The Javanese of Surakarta and Yogyakarta are generally regarded as the best dialects. This makes many Javanese school teachers in other cities mad. The puzzling question before us is, why? Why is one way of speaking considered better than another? Why is one considered more correct? Some people offer the reason that Surakarta and Yogyakarta are royal cities and the influence of the Kratons has made the speech in this area more cultured, more elegant. I think the real answer is more complex than that, and rather more interesting, too.

Below I will offer some thoughts on the subject. While I have spent my life studying language, I don’t claim to be able to offer you a complete and perfect answer. I don’t have a perfect and complete answer, and no doubt there are many who will disagree with my theories. I welcome that, and I look forward to hearing competing theories. This is just a brief musing on the subject of dialect, not a university dissertation. So I hope you’ll forgive me if I oversimplify things for the purpose of making my point in a short article.

To understand the reason that some speech is considered good, while other dialects have been branded as ugly, one must understand two issues. Firstly, language generally goes from more complex to simple over time. Secondly, it is in the isolation of certain groups of people that language retains elements of the past. Let’s look briefly at the first of these ideas.

Language generally devolves from a fuller complex form with many specific grammatical rules to a simplified version that evolves over time. The older and more complete forms of a language develop to meet the needs of people. We must be able to speak with great clarity and precision, and we must be able to address each other in a complex social order. This is of course a generalization, but class and social standing was more rigidly defined in the past and we needed to be able to express that through language.

Javanese is particularly adapted at the subtleties of class distinction. Again, a generalization, but one might observe that societies in our modern age are becoming somewhat more egalitarian.  Class distinctions are breaking down and the rigidity and formality of speech is relaxing right along with it. This isn’t just about the Kraton, nor is it just about the casualness of contemporary life.  For many centuries, languages have gone from formal and complex to simpler. All of the languages that I know something about have “classical” forms from the past that are more complex and complete than the contemporary versions we speak today. Certain grammatical constructions were dropped, endings on words were dropped, and they became simpler in most ways.

For example, in English they used to have two forms of “you”, and this was very useful. They used to say “thou” to refer to the subject of the sentence, and “thee” to refer to the object of the sentence.  So, they used to be able to write a sentence like, “Thou, Oh Lord, are a great God.  Thou wilt garland thee in boundless joy.” And this kind of sentence would be very clear 200 years ago.  But in contemporary English they would have to translate it, “You, oh Lord, are a great God.  You (the Lord) will surround you (His people) in boundless joy.” Since they no longer use “thee” and “thou”, the Bible and other old books often have to insert explanations in parenthesis to make the sentence clear.

In their attempt to make English simpler, they’ve actually made it less clear, less specific. Modern Arabic, I am told by native speakers, is vastly less specific then classical Arabic. The true story of language is very complicated. Yes, language does not always go from full, rich, and complex to simple. But the classical forms of languages seem generally richer and fuller most of the time. In the case of Spanish, the classical form was only for fancy writing and speeches.  The average Spaniards in the streets, even the educated Madrillenos, did not speak in such a fancy, grammatically complex way.

If one looks at the ancient forms of Latin, Arabic, Greek, English, Mandarin, or just about any language you care to mention, the progression is the same.  We develop very complete and expressive forms of a language and, over time, simplify them into easier, more casual versions of the language. Just about now you are probably asking yourself, what does this have to do with dialect? On the surface of it, this seems to have little to do with the accent of Malang or Tegal. But in fact, these subjects are very much related.

At first, when a person speaks differently than the norm, we simply label that speech as incorrect.  We say that their speech is wrong because it does not match the way most people speak. We were given language by our parents. In other words, we get our idea of how to speak correctly from the way language was spoken in the past. This is the key to understanding dialect. We don’t wake up each day to reinvent language. We accept as correct the language of those educated members of society who came before us. But eventually, when enough people begin to speak “incorrectly” (changing vocabulary, usage, grammar, or pronunciation) we start getting used to it.

In time, a way of speaking that was once thought to be incorrect is accepted as correct. What was wrong in the past becomes the new correct way to speak. This is always evolving, changing from the very first human utterances to today.  So we are living with two competing realities. We are always looking to past for our standard of what is considered correct, yet we are slowly changing the rules of what is correct. In simplified terms, this is the method of the devolution of language. We devolve as we begin to loosen up and drop the complex rules given to us by our ancestors.

How we speak (by that I mean, the sound of our dialect) says almost as much about us as what we say. The truck driver in Semarang and the university professor in Surakarta might order the same food at the local foodstall with the same words, but the effect of their dialects on the listener are quite different. Pronunciation matters to people. Maybe it shouldn’t matter. After all, the value of each person is equal regardless of trivial attributes such as dialect. But regardless of the immorality of our class-conscious world, the fact remains, pronunciation matters to people. The beauty of language can lift us from our lowest depths in a poem by Ronggowarsito.

The words of such a poetic master unfold like blooming gardens. When speaking such poetry, dialect can bring an added fragrance to those flowering word. Each dialect carries with it a particular order. The care with which we speak, the manner in which we caress the lines of words can bring out the nobility of a powerful thought or it can burry that thought in ugliness or carelessness. Regional pronunciation can startle us into hearing thing in a fresh way. If dialect is a fragrance we bring to the flowering word, then do we want only roses in our gardens? Or would we prefer a few dozen varieties to fill our lungs as we inhale? I confess that I like many regional dialects.

Though I live in Yogyakarta and my family is from Surakarta, when spoken with clarity and care I find the dialects of Malang and Tegal full of character and vitality. What a bore it would be if we all spoke the same way. Generally, we make the language simpler and easier to use. This is the positive side of it. But on the other hand, we also make language less expressive, less specific. Language becomes simpler, and duller. Slang is the one exception to this trend.

Contemporary slang continually enlivens a language and continually adds new layers of richness. But in most other respects, languages lose their complexity and specificity. It requires more and more words to accurately convey the same thoughts. For example, I find it hard to write a poem in contemporary Javanese. I always opt instead for the older, richer, and clearer language of Javanese. We have looked briefly at the progression of language from complex to simple. Now I want to take up my second point, isolation. When groups of people become separated from the rest of society, they often retain older elements of a language.

If they are living on a separate island or living within their group, somewhat cut off from society, they tend to keep many aspects of speech that the larger society abandons over time. There are many examples of this. When the Muslims rules Spain during Middle Ages, many Jews were living peacefully there. In the 15th century when the Christians armies took Spain from the Muslims, the Jews were given a difficult choice. They could convert to Christianity, leave Spain, or be killed. Some converted to Christianity, many died, but many escaped from Spain to settle in the Ottoman Empire.

The Muslims of the Ottoman Turks welcomed the Jews and guaranteed them religious freedom, much as they had enjoyed in Muslim Spain. Naturally, when they left Spain, they took their language with them. In Spain they had spoken 15th century Spanish, mixed with a bit of Hebrew. Jews in Europe generally remained quite separate from the rest of society. They tended not to intermarry or mix with the rest of society. They retained their language and costumes. Even today, the Jews in Turkey still speak 15th century Spanish mixed with some Hebrew and Turkish but it is still essentially 15th Spanish. This call this language ancient Ladino and it exists into the 21st century because of the isolation of the Jews within Turkish society. They have retained a language because they resisted the assimilation of outside influences.

The language scholar Ramon Menendez Pidal (died in 1968 at the age of 99) went to Turkey not for the purpose of studying Turkish. He went to Turkey to study Medieval Spanish as it is still largely preserved among the Sephardic Jews there. What?  You still can’t see the connection between this and the dialect of Surakarta and Yogyakarta? It will be made clear as we continue. The Quakers in America are another example. They are a Christian religious sect that has remained separate from the rest of American society for centuries. They don’t own TV’s, and they don’t intermarry or socialize with outsiders. Even though they speak English (having come from England in the 17th century), they still speak English much as it was spoken in the 17th century.

Now we get to a few royal examples, and let’s move a bit closer to home. When the Emperor Hirohito was declared to be not a god after all, just an ordinary person like the rest of us, he left his palace for the first time and began to speak with ordinary Japanese people. Hirohito went to speak to some children at the school and found that he could not communicate with the children at all. The former emperor spoke very high, cultured courtly Japanese and his subjects spoke contemporary street Japanese, and they had little in common.

The emperors of Japan had lived in perfect isolation, and had retained richer, fuller more grammatically complete forms of their language. He had also maintained dialects that had long since gone out of fashion in the changing Japanese society. This is one of the features of royal establishments. They tend to remain cloistered. They maintain what is commonly a rich tradition of the highest form of speech, and tend not to be easily influenced by the fashions of contemporary speech.

Even long after the society has moved on, royal establishments throughout the world have been the keepers of traditional forms of culture and language. Again, we have two competing trends. The past teaches us how to speak correctly.  We learn from our ancestors, and isolated groups tend to preserve the past better than integrated members of society. In contrast, when contemporary elements within society begin to make mistakes frequently enough, and enough people begin to accept as correct these mistakes, these changes to the language slowly become accepted as correct, and the language changes.

There are several striking examples that incorporate both of these competing tendencies. In England, the royal line of the Stuarts died out in 1714. The Stuarts were replaced by the Royal House of Hanover Germany. Thus, German speaking kings ended up on the throne of England, Charles I being the first. Naturally, the first Hanoverian kings of England tried to master English, and just as naturally, the subjects of Charles I, II, and III attempted to emulate the monarchy.

In the day when kings had real power, imitating the monarchy is the best way to prosper, and keep your head on your shoulders as you’re doing it. For this reason, upper class English people began to speak English with German accent. The dialect of upper class English changed dramatically from the days of the Stuart Dynasty. And to this day, upper class English as it is spoken by educated Southerners of Oxford, Cambridge and the like, owe both dialect and many grammatical constructions to the Germans.

Similarly, English Lords in France influenced the dialects of the upper class French speakers. The power of royalty, in the days when royalty had power, can both changing and maintaining language. More often than not, it is the maintenance of the language that insular royal establishments to best. Naturally, there are striking exceptions to these ideas. And anyone interested in destroying my theories will have little trouble finding examples. Here, allow me to help them with a few examples.

Catherine the Great of Russia (died 1795) spoke French in her court. Her court neither preserved nor greatly changed the way Russian was spoken in the streets. Frederick the Great of Prussia (Germany) also spoke French and little or no German. Again, French was the language of choice in this and other European courts. No doubt court life influenced the fashions of the upper class, but it did little to influence the local languages. Yes, there are always examples that shoot holes in any theory, and I’m the first to admit that there are plenty of examples that can refute this one. These are complicated mechanisms, and no theory, especially one put forth is brief article, can fully and consistently explain these mechanisms.

Even so, the isolation of the Javanese royal establishment, and its influence on the academic life of Central Jawa, I believe has contributed to this region maintaining ways of speech that considered more correct by virtue of the fact that they retain a connection to the past. The dialects that are considered correct in each language are generally called “Received Pronunciation”. This means, the pronunciation that is more generally recognized as correct and understandable by the most number of people.

It is quite common that Received Pronunciation is not the dialect of power base within a country. For example, Parisian French is not considered the best. The English of London is generally regarded as rather ugly when compared to the bucolic fens of Cambridge or Oxford. In America, one might guess that Received Pronunciation would be the dialect of Washington DC, New York and Los Angeles. This is far from true. Actually, educated people from the farm state of Iowa generally have what is recognized as the best American English.

Received Pronunciation is an endless problem. I can’t resist leaving you with a funny little story about dialect in America. When one calls the police or hospital in America these days, one is like to have the telephone answered by a computer rather than a person. In America they are developing “Voice Recognition Systems” (VRS) that can actually carry on a conversation with a person, all be in a limited conversation.

One would want to discuss art or politics with the computer. Computers make dull conversationalist. Still, for basic information gathering, computers are become somewhat useful at the job of answering the telephone. The only problem is that these computer systems are designed to understand Received Pronunciation.

So when an American calls the computer at the police station, if that American speaks with a regional accent, the computer doesn’t understand the caller. An American friend of mine recently told me the story of the computer at the police station in Shreve Port, Louisiana. This deep southern accent, far from the Received Pronunciation of educated Iowa simply had no idea what people were talking about when they called to talk to the police. The police ended up fire the computer. Dialect resists standardization.