Bhāṣā means ‘spoken language’ in a number of Southeast Asian countries. The word comes from Sanskrit, and different spellings are used to denote language in Myanmar, Malaysia, parts of India, Thailand, and Indonesia—to name a few of Asia’s mystical places.

Language is a kind of verbal gene pool—you see it in Latin idioms, and it helps you understand the linkages across communities and countries. Along with space-based connections, language also shows you how countries diverged over time, as words took on different meanings and spellings and accents changed.

Dutch and Afrikaner, French and Québécois, Portuguese and Brazilian, and of course English and American—all examples of the plasticity of language.

Bahasa (Indonesia) is no exception—sepatu means ‘shoe’, and the equivalent Portuguese word is sapato. The pronunciation is practically identical, and given the tendency of the locals to wear little or nothing on their feet, it makes perfect sense that both the word and the object itself were imported on Portuguese ships. When it comes to timing, my best guess is the first half of the XVIth century.

Indonesian has many loanwords from the Dutch, who were there for 2-3 centuries; but given how short a period the Portuguese explorers spent in those waters, perhaps no more than three generations, I was amazed at their linguistic legacy—as usual, it is simply explained: blood is thicker than water.

Terigo (trigo) is wheat, garpu (garfo) is fork, bendera (bandeira) means flag, and mentega (manteiga) is butter.

And of course, there are a few false friends—the word ‘bunda’ means mother, whereas in Brazilian the meaning is entirely different.

In both Indonesia and Thailand, many people connect to the history of five hundred years ago, when the Portuguese sailed the Strait of Malacca, and navigated east to the Moluccas—the crazy islands, so-called because of the way the magnetic fields drove the Genovese needle wild.

From Europe, it’s very difficult to gain perspective on Indonesia.

We could start by stating that it produces over fifteen million metric tons of aquaculture products every year, making it the second largest producer in the world, with over five times European production.

Or that its population of 238 million is expected to reach 305 million by 2035.

Or that, based on 2005 numbers, the income of the middle class starts at three hundred dollars a month.

What this gives you is a country where there is great poverty, but which overflows with kindness—a nation of gentle souls, where courtesy reigns—people struggling to get by, and doing their very best to share what little they have.

One of many variations on jokes about Scandinavian weather.

In my quest for word matches in Bahasa, I came across opinions on a number of other countries. One of them highlighted five reasons not to live in Denmark: language, climate, social norms, food, and xenophobia—you could use those same reasons for several other nations in northern Europe.

There’s no doubt in my mind that countries like Indonesia and Thailand have a totally different perspective, which is one of the reasons that endeared them to the Portugis explorers in the heady days of discovery.

These are warm climates, with warm people. There’s bound to be some pushback on the farang, particularly if you are overbearing—as many foreigners are—but xenophobia is really not displayed.

As for the language, it doesn’t take more than a couple of words in Bahasa or Thai to elicit the ever-ready smile.

And in desperation, you could always try sepatu.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

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