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About Javanese Language

Javanese language (Javanese: basa Jawa, Indonesian: bahasa Jawa) is the language of the people in the central and eastern parts of the island of Java, in Indonesia. In addition, there are also some pockets of Javanese speakers in the northern coast of western Java. It is the native language of more than 75,500,000 people.

The Javanese language is part of the Austronesian family, and is therefore related to Indonesian and other Malay varieties. Many speakers of Javanese also speak Indonesian for official and commercial purposes and to communicate with non-Javanese Indonesians.

Outside Indonesia, there are large communities of Javanese-speaking people in the neighbouring countries such as East Timor, Malaysia, Singapore, Australia, and also Hong Kong and Taiwan. In addition there are also Javanese-speaking people in Suriname, the Netherlands, and New Caledonia. The Javanese speakers in Malaysia are especially found in the states of Selangor and Johor. For distribution in other parts, as far as Suriname, see Demographic distribution of Javanese speakers below.


Javanese belongs to the Sundic sub-branch of the Western Malayo-Polynesian (also called Hesperonesian) branch of the Malayo-Polynesian subfamily of the Austronesian super family. It is a close linguistic relative of Malay, Sundanese, Madurese, Balinese, and to a lesser extent, of various Sumatran and Borneo languages, including Malagasy and Philippine languages.

Javanese is spoken in Central and East Java, as well as on the north coast of West Java. In Madura, Bali, Lombok and the Sunda region of West Java, Javanese is also used as a literary language. It was the court language in Palembang, South Sumatra, until their palace was sacked by the Dutch in the late 18th century.

Javanese can be regarded as one of the classical languages of the world, with a vast literature spanning more than 12 centuries. Scholars divide the development of Javanese language in four different stages:

  • Old Javanese, from the 9th century
  • Middle Javanese, from the 13th century
  • New Javanese, from the 16th century
  • Modern Javanese, from 20th century (this classification is not used universally)
  • Javanese is written with the Javanese script (a descendant of the Brahmi script of India), Arabo-Javanese script, Arabic script (modified for Javanese) and Latin script.

Although not currently an official language anywhere, Javanese is the Austronesian language with the largest number of native speakers. It is spoken or understood by approximately 80 million people. At least 45% of the total population of Indonesia are of Javanese descent or live in an area where Javanese is the dominant language. Four out of five Indonesian presidents since 1945 are of Javanese descent. It is therefore not surprising that Javanese has a deep impact on the development of Indonesian, the national language of Indonesia, which is a modern dialect of Malay.

There are three main dialects of Modern Javanese: Central Javanese, Eastern Javanese and Western Javanese. There is a dialect continuum from Banten in the extreme west of Java to Banyuwangi, in the foremost eastern corner of the island. All Javanese dialects are more or less mutually intelligible.


Javanese has a rich vocabulary, with many foreign loan words as well as the native Austronesian base. Sanskrit has had a deep and lasting impact on the vocabulary of the Javanese language. The "Old Javanese – English Dictionary", written by professor P.J. Zoetmulder in 1982, contains approximately 25,500 entries, over 12,600 of which are borrowings from Sanskrit.[3] Clearly this large number is not an indication of usage, but it is an indication that the Ancient Javanese knew and employed these Sanskrit words in their literary works. In any given Old Javanese literary work, approximately 25% of the vocabulary is derived from Sanskrit. In addition, many Javanese personal names have clearly recognisable Sanskrit roots.

Many Sanskrit words are still in current usage. Modern Javanese speakers refer to much of the Old Javanese and Sanskrit words as kawi words, which may be roughly translated as "literary". However the so-called kawi words also contain some Arabic words. Furthermore there has been significant word borrowing from Arabic, Dutch and Malay as well, but none as extensively as from Sanskrit.

There are far fewer Arabic loanwords in Javanese than in Malay. These Arabic loanwords are usually concerned with Islamic religion, but some words have entered the basic vocabulary, such as pikir ("to think", from the Arabic fikr), badan ("body"), mripat ("eye", thought to be derived from the Arabic ma'rifah, meaning "knowledge" or "vision"). However, these Arabic words typically have native Austronesian and/or Sanskrit equivalents. In the cases mentioned, pikir = galih, idhĕp (Austronesian), manah, cipta, or cita (Sanskrit), badan = awak (Austronesian), slira, sarira, or angga (Sanskrit), and mripat = mata (Austronesian), soca, or netra (Sanskrit).

Dutch loanwords usually have the same form and meaning as in Indonesian, but there are a few exceptions.

Malay was the lingua franca of the Indonesian archipelago before the proclamation of Indonesian independence in 1945, and Indonesian, which was based on Malay, is now the official national language of Indonesia. As a consequence, there has been an influx of Malay and Indonesian vocabulary into Javanese recently. Many of these words are concerned with bureaucracy or politics.


Javanese speech varies depending on social context, yielding three distinct styles, or registers.[4] Each style employs its own vocabulary, grammatical rules and even prosody. This is not unique to Javanese; neighbouring Austronesian languages as well as East Asian languages such as Korean and Japanese share similar constructions.

In Javanese these styles are called:

  • Ngoko is informal speech, used between friends and close relatives. It is also used by persons of higher status to persons of lower status, such as elders to younger people or bosses to subordinates.
  • Madya is the intermediary form between ngoko and krama. An example of the context where one would use madya is an interaction between strangers on the street, where one wants to be neither too formal nor too informal.
  • Krama is the polite and formal style. It is used between persons of the same status who do not wish to be informal. It is also the official style for public speeches, announcements, etc. It is also used by persons of lower status to persons of higher status, such as youngsters to elder people or subordinates to bosses.

In addition, there are also "meta-style" words – the honorifics and humilifics. When one talks about oneself, one has to be humble. But when one speaks of someone else with a higher status or to whom one wants to be respectful, honorific terms are used. Status is defined by age, social position and other factors. The humilific words are called krama andhap words while the honorific words are called krama inggil words. For example, children often use the ngoko style, but when talking to the parents they must use both krama inggil and krama andhap.

Dialects of modern Javanese

There are three main groups of Javanese dialects based on the sub region where the speakers live. They are: Western Javanese, Central Javanese and Eastern Javanese. The differences between these dialectical groups are primarily pronunciation and, to a lesser extent, vocabulary. All Javanese dialects are more or less mutually intelligible.

The Central Javanese variant, based on the speech of Surakarta[5] (and also to a degree of Yogyakarta), is considered as the most "refined" Javanese dialect. Accordingly standard Javanese is based on this dialect. These two cities are the seats of the four Javanese principalities, heirs to the Mataram Sultanate, which once reigned over almost the whole of Java and beyond. Speakers spread from north to south of the Central Java province and utilize many dialects, such as Muria and Semarangan, as well as Surakarta and Yogyakarta. To the lesser extent, there are also dialects include those used in Pekalongan or Dialek Pantura and Kebumen (a variation of Banyumasan). The variations of Javanese dialect in Central Java is said to be so plentiful that almost all administrative regions have their own native slang that is only recognizable by people from that region, and those minor dialects are not distinctive to most Javanese speakers.

In addition to Central Java and Yogyakarta provinces, Central Javanese is also used in western part of East Java province. For example, Javanese spoken in Madiun region bears strong influence of Surakarta Javanese (as well as Javanese spoken in Ponorogo, Pacitan, and Tulungagung), while Javanese spoken in Bojonegoro and Tuban is similar to that spoken in Pati region (Muria dialect).

Western Javanese, spoken in the western part of the Central Java province and throughout the West Java province (particularly in the north coast region), contains dialects distinct for their Sundanese influences and which still maintain many archaic words. The dialects include North Banten, Banyumasan, Tegal, Jawa Serang, North coast, Indramayu (or Dermayon) and Cirebonan (or Basa Cerbon).

Eastern Javanese speakers range from the eastern banks of Kali Brantas in Kertosono to Banyuwangi, comprising the majority of the East Java province, excluding Madura island. However, the dialect has been influenced by Madurese, and is sometimes referred to as Surabayan speech.

The most aberrant dialect is spoken in Balambangan (or Banyuwangi) in the eastern-most part of Java. It is generally known as Basa Osing. Osing is the word for negation and is a cognate of the Balinese tusing, Balinese being the neighbouring language directly to the east. In the past this area of Java was in possession of Balinese kings and warlords.

In addition to these three main Javanese dialects, there is Surinamese Javanese. Surinamese Javanese is mainly based on Central Javanese dialect, especially from the Kedu residency.

Brief history of the Javanese language

Old Javanese

While evidence of writing in Java dates to the Sanskrit "Tarumanegara inscription" of 450, the oldest example written entirely in Javanese, called the Sukabumi inscription", is dated March 25, 804. This inscription, located in the district of Pare in the Kediri regency of East Java, is actually a copy of the original, dated some 120 years earlier; only this copy has been preserved. Its contents concern the construction of a dam for an irrigation canal near the river Śrī Hariñjing (nowadays Srinjing). This inscription is the last of its kind to be written using Pallava script; all consequent examples are written using Javanese script.

The 8th and 9th centuries are marked with the emergence of the Javanese literary tradition with Sang Hyang Kamahayanikan, a Buddhist treatise and the Kakawin Rāmâyaṇa , a Javanese rendering in Indian metres of the Vishnuistic Sanskrit epic, Rāmāyaṇa.

Although Javanese as a written language appeared considerably later than Malay (extant in the 7th century), the Javanese literary tradition is continuous from its inception to present day. The oldest works, such as the above mentioned Rāmāyaṇa, and a Javanese rendering of the Indian Mahabharata epic are studied assiduously today.

The expansion of the Javanese culture, including Javanese script and language, began in 1293 with the eastward push of the Hindu-Buddhist East-Javanese Empire Majapahit, toward Madura and Bali. The Javanese campaign in Bali in 1363 has had a deep and lasting impact. With the introduction of the Javanese administration, Javanese replaced Balinese as the language of administration and literature. Though the Balinese people preserved much of the older literature of Java and even created their own in Javanese idioms, Balinese ceased to be written until the 19th century.

Middle Javanese

Majapahit Empire also saw the rise of a new language, Middle Javanese, which is an intermediate form between Old Javanese and New Javanese. In fact, Middle Javanese is so similar to New Javanese that works written in Middle Javanese should be easily comprehended by Modern Javanese speakers who are well acquainted with literary Javanese.

The Majapahit Empire fell due to internal disturbances and attacks by Islamic forces of the Sultanate of Demak on the north coast of Java. There is a Javanese chronogram concerning the fall which reads, "sirna ilang krĕtaning bumi" ("vanished and gone was the prosperity of the world"), indicating the date AD 1478. Thus there is a popular belief that Majapahit collapsed in 1478, though it may have lasted into the 1500s. This was the last Hindu Javanese empire.

New Javanese

In the 16th century a new era in Javanese history began with the rise of the Islamic Central Javanese Mataram Sultanate, originally a vassal state of Majapahit. Ironically, the Mataram Empire rose as an Islamic kingdom which sought revenge for the demise of the Hindu Majapahit Empire by first crushing Demak, the first Javanese Islamic kingdom.

Javanese culture spread westward as Mataram conquered many previously Sundanese areas in western parts of Java; and Javanese became the dominant language in more than a third of this area. As in Bali, the Sundanese language ceased to be written until the 19th century. In the meantime it was heavily influenced by Javanese, and some 40% of Sundanese vocabulary is believed to have been derived from Javanese.

Though Islamic in name, the Mataram II empire preserved many elements of the older culture, incorporating them into the new religion. This is the reason why Javanese script is still in use as opposed to the writing of Old-Malay for example. After the Malays were converted, they dropped their form of indigenous writing and changed to a form of the "script of the Divine", the Arabic script.

In addition to the rise of Islam, the 16th century saw the emergence of the New Javanese language. The first Islamic documents in Javanese were already written in New Javanese, although still in antiquated idioms and with numerous Arabic loanwords. This is to be expected as these early New Javanese documents are Islamic treatises.

Later, intensive contacts with the Dutch and with other Indonesians gave rise to a simplified form of Javanese and influx of foreign loanwords.

Modern Javanese

Some scholars dub the spoken form of Javanese in the 20th century Modern Javanese, although it is essentially still the same language as New Javanese.


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