Indonesians in Focus: Sutan Takdir Alisjahbana

The late Sutan Takdir Alisjahbana, who was born in Natal, North Sumatra on Feb. 11, 1908, is recognized not only as one of Indonesia’s great writers but also as a philosopher whose ideas still exert a considerable influence in Indonesia’s contemporary literary studies and the development of modern Indonesian Language. Many, including the younger generation, would only know him as the author of the famous novel Layar Terkembang (Open Sail) and the founder and editor of a literary and linguistic magazine, Pudjangga Baru (The New Writer).

Among language teachers and students, Alisjahbana is known as the writer of Tatabahasa Baru Bahasa Indonesia (New Indonesian Grammar), published in 1948, used as a reference for teaching Indonesian grammar to both senior high school and university students then.

Most of Alisjahbana’s works on Indonesian linguistics were motivated by his philosophical views on the nature of language planning or, to use his coined term, language engineering. For him, planning for all the behaviors of language for all members of a nation was a difficult, if not an impossible task. Furthermore, he saw this kind of planning as a corrupt activity that could belittle the essence of humans as thinking and free beings.

His conviction was that standard English, French, German and other standard languages (probably Indonesian language) were mainly the product of compulsory education.

Alisjahbana then contended that the idea of language planning should be perceived in a very limited sense and for a very special goal. It was the language of schools that could be the target of effective planning.

His philosophical perspective on language engineering also served as the main impetus for him to pioneer the publication of Pembina Bahasa Indonesia (Guide to the Indonesian Language), a monthly magazine written to help teachers understand grammatical and terminological difficulties in the language.

Despite his insistence on controlling the use of language (i.e. grammar) in class via many of his erudite works, Alisjahbana never resented the use of language in the other domains. Indeed, he acknowledged the freedom of using language, as part of human nature.

At the Second Congress of Indonesian Language in Medan in 1945, for example, Alisjahbana took a moderate stance when a group of teachers reproached the language used by journalists for being sloppy and anarchistic. For him, journalists were the true bearers of modern Indonesian, and the teachers’ main concern was not to correct them, but rather to concentrate on the language of the coming generation of journalists who were still their pupils in schools.

For those adopting chauvinist attitudes of language used for maintaining nationalism, many of Alisjahbana’s views of language modernization are incompatible and even contradictive. Purists would likely reject any foreign terminologies and instead use the native language in all domains of life.

Alisjahbana believed that only by learning from the values of western civilization can language modernization be realized. In one of his internationally published articles, he bluntly proclaimed that among the established guidelines for the coining of modern terms,
“I myself preferred (the choice of coining international terms) since it united Indonesia with the world of science and technology.”

In this globalized and technologically advanced world, most of Alisjahbana’s thoughts on language planning, as part of language modernization, are still germane to the development of Indonesian. His progressive and liberal view of accommodating international terms can help facilitate the progress of Indonesian as modern language.

In fact, if one really follows his line of thoughts, one may see that Alisjahbana offered a down-to-earth strategy for modernizing Indonesian language.

This is implied in his remarks on language codification, as follows, “Since the scientific, technological, and other modern concepts were already available and easily accessible in existing modern languages, the process of codification of modern Indonesian terms could proceed steadily without too much difficulty.”

During his life, Alisjahbana may have learned from the reality that the development of a language is inseparable from contact with other languages. The fact that the most widely used language, English, is rich in its semantic field, is due to its user’s flexibility, to borrow and adopt other languages such as French, German, Japan, Arabic, and even Malay.

The writer (Setiono Sugiharto) is chief-editor of Indonesian Journal of English Language Teaching. He can be reached at