Gusti Dertik in Bali

Jul 8th, 2011, in History, by

“One of the rajas of Badung who once discussed Van der Tuuk with me said very peculiarly of him; “There is in the whole of Bali only one man who knows and understands Balinese and that man is Gusti Dertik”

from Dr. Julius Jacobs , “Eenigen tijd onder de Baliers”, 1883

So Van der Tuuk had to make preparations to go to Bali. These did not always go smoothly. He wrote on the 3rd of January 1870:

“I have great difficulties with the servants here because the Javanese and Malays of Batavia fear Bali. I have now a servant, a boy of 13 years old, who is honest but rather clumsy. I fear that he will desert me when I depart for Bali. There is a general fear of Bali here.”

But amidst these preparations he did not neglect the study of Balinese in which his knowledge of other Indonesian languages came him in good stead. On 5th May 1870 he wrote:

“I am very busy with Balinese and believe that I will soon master it since Javanese has had a great influence on it.


The Malay of Batavia facilitates for me the study of Balinese. It is remarkable how many Balinese words have remained in that particular dialect of Malay. The original population of Batavia, you know, consisted for the larger part of Balinese who served the VOC as slaves or soldiers. Even the housekeepers of the gentlemen of that pious company were female Balinese slaves. That is why even now the housekeeper of a European is called “njai”. In Bali this “njai” is the usual term with which one addresses, in a friendly way, a young woman of the lowest class; it means “younger sister”.”

Once again he was determined to put his house in an isolated spot where other Europeans would not bother him too much. This spot turned out to be the kampong Baratan, about 3 kms from Boeleleng, where he got himself a bamboo house.

The Balinese made a very favourable impression on him – even more so than the Bataks who had also generally received positive comments from him. He wrote on the 23rd of September 1870:

“Thus far the Balinese please me better than the Bataks. The Brahmins here are very civilized and very gentle. It is a pity that the government does not make more use of them and is here represented by an official who allows the Prince to get away with the most outrageous cruelties.”

On a later occasion he wrote:

“The caste of priests receives great honour here and that is nothing to be amazed about because those priests I know deserve great esteem. They do not know the intrigues of Malay spiritual leaders. I ascribe this phenomenon to their aversion from attempts to convert others to their religion.”

He soon noticed that the study of Balinese required some preliminary study. He wrote on 19th dec. 1870:

“The language here is so mixed with Old Javanese (the so-called Kawi) that one is necessitated to study Kawi literature and clear that up, all the more so because the Balinese does, when he speaks in a refined fashion, not hesitate to use words he only knows from manuscripts. This now requires serious study because we don’t have a Kawi dictionary yet.”

But that the Balinese used Old Javanese when they wanted to cut a fine figure did not mean that they had a real command of the language. Van der Tuuk soon found out that there was a considerable element of humbug here. He wrote:

“Though the Balinese understand more of Kawi than the Javanese do, reading it is with them a matter of faith. They imagine understanding a Kawi text but when you put a difficult bit in front of them they are as cheeky with it as a Jew with some Hebrew text. Their explanations are sometimes preposterous. One can get to know more of it than the most learned Brahmin by reading many manuscripts and reflecting repeatedly on a text and comparing words.”

Though the life there was very monotonous for him he found consolation in his studies and in his dogs, monkeys, chickens, ducks, and other “trifles which turn out to be the core of life”. “The conversation here” he wrote “is not very stimulating. I am generally waffling with the Balinese.”

Among the things that tied him to Bali and that would, as he said, cause him to leave the place with sadness he failed to mention his Balinese housekeeper.

In 1873 there was a big change in his life. The government had proposed that he would enter into its service and thus leave that of the Bible society. Van der Tuuk’s main reason for accepting this proposal seems to have been the requirement of that society that he would, here too, work on a translation of the bible. The linguist felt that with the then state of knowledge about Kawi and Balinese that would be entirely premature – and that from that point of view the Society was wasting its money on him. His reluctance to start on a translation of the Bible in Balinese was not entirely of a linguistic nature. Over time he had become more and more anti-Christian. So he left the Bible Society, acknowledging that, though he was not exactly known for his orthodoxy in religious matters, it had always treated him decently.

His workload did however not become any lighter.

At a late stage, in 1884, he wrote to his linguistic colleague, Brandes:

“It is true, I have gathered a lot here, but had to leave even more unexplained in my dictionary since the Balinese translations contradict each other, when difficult bits of text are involved, in a horrendous fashion. If I had known what a muddle we have here I would have preferred to stay in the Lampongs.”

About ten years earlier, in 1873, he had written:

“One has of the study of these languages the wrong idea in Europe … Not only that these languages are very rich they also have peculiarities that a European never gets to know. I merely draw your attention here to Malay in which no European can decently express himself, and yet we have practiced this language for centuries… the ignorant fiction that it can be easily learned still holds sway until today …”

I would like to comment here as an aside that, though Van der Tuuk is mainly known for his study of Batak, Kawi and Balinese, he has also contributed to the study of the Lampong language, Sundanese and Malay. About this latter contribution a fellow scholar of Malay (C. Grijns) wrote in 1996:

“I can only express my admiration for his remarkable contribution to the development of the study of Malay, besides his major work on Batak and Balinese, and much else besides. In particular the way he dealt with manuscript materials, his lexicographic acuteness, and his unrelenting struggle to come to terms with all varieties of written Malay that did not meet the standard he had set for the purity of Malay are worthy of our praise.”

What was his domestic life like amidst all this scholarly endeavour? Dr. Jacobs, a medical officer in the Dutch navy, who has been quoted above, visited him in 1881. He wrote:

“His furniture consists only of the strictly necessary. One looks in vain there for an easy chair, an impressive desk or couches. On the contrary, his whole house is, from the front to the back, occupied by his extensive library. On the floor, on chairs, tables, boxes and shelves are lying voluminous folios, old manuscripts and lontar leaves with script, in an ungainly chaos through each other and it is amazing that from this chaotic collection he can retrieve so quickly the desired item. …

You would believe that one is dealing here with a disagreeable person, not fitting in society, a real bookworm, but you would be wrong dear reader. He is busy from early morning until sometimes to the depth of night with his studies, only interrupted for a moment by people from all layers of Balinese society who want to consult him on a juridical matter or a sickness, and all of whom he helps very willingly. But when you visit him the scholar disappears as if by magic and he changes into a jolly student, whose acquaintance nobody who had the advantage of meeting him will regret.”

Europeans in Bali saw a visit to the ‘eccentric” Van der Tuuk as a bit of a lark, good to relieve the boredom of colonial society. They had to put up with chairs with layers of dust and glasses for drinks that they wiped surreptitiously but Van der Tuuk was a generous and entertaining host. Privately he had a dim view of these occasions but apparently he was good at hiding this.

Occasionally he got guests who stayed for longer periods. The linguist Brandes, who after his death would prepare his Kawi-Balinese-Dutch dictionary for publication was one of them.

Rouffaer wrote many years later, in 1909:

“Brandes stayed with Van der Tuuk for four weeks. He came back as only half a person … he needed a full three years … to bring Van der Tuuk’s dietary laws into harmony with both his phonetic laws.”

The master himself did not escape the consequences of his lack of hygiene and his peculiar diet. Throughout his stay in the Indies he suffered, off and on, of dysentery to which he finally succumbed in the military hospital in Surabaya in 1894.

After his death the government requested Brandes to prepare his dictionary for publication. The first volume appeared in 1897, the second in 1899, and the third in 1900, the fourth and last part was published, after Brandes death in 1905, by Dr.Rinkes in 1912.

The whole seems to be a source book rather than a regular dictionary and now has also literary-historical value because many bits of quoted text originate either in manuscripts that have disappeared or that have remained unpublished.

Finally a peculiar detail about his estate. Van der Tuuk had never made much money. When he worked with the Bible Society his salary was very modest. The government paid him more generously but gave him, after all, only a civil service salary. Yet such was his frugal lifestyle that his estate amounted to about 135.000 guilders which I guess to be the equivalent of three quarters of a million Euros today. The value of his bamboo house was estimated to be … ten guilders.

And signs of Van der Tuuk the eccentric could also be found in his estate. It counted two donkeys, the beginning of a planned large herd of these beasts that he deemed far more suitable to Balinese circumstances than horses. He desired to receive a subsidy for creating such a herd and annoyed the Director of the Department of Education and Religious Affairs no end by inserting his requests for this in his quarterly and annual reports. When it was pointed out to him that these donkey matters did not belong in a linguistic report he annoyed that Director some more by addressing him in writing as the Director of Popular Deception and Affairs of the Hereafter.


I drew for this series on:

  • C.Grijns (1996), “Van der Tuuk and the study of Malay” in Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde. Vol. 152 Iss.3;
  • R. Nieuwenhuys (1959), “ Van der Tuuk, taalgeleerde en zonderling” in Tussen Twee Vaderlanden, Amsterdam;
  • R.Nieuwenhuys (1962), De pen in gal gedoopt: een keuze uit brieven en documenten van Herman Neubronner van der Tuuk, Amsterdam.

The translation of the letter fragments is mine.

18 Comments on “Gusti Dertik in Bali”

  1. ET says:

    But that the Balinese used Old Javanese when they wanted to cut a fine figure did not mean that they had a real command of the language.

    Although no longer used for communication, dalangs from the wayang theatre are still supposed to master the Kawi language. One can also regularly hear Old Javanese or Kawi during odalan and other religious ceremonies in the form of a mixture of duet singing and declamation in a peculiar, whining style. It is called kakawin or geguritan and can go on for hours. I have recorded some of these kakawin sessions. I will try to dig them up from my archives, publish an excerpt on YouTube and post the link here later if you are interested.

  2. JakartaJaap says:

    That you did mention his Balinese housekeeper has rounded out the portrait of vd Tuuk!

  3. Arie Brand says:

    ET, even though I can’t distinguish Kawi from Balinese or, for that matter, Balinese from Swahili, it would be interesting to see confirmed that since the time of Van der Tuuk Kawi has become even more of an exclusively ritual language in Bali. Do I understand that correctly from your post?

    JakartaJaap, the reason why he didn’t mention in this letter his Balinese housekeeper among the matters that constituted the ‘core of life’ for him there is that it was addressed to the Bible Society. Since his Batak experiences he had become wiser on this point.

    Of course, quite apart from what the Bible Society might have thought about it, having an indigenous “njai” was not frowned upon in the colonial society of his day. If children resulted from this liaison they were accepted as Europeans if the father took the trouble to acknowledge them in getting them registered and giving them his name.

    Though having an indigenous “njai” became less socially acceptable when, after approximately 1900, more European women came out to the colony, the legal situation remained, as far as I know, unchanged.

  4. timdog says:


    Great, great stuff again. May I ask – are you doing something “bigger” with this Gusti Dertik material? I’ll certainly take a copy if it ever appears in book form.

    Going off on something of a tangent from the comment about the housekeeper, It’s interesting to compare attitudes to “native companions” in British and Dutch Asian territories.
    Although the earlier period of British company colonialism in India in the 17th and 18th Centuries was often typified by wildly exotic lifestyles, silk turbans, occasional conversions to Islam, and above all else native “bibis” (to whom the Britishers were quite often legally married), by the turn of the 19th Century acceptance of such affairs was rapidly giving way.
    Although British men in India inevitably kept native mistresses long into the dying days of the Raj, it had become something to be discreet about. Setting up house openly with a native woman – and lord forbid – marrying her! – had become total anathema.
    (Hobson-Jobson, the great Anglo-Indian encyclopaedia, published in the 1880s, does list the term “rum-johnny” – soldier slang for “local prostitute”, a corruption of ramjani, or “dancing girl” – but declares that the meaning attached to “this vulgar word” was “obsolete”. Wishful thinking, clearly, but indicative of public attitudes).

    Even as early as 1811 the British reacted in horror when they invaded Java and found that “the ladies of rank and fashion”, turning up at the gatherings of high European society in Batavia were very often half-castes, and very often spoke nothing but Malay. They were equally appalled by the fact that standard dress for local “Dutch” (read: Indo-European) women was some kind of native get-up of sarong and kebaya, and that these ladies had a liking for chewing betel nut.
    They brought to bear the full weight of their opprobrium, and before the British Interregnum was out, any woman heading for a Batavian party had to burden herself with mountains of bustles and crinoline…

    Evidently the relative toleration of “nyais” endured through the rest of the 19th Century in the East Indies, despite the best effort of the coven of English memsahibs at the start of its second decade…

  5. Arie Brand says:

    Timdog, thanks for your appreciative words but the merit of having published Van der Tuuk’s correspondence and having provided a short biography of him really belongs to the late Rob Nieuwenhuys. I have only picked out and translated what I thought to be the most characteristic bits.

    It would of course be a worthwhile undertaking to translate the lot and get that published but I don’t see myself undertaking that anytime soon.

    The position of Eurasians in Dutch colonial society has had a great influence on race relations there – and not always in a positive sense. They often insisted on their status as Europeans by being unpleasantly standoffish towards Indonesians. At the same time they often felt resentful towards the “totok” Dutch.

    I am generalising here. In fact three quarters of the European population of the Indies in the nineteen thirties was to a greater or lesser degree of mixed origin and their degree of education and social success were crucial variables as far as these attitudes were concerned.

  6. Berlian Biru says:

    Setting up house openly with a native woman – and lord forbid – marrying her! – had become total anathema.

    Well from the point of view of mainstream British thinking this was quite natural. Men who married local women were seem as somehow rejecting their native culture and values.

    By choosing to marry a native woman a western man was somehow seen to be rejecting the western status quo and embracing a somewhat unorthodox position towards the role of race and women in society. By rebelling against the western orthodoxy such men were seen as a threat to the idea that western ideas regarding marriage and gender roles were superior to those of the east.

    Given that such men were seen as rebels and regarded as undermining the received wisdom in western society it was necessary to exclude them in some way, to ridicule them, to undermine them and to make it appear that such men must ipso facto be a bit odd, social misfits or deviants. They must have been a bit desperate to seek out local women as wives when there were many examples of fine European womanhood in their crinolines and bustles, such beautiful white women must be “unattainable” to such sad losers, was the accepted opinion.

    It might surprise you but these opinions are alive and well today. Not among the fuddy duddy, conservative establishment, obsessed by issues of race and the “proper” role of women in society because of course such an establishment no longer exists. No, today it exists among the liberal left establishment which curiously enough is also obsessed by issues of race and the “proper” role of women society.

    Yes, even today men who seek out women from Asia as wives instead of choosing a western woman are also seen as rebelling against received orthodoxy and just like back then they are still sneered at and derided for their choice of partners.

    In the old days such men were spoken of as “going native” and therefore rather contemptible characters, their children were described as “having a touch of the tar brush”. Today in our enlightened age men who marry Asian women are still laughed at, they are still perceived as a threat, their wives are called “mail order brides” (personal experience) and the husbands are still regarded as pathetic individuals.

    Some people even call such men “sexual refugees” because the only way a western man might want an Asian woman as his wife is because of some fundamental flaw in his personality, right?

    Plus ca change, plus c’est le meme chose

  7. timdog says:

    Ah, BB, I did, with a little smirk, wonder whether you might leap on the above.
    I have no intention whatsoever of derailing Arie’s fine thread, so I suggest you take it back where it belongs. However, I would just point out that you appear to be enjoying sloppy seconds on Stevo’s “racism” strawwoman.

    At no point throughout what was a self-conciously silly debate did I ever claim that “Eastern” women were in some way “inferior” to their “Western” counterparts (and neither did Lairedion, who seemed to be batting on my team throughout; the idea that either of us might say or think such a thing is, well, it’s pretty ridiculous actually, all things considered).
    It was YOU who did the comparing, claiming that the massed generic ranks of eastern womanhood were all vibrant sensuousness while the massed generic ranks of western womenhood were all joyless misery and unwashed hair.
    Go back and read it all again – you’ll find that throughout, start to finish, I was laughing at and prodding at confused men who rail against “shrill feminist harpies” and who, for whatever reason (for once I won’t say anything unkind about reasons), have turned the massed ranks of the women of their own cultural background into a spectacularly demonised Other.
    That YOU chose to read that as meaning that I somehow thought that “Eastern” women were inferior is indicative only of the fact that YOU have, in your own outlook, divided the world into two halves, and have attributed tags of “inferior” and “superior” to those divisions; it’s got NOTHING to do with my position.

    It’s pathetic and obnoxious that there are people who might make sneering comments about “mail order brides” on nothing more than sight, but quite frankly, if YOU make the kind of sneering comments about “western women” and “feminists” that you did on the other thread, you’re only playing into their hands and their preconceptions.

    And at this point, I suggest you leave Arie’s thread alone, and take it back to the other place.

    on the change in British attitudes to relationships and marriages with “native women” at the turn of the 19th Century, it was part of a much, much wider shift in attitudes. It was at this point that a new kind of cultural arrogance began to arrive on the scene, and a sense of dominance as if by divine right. Curiously, this attitude, which we would now certainly recognise as representative of the less attractive aspects of European colonialism, was very much part of the “liberalism” of the time. Men like Raffles and Daendels, who were very much at the forefront of these politically aggressive and culturally and nationalistically supremicist attitudes that would drive the coming high Victorian age of empire, were at the time part of a “liberal” movement which believed in “the Rights of Man” and which took a stand (in theory if not in practice) against slavery.
    Yet they were very much about sweeping aside old modes of accomodation and compromise with “native powers” and native cultures, and about asserting outright dominance for the colonial power.

    This very much played into approaches to local cultures. A friend of mine did some really interesting research on the book-buying habits of the British in India across the turn of the 19th Century, using order books from Calcutta and Bombay booksellers. He was more interested in the literary tastes, but the bit which stood out for me was the change in demand for language primers and dictionaries.
    In the 18th Century there was a great demand for Sanskrit, Persian and Arabic – the classical, literary languages of the peoples the British were encountering in India, the toungues of poetry, of chronicles and courtly discourse.
    Then, as the 19th Century opens and advances, there is a sudden and dramatic drop-off in orders for primers on those languages, and a divergent upsurge in demand for “Hindustani”, a bastard pidgin of imperatives, the language with which you told the maid to iron your shirt.
    The inference in this shift is very obvious indeed; it occured very much at the same time as turbans, sheeshas, bibis, and daliances with Islam or Hinduism (all quite normal for earlier 17th century Company officials) became socially unacceptable.

    Perhaps Arie might know if – or if not, know where to start looking for an answer – if a similar linguistic shift might be traceable in the East Indies. I’d be unsurprised if there was a marked drop-off (relatively, given rising Dutch population in the Indies) in numbers of Dutchmen studying and speaking high Javanese against those knowing nothing more than market Malay as the 19th century advanced…

    Arie – The varying role of Indo-Europeans in the various European colonies is certainly an interesting one, and one that I’d certainly like to look into more one day.

    That insistance on their “Europeanness” certainly also marked the “Anglo-Indians” in the Subcontinent, as did at times spectacular racism on their part towards “the natives”. Interestingly, an Anglo-Indian community still exists in India today – and still clings to an imagined “Englishness”. While you do quite often find modern Indonesians claiming to have had some distant Dutch ancestor, there doesn’t seem to be a similar community left in Indonesia…

  8. Berlian Biru says:

    I never said you thought eastern women to be inferior, although you did suggest that western women are somehow more “unattainable” than Asian women, a laughable concept given what I see in the streets of most British cities after pub closing time on Fridays.

    I am challenging your viewpoint, shared by the stuffed shirt Victorian colonists, that western men who choose an Asian woman for a wife must be misfits, losers or deviants. As a western man happily married to an Asian woman for several years I not unnaturally find such disgusting stereotyping offensive to me and to my wife. Unfortunately your bigoted perception of me and my family is one that I have found is all to common among people, usually from the left wing of the political spectrum, when I visit the UK.

    That was your stated position if you choose to back track from that then fine, we’ll leave it at that.

  9. Arie Brand says:

    While you do quite often find modern Indonesians claiming to have had some distant Dutch ancestor, there doesn’t seem to be a similar community left in Indonesia…

    Timdog, many Indo-Europeans had Dutch nationality – and a great many left after 1945 for Holland. However, those who stayed had, until 1951, the option to become “warga negara” and thus acquire Indonesian nationality. By opting for this they automatically lost Dutch nationality because Dutch law didn’t allow for double nationality. Another group remained in Indonesia without having chosen for Indonesian nationality. This latter group was compelled to leave in 1957-58 when, in the heat of the conflict about Papua and at the behest of Sukarno, people of Dutch nationality were declared to be “unwanted foreigners” (even though they were often born in Indonesia). Dutch owned enterprises were nationalised at around the same time. About twenty thousand people with Dutch passports left then.

    The Indo-European group that remained consisted of those who had opted for Indonesian citizenship. Life became increasingly more difficult for them. I understand that many of them had to cope with hostility and discrimination in their daily environment. For this category the Dutch government created the opportunity to make their earlier choice undone and to regain their Dutch passports. I don’t know how large this group was.

    Those who remained after this had in many cases not been conspicuous as Indo Europeans and not the slightest reason to make themselves so.

    Altogether after 1945 about 300,000 people left Indonesia for Holland.

    I understand that according to Indonesian scholars there are presently still about one million people of mixed origin in Indonesia. This will include the descendants of those Indo-Europeans who had not been recognised by their respective fathers and had, often together with their mothers, “disappeared into the kampong'” as the phrase was then.

    On the other question (did the knowledge of Malay as a language of daily needs and commands, progress at the detriment of the knowledge of other Indonesian languages – in the first place Javanese) I really cannot shed much light. I imagine that when the VOC had to deal with Javanese courts it had to make use of Javanese, perhaps through interpreters, because the knowledge of Malay at these courts might not have been very widespread then. Among Dutch BB officials (the BB was as you probably know a similar body as the British Indian ICS) the knowledge of Javanese probably increased after their training became more and more academic. One part of the study of “Indologie” was Indonesian languages. I imagine that, after Malay, Javanese had the main share in this.

    As one example: the Rector of the Institute for Civil Administration in erstwhile Hollandia (now Jayapura) was in the time I followed the course there Dr. J.V. de Bruyn, who was a Eurasian born in Java who had studied “Indologie” in Leiden and obtained his doctorate with a dissertation on the Nagara Kertagama.

  10. Tika S says:

    Bali is apart of my country, Indonesia. And I am very proud of it!

  11. Arie Brand says:


    ne has of the study of these languages the wrong idea in Europe … Not only that these languages are very rich they also have peculiarities that a European never gets to know.

    It is a pity that Van der Tuuk didn’t elaborate here. His point of view seems to be of wider application, not just in the confrontation with Malay-Polynesian languages.
    There is in liguistics the much discussed Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that was of course formulated long after Van der Tuuk’s death. It states that one’s understanding of reality and behaviour towards it is decisively influenced by the structure of one’s language. “Different grammars produce different world views”. It seems to me that the reverse also holds true.

    In a less explicit form the view was not unknown in Van der Tuuk’s time. It can already be found in Wilhem von Humboldt’s work. I found a late (1902) and extreme formulation of it in a statement by Fritz Mauthner : “If Aristotle had spoken Chinese or Dacotan, he would have had to adopt an entirely different logic or at any rate an entirely different theory of categories”.

    I am not aware that formal logic is taught in Chinese universities in any other way than it is done in their Western equivalents – but must confess great ignorance on the point. Anyone?

  12. Dirk says:

    Arie, great stuff, wonderful analysis, great historical insight !

    It is a pity that the government does not make more use of them and is here represented by an official who allows the Prince to get away with the most outrageous cruelties

    Indeed, the Balinese kings were rather cruel. Anyone showing intrest in one of the women in the harem would be krissed, or, if mitigating circumstances were found, have his eyes put out with a sharp bamboo. By mitigating circumstances I mean if the man were to try to get in contact with his sister who had been taken away to serve in the royal harem.

    Balinese kings and princes could take any girl away from her family. Infact, life became better for the lowest caste after all of Bali was conquered after the puputan.

  13. Dirk says:

    Arie, I suppose that you’ve read this website :
    and more specifically about Van der Tuuk :

  14. Oigal says:

    has of the study of these languages the wrong idea in Europe … Not only that these languages are very rich they also have peculiarities that a European never gets to know.

    has of the study of these languages the wrong idea in Europe … Not only that these languages are very rich they also have peculiarities that a European never gets to know.

    Well firstly, I should confess to being way out of my formal academic depth here. However based upon my own long term observations there is no doubt language and concepts, logic are head wired at a very early age. I don’t care what anyone says or how well they speak the language for 99% of the time they are just skimming the surface of what is really being conveyed. Even the simplest words have emotional, conceptional meanings that do not translate, for instance what deep level emotion would the statement “I am starving” mean to the average’s been two days since I pigged out at McDonalds…to the Villager in the hard scrabble provinces of Timor…the very word is the back drop of his very existence, today, tomorrow next week next year.

    I was doing a course in Nusa Cedana University in Kupang a few years back (ok more than few) we had an instructor there from Aturo Island. The island was very remote and for years off limits to all (a story of sanctioned abuse and debuachery for another time) but this gentleman was a master of the English Language and is still the best language teacher I have ever seen. However when it came to points of the compass, he knew the translation, he knew how to explain it but the concept of more than two directions was beyond him. As he said in our village there are two only directions..Laut dan Bukit, (Ocean and Hills), the sun rises over the ocean and sets over the hills. No matter how we tried to explain the concept outside the classroom, he could not really grasp it, knew the words but the rest.

    Don’t get me wrong, this was a very clever man just the concept was so foreign and certain logic is hardwired and cannot be changed. I guess on far more simplistic fashion, I will never grasp the true meaning of nanti, sebentar or tidak jauh.

  15. Arie Brand says:

    Dirk, I have in fact a copy of Nieuwenhuys’ Oost-Indische Spiegel. Perhaps this is a good opportunity to say how much we owe to him for our knowledge and understanding of colonial society.

    His photo collections (Tempo Doeloe I and II, Batavia) are as distinguished as his writings – in fact they owe their distinction for a large part to part of his writings, his comments on the photographs.

    He hardly ever moralizes (which is now almost obligatory in comments on that society). He is just interested, with a human warmth that is evident from everything he wrote.

    Oigal, one of the main tenets of ethnolinguistics is that language and other aspects of culture form a more or less integrated whole though language, as a relatively conservative aspect of culture, might get ‘out of step’ with the development of other aspects of it. Looking at this idea of integration it is interesting that Whorf, who was an engineer by training, argues somewhere that the Hopi language that he specifically studied would be more suitable for modern physics than English because it conceives of things in terms of process. If this is true it rather relativises that idea of integration.

  16. ET says:

    Arie Brand

    “Different grammars produce different world views”. It seems to me that the reverse also holds true.

    I would say that the 2nd part of this statement is particularly true for Malay languages, which makes it extremely difficult for Westerners to master them perfectly. Although at first sight very easy to learn the basic words and sentences for daily use in the market – which is why it has been for centuries the lingua franca in the area – once a more complicated message has to be conveyed it becomes a pain in the neck due to the lack of content-related grammar. If grammar – as westerners see it – there is, its function is mainly circumstantial and serves in the first place to confirm one’s place in the social stratification. Because language in SE Asian societies was primarily seen as conversational and as a commanding/responding rather than an educational tool , the content of the message became subordinate to social etiquette and conformism, a hard to grasp concept for westerners who have been brought up with a world view aspiring exactness and practicality in the first place.
    This conformism in language and grammar in the past went as far that interpreters were used in case verbal contact was needed between members of different social strata.

  17. Arie Brand says:


    This leads to the question how ethnic groups who traditionally knew no or little social hierarchy, such as the Papuans for instance, are coping with the language.

    Van der Tuuk was a bit dismissive of the Malay spoken in Eastern Indonesia. At one stage he advised against the appointment of a certain missionary as a language teacher because he had learned his Malay in his contact with Alfurese christians.

  18. Dana says:

    That is why even now the housekeeper of a European is called “njai”. In Bali this “njai” is the usual term with which one addresses, in a friendly way, a young woman of the lowest class; it means “younger sister”.”

    Interesting to see the origin of the word, of which the modern spelling is “nyai”. Even more interesting to note how the word can change over all of the years, as calling a woman of any age or caste “nyai” is never a friendly term, it is one of the rudest ways to address a woman.

    Very interesting read all around though, that part just stuck out to me in particular.

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