The Betawi Language: Jakarta, West Java

On my numerous trips to Jakarta it has never ceased to amaze me the potpourri of languages spoken in the capital city. My native language is English and although I am sufficiently fluent in the national language of Bahasa Indonesia, there were times on my travels when the locals originating from Jakarta spoke a language that was way over my head. I am talking about Bahasa Betawi. Being married to a Javanese-Chinese lady from Yogyakarta in Central Java, communication can be difficult sometimes and especially when she gets annoyed with me!. My wife speaks not only Bahasa Indonesia, but also Bahasa Jawa and Bahasa Mandarin. However, in the norm, we hardly ever have communication problems. Just thought I would mention that because we are delightfully and happily married. But, it is my brother-in-law that stuns me. Having been born and raised in Jakarta he speaks only Bahasa Betawi and I am, to use a film title, ‘Lost in Translation’ whenever we engage in conversation. As much has I use Bahasa Indonesia to converse with him, he always replies in Bahasa Betawi. It is a beautiful language and one of the over 700 indigenous languages in the archipelago of Indonesia. So, I just sit there and listen fascinated by this dialect.

Last week I read an excellent article by Setiono Sugiharto regarding the preservation of this language:

The perseverance of Betawi language in Jakarta
Setiono Sugiharto, Jakarta

Among Indonesia’s estimated 746 indigenous languages, Betawi is one of the most widely-spoken. Also known as Batavi, Betawi Malay, Jakarta Malay and Melayu Jakarte, this language is listed as one of the country’s active local languages.

The term Betawi is etymologically derived from Batavia, the original and official name given to Jakarta by the Dutch.

Spoken by about 2.7 million people in Greater Jakarta, the language, native to Betawi Asli people, or those originating from Jakarta, has also become modern, trendy and colloquial among youngsters living in the capital.

Although Jakarta is a melting pot for religions, languages, cultures and ethnicities, the Betawi dialect flourishes among the young as well as the old and, as such, undergoes continuous evolution.

Historically, the Betawi language was used as a lingua franca with a mixture of several languages, including Chinese, Arabic, Portuguese and Dutch, and had no native speakers. Thus, it originally started as a pidgin language, a simplified version of an established language. By the mid-19th century, the pidgin variant had evolved into a Creole, or a language that is derived from the two different languages.

Hence, dialectologically, Betawi is classified as a Malay-based Creole, while still being distinctly different from other Indonesian- and Malay-based pidgins and Creoles.

While Betawi is thought of as a non-standard variant, it was originally spoken by members of the upper class.

Because Betawi was originally a pidgin language, many of its lexical and phonological traits are adopted from foreign languages, in addition to, of course, Malay and Indonesian.

In the language, the phoneme /a/ is typically pronounced /‚/, as in the words /nap‚/ (why) and /kat‚ny‚/ (rumor has it).

Those (irrespective of their ethnicities) who have been settled in Jakarta for a long time will be familiar with such commonly spoken words as goceng (five thousand), engkong (grandpa), entong (boy), cabut (leave), bokap (father), nyokap (mother), pembokat (house maid), babi ngepet (referring to an urban legend involving black magic) and bonyok (the blended form of bokap and nyokap, meaning parents).

As these words are deemed highly informal or colloquial and are ubiquitous among teenagers, they are popularly dubbed as bahasa prokem (words derived from preman (hooligan)). Bahasa gaul (a form of slang among youths) is also a term used to describe the language.

That the Betawi people emerged in the 19th century through the amalgamation of many races, ethnicities and cultures is undeniably historical fact. Besides strong linguistic influences from these diverse ethnicities, we can also discern various culturally rooted-artistic influences, which have also embedded themselves in Betawi art.

Take, for example, the traditional Tanjidor orchestra, inherited from Dutch land-owners, the Gambang Kromong and Cokek dances, which derive from Chinese immigrants, the Kroncong Tugu dance from the Portuguese and the Rebana and Gambus dances, which can be traced to Arabic cultural performances.

The mix of these linguistic and cultural heritages from diverse cultural influences, which are still well-preserved among native Betawi people, can be taken as ontological evidence that the Betawi people descend from Malay, Chinese, Arab, Dutch and Portuguese ancestors.

The perseverance of the Betawi language owes much to electronic media, which has helped popularize the language, particularly through documentaries depicting the Betawi people’s way of life.

For example, comedy films of the 1970s starring the late Betawi icon Benyamin Sueb continue to be aired by TV stations. Other televised films with strong Betawi influences include Si Pitung (a legendary Betawi hero), Si Doel Anak Sekolahan (Doel, the schoolboy) and Si Entong (the boy).

Interestingly, many Indonesian soap operas star young actors and actresses who deliberately imitate the Betawi dialect to look and sound trendy and cool.

Betawi is also commonly used in commercials aimed at the younger generations. Producers of the advertisements believe the dialect evokes a “taste” of modernity, trendiness and coolness among the youngsters.
Sociolinguistically, the Betawi language, like so many other currently spoken languages, is in a state of constant development. Its prevalent use among the young is a testimony to its popularity and endurance.

We cannot for sure prescribe that this Indonesian non-standard language does not reflect Bahasa Indonesia yang baik dan benar (a good and correct Indonesian) because such a traditional dictum is against the very nature of language, which is descriptive, dynamic, flexible, fluid and evolving.

However, the language’s survival is ensured by its speakers, who consider it a vital element to their culture.

The writer is chief-editor of the Indonesian Journal of English Language Teaching and teaches English composition at Atma Jaya Catholic University in Jakarta. He can be reached at

Source: Jakarta Post: 21/06/08