Language Primer: Javanese

The stimulation provided by the depth and breadth and size of Indonesia can overwhelm the senses. A sensible way to ease this pressure would be to navigate around the many languages you may encounter.

A quick scan of Indonesia would reveal that the archipelago’s many regions encompass a certain complexity that, as such, imbues them with a distinct personality. Sumatra, beholden to tropics and lakes; Bali, [redacted]; Lombok, where water holds sway; Sumba, a place of reverence for ancestors; Sumbawa, the obscure heart; Flores, the way to the afterlife; Kalimantan, with an interior whose rainforests slowly dwindle; Sulawesi, shaped like a spider; Maluku, whose spices once captivated the world; West Papua, a region beset by tumult; West Timor, that exists on the periphery.

And whilst it may behove the reader to further study each area’s character, one indefatigable truth remains: holding these disparate places together is Java, the spine of Indonesia. Those who hold power in the island’s cities plot the course of the country’s development, and the region’s active volcanoes brood with the threat of catastrophe. 

There is much that Java can teach a well-intentioned visitor; they can find such stories elsewhere. But these good intentions also require effort. The pulmonary system of Java is charged by many tributaries of culture and tradition and wisdom, and the motivation of these facets can bewilder the uninitiated.

It is best, one would think, to engage with your surroundings and try learning the prevailing language or dialect. So doing, the visitor acquires a key that unlocks the communication barrier and provides access to a treasure chest of magic words; a well-deployed burst of matur suwon or mlaku mlaku, for instance, can elicit looks of shock and surprise, thereby opening doors for the curious, respectful outsider. 

Such engagement, however, can prove tricky: people may not have much time, or they may lack an aptitude for language, or they may not like to position themselves at the absolute centre of their social media content. But if one has a chance to demonstrate their feel for a place, it is a chance very much worth taking.

Read more: The story of how Sumatra’s Lake Toba got its name.

Thus, allow EITM to provide a pro-tip: for a crash course in Javanese language learning, find a place on the back row of a public bus in the centre or east of the island. There, await the ticket collector. This individual may well take an interest in you, and conversation might ensue. Depending on the sensibilities of the collector, they might become protective of you, as a teacher would a student, and wish to share a piece of Java to ease your passage; and language is as good a thing as any to share. If this scenario unfolds, watch for the reverence with which your new wellspring behaves: they will handle notebooks and writing implements with respect, and they shall patiently guide you through the complications of voicing unfamiliar terms. 

This guide was gathered using such an approach, and whilst it may look, sound, feel and be incomplete, it is also genuine: shout out to Raza on the bus from Semarang to Salatiga, and the jahal Arema FC fan, on the Blitar-Tulungagung route, who bore the appearance of a hooligan and the patience and understanding of a saint. They may never read this, but to them EITM says simply: thank you, fellas.

Javanese, an incomplete (but useful) list:

Thank youTerima kasihMatur suwon
You’re welcomeSama samaPodo podo / same sami
WalkingJalan jalanMlaku mlaku
OkayBaik baik sakaApik apik wae
Where are you going?Mau ke mana?Jendingan tindak pundi?
This way / just around / etcMau ke sanaAjeng ting mriku
ThirstyHausNgombe / ngelak
Don’t know (?)Sudah tauWes eroh
Please / excuse me / okaySilakanMonggo
Excuse mePermisiAmit / nuwon sewoo
Ask for help (help me?)Minta tolongNjalok tolong
Sorry / excuse meMaafSepurane
SlowlyPelan pelanAlon alon
Up to youTerserah kamuSak karepmu
Javanese people are beautifulOrang Jawa cantikWong Jowo ayu ayu
People / personOrangWong
Where from?Dari mana?Teko endi?
From thereDari siniTeko kene
WhereDi manaNdek endi
A littleSedikitSithik

(NB: As always, EITM wields only the illusion of authority. If this list proves useful, then great. But if you’re serious about learning Javanese, consult a proper teacher or dictionary. Better yet, just wander around Java and pick it up like we did.)


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