Knowing One's Place: National Language and the Idea of the Local in Eastern Indonesia

Peer Reviewed

Essay Excerpt

This article offers some reflections on how people in Anakalang and neighboring districts of the eastern Indonesian island of Sumba might be in the process of being persuaded of their marginality and what they might be coming to imagine themselves to be marginal to.4 It approaches this broad question in a more limited way, by looking at certain uses of words that seem to suggest what it can mean to perceive oneself as the speaker of a "local language" (Indo. bahasa daerah), and correlatively, what the national language looks like viewed from the edges of the national project.5 Studies of national languages often focus on their role in the construction of elites (e.g., Crowley 1989; Errington1992; Laitin 1992; Milroy and Milroy 1985; Sankoff 1980) or resistant enclaves (Gal 1987; Hill 1992; Woolard 1989). My concern here is with language ideology, people's own beliefs or underlying assumptions about the nature of their language. Such assumptions are often important components of national ideologies (Anderson 1984; Fishman 1972; Ramaswamy 1993).6 The practices that manifest these tacit beliefs can be critical to the experience of national identity: as Voloshinov (1973:19) observes, the ideological trappings of language are powerful precisely because of the "social ubiquity"of speech, which is at once public and intimate. 

Institutions and economics may shape the conditions for linguistic hierarchies, but it is language ideology that makes sense of those hierarchies. Speakers of Anakalangese, one of Sumba's half-dozen languages, refer to Indonesian as "the foreign language" (na hilu jiawa), but many seem to accept its dominance, as they also accept the legitimacy (if not always the actions) of the state.7 At the same time, many of these same people accept the authority of ritual speech and the distinctive language ideology it entails. Moreover, ritual speech, which is supposed to come from the ancestors, is deeply implicated in the emergence of Anakalangese, and increasingly, pan-Sumbanese, ideas about cultural identity. Therefore I look for evidence of language ideology in order to return to the question of what it means to see oneself as the possessor of a local-or national-culture. (Keane, 39)

About the Author

Webb Keane is a Professor at the University of Michigan. 

"Webb Keane grew up in New York City and studied at Yale College and the University of Chicago. After several years on the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania, he joined the Department of Anthropology at the University of Michigan, where he is now professor, associated with both the Social-Cultural and the Linguistic Anthropology subfields. His other affiliations include the Program in Anthropology and History and the Center for Southeast Asian Studies. 

His first book, Signs of Recognition: Powers and Hazards of Representation in an Indonesian Society is based on 2 years of fieldwork on the island of Sumba in Indonesia. 

His most recent book Christian Moderns: Freedom and Fetish in the Mission Encounter concerns the impact of Protestantism from colonial mission to postcolonial church (For a review, see here. For some critical responses online see here.) 

He is also a co-editor of The Handbook of Material Culture and an occasional contributor to the Immanent Frame and Material World blogs.

His writings cover a range of topics in social and cultural theory and the philosophical foundations of social thought and the human sciences. In particular, he is interested in semiotics and language; material culture; gift exchange, commodities, and money; religion, morality, and ethics; media and public cultures. At present he is involved in two major projects. The first is a book about morality, ethics, and virtue as special, even constitutive, problems for social science. The second centers on religious piety, language, and media in Indonesia.

Professor Keane has received fellowships from the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ, the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences in Stanford, CA, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation. He has been a visiting professor at the London School of Economics, Cambridge University, the University of Oslo, and National Taitung University (Taiwan), and has taught at the School of Criticism and Theory at Cornell University. He has been a Senior Fellow in the Michigan Society of Fellows, a recipient of the Henry Russel Award for scholarship and teaching from the University of Michigan, and has delivered the Edward Westermarck Memorial Lecture in Helsinki, the D. R. Sharpe Keynote Lecture on Social Ethics at the University of Chicago, and the Annette B. Weiner Memorial Lecture at New York University."

Post a Comment

Please log in or register to comment