Linguistic Field Work, Riau Province, Indonesia
David Gil

A Language without a Name

When I first travelled to Riau province in Indonesia, all I knew about the region was what I had read in one place or another. The population was reported to be mostly ethnically Malay: for example, the Routledge atlas paints the entire province in a solid homogeneous yellow, standing for Malay. And the local dialect, together with that of the neighbouring Malaysian province of Johor, was reputed to be that which formed the basis for the standardization of Malay / Indonesian, the so-called "Johor-Riau Malay". However, once in Riau, I had trouble reconciling what I had read with what my own ears and eyes were telling me. To begin, the ethnic Malays appeared to constitute only a relatively small minority of the population; well over half were Minangkabau, and in addition there were Batak, Bugis, Javanese and many other ethnic groups. In addition, what everybody was speaking was not only very different from Standard Indonesian, it was also very different from Riau Malay, to the extent that it was possible to obtain any explicit descriptions of that particular dialect. After some time, I found some regions which were predominantly Malay, and indeed, what the Malays spoke among themselves was, more or less, some variety of Riau Malay. But everybody else was speaking something quite different. And in fact, even the Malays, quite often, would switch back and forth between their own dialect of Malay and this other language variety. But what WAS this other language variety, that was not Standard Indonesian, nor Riau Malay?

I tried asking the speakers themselves. In general, Indonesians exhibit a high degree of linguistic awareness, and are conscious of the fact that they frequently code-switch between different dialects and languages. When I asked Malays what language they speak among themselves, their answer would typically be Bahasa Melayu. In doing so, they distinguish between their own language and the standard language of Malaysia, which they refer to as Bahasa Malaysia, and of course their own standard language which, like everybody else, they refer to as Bahasa Indonesia. However, when I asked Malay and non-Malay speakers what language it was that they were using in many or most everyday contexts, their answer would invariably be Bahasa Indonesia. If I insisted that what they were speaking was very different from the standard language, and backed up my claims by citing specific linguistic forms, their response would simply be that they were speaking "incorrect" or "broken" Bahasa Indonesia.

So here I was, working on a language without a name. Obviously I had to give it one, but the choice was not easy. "Colloquial Indonesian"? That would imply that the difference between it and the standard language was primarily one of register, and also suggest that the dialect in question had no regional basis. "Riau Indonesian"? This would downplay its status as a colloquial variant of the standard language, while suggesting that it contrasts with other regional variants. "Riau Malay"? Oops — already taken by another dialect. But I was in a rush, as I was about to publish my first article on the language (in the 1994 volume of Journal of Nordic Linguistics): I had to decide right away on a name. So I opted for "Riau Indonesian". In the years that followed, I found that the colloquial variants of Indonesian do actually differ greatly from one place to another, so the geographical component in the name, "Riau", turned out to be justified. But at the same time, it became more and more clear to me that the variety in question was at one end of a lectal continuum which, at the other end, had the standard language — so it would have been nice to have kept the word "Colloquial" in the name. But "Colloquial Riau Indonesian" is a bit of a mouthful, so in retrospect, "Riau Indonesian" turns out to have been a reasonable choice for a name.

Similar problems have recurred in my work on Malay / Indonesian. When I first moved to Kuala Lumpur, around the beginning of 1997, I already spoke pretty fluent Malay — but still couldn't understand a word anybody was saying to me. Here, then, was yet another language variety in need not only of linguistic description (which is what I was hired by the Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia to provide), but also a name. I decided to call it "Kuala Lumpur Malay", though perhaps Urban Peninsular Malay might have provided a more appropriate characterization. When I gave my first talk on Kuala Lumpur Malay at a linguistics conference in Malaysia, one of the local linguists objected on the grounds that there was no such thing as a Kuala Lumpur Malay, as distinct from the standard language. In this case, the absence of a recognized name was causing this person to close her mind to the overwhelming evidence that such a dialect does indeed exist. So names are, sometimes, important.

We often think of field work as involving picking a language and then going out there to study it. But the experiences outlined above suggest that this is not always the order in which things happen. Languages and dialects are not given to us in advance; it is up to us to figure out, through data collection and analysis, the boundaries of each language variety, in geographical and in social space. Field work involves cartography; and in addition, it entails the mapping out of variation across a variety of sociological parameters such as ethnicity, class, gender, age, and so forth. For the theoretically oriented synchronic field linguist, some of these tasks may seem like distracting and uninteresting chores. But without them, field work simply cannot get off the ground. For how can you work on your favourite grammatical phenomenon if you do not even know what language you're working on, and if two pieces of data, crucial to your analysis, actually come from different language varieties?


Short Essay: Working on Riau Indonesian

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