Acronyms run amok in Indonesia

Uncluttered by tenses, prepositions and grammatical quirks, Indonesia’s national tongue was once a gift to travellers who quickly grasped the basics.

Now a bizarre passion for acronyms is threatening to engulf the language, leaving visitors and even locals lost in translation.

As more phrases are mangled into this ugly alphabet soup, academics fear tourists and investors already wary of terrorists, graft and nasty insect-borne diseases can also list language problems as a reason to avoid Indonesia.

Linguists, who blame lack of government intervention and an irresponsible media for the virus-like spread of these half-words, are laying down new guidelines that they hope will police the language and stop the rot.

“The love for acronym is universal, but in Indonesia, this is an art that is pushed to the limits,” said Deny Sugono, who as head of the country’s Language Centre is charged with sifting through such unwelcome additions to the lexicon.

Television shows, government departments and even Indonesia’s language of love have all become breeding grounds for abbreviated dialogue with teenagers, bureaucrats and media moguls adopting the craze with gusto.

For example, in everyday parlance, a boy courting a girl is engaging in “PDKT”—taken from the consonants in pendekatan, meaning “approach”. Meanwhile, “BT”—from the English slang “bad trip”—is an expression designating a foul mood.

While many of these short-forms will vanish along with other passing fads, the long-term descent of the language into the verbal equivalent of cellphone text messages means acronyms are a cause for concern, says Sugono.

“They undermine our language’s efforts to develop as a more regional, if not international language. How can people respect a language which does not follow rules?” he asks.

Bahasa Indonesia, a variation of Malay, was adopted by the country’s founders as a national tongue in the 1940s, uniting a vast and sprawling archipelago of distinct dialects behind one lingua franca.

Ironically, the same musty corridors of power from which Indonesia’s language emerged are now one of the main sources of the acronyms now threatening it.

The Kafkaesque world of Indonesia’s government and military has always relished in the acronymising of positions and ranks, which are displayed outside doors in a seemingly wilful effort to baffle the uninitiated.

“The tendency nowadays is to bring chaos to our semantics and acronyms are not created to fill the gaps in our dictionary,” said Sugono, whose office is planning to issue a set of rules for acceptable acronyms.

“The craze is to create acronyms from existing words, causing confusion not only for us native speakers, but also to foreigners learning our language.”

With many acronyms defying attempts to fathom their origins, Indonesian linguists despair at their inability to keep track of the mutating dialect.

“The problem here is that the propensity for acronyms is getting uncontrollable and does not follow any rule,” said Ayatrohaedi Munsyi, a professor in cultural sciences at the state University of Indonesia.

Some acronyms, while unrelated to the origins of the phrase they now convey, offer a subconscious insight into Indonesian life, according to Munsyi.

Balon, Indonesian for “balloon”, is now jargon for referring to potential political candidates—perhaps an indication of the overinflated state of politics in a country heavily preoccupied with presidential and legislative elections this year.

The elections themselves, which many hope will end uncertainties that have left Indonesia languishing in economic and social doldrums, have been renamed as pemilu, a word that carries another meaning in standard literary Indonesian: something that gives rise to sadness.

“Maybe that is a subconscious effort to portray the truth,” Munsyi joked.—Sapa-AFP


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