Bahasa and the concept of "National Language"

Language Log 2013-03-15

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.