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Balinese Language and Letters

Balinese Language

The national language of Indonesia, Bahasa Indonesia, is widely used on Bali, but it is not Balinese. Balinese or Bahasa Bali, in another language entirely. It has a completely different vocabulary and grammar, and the rulers governing its use are much more complex. It’s a difficult language for a foreigner to come to grips with. Firstly, it is not written language, so there is no definitive guide to its grammar or vocabulary, and there is considerable variation in usage from one part of the island to another.

Bahasa Bali or Balinese Language is taught in schools, either dictionaries and grammars that do exist are attempts to document current or historical usage, rather than set down rules for correct syntax or pronunciation. Balinese is greatly complicated by its caste influences.  In effect, different vocabularies and grammatical structures are used, depending on the relative social position of the speaker, the person being spoken to and the person being spoken about. Even traditional usage has always been somewhat arbitrary, because of the intricacies of the caste system.

The various forms of the language (or languages) and their respective uses are categorized as follows :

  • Basa Lumrah: (also called Biasa or Ketah) is used when talking to people of the same caste or level, and between friends and family. It is an old language of mix-origin, with words drawn from Malayan, Polynesian and Australasian sources.
  • Basa Sor (also called rendah) is used when talking with people of a lower caste, or to people who are non-caste.
  • Basa Alus is used among educated people, and is derived from the Hindhu-Javanese court languages of the 10th century.
  • Basa Singgih, virtually a separate language, is used to address persons of high caste, particularly in formal and religious contexts .Even the Balinese are not always fluent in this language. It is based on the ancient Hindu Kawi language, and can be written using a script that resembles Sanskrit, as seen in the lontar (palm) books where it’s inscribed on strips of leaf.. Written Basa singgih is also seen on the signs that welcome you to and farewell you from most villages on Bali.

The different vocabularies only exist for about 1000 basic words, mostly relating to people and their actions. Other words (in fact, an increasing proportion of the modern vocabulary), are the same regardless of relative caste levels. Usage is also changing with the decline of the traditional caste system and modern tendencies towards democratization and social equality.

It is now common practice to describe the language in term of only three forms such as :

  • Low Balinese language; equivalent to Basa Lumrah, is used between friends and family, and also when speaking with person of equal or lower caste, or about oneself.
  • Polite Balinese Language; the equivalent of Basa Madia, is used for speaking to superiors or strangers, and is becoming more widespread as a sort of common language that isn’t so closely linked to caste.
  • High Balinese Language, a mixture of Basa Alus and Basa Singgih, is used to indicate respect for the person being addressed or person being spoken about.

The polite and high form of language frequently use the same word , while the low form often uses the same word as Bahasa Indonesia. The polite form, Basa Madia or Midah, is being used as a more egalitarian language, often combined with Bahasa Indonesia to avoid the risk of embarrassment in case the correct caste distinction is not made. So how does one Balinese know at which level to address another? Initially, a conversation between two strangers would commence in the high language.

At some point the question of caste would be asked and then the level adjusted accordingly. Among friends, however, a conversation is likely to be carried on in low Balinese, no matter what the caste of the speaker may be. Bahasa Bali uses very few greetings and civilities on an everyday basis. There are no equivalents for “please” and “thank you” Nor is there a usage that translates as “good morning” or “good evening”, although the low Balinese Kenken kabare ? (How are you? / How’s it going?) Is sometimes used.

More common is Lunga kija? Which literally means “where are you going? (In low, polite and high Balinese).

Balinese Letters 1

Balinese Letters 2


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