People & Society / South Asia

Languages of India and Indonesia

by Liani MK
Length 15 min

Behind every language lie narratives of migration and human experience. We unearth connections within a word and wonder—what is the story here? These questions emerge when we find that Sanskrit words like bhaasa, for ‘language’, is also found in the Malay/Bahasa Indonesian word bahasa—and realise that language is more than just a device for communication. It holds a powerful anecdote of cultures and movements that can show us how we are more connected than we think, and result in a strong sense of belonging.

A world within a word

While there are shared deep connections between the languages of the two countries, India and Indonesia are each tasked with the arduous challenge of holding together hundreds of ethnic groups and languages. Selecting a single national or official language will be as difficult as picking a needle out a haystack.

Many perceive of “Indian” and “Indonesian” as languages, but ask any citizen of these countries and we uncover that it is not as straightforward for these multilingual and multiethnic nations. Though both India and Indonesia share similar concerns, the two countries present interesting cases in how they have dealt with this enormous obstacle. One recognises numerous official languages, while the other adopts and develops a regional language into its national language.


Language families in the two nations

There are an estimated 462 languages in the diverse subcontinent of India. Languages found here belong primarily to two major linguistic families, that is Indo-Aryan and Dravidian. Besides that, there are other language families that exist, mainly Tai-Kadai, Sino-Tibetan and Austroasiatic.

Indian language families and their distribution

The northern Indian languages evolved mainly from old Indo-Aryan such as Sanskrit, via Prakrit languages, and Apabhramsha. While there is no agreement on the emergence of north Indian languages like Hindi, Punjabi, and Bengali, they are said to have influences from social and political contact with settlers and speakers of other languages like Persian and Arabic.

The Dravidian languages in south India on the other hand were only later influenced by Sanskrit from around the 5th century. Major Dravidian languages include Telugu, Tamil, Kannada, and Malayalam. The structure and composition of Dravidian languages differ from the Indo-Aryan languages, especially in syntax, phonology and morphology.

Meanwhile, Austroasiatic languages are thought to have been spoken by hunter-gatherers throughout the Indian subcontinent who were later absorbed by agriculturalist Dravidian invaders and later by Indo-Aryans from Central Asia. Austroasiatic languages are deemed to be the first spoken in India.

Indonesian language families and their distribution

Just as diverse is Indonesia, an archipelago of more than 17,000 islands with over 300 indigenous languages. Most of the languages in Indonesia belong to the Austronesian language family, with a few under the West Papuan and Trans-New Guinean language families.

A majority of Austronesian languages in Indonesia are of the Malayo-Polynesian branch. This includes Javanese, Madurese and Sundanese, three of the most widely spoken languages in the country after the national language. Being among the largest family that includes one-fifth of the world’s languages, Austronesian languages are found throughout the archipelago: Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Madagascar, several island groups of the Pacific, and even Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and Taiwan.

West Papuan languages are less widespread and distinct from surrounding Austronesian languages. They are indigenous only in eastern Indonesia, namely Ternate and Tidore languages. Trans-New Guinean languages too, consisting of about hundreds of languages, are native to eastern Indonesian islands of Papua, Flores and Timor, as well as New Guinea.

India’s search for a national language

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A selection of Indian languages and their families

When the constitution of India was made in 1950, Hindi written in the Devanagari script, and English were listed as standard the official languages. This meant the two languages were only used for parliamentary proceedings, judiciary, communications between the central and state governments. Beyond this, India’s constitution or laws do not specify a national language.

Nevertheless, each state is allowed its own official language based on its linguistic demographics. States within India have the power to legally designate their own official languages. There are 22 officially recognised languages in India as listed in the Indian constitution. Out of these 22, 15 are Indo-Aryan, while four are Dravidian, two Tibetan, and one is Munda.


After 15 years: Attempting a lingua franca

Juggling more than 400 languages and 22 official languages, India was in urgent need of a lingua franca—a common language for speakers of different languages to communicate with each other.

When the 1950 constitution was introduced, it was decided that in 15 years, the government would have to decide on whether Hindi should be the selected lingua franca, and end the use of the colonial language—English—as the other official language.

When 1965 arrived, an attempt was made to end the use of English, but it was met with protests from non-Hindi speaking areas, including Dravidian-speaking states and others that were still comfortable with either English or their own mother tongue. They include Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Punjab, West Bengal, Karnataka, Puducherry, and Andhra Pradesh.

Languages of India and Indonesia

When violence erupted in Tamil Nadu, an emergency parliament session was necessitated by Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri to select an Indian language as the sole national and official lingua franca. Hindi seemed the obvious choice, but it was not considered the lingua franca especially for the southern states. It was hence announced that English remain the additional official language indefinitely. Hence, the question remains for a single identified ‘Indian’ national language.


The case for Indonesia

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A selection of Indonesian languages and their families

Unlike India, Indonesia successfully formulated one national language to resolve the immense diversity within its country.

The language choice became important in the early twentieth century in anticipation of the end of Dutch colonialism, where three languages emerged as possible choices: the colonial language, Dutch; the language of the majority, Javanese; and the historic lingua franca of the archipelago, Malay.

Dutch was widely spoken by the Javanese educated elite and used in legal and government administration, but it did not hold similar prestige or international function as other colonial languages such as English. On the other hand, the political dominance of Javanese, who formed the majority of the population at 47.8 percent, caused other Indonesians to grow resentful. Javanese was also difficult to learn as it required different vocabulary for every noun and verb, depending on the person’s age and social standing.


The making of Bahasa Indonesia

As compared to Javanese, Malay was spoken by less than five percent of the population at the time of independence. Despite this, the strategic location of the Malay archipelago, particularly the port of Malacca, on an important trade route made it a lingua franca in much of the archipelago for several years. It also spread in its low variety and was seen as an egalitarian language.

Malay was then seen as a non-threatening language to the identity of other ethnic groups in the way Javanese was. It was also perceivably easier to learn where low Malay lacked complicated structure of literary variety, and had simpler language rules and vocabulary. During Dutch rule, Malay became increasingly used in schools and colonial administration.

Languages of India and Indonesia

It was during the first Congress of Indonesian Youth in 1926 that young leaders considered Malay as a national language. The subsequent congress offered a new name, Bahasa Indonesia, which would be based on Malay. Here, the Sumpah Pemuda (Youth Pledge) was proclaimed, setting the foundation for Indonesian nationalism, giving new stature to the Malay language, now called Bahasa Indonesia. The first language congress in 1938 further cemented this, signalling the beginning of formal language planning.

The Japanese occupation in 1942 promoted Bahasa Indonesia by making it the main language of education, administration and media, and prohibiting the use of Dutch. After Indonesia’s independence on 17 August 1945, it seemed logical for Bahasa Indonesia to be designated the national language of the new nation. Indonesia’s vernacular languages were also protected by rights guaranteed in the constitution, although their domains of use are restricted.

With all the options ahead of Indonesia, the move to adopt Bahasa Indonesia as the national language was a politically astute decision.


Languages in India

Languages of India and Indonesia


Of the 22 official languages in India, Hindi has the greatest number of speakers. Standard Hindi is an Indo-Aryan language based on the Khariboli dialect of Delhi and its surrounding region.

Urdu and Hindi have long debated to be varieties of the same language. This has led to controversies on which should be the official language. The two languages differ in some areas—Hindi has Sanskrit and Prakrit elements and is written in the Devanagari script, while Urdu has heavy Persian and Arabic influence. Urdu once held linguistic prestige and was the first official language of British India in 1850. Hindi, however, replaced it in 1950 with support from the Indian National Congress and Indian Independent Movement leaders.

Hindi was intended to be the future administrative and working language of India by 1965, and with states were free to function in their own selected language. Following protests from non-Hindi speakers in South India, English was maintained as the language for official purposes alongside Hindi.



The Bengali language originated in the Bengal region of India, which now forms Bangladesh and the Indian states of Tripura, West Bengal, and Barak Valley (Assam).

It is an Indo-Aryan language that has its own alphabet and numerous dialects. The national anthem of India, Jana Gana Mana, was originally composed in Bengali by national poet Rabindranath Tagore—illustrating the significance of the language as the second most widely spoken language, just behind Hindi. Bengali has numerous tatsams—Sanskrit borrowed words. It has also consumed influences and borrowings from foreign languages such as Persian, Arabic, English, and Portuguese as well as Austroasiatic languages.

There was a strong ethnolinguistic movement in the former East Bengal in favour of Bengali, and against the Pakistani government’s intention to implement of Urdu as the state language in Pakistan in 1948. This resulted in protests and deaths of students and activists in 1952, and contributed to the establishment of Bangladesh (formerly East Bengal) as a new nation-state.

In 1961, the Bengali language movement also took place in Assam, India. It was a reaction against the state government’s decision to make Assamese the only official language of Assam although a significant amount of the population were Bengali-speaking. Today, Bengali is the official language of Barak Valley, West Bengal, and Tripura. It is also the second official language of Jharkhand.



Tamil is a Dravidian language that is one of the world’s most ancient and longest-surviving classical languages. Spoken in India and Sri Lanka—and diasporas worldwide—it is an official language of Tamil Nadu and the Territory of Puducherry. It is also an official language of Sri Lanka and Singapore. After several campaigns from Tamil associations in 2004, it was the first legally recognised classical language of India. Other classical languages then ensued—Sanskrit declared in 2005, Kannada and Telugu in 2008, Malayalam in 2013, and Odia in 2014.

Tamil has a rich body of literature that has been documented for more than 2000 years. Modern Tamil literature is considered to have commenced from the 18th century, though the language was already well developed by the 10th century. Some of the established Tamil writers include novelists Indira Parthasarthi and Rajam Krishnan.


Languages in Indonesia

A picture of Javanese youths celebrating together.


Javanese has the largest number of speakers compared to other Malayo-Polynesian languages. It is predominantly used in Indonesia’s island of Java and is recognised as the official language in east and central Java. There are distinct central, western and eastern dialects, and they are closely related to neighbouring languages such as Sundanese, Madurese, and Balinese.

Javanese has unique language forms with levels of speaking that distinguish the status of the person addressed. There is ngoko (informal) for speakers in the same social status, as well as other forms when conversing with someone more respectable or elder, such as krama (polite/deferential), madya (middle), and the less used, krama inggil (highly deferential) and basa kedaton (palace language).

Traditionally, the language had its own writing system derived from the southern Pallava script, but the romanised script is more commonly used today. While there is a rich tradition of Javanese literature and arts, little has been published in more recent times due to Indonesia’s focus to develop more works in the national language.



Amarasi belongs to a language group called Timoric, that has deep traces of Melanesian roots from the Malayo-Polynesian language family. It is mainly spoken in the southwest of Timor and has an estimated 80,000 speakers. It is thought to be a variant of Helong—another language also spoken on Timor island, especially in Kupang. While they seem related, Amarasi borrows more Dutch words.

Amarasi was only recognised as a language in mid-2000s.  It was first classified as a dialect of the Uob Meto language, along with Helong and other languages of the Timor Island. After further studies, it was later understood that there is a vast difference in grammar structures and differing language influences from Dutch and Portuguese due to colonial contact since the 16th century. While similar in some ways, speakers of Uob Meto may not understand Amarasi. Now recognised as a language of its own, it was also discovered that Amarasi has many dialects that are specific to individual villages.

Many of the speakers today have shifted to using Kupang Malay instead of Amarasi with influence from people of other parts of the East Nusa Tenggara region, including Rote and Savu.



While the Indonesian archipelago is considered to be one of the richest in its linguistic diversity, there are also many languages that have faced endangerment and extinction in recent decades.

Maluku covers the islands situated between Sulawesi and the New Guinea area in the east, and the Timor-Flores and Bima-Sumba areas in the south. Maluku is linguistically very diverse with 102 languages. However, 11 are already recorded to be extinct, while another 24 are endangered due to the increasing use of Bahasa Indonesia and Ambonese Malay on the island.

Spoken on the Teun island of Maluku, Te’un was an Austronesian language originally spoken in the villages of Mesa, Yafila, Wotludan, and in the Bumei village of  Nila Island. Speakers of this language, as well as Nila and Sarua, were relocated to due to volcanic activity on Teun.

Natural disasters and migration have also contributed to the declining use of other languages. Diseases associated to their resettlement have affected and reduced the number of speakers of these languages, hastening the language’s demise. Speakers of other languages, such as Nila and Sarua, were moved from a traditionally separate quarter to the same settlement in the Seram island, causing intermingling and influences from different languages.

Today, the Te’un language is considered extinct.


Evolving forms

Languages in India and Indonesia have coexisted and interacted for centuries. In India, there was Dravidinisation of the Indo-Aryan languages and Aryanisation of the Dravidian languages. Similarly, languages in Indonesia have influenced each other over time through the rise and fall of kingdoms, trading, migration, and colonialism. While they may seem dissimilar at the outset, these languages have not developed in isolation of each other.

Language and its close ties with identity and nationality can be tricky. The two countries and its vast amount of languages provide an interesting view into national languages and language policies. Even at present, our understanding of many languages remain superficial at best. There is so much more to be discovered.


This story was edited by Loh Pei Ying.

Voice credits: Nidhi Gupta, Elangovan s/o Shanmugam, Arnab Roy, and Dewi Fitzpatrick.

Illustrations by Sharan Markala.

This story was a partnership between Jala and Kontinentalist.

This article is also cross-published on Not Lost in Translation.

Languages of India and Indonesia