This afternoon, on a discussion with Amis Boersma, a staff of International Institute for Asian Studies (IIAS), there are some interesting revelation about Bahasa Indonesia: When she studied it and speaking it, sometimes she feels insecure and uncomfortable because of it lack of tenses. Huh?
Ami’s mother is Indonesian while her father is dutch, she can speak Indonesian fluently (even writing, I must say). During this afternoon lunch break, I speak about the easiness of learning Bahasa Indonesia because of its lack of gender (Bahasa Indonesia doesn’t have “he” or “she”, just a “dia” which is neutral) and its lack of tenses (its verbs doesn’t change with time. We just have to mention the time when the event happens, like “kemarin” for yesterday, “besok” for tomorrow, and so forth). The tricky part is learning the affixes (suffixes, prefixes, infixes, and confixes) that can be very inconsistent. Even some experts in Bahasa Indonesia can be confused on the rules of these affixes. And then there are tenses in English, French, and in other languages. Simple past tense, past perfect, present continues, future, past continues, and so forth. You know what I mean.
But in spite of this lack of tenses in Bahasa Indonesia, Ami thinks otherwise. Most of the time she is confused whenever somebody mentions an action, because the lack of information in time make her has to ask (demand?) for more information. “Does that annoyed you?”, I asked. “No, I just feel insecure,” she replied. “In Dutch or English, the time frame is clear, whether it happened in the past, is happening right now, or will happen. In Bahasa Indonesia it is not clear, that make me feel insecure and I have to demand more information.”
Yeah, I know, Ami is also Dutch, and what I know, the Dutch generally are quite obsessed with their agenda book. They want to be orderly even in time, and you have to make sure that you have set up an appointment for a visit and a cup of coffee with your best (Dutch) friend. They don’t like it if you just holler in and come uninvited and without appointment. Forget Vinnie Delpino who used to jump in through Doogie Howser, M.D‘s window. That just won’t do!
But I also have a little explanation. I’m not really sure about the history of language, where tenses came from, but Bahasa Indonesia’s lack of tenses might be caused by its people’s lack of sense in time. Every civilization on good ol’ Earth devise a way to tell the time, from the Babylonian who devised early calendar (and divided the day into 24 hours and 1 hour into 60 minutes and 1 minutes into 60 seconds. Very ingenious, aren’t they?), the Egyptian who uses obelisks and sundials, down to the first mechanical clocks and even into the modern cesium clock. How did the civilizations in the archipelago tell time? Beats me. Clocks are not created there, so most people there tell time by reckoning the position of The Sun. Since the Indonesian archipelago is located around the equator belt, the position of The Sun relative to the stars is not changing as extreme as in the far north or far south of the Globe. The of sunrise and sunset doesn’t change much over the years. People usually make reckoning to nearest muslim praying time (sholat). Let’s imagine a conversation when A wants to make an appointment with B (this conversation can sometimes take place when you go to the rustic area in Jakarta):
A: “Bang, besok aye ke rumah lu ye!” (Can I go to your house tomorrow?)
B: “Kapan lu mo dateng?” (When are you going to come?)
A: “Yaaa…abis lohor deh!” (After the noon pray!)
B: “Ya deh boleh.” (Okay)
The praying time Lohor, an informal term for Dzuhur, last approximately from noon at 12:00 until when The Sun is halfway to the horizon from its position at noon (in Indonesia, this is around 15:00 to 16:00). So the time abis lohor has a very wide margin. Somebody who said that they will come after Dzuhur can come at 12:30 or even at 15:00! If they said that they will come ba’da Isya which means after the Isya praying time (Isya begins when the last tinge of red in the horizon after the sunset has disappear completely, in Indonesia it is around 19:00 to 19:30, and ends when the first light of dawn appears, at around 4:00 to 5:00), you can come anytime between 19:00 to even late midnight.
This might be the source of the lack of punctuality in Indonesia, since the definition of time is so flexible. Among the bad habits of Indonesian, is their penchant for lateness. When I was a student activist, arranging a time for meetings are the most difficult things. Everything can go as late as two hours. I even once had to wait 6(!) hours for a meeting just to wait everybody come.
Why it has to be that way? It might be because Indonesia is still in agrarian society, where their daily life is very flexible. If somebody wants to find you, just go to his house and big chance are you’re having a siesta, otherwise you might be in the rice field macul (shoveling the ground), or in the grassland ngangonin kambing (minding the sheeps), and by night you’re most of the time at home. You’re not hard to find, time goes slowly, and most of all: your routine are determined by the cycle of nature. Since nature is so routine and orderly but yet are so flexible, then like it or not you adapted to this condition and become a time-flexible person.
A strict by-the-clock schedule is quite recent in the East Indies. It might be the Dutch who introduced this whole new system of daily lifes to the people in their colony. They had established quite an industry in the colony and society has to change its way of life so the exploitation can keep on going. Most of the people in the upper layers of society then get introduced to technology, clock, and the habit of timekeeping. The lower layers, the peasant, are kept that way by the Dutch Colonial Governor since they are still doing their daily routine.
So is this the origin of Bahasa Indonesia’s lack of tenses? It could be. Complexity in some field arise when there are needs for it, that the basis of the theory of evolution. If nature or some external causes calls for this, then over time it will be developed. That is how culture develops, the building and addition and modification of memes over time. Thus language, as a product of culture, also develop as a means to communicating this complexity. For example: For hundred of years the Dutch create their land by reclamating the waters, that made them creates names and terms for canals: gracht, singel, dijk, and so forth. Being living with snow, the Eskimos are said to have lots of terms for snow. The Javanese? They cultivate rice and their staple food is based on rice, so there are many terms to define rice. Rice that are just sowed, rice that are barely harvested, rice that are cooked, and so forth. All has their own names. The lack of any term in a “field” also explains that this culture aren’t working on this “field” (or doesn’t need) so a specialization is not necessary. In the English language, every kind of rice is named in only one term: rice. The English language doesn’t also has many terms for canals. Now…by this view, the lack of tenses in Indonesian language can be explained by this hypothesis: People in the archipelago doesn’t really need any specialization in time, they don’t need to embedd this specialization in their grammar. They don’t really need to define it, just tell the approximate time like “yesterday,” “tomorrow,” “at dawn,” or so forth.
However, care must be taken since Bahasa Indonesia is actually a recent invention from the early 20th century. It was declared as the Indonesian nation’s official language on the October 28th 1928 Youth Pledge. The roots of Bahasa Indonesia comes from the Malay language which had became the official language for trading in the archipelago during medieval times. The grammatical structure of the Malay is then adopted into Bahasa Indonesia and the language is then standardized. The Malay language itself doesn’t have any tenses like Bahasa Indonesia, and it had been developed for quite a long time.