Bahasa and the concept of "National Language"

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I've long been aware that many of the languages of Southeast Asia are referred to as bahasa. Here's a list from Wikipedia:

I had always assumed that "bahasa" was a Malayo-Polynesian word.  Consequently, I was surprised when — reading the Wikipedia page in question– I learned that bahasa "derives from the Sanskrit word bhāṣā भाषा ("spoken language").  In many modern languages in South Asia and Southeast Asia which have been influenced by Sanskrit or Pali, bahasa and cognate words are now used to mean 'language' in general."

I was especially intrigued to find this out since I know Sanskrit, as well as some Hindi and Pali, and I'm familiar with the Indic origin of thousands of other words and names in Southeast Asian languages, e.g., Indonesian angkasawan ("astronaut"), Singapore, Cambodia, the Thai surname Angurarohita, and the formal names for Bangkok:

Thonburi Si Mahasamut ธนบุรีศรีมหาสมุทร (" City of Treasures Gracing the Ocean")

Krungthepmahanakhon Amonrattanakosin Mahintharayutthaya Mahadilokphop Noppharatratchathaniburirom Udomratchaniwetmahasathan Amonphimanawatansathit Sakkathattiyawitsanukamprasit
กรุงเทพมหานคร อมรรัตนโกสินทร์ มหินทรายุธยา มหาดิลกภพ นพรัตนราชธานีบูรีรมย์ อุดมราชนิเวศน์มหาสถาน อมรพิมานอวตารสถิต สักกะทัตติยวิษณุกรรมประสิทธิ์
("City of angels, great city of immortals, magnificent city of the nine gems, seat of the king, city of royal palaces, home of gods incarnate, erected by Vsvakarman at Indra's behest.")

I had also read H. G. Quaritch Wales' The Indianization of China and Southeast Asia and George Cœdès' The Indianized States of Southeast Asia, and I had myself published "Buddhism and the Rise of the Written Vernacular in East Asia: The Making of National Languages," The Journal of Asian Studies, 53.3 (August, 1994), 707-751, in which I had shown that the concept of "national language" had passed from India to East Asia along with Buddhism in the form of Sanskrit deśa- bhāṣā ("local spoken language"; "language of a country"), but until now I had never connected Sanskrit bhāṣā with Southeast Asian bahasa.  See also here and here.

I had never imagined that the very name of something so basic to a people as language could have been borrowed so widely by so many peoples in such a large and populous region.

I was prompted to look into the situation with regard to bahasa in Southeast Asia by the following inquiry from Bob Ramsey:

Do you know of any other languages (besides Korean) that have the nihongo : kokugo usage difference?

I mean, only Japanese study or research kokugo, the ‘national language’, while nihongo is the broader, virtually universal name for the Japanese language, which is the only thing non-Japanese can study.  As you may know, the whole concept of teaching the ‘national language’ was modeled on the German educational system put in place after unification by Prussians, and they in turn got the original idea from Revolutionary France.  But none of these European countries, at least as far as I know, has the Japanese kind of in-group – out-group dichotomy in their educational systems.  I studied Hochdeutsch, the same language German kids learn in their schools, and you and I studied Guoyu [VHM:  "national language", written with the same characters as Japanese kokugo 国語 / 國語] in Taiwan, didn’t we?  (Yes, yes, I know Guoyu doesn’t have quite the same meaning, but still….)

I suggested to Bob that there might be a parallel with the various bahasas of Southeast Asia.  That led me to look into the matter a bit myself, and so here I am writing this post.  I was particularly intrigued that a Google search for "desa bahasa" yielded 14,000 ghits, apparently most of them in Indonesia, so the Sanskrit notion of deśa-bhāṣā is deeply embedded there.


  1. Gianni said,

    March 14, 2013 @ 7:20 am

    There are a couple of bahasas called by the Malay-Indonesians:

    Bahasa Cina, Bahasa Inggris, Bahasa Jerman, Bahasa Jepang, Bahasa Latin, Bahasa Yunani… It seems to me that bahasa is only a word like sprache/language/語/glossa.

  2. Lazar said,

    March 14, 2013 @ 7:44 am

    I mean, only Japanese study or research kokugo, the ‘national language’, while nihongo is the broader, virtually universal name for the Japanese language, which is the only thing non-Japanese can study… But none of these European countries, at least as far as I know, has the Japanese kind of in-group – out-group dichotomy in their educational systems.

    Could you elaborate on this? I'm not familiar with this concept.

    Speaking of things I don't understand, this post reminds me of my complete inability to produce the voiced aspirated obstruents (bh, dh, ḍh, jh, gh) required for Sanskrit and Hindi. After trying to add a puff of breath to the [b] and finding that it sounds identical, I'll try strengthening it to [ˈbħaːʂaː], but that doesn't sound right at all, so in the end I'll opt for an approximation like [ˈbaːʂaː], [ˈpʰaːʂaː] or [bǝˈhaːʂaː] which changes the phonemics of the word. Apparently the Indian-influenced peoples of Southeast Asia shared my problem, because they've employed all three of my workarounds ("basa", "phasa" and "bahasa") without in a single instance preserving the "bh" which is nonetheless still going strong in India itself.

  3. Animesh said,

    March 14, 2013 @ 7:46 am

    I highly doubt that the Indonesian "desa bahasa" means anything similar to the "Sanskrit notion of deśa-bhāṣā".

    As adjectives come after the noun in Indonesian, and the fact that "desa" never means "country" (as in "nation"), "desa bahasa" is more likely to mean something like "language village".

    Or it could be used in a phrase like "desa bahasa sunda" which would mean "land of the Sunda language".

  4. Lazar said,

    March 14, 2013 @ 7:46 am

    (Wait, sorry, I overlooked Burmese in the list. Although they were, at least administratively, part of India until 1937.)

  5. Yossa said,

    March 14, 2013 @ 7:53 am

    You may be looking for the Indonesian phrase "bahasa daerah" (local language)? Along with Bahasa Indonesia, it was compulsory for me to take a "bahasa daerah" subject in primary and junior high schools. Since I lived in East Java, the "bahasa daerah" was Javanese. If I were to live in West Java, for example, it would be Sundanese.
    "Bahasa desa" (village language) would make some sort of sense, too, but it's not a common phrase. More so since "desa" has acquired a derogatory connotation in Indonesia.

  6. Daniel Ezra Johnson said,

    March 14, 2013 @ 8:01 am

    Why do you suppose you never linked bahasa to bhāṣā?

  7. udendra said,

    March 14, 2013 @ 8:11 am

    in Sinhala (native language of Sri Lanka) 'basha' means languages.

  8. Victor Mair said,

    March 14, 2013 @ 8:34 am

    @Daniel Ezra Johnson

    In addition to the reasons I gave in my post, the phonotactics of bahasa in its various Southeast manifestations comport well with the local languages (cf. the remarks of Lazar).

  9. Ben Zimmer said,

    March 14, 2013 @ 8:43 am

    The work of A.L. Becker is illuminating on how Southeast Asian languages came to be considered bahasas on the model of Sanskrit. See, e.g., “Binding Wild Words: Cohesion in Old Javanese Prose” (co-authored with Thomas Hunter), collected in Beyond Translation: Essays toward a Modern Philology, where he writes of how translating and etymologizing practices placed Old Javanese in a Sanskritic textual tradition, thus helping the language "become a bahasa” that could "approach the divine and true of Sanskrit."

    Nowadays bahasa is often used (mostly by expats and journalists) as a shorthand for Malay/Indonesian (bahasa Melayu/Indonesia). This is something of a pet peeve of mine: see this post and comments thereon.

    (And Animesh is correct that desa bahasa simply translates as "language village" in Indonesian. This desa bahasa is a hamlet in Central Java where one can go for full-immersion English classes.)

  10. Matt_M said,

    March 14, 2013 @ 9:16 am

    @ Lazar:

    from what I can work out, the transition from bhāṣā to Thai pʰaːsaː wasn't quite as simple as that. Old Thai, lacking aspirated voiced stops, borrowed Pali and Sanskrit voiced aspirates as plain voiced stops, so bhāṣā was borrowed as ba:sa:. Later, in a rather strange switch, voiced stops in Thai (with the exception of glottalised voiced stops) became aspirated voiceless stops. Thus, the sequence was bhāṣā -> ba:sa: -> pʰaːsaː.

    These aspirated voiceless stops derived from voiced stops can usually be distinguished from original aspirated voiceless stops (whether native Thai or borrowed from Pali/Sanskrit) by the tone of the following vowel: aspirated stops derived from voiced stops are followed by mid, high, or falling tones, while those derived from Old Thai aspirated voiceless stops are followed by low or rising (and occasionally falling) tones.

  11. Cameron said,

    March 14, 2013 @ 9:16 am

    Why is it surprising that the word for language in any particular language was borrowed from another language?

    Our word "language" is from French . . .

  12. Sally Thomason said,

    March 14, 2013 @ 9:20 am

    @ Lazar — those voiced aspirated stops are phonetically murmured, and the murmur continues into the following vowel. Murmur is also called breathy voice. If you don't have a phonetician handy to give you five minutes of coaching, try producing a vowel with a lot of air in it to force a breathy sound; then try the same thing with a preceding stop and you should get bha (eventually you stop the breathy effect and go into a normal voiced vowel).

  13. Victor Mair said,

    March 14, 2013 @ 9:22 am


    What's surprising is not that "the word for language in any particular language was borrowed from another language" (emphasis mine), but that a single word was borrowed by so many languages over such a vast area. English may have borrowed "language" from French, but Germany, which is right next door, didn't borrow the Latinate word, sticking instead to Sprache.

  14. Keith M Ellis said,

    March 14, 2013 @ 9:52 am

    "Could you elaborate on this? I'm not familiar with this concept."

    A search led me to a Google Books entry for The Ideology of Kokugo: Nationalizing Language in Modern Japan by Lee Yeounsuk. I found portions of the Translator's Introduction to be helpful; specifically the sections "The Japanese Language Before the Meiji Period", "Synopsis", "Significance of this Book", and "The Dualism of 'the japanese Language'" (all appearing sequentially in the Google Books excerpt from pages ix through xvii).

    Much of it I didn't really follow; but for those of us ignorant of the history of the modernization of Japan and how that relates to language, all of that which is background to the kokugo/nihongo is pretty helpful.

    Basically, though, it amounts to this: kokugo is language instruction as understood as a form of national cultural indoctrination; while nihongo is language instruction as a more neutral language instruction as, well, a means of communication. Mind you, as far as I can tell, those aren't descriptions of the pedagogy, they apply the the language(s) itself, as taught.

    Anglophones and particularly Americans, have some trouble with this sort of idea because our own cultural heritage doesn't so much involve a forging of a national identity through the (forced) adoption of a "national language" despite the existence of numerous dialects and outright languages, oftentimes mutually incomprehensible, whereby the language itself becomes a chief instrument of the imposition of cultural hegemony. But — and these are things I have only a glancing awareness of, to my embarrassment — that's the reality of quite a few languages and national identities, including both Italy and Germany in Europe.

    However, the concept is more familiar in other contexts — such as in studies of literature. Do "we" teach canonical literature because it has inherent merit? Or as primarily a critical endeavor? Or as a means of cultural indoctrination/assimilation? All three could have exactly the same objects of study yet be profoundly different from each other in some important sense.

  15. Victor Mair said,

    March 14, 2013 @ 9:57 am

    Our first response on the question of Japanese kokugo vs. nihongo, from a senior Japanese language teacher:


    "I mean, only Japanese study or research kokugo, the ‘national language’, while nihongo is the broader, virtually universal name for the Japanese language, which is the only thing non-Japanese can study. "

    I believe that the naming is not to exclude non-Japanese people. Teaching methods are very different when you teach language as a mother tongue vs. as a foreign language especially in the beginning stage, and I assume that is universal. I think it is natural to give different names to different approaches/methodologies, 日本語教育法 vs 国語教育法. Generally speaking, I think Japanese people are more considerate and careful when dealing with people from 'outside'. We want to treat them kindly as 'guests' first, so that we ease them into our culture/language. I hope he appreciates it.

  16. Victor Mair said,

    March 14, 2013 @ 10:35 am

    Here's a followup post from Thomas Pepinksy of Cornell:

  17. julie lee said,

    March 14, 2013 @ 11:02 am

    Bob Ramsey says: " only Japanese study or research kokugo, the ‘national language’, while nihongo is the broader, virtually universal name for the Japanese language, "

    Chinese also makes this inside-outside distinction:
    國文 guowen "national language", meaning Chinese,
    中文 zhongwen "Chinese language". Zhongwen literally means "Central/Middle Language", from 中國zhongguo "Central/Middle Kingdom or China".

    This distinction is prevalent in Nationalist (i.e. non-Communist China) or Taiwan. The compulsory courses in Chinese language in schools are called classes in guowen "the national language", not zhongwen "Central (Kingdom) language". Zhongwen "Chinese language" is a term distinguishing it from non-"Central", non-Chinese languages, such as English, French, etc.

    In Nationalist Chinese or Taiwan usage, the adjective 國 guo "national" is also used to mean "Chinese" in other contexts.
    For instance, a great scholar of Chinese language and/or Chinese literature/history/ philosophy is often called 國學大師 guoxue dashi "national-learning Master". Victor Mair would qualify for this title. The great Chinese historian Qian Mu, latterly based in Taiwan, was usually called a guoxue dashi "Master of national learning", never a professor/scholar of Chinese history.

    However, when I used the term 中文zhongwen "Chinese language" in a letter to a relative on Mainland China, she said it was wrong, that I should have used the term
    漢文"Han language", "the language of the Han people". I guess the communist regime in China made this change to distinguish Chinese from the 50+ minority languages in China. Han is the ethnic designation of the vast majority of Chinese people. The communist regime has given wider recognition to minority languages and peoples than Nationalist China (China under Sun Yat-sen or Chiang Kai-shek, Mao's predecessors). Living in Taiwan and Nationalist Mainland China, we were taught that there were four minorities in China— Man (Manchurians), Meng (Mongolians), Hui (Uighurs), and Zang (Tibetans). I was surprised to learn from communist China that there were more than 50. The vast majority of Chinese are Han, an ethnic designation taken from the great Han dynasty of 2000 years ago. (The term "Chinese" derives from the great Ch'in/Qin dynasty, which preceded the Han dynasty.)

  18. J.W. Brewer said,

    March 14, 2013 @ 11:37 am

    When I was a young gaijin boy living in Tokyo in the '70's studying nihongo in school, I had no idea at the time I was being deprived of the opportunity to study kokugo. I mean, I would certainly assume that the pedagogy was different than it would be for those who came to school as native-speakers, but I would likewise assume that the way I was taught German in U.S. public junior high school (after my family moved back from Tokyo) was somewhat different than the way it was contemporaneously taught in West German public schools to native speakers (although of course we were free of the potential complications associated with coming to formal/institutional Hochdeutsch instruction with pre-existing fluency in Swabian or some other regional dialect). I would not have taken those differences to imply that the standard "Hochdeutsch" we were supposed to be learning was somehow metaphysically different from the standard language ("Volkssprache"? "Reichssprache"?) that was formally taught over in the BRD. (If nothing else, by this time the fraktur/antiqua wars were over – I don't know if U.S. kids studying German a half-century earlier would have learned to read texts typeset in Fraktur.)

    That said, I assume "kokugo" would appear at least superficially to have exactly the same syntax, morphology, lexicon, phonology, orthographic conventions etc. etc. as nihongo, the only differences being the presence or absence of a certain ineffable Japaneseness that cannot be measured or detected by the crude scientific apparatus available to gaijin scholars? For a very long time the Japanese government kept trying to block imports of (much cheaper) foreign-grown rice that was somehow viewed as a spiritually inadequate substitute for authentic Japanese rice grown by authentic Japanese farmers in authentic Japanese paddies. I suspect kokugo/nihongo may have provided an easy lexical way to distinguish between these two rival varieties of rice, even though no differences between the two were detectable by non-Japanese botanists, nutritionists, or lawyers specializing in international trade issues, all of whom would consider there to only be one variety of rice-as-such present. But nationalism is like that, and that sort of nationalism is certainly not a uniquely Japanese problem.

  19. julie lee said,

    March 14, 2013 @ 11:39 am

    My Chinese Mainland relative corrected my usage of 中文zhongwen "Chinese language"(by which I meant Chinese speech) to 漢語 (Han language or speech). In Nationalist Mainland China and in Taiwan, 中文zhongwen "Chinese language" and 國文guowen "national language" meant and mean both the speech and the writing. School and college classes on the Chinese language were and are called classes in guowen "the national language".

  20. Keith M Ellis said,

    March 14, 2013 @ 11:58 am

    The implicit politics of what julie lee describes with regard to China and Taiwan is representative of what underlies this distinction in Japanese, and most particularly so because it was in both Korea and Taiwan that Japan exerted its strongest colonial influence using kokugo as a primary implement. I didn't see an equivalent discussion regarding Taiwan, but, ironically, the backlash against kokugo in Korea provided a lot of the impetus for subsequent Korean nationalism with regard to the Korean language (away from Chinese).

    Kokugo is in its very nature, its historical genesis, culturally nationalistic. The term literally means, as already discussed, "national language", but more than that, it was coined in conjunction with other nationalistic terms, as part of meiiji nationalist modernization, and specifically as a national language assimilation in opposition to dialects and, for example, Ainu.

    Its founding, authoritative text is Kokugo no tame ("For a National Language") by Ueda Kazutoshi (1901 and 1903).

    In 1903, Ueda wrote Kokumin kyōiku to kokugo kyōiku ("Education of the People and Teaching Kokugo") and here is an instructive excerpt (Maki Hirano Hubbard's 2010 translation from Lee's 1996 book on kokugo):

    Now we have entered an era when we must work together efficiently and harmoniously at home, and must actively venture abroad, as in the development of China. It will be us, the Japanese people, who will resolve any critical problems in future Asia […] It will be worth considering, once we succeed in unifying kokugo, its expansion into China, Korea, and India […] I think it is our responsibility to seek methods, in whatever country we bring our language and script, to let their people use them […] This is an important issue not only for the education of our own people, but further, for the expansion of the language of Japan into the Asian continent. (154-155)

  21. David B Solnit said,

    March 14, 2013 @ 1:12 pm

    @Lazar, Matt_M:
    The development of voiced stops into voiceless aspirates is not all that strange, at least in the mainland SE Asia/China linguistic area. It is quite common in Tai, Sinitic, and Karen (Tibeto-Burman), to name just the groups where I can cite from memory. Some people have made rather heavy weather of this and claimed that it shows that the voiced stops were actually breathy/murmured, but I've never been convinced by that. But maybe that's a topic for a separate thread…

  22. hector said,

    March 14, 2013 @ 1:34 pm

    When my wife was teaching English in Kyoto in the mid-seventies, she had a young student who had great difficulty communicating with her grandmother. The young student spoke the "national language," while her grandmother spoke a dialect that was dying out.

    Surely the reason the Meiji encouraged a national language was as part of their general program to turn the country into a modern, efficient industrial state that could compete with the West. If this project took on unsavoury tones during the period of fascist militarism, well, what aspect of Japanese society didn't?

  23. Xmun said,

    March 14, 2013 @ 1:44 pm

    @ J. W. Brewer: I don't know about U.S. kids, but when I was a boy in England in the early 1950s I was taught to read and write Fraktur. The knowledge came in handy when later I had to learn to read English manuscripts of the Elizabethan and Jacobean period written in Secretary hand.

  24. Xmun said,

    March 14, 2013 @ 1:52 pm

    P.S. At school we called Fraktur "Gothic script".

  25. J.W. Brewer said,

    March 14, 2013 @ 2:50 pm

    It is worth noting that Bahasa Indonesia is a very different sort of "national language" than standardized Japanese, in that not only does it co-exist on an ongoing basis with various local languages (rather than being used to stamp those out as mere deprecated non-standard "dialects"), it was originally selected in large part because Malay was already in considerable use as a second/trade language but not the primary/mother tongue of any salient large ethnic group within the Dutch territories. It therefore had the same politically useful "neutral" sort of vibe that e.g. Swahili has in East Africa.

    The Filipino experience has I think been a bit different, with intermittent political lip service to the notion that "Pilipino" is (or aspires to be) some sort of new/blended/e-pluribus-unum thing, while it remains in practice indistinguishable from Tagalog and is simultaneously both the "national" language and simply the mother tongue of a particularly large/powerful ethnic bloc. It's as if instead of using Swahili Kikuyu had been renamed "Kenyan," or "Bahasa Indonesia" was just Javanese in very flimsy propagandistic coating.

  26. Ken Brown said,

    March 14, 2013 @ 4:33 pm

    '@Keith M Ellis – it seems to me that the "forging of a British national identity" certainly did involve making people learn standard English. Our relatvely relaxed attitude to minority languages and accents nowdays is a symptom of the complete victory of standard English.

    And at least sometimes it was forced. In Scotland and Wales not so much as national policy as by local educators and the local establishment.

  27. Lauren Gawne said,

    March 14, 2013 @ 5:01 pm

    Just adding Nepali Bhasa to the list, for listings sake. It's an Indo-Aryan language so it's not that surprising.

  28. Circe said,

    March 14, 2013 @ 6:03 pm

    @Lauren Gawne Nepālī (नेपाली) and Nepāl Bhāśa (नेपाल भाषा) are two separate languages. Although, rather confusingly, Nepālī would also probably be referred to as "Nepālī Bhāśā (नेपाली भाषा", Nepali language) in Nepāl Bhāśā.

  29. Circe said,

    March 14, 2013 @ 6:06 pm

    @Lauren Gawne: Also, although Nēpālī is considered part of the Indo Aryan family, it seems that Nēpāl Bhāśā is classified as a member of the Sino-Tibetan family.

  30. wren ng thornton said,

    March 14, 2013 @ 7:02 pm

    "I mean, only Japanese study or research kokugo, the ‘national language’, while nihongo is the broader, virtually universal name for the Japanese language, which is the only thing non-Japanese can study. "

    As Victor Mair's senior Japanese language teacher says, I don't think it's an issue of exclusion. Consider, for example, the "English" classes Americans (and presumably other Anglophones) must take during primary education. These classes have little if anything to do with English as a language. Rather, they're about other issues like cultural fluency, familiarity with the "classics", stylistics, etc. Our "English" classes assume we already know the language and speak it daily and fluently. Contrast this with ESL/EFL classes which aim to teach the language to nonspeakers. Trying to get novice English learners to read Shakespeare or write book reports would be, IMO, misguided at best. Higher-level English learners might benefit from such tactics perhaps; but even here, it's worth distinguishing the difference between teaching advanced fluency (e.g., how to read between the lines, appreciate style, know the cultural context for a given work) vs indoctrinating youths into cultural norms.

    Kokugo is like the hidden curriculum of "English" classes; whereas nihongo is like whatever ESL/EFL courses teach. Outsiders are excluded from kokugo only in as much as they are outsiders, and so were not raised in that particular culture of indoctrination. Surely a fluent adult could engage in studying or teaching kokugo if they were so inclined.

  31. krogerfoot said,

    March 14, 2013 @ 7:19 pm

    Whatever "nationalist" overtones once might have been implicit in the term kokugo, I think it's safe to say they are long gone. There is an obvious difference between the subject of Japanese for native speakers and its instruction as a second language. They are two different disciplines, and it's handy to have two different names for them. If anyone, Japanese or not, wants to study kokugo, all they have to do is sign up for a class. I'm not sure who anyone thinks is going to stop them.

  32. julie lee said,

    March 14, 2013 @ 7:53 pm

    @Keith M. Ellis: "The implicit politics…"
    Keith makes a good point. However, I myself never felt the use of 國 guo "nation, national" meaning "Chinese" was nationalistic in an aggressive way. To me, it just meant "our".

    Other examples of 國 guo "national" meaning "Chinese" :
    Chinese traditional painting (with the brush-pen) is usually called guohua國畫"national painting", not zhongguo hua 中國畫“Chinese painting". "Outline of Chinese History" is often called guoshi dagang 國史大綱 "Outline of National History", not "Outline of Chinese History".
    China is often called 我國"Our Nation" in Chinese instead of zhongguo 中國"China". Once I looked in vain for an Economic History of China in the library under the title zhongguo jingji shi 中國經濟史“Economic History of China". Finally I found it under woguo jingji shi 我國經濟史"Economic History of Our Nation".

  33. D S Onosson said,

    March 14, 2013 @ 8:04 pm

    Korean seems to have a few versions of "Korean":

    han -gug -eo
    Han -country -language
    "Korean (Han) language" (not the same Han as Chinese)

    han -gug -mal
    Han -country -speech
    same thing(?)

    gug -mal
    country -speech
    "national language"(?)

    uri -mal
    3pl -speech
    "our language"

    I can't comment on the nuances and particulars of their respective usages, but I do remember once using "uri-mal" at a shop in Korea, and I don't recall anything strange in the reaction of the person I was speaking to.

    Interestingly, google translate renders both 한국어 and 우리말 as "Korean", but leaves 한국말 untranslated!

  34. julie lee said,

    March 14, 2013 @ 8:05 pm

    Re. "Bahasa" and the Indian/Sanskrit influence in S.E. Asia.
    Victor Mair's essay on "Bahasa" and the concept of national language is fascinating.
    All those "Bahasa" countries on the list he gives I had given my own low-brow classification of "the curry countries".

  35. Rod Johnson said,

    March 14, 2013 @ 8:09 pm

    I've never heard Burmese referred to as "myanma bhasa" by Burmese (which is not to say it doesn't happen). But who calls it that? Myanma zaga or, more commonly, bama zaga or bama za is the way I learned it. Perhaps the bhasa version is used in the written language (which is quite different from the modern spoken language)?

  36. Tom said,

    March 14, 2013 @ 9:48 pm

    'Bahasa' just means language. It's common in Indonesia to refer to 'bahasa' to mean Bahasa Indonesia, the national language of the country, as in "wow, you speak good bahasa." Language conservatives or purists often correct the speaker and say, "you mean good Bahasa Indonesia." As the first poster noted, Bahasa is used to refer to all languages, Bahasa Jerman (German), Bahasa Inggris (English), or even Bahasa Gaul (Hip slang).

  37. Jean-Michel said,

    March 14, 2013 @ 10:42 pm

    Korean seems to have a few versions of "Korean":

    han -gug -eo
    Han -country -language
    "Korean (Han) language" (not the same Han as Chinese)

    han -gug -mal
    Han -country -speech
    same thing(?)

    eo is Sino-Korean (語) and 말 mal is "native" Korean. There are probably differences in collocation–if I had to guess, I would assume 한국어 is used in more formal contexts–but somebody with a better grounding in Korean would have to confirm this.

    North Korea (which refers to itself as 조선 Joseon, not 한국 Hanguk) uses 조선어 Joseoneo and 조선말 Joseonmal instead of 한국어 and 한국말. These are also the standard names of the Korean language as spoken by ethnic Koreans in China, though Korean as a foreign language is now generally known in China as 韩国语 Hánguóyǔ or 韩语 Hányǔ.

    The North-South split creates problems in Japan, where the local Korean population was (and still is, to a lesser extent) divided between pro-North and pro-South. The national broadcaster NHK tried to sidestep the whole issue by using ハングル Hanguru for their Korean-language instructional programs, which is silly on multiple levels since a) "Hangeul" refers to the Korean script, not the language and b) North Korea calls the script 조선글 Joeseongeul, so ハングル is hardly a neutral term.

  38. maidhc said,

    March 15, 2013 @ 3:01 am

    Tom: I was expecting you to say that Bahasa Gaul meant Breton!

  39. John F said,

    March 15, 2013 @ 5:40 am

    Don't proper nouns ending in s (and z and x) take 's in the genitive because they are pronounced with an extra s? e.g. Wales's, Cœdès's.

  40. Victor Mair said,

    March 15, 2013 @ 7:08 am

    From Bob Ramsey:

    Some interesting comments, Victor, as you suggested there would be.

    Julie Lee adds an interesting note about the Chinese use of Guowen. Two things: (1) I wonder if this word isn't a borrowing of Japanese usage (kokubun 国文), which I suspect was perhaps brought into Nationalistic China along with 国語 (you'll recall that article I once wrote for you on that subject). (2) It's certainly true, as she says, that the Chinese use the word—and of course Zhongwen as well—to mean 'Chinese language'. But of course both SHOULD mean only 'Chinese writing'. Just like everybody else, the Chinese completely confuse writing with language. (Btw, though, I believe Japanese kokubun 国文 can only mean 'the national literature'.)

    But I really don't think your senior lecturer is right about the nihongo/kokugo difference. Let's be honest about what kokugo is—or, perhaps more properly, what it was: In the early 20th century the concept was a blatant expression of nationalism, and it was deliberately formed that way by men such as Ueda Kazutoshi, who was cited by someone in your chain of responses. In his most famous writing on the subject, Kokugo no tame, Ueda wrote: "The National Language is the bulwark of the Imperial Household; The National Language is the blood of the Nation." Then he went on to say, "Just as blood shows a common birth in the realm of the flesh, language, for the people who speak it, shows a common birth in the realm of the spirit. If we take the Japanese National Language [Nihon no Kokugo—a decidedly odd expression in today's Japanese] as an example of this, we should speak of Japanese [日本語] as the spiritual blood of the Japanese people."

    These days, in the early decades of the twenty-first century, Kokugo seems to have faded a bit in its significance for Japanese society. In some Japanese universities, departments of language and literature have been reorganized, exchanging “Nihongo” for “Kokugo” in their names as an indication of a discipline more open to international outlooks and standards. And in 2003, in a move that surprised most outsiders, the membership of the conservative Kokugo Gakkai ‘Society for the Study of the National Language’ voted to change the name of the society to Nihongo Gakkai. These are noteworthy changes that seem to signify a consistent movement in the direction of Japanese society away from excessive nationalism.

    I don't know if I mentioned it to you before, Victor, but I wrote a fairly long and detailed article on this subject back in 2004 called "The Japanese Language and the Making of Tradition", which I published in Japanese Language and Literature 38, pp. 81-110. I can dig up a copy and send it to you if you're interested. And in fact, the reason I brought up the question of the in-group/out–group dichotomy this time was because I decided to go back and revisit the issue, and I figured if anybody had thought about it in broader terms it would be you—and it looks like I was right!

    Again, many thanks for starting all this off, Victor.

  41. SFReader said,

    March 15, 2013 @ 7:18 am

    Actually, 國文 guowen "national language" didn't always mean Chinese.

    During the Yuan dynasty it meant Mongolian language and during Qing – Manchu.

    I suspect that before 1945 it would have been understood in Taiwan to mean Japanese as well….

  42. Dakota said,

    March 15, 2013 @ 7:25 am

    Just picked up a copy of "Learn Sanskrit in 30 days" to read on the night train to Bangkok, and was amazed to read that "the term "Sanskrit" as used now means 'well done' or 'rectified'. Still puzzling over that one, I read on to find that there is "a deeply rooted faith among the Indian public that Sanskrit is the language of the Devas" (gods) and the "language was rightly called Daivi vāk (Deva Bhāshā) during the vedic period".

    So there you have it, "Deva Bhasa", the language of the gods.

  43. julie lee said,

    March 15, 2013 @ 9:41 am

    @Victor Mair: Bob Ramsey says: " It's certainly true, as she says, that the Chinese use the word [guowen]—and of course Zhongwen as well—to mean 'Chinese language'. But of course both SHOULD mean only 'Chinese writing'. Just like everybody else, the Chinese completely confuse writing with language."
    Yes, I did too, before I read Victor Mair's and Bob Ramsey's writings.

    @SFReader says "國文 guowen 'national language' didn't always mean Chinese", that previously during the Yuan dynasty it meant Mongolian and during the Qing it meant Manchurian….
    Thanks, SFReader, I didn't know that.

  44. SFReader said,

    March 15, 2013 @ 10:34 am

    It went even further than that. In Yuan sources one frequently encounters term 國人 guoren (nationals) which meant Mongols as opposed to everybody else in China.

    Another term was 國朝人 guochaoren (ruling dynasty people).

    Also in histories of Liao and Jin dynasties, there are chapters named 國語解 guoyujie (explanation of national language) which brief comments on Khitan and Jurchen languages.

  45. julie lee said,

    March 15, 2013 @ 12:46 pm

    Fantastic. Thanks, especially the part about the Chinese characters guoyu 國語"national language" referring to Khitan and Jurchen languages.
    Then guoyu國語 (kokugo國語 in Japanese) "national language" may have been what Victor Mair has called a "round-trip word", since Bob Ramsey suggests Chinese guoyu國語 was borrowed from Japanese kokugo 國語 (during the late 19th or early 20th century), and I'd think Japanese kokugo國語 was earlier borrowed from Chinese guoyu國語—-the word went to Japan and came back again.

  46. KWillets said,

    March 15, 2013 @ 2:02 pm

    Korean schoolbooks and dictionaries use "국어" (Sino-Korean form of guoyu/kokugo). It's possible that this word came via the Japanese occupation (or in response to it), but I don't know.

  47. Sven said,

    March 15, 2013 @ 2:06 pm

    This is not exactly analogous to the kokugo/nihongo case, but I think that in the current situation, foreigners who study South Slavic languages usually don't study the same language – at least nominally, but sometimes also substantively – as the native speakers. Nowdays native speakers study "Croatian" in Croatia, "Serbian" in Serbia, and I am not sure about Bosnia, but I think that, depending on the location, they may study "Bosnian", "Serbian", "Croatian", or, possibly, "Serbo-Croatian". On the other hand, foreigners would be more likely to study "Serbo-Croatian" or "Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian" (or another permutation of that name), with a minority studying "Croatian" or "Serbian" (and I am not aware of a program that offers "Bosnian").

    The difference may be substantive because there are Croatian, Serbian, and Bosnian standards, which are clearly distinct (and were, although less so, before the breakup of the former Yugoslavia), but are also closer to each other than various Croatian or Serbian dialects. So it makes sense for foreigners to treat the continuum as one language, but then they are likely to be taught by instructors adhering to different standards. In that case, they'll probably end up learning a mix of standards resembling most closely the pre-breakup Bosnian.

  48. ahkow said,

    March 15, 2013 @ 3:16 pm

    Adding to the 國語 facts:

    國語 in Malaysia refers to Bahasa Melayu aka Malay (properly Bahasa Malaysia, I guess), and 國文 to written Malay


  49. EC said,

    March 15, 2013 @ 4:47 pm

    D S Onosson, Jean-Michel, & KWillets mentioned the words

    Han country/nation language
    Korea(n) language

    Han country/nation spoken-language/speech
    Korea(n) spoken language, Korea(n) speech

    country/nation language
    nation(al) language

    our spoken-language/speech
    our spoken language, i.e., the way we talk

    As Jean-Michel says, the words above are used in South Korea. Substitute 조선 jo-seon for 한국 han-guk/han-gug to get words used in North Korea.

    I'm just a student, but teachers who are native Korean speakers from South Korea (mostly Seoul-area) have told me that 말 mal refers to spoken language, while 語 어 eo is more general or broad in meaning and can refer to both spoken and written language…the whole of a language used by a group or nation of people when they communicate with each other in speech and writing.

    Other language names in Korean usually follow the pattern of
    중국어 jung-gug-eo Chinese
    일본어 il-bon-eo Japanese
    영어 yeong-eo English
    독일어 dog-il-eo German

  50. elessorn said,

    March 16, 2013 @ 6:14 am

    It never struck me as odd that when with the adoption of a Western schooling system there was suddenly a slot in the curriculum to be filled with (legally defined) standard language inculcation, "nihongo" was not the natural name for it. After all, dialect aside, they were all "nihonjin", and the "problem" was simply that they didn't have competent command of the prestige Tokyo dialect the government had decided upon as their equivalent to Parisian or High German. Not to say there's no connection, but it might be rather a root a few meters further down. Ethnic homogeneity could BOTH provide fertile soil for nationalism AND make association between ethnonym and language a less obvious development (cf. hanyu). So different from calling it "grammar class" for natives and "English class" for non-native learners (as was once common, iirc)?

    One might think of "kokugo" as (unintentionally) honest, in a way. The polemic push in calling "German" or "English" what is really the German or English of only part of that mutually intelligible linguistic community is at least absent. It is what it says: the language-version the country legally obliges students to master.

    Potentially nationalism-friendly? Of course. Present and past realizations of that potential? For sure. But inherently nationalistic, I think not. (Personally, I find "nihon/nippon" heavier on the nationalism scale in most cases nowadays, if anything.)

  51. julie lee said,

    March 16, 2013 @ 7:31 am

    "國語 in Malaysia refers to Bahasa Melayu aka Malay (properly Bahasa Malaysia, I guess), and 國文 to written Malay."

    Since Guoyu國語"national language" and Guowen國文“national language" refer to Mandarin and Chinese respectively in China, but refer to Malay and written Malay respectively in Malaysia, what do Malaysian Chinese newspapers call Mandarin and Chinese?

  52. SFReader said,

    March 16, 2013 @ 8:03 am

    Even more interesting is a Singaporean case. Article 153 of the Singapore Constitution states that

    "—(1) Malay, Mandarin, Tamil and English shall be the 4 official languages in Singapore.
    (2) The national language shall be the Malay language and shall be in the Roman script"

    I couldn't find Chinese translation of the Singapore Constitution, but my understanding that "national language" would be translated as 國語 and this happens to be is Malay in Singapore, not Chinese and not even English.

  53. Gpa said,

    March 16, 2013 @ 9:53 am

    Mandarin in Singapore would be 华语 as a parallel to 汉语 in China. So since Singaporean Chinese people and Malaysian Chinese people were originally from Fujian province, first, before Guangdong province, that's why most of them would know how to speak either Fujianese/ Hokkien & or Cantonese first before learning Mandarin. I believe the Singaporean term of 华语, huayu, has carried over to Malaysian Chinese version of "Mandarin" where it's either written as 华语 or 華語. In Taiwan, via Taiwanese/Hokloe, which is based mostly on Minnanyu (闽南语 or 闽南话 [Simplified Chinese is used in Mainland China]/ 閩南語 or 閩南話[Traditional Chinese is used in Taiwan])[literally meaning "The dialect(s) of southern Fujian province"]/Hokkien/Fujianese dialect, also sometimes uses 華語 as a substitute for "Mandarin".

  54. Gpa said,

    March 16, 2013 @ 9:59 am

    @ D S Onosson:
    Could it be possible that the Korean 말 is comparable to the Chinese 话/話?

  55. KWillets said,

    March 16, 2013 @ 12:07 pm

    @Gpa, its similar, in that it's part of "to speak" in the most common form, i.e. 說話 translates to 말하다, and it's used in compounds like 거짓말 (lie, 謊話).

    話 itself is used in a few borrowed compounds such as 전화 (telephone, 電話).

    One example of usage of 어, 말, etc. is Cheju dialect, which is considered a separate language. When it's listed on endangered language sites it's an 어, but informally it can be a 말 or a 사투리 (regional dialect, but often just a strong accent).

  56. julie lee said,

    March 16, 2013 @ 3:16 pm

    @SF Reader:
    Most interesting, the difference in Singapore between "official language" and "national language".
    Yes, Huayu華語 "Hua (i.e., Chinese) Language" is used a lot in Chinese newspapers in America to refer to Mandarin, instead of the term guoyu國語 “national language; Mandarin" used in Taiwan and China.

  57. ahkow said,

    March 16, 2013 @ 6:01 pm

    @julie lee, @gpa

    Malaysian and Singaporean Chinese (and probably Chinese across Southeast Asia) call Mandarin Chinese 華語 and themselves 華人. Examples are Malaysia's Malaysia Chinese Association (馬來西亞華人公會 / 馬華), Singapore's Speak Mandarin movement (講華語運動). 華 as a term for Chinese has been used widely in both territories way back (華僑 has been used since the late 19th century), and I don't think it spread north from Singapore.

    As a Singapoeran I would translate "national language" as 國語, so 馬來語是新加坡的國語. The other 3 languages are 官方語言.

  58. SFReader said,

    March 17, 2013 @ 4:31 am


    I thought Singapore uses Simplified Chinese?

  59. julie lee said,

    March 17, 2013 @ 10:15 am

    When I was in Singapore decades ago, there was only one Chinese-language high school. Are there more now? And do they call Chinese language-and-script "zhongwen中文"?

  60. ahkow said,

    March 17, 2013 @ 1:18 pm

    Yes simplified is the norm (since the introduction of simplified in the 1970s? not sure about the date) but there are plenty of young people who will be able to at least read traditional. I was taught using simplified but know traditional, and prefer to use the traditional Chinese IME.

    @julie lee
    Which school was that? Schools now have all shifted to English medium (i.e. all subjects except "mother tongues" and their respective literatures are taught in English), but there were Chinese medium schools (for all levels I think) as late as the mid 1980s.

    No, Chinese language and script are uniformly 華語華文 (with the distinction between 語 spoken and 文 written forms – so *講華文). People get it when you say 中文/漢語 but these terms are marked. Singaporean (and Malaysian) Chinese identity is tied to 華, so.

  61. julie lee said,

    March 17, 2013 @ 2:58 pm

    Thanks for the information. I was in Singapore in the late 1940s and I know there was a Chinese-language high-school, but I've forgotten the name. I was in an English-language school, I'm sorry to hear there are no longer any Chinese-medium schools in Singapore. Here in the San Francisco Bay area there are Chinese-medium schools (kindergarten to high-school) as well as German-medium (K-12) schools and maybe other-medium schools as well.

  62. Rachel Leow said,

    March 17, 2013 @ 10:24 pm

    on the question of Chinese in Malaysia:

    there were pretty conscious efforts in the Chinese public sphere in the early to mid 1950s to assert that 国语 pointed to Malay, rather than to Mandarin, or indeed any to other Chinese language. A lot of that was hashed out in debates about what the national language(s) would be as Malaysian independence (1957) grew imminent, and as Chinese politicians and educators fought to have Chinese (华语) recognized as an official (rather than national) language in Malaysia — a fight eventually lost. (Today, only Malay is recognized as both national and official language). For Chinese educators, asserting that Malay was *of course* the national language 国语, and Chinese was this other thing 华语, was one way of demonstrating national loyalty to Malaysia while preserving Chinese cultural and ethnic integrity.

    On a more frivolous note, I love Teddy Chin's entertaining dissection of the differences between Taiwanese and Malaysian Chinese, which alludes to the 国语 confusion: (中文, no English subtitles unfortunately)

    on the question of bahasa:

    the link between the Sanskrit and the Malay word for me has always been so obvious that it was delightful to see its strangeness afresh in your eyes! I'll add that in Malay, the word "bahasa" has an additional connotation of "civility", "manners" or "good breeding". To speak is to have civilization and all its attendant worth. A traditional Malay saying is "bahasa menunjukkan bangsa", which can be crudely translated as "language reveals a man's race", but is more correctly a statement about how your language and the way you speak reveals your character.

    In the Hikayat Seri Kelantan (early 20th century Malay manuscript from a Malay state which shares a border with Thailand), for example, you find the line: "Patutlah, orang Siam bangsa kafir, tiada tahu cara bahasa; anak bini orang pun hendak ambil buat anak bini kepadanya" (rough translation: Of course, the Siamese are all infidels, and none of them know bahasa; they'll just take other people's wives and children as their own"). In this sentence, "bahasa" isn't language: it's manners, good breeding, morality.

    hope that helps!

  63. Chris Travers said,

    March 18, 2013 @ 4:52 am

    I did what I could to see what "desa bahasa" means and the articles I found on Google largely talked about villages where you could send your child to learn English. My Bahasa Indonesia is not that great (I am still something of a beginner) but Google Translate agreed substantively with my first reading.

  64. Victor Mair said,

    March 19, 2013 @ 12:11 am

    From Sanping Chen:

    (1) On 國語 referring to a non-Han ethnic language, one of the early examples is the 拓跋鮮卑 language, as recorded in 隋書經籍志. This usage was kept even in the Tang, as first revealed by 劉盼遂, a Chinese scholar viciously killed by the Red Guards in 1966 in Beijing. A related term is 國人, referring to the dominating ethnic group. I would even trace the latter to the Zhou conquest, because the oldest meaning of 國人 as used in 周禮 was simply city residents (國 = a walled domain), in contrast to 郊人, aka 野人, typical of the early Zhou colonial system.

    (2) On the adoption of Mandarin 國語 by ethnic Chinese in SE Asia, it was largely the forgotten deeds of the KMT. A friend of mine once characterized the result as that, for a long time, the percentage of Mandarin-speakers in many parts of SE Asia exceeded that in the Chinese mainland, albeit that the version spoken was the so-called 南洋國語. This was also related to the "re-sinification" of many overseas ethnic Chinese communities, especially those in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia).

  65. julie lee said,

    March 19, 2013 @ 6:25 pm

    Thanks for the earlier meanings of 國人,郊人,野人。If I'm not mistaken the adjectives hua華"Flower" and Zhong中 "Central/Middle" for '"Chinese" also reach back to 1st-millenium BC Zhou dynasty, in the phrases huaxia華夏 and zhongtu中土 for "China" or what later became China.

  66. Keith said,

    March 29, 2013 @ 3:32 am

    On kokugo : nihongo, national language, and bahasa…

    Keith M Ellis mentions that several modern European nations have '[forged]forging of a national identity through the (forced) adoption of a "national language"'. There is also the opposite force, in the revival of interest in regional languages in some European states.

    I find very interesting the fact that the various Occitan languages in France refer to themselves simply as 'lengua nostra', literally 'our language', and usually only use a term like 'lemousin', 'prouvençau' when referring to another related language.

    What is the term these, a language's name for itself and the name it uses for another language? I thought autonym and xenonym, or endonym and exonym, but they seem to be for nations or territories.

  67. 영어 번역 said,

    December 7, 2013 @ 2:54 am

    Korean seems to have a few versions of "Korean":

    han -gug -eo
    Han -country -language
    "Korean (Han) language" (not the same Han as Chinese)

    han -gug -mal
    Han -country -speech
    same thing(?)

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