Language Profile: Javanese

With over 80 million native speakers, Javanese is the native language of the world's most populous island, Java. The largest island of the Indonesian archipelago, Java is home to over 60 percent of the Indonesian population as well as its capital city, Jakarta. It was once the center of Hindu-Buddhist empires, as well as an important part of the colonial Dutch East Indies.

Insert obligatory coffee joke here.

Javanese is a member of the Austronesian language family, which connects it to Indonesian, the official language of Indonesia that is often used by Javanese speakers for business and other official purposes. The language has three main dialect groups: Central, Eastern, and Western Javanese. The dialects are all mutually intelligible (as they should be in order to be considered dialects!), and differ mainly in pronunciation, along with occasional vocabulary differences.

It is also considered by some to be a classical language of the world due to its literary tradition that spans over twelve centuries. The earliest found written evidence of Javanese is from the early 9th century. Its vocabulary was considerably influenced by Sanskrit, and the names of many Javanese people are derived from Sanskrit roots. Though it's not an official language, it is taught in schools and used in mass media... though there aren't any newspapers written in Javanese. But really, who reads newspapers anymore?

Java is a volcanic island. This is the Dieng Volcanic
Complex... some of these volcanoes emit toxic gas! No joke.

As with other Austronesian languages, Javanese uses three different registers for speaking in different social situations. Each of the registers has its own vocabulary, grammar, and prosody (a term for speech rhythm, stress and intonation). Here's a brief description of each of them:

Ngoko - This is the informal register, which is used between friends and close relatives. It's also used to speak to people of lower status than you... such as a boss talking to an employee.

Madya - From the Sanskrit word madhya meaning "middle", this is an intermediate register used with strangers. When you don't know which register you should be using, you choose this one.

Krama - This is the most formal style of speech. It's used when speaking to someone of higher status, as well as in public speeches and announcements. 

Java is traditionally written in Javanese script... not to be confused with the programming languages Java and JavaScript! It's an abugida, and each of the twenty letters represent a syllable that contains one consonant plus the inherent vowel a. Diacritics are used to indicate different vowel sounds when necessary.

This is the Javanese alphabet in Javanese script.

What's especially interesting about Javanese script is that its alphabet forms a pangram, or sentence in which  every letter of the alphabet is used at least once. The commonly known pangram for English is "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog." However, the Javanese alphabet read in order forms a poem, which translated reads: "There were two messengers, they had animosity, they were equally powerful in fight, here are the corpses." It's a story told as part of the mythology of Javanese civilization. Not many writing systems can boast an alphabet that recites a poem of mythical origins!