Javanese language

Javanese (Basa Jawa, Basa Jawi)
Spoken in: Java (Indonesia), Suriname, New Caledonia
Region: Southeast Asian Islands
Total speakers: 80 - 100 million total
Ranking: 12
Genetic classification: Austronesian

  Western Malayo-Polynesian

Official status
Official language of: Dutch East Indies (Java) (Discontinued in 1945)
Regulated by: -
Language codes
ISO 639-1jv
ISO 639-2jav
See also: LanguageList of languages

The Javanese language is the spoken language of the people in the central and eastern part of the island of Java, in Indonesia. It is spoken by approximately 75,500,000 people.

The Javanese language is part of the Austronesian family, and is therefore related to Bahasa Indonesia and Malay. Many speakers of Javanese also speak Bahasa Indonesia for official and business purposes.



Javanese belongs to the Sundic sub-branch of the Western Malayo-Polynesian (also called Hesperonesian) branch of the Malayo-Polynesian subfamily of the Austronesian super family. It is a close linguistic relative of Malay, Sundanese, Madurese, Balinese, and to a lesser extent, of various Sumatran and Borneo languages, including Malagasy.

Javanese is spoken in Central and East Java, as well as on the north coast of West Java. In Madura, Bali, Lombok and the Sunda region of West Java, Javanese is also used as a literary language. It was the court language in Palembang, South Sumatra until their palace was sacked by the Dutch in the late 18th century.

Javanese can be regarded as one of the classical languages of the world, with a vast literature spanning more than 12 centuries. Scholars divide the development of Javanese language in four different stages:

  • Old Javanese, from the 9th century
  • Middle Javanese, from the 13th century
  • New Javanese, from the 16th century
  • Modern Javanese, from 20th century (this classification is not used universally)

Javanese is written with the Javanese script, (a descendant of the Brahmi script of India), Arabo-Javanese script, Arabic script (modified for Javanese) and Latin script.

Although not currently an official language anywhere, Javanese is by far the Austronesian language with the largest number of native speakers. It is spoken or understood by approximately 80 million people. At least 45% of the total population of Indonesia are of Javanese descent or live in an area where Javanese is the dominant language. Four out of five Indonesian presidents since 1945 are of Javanese descent. It is therefore not surprising that Javanese has a deep impact on the development of Bahasa Indonesia (or Indonesian), the national language of Indonesia, which is a modern dialect of Malay.

There are three main dialects of Modern Javanese: Central Javanese, Eastern Javanese and Western Javanese. There is a dialect continuum from Banten in the extreme west of Java to Banyuwangi, in the foremost eastern corner of the island. All Javanese dialects are more or less mutually intelligible.


The phonemes of Modern Standard Javanese.

Front Central Back

The pronunciation of the vowels is rather complicated. The main characteristic of the standard dialect of Surakarta is that in open-word final syllables and penultimate syllables is pronounced as (as in English hot or in French os). <p> Consonants:

Labial Dental Alveolar Retroflex Palatal Velar Glottal
Stop p b t d k g ʔ
Fricative     s ()     h
Semi-vowels w l r   j    
Nasal m n ()  


Note: The phonemes between parentheses are allophones.

A Javanese syllable can be of the following type: nCsvVC. n= nasal, C=consonant, sv= semivowel (/y/, /r/, /l/ and /w/) and V=vowel. In Modern Javanese, however, a bi-syllabic root is of the following type: nCsvVnCsvVC. As in other Austronesian languages, native Javanese roots consist of two syllables; words consisting of more than three syllables are broken up into groups of bi-syllabic words for pronunciation.

Javanese, together with Madurese, are the only Austronesian languages to possess retroflex phonemes. (Madurese even possesses aspirated phonemes including at least one aspirated retroflex phoneme.) Some scholars assume this might be an influence of the Sanskrit, but others believe this could be an independent development within the Austronesian super family. It is interesting to note that a sibilant before a retroflex stop in Sanskrit loanwords is pronounced as a retroflex sibilant whereas in modern Indian languages it is pronounced as a palatal sibilant. Though Achinese and Balinese also possess a retroflex voiceless stop, this is merely an allophone of .


Javanese, like other Austronesian languages, is an agglutinative language, where base words are modified through extensive use of affixes.


Modern Javanese usually employs SVO word order. However, Old Javanese particularly had VSO or sometimes VOS word orders. Even in Modern Javanese archaic sentences using VSO structure can still be made.


  • Modern Javanese: "Dheweke (S) těka (V) neng (pp.) kĕdhaton (O)".
  • Old Javanese: "Těka (V) ta (part.) sira (S) ri (pp.) ng (def. art.) kadhatwan (O)".

Both sentences mean: "He (S) comes (V) in (pp.) the (def. art.) palace (O)". In the Old Javanese sentence, the verb is placed at the beginning and is separated by the particle ta from the rest of the sentence. In Modern Javanese the definite article is lost in prepositions (it is expressed in another way).

Verbs are not inflected for person or number. Tense is not indicated either, but is expressed by auxiliary words such as "yesterday", "already", etc. There is also a complex system of verb affixes to express the different status of the subject and object.

However, in general the structure of Javanese sentences both Old and Modern can be described using the so-called topic-comment model without having to refer to classical grammatical or syntactical categories such as the aforementioned subject, object, predicates, etc. The topic is the head of the sentence; the comment is the modifier. So our Javanese above-mentioned sentence could then be described as follows: Dheweke = topic; tĕka = comment; neng kĕdhaton = setting.


Javanese has a rich vocabulary, with many borrowed foreign words as well as the native Austronesian base. Sanskrit has had a deep and lasting impact on the vocabulary of the Javanese language. The "Old Javanese – English Dictionary", written by professor P.J. Zoetmulder in 1982, contains approximately 25.500 entries, no less than 12.500 of which are borrowings from Sanskrit. Clearly this large number is not a gauge of usage, but it is an indication that the Ancient Javanese knew and employed these Sanskrit words in their literary works. In any given Old Javanese literary work, approximately 25% of the vocabulary is derived from Sanskrit.

Many Sanskrit words are still in current usage. Modern Javanese speakers refer to much of the Old Javanese and Sanskrit words as kawi words, which can be roughly translated as "literary". There is significant word borrowing from Arabic, Dutch and Malay as well, but none as extensively as from Sanskrit.

There are far fewer Arabic loanwords in Javanese than in Malay. These Arabic loanwords are usually concerned with Islamic religion, but some words have entered the basic vocabulary such as pikir ("to think" from the Arabic fikr), badan ("body"), mripat ("eye" thought to be derived from the Arabic ma'rifah, meaning "knowledge" or "vision"). However, these Arabic words typically have native Austronesian and/or Sanskrit equivalents. In this case, pikir = galih, idhĕp (Austronesian), manah, cipta, or cita (Sanskrit), badan = awak (Austronesian), slira, sarira, or angga (Sanskrit), and mripat = mata (Austronesian), soca, or netra (Sanskrit).

Dutch loanwords usually have the same form and meaning as in Indonesian but there are few exceptions. Consider this table:
Javanese Indonesian Dutch English
pit sepeda fiets bicycle
pit montor sepeda motor motorfiets motor bicycle
sepur kereta api spoor, i.e. (rail)track train

The latter is interesting, as the word sepur also exists in Indonesian. Its meaning has preserved the Dutch meaning more faithfully, meaning "railway tracks".

Malay was the lingua franca of the Indonesian archipelago before the proclamation of Indonesia in 1945 and is currently the official national language of Indonesia. As such, there has been an influx of Malay and Indonesian vocabulary into Javanese recently. Many of these words are concerned with the bureaucracy or politics.


Javanese speech varies depending on social context, yielding three distinct styles, or registers. Each style employs its own vocabulary, grammatical rules and even prosody. This is not unique to Javanese; neighbouring Austronesian languages as well as East Asian languages such as Korean, Japanese and Thai share similar constructions.

In Javanese these styles are called:

  1. Ngoko is informal speech, used between friends and close relatives. It is also used by persons of higher status to persons of lower status, such as elders to younger people or bosses to subordinates.
  2. Madya is the intermediary form between ngoko and krama. An example of the context where one would use madya is an interaction between strangers on the street, where one wants to be neither too formal nor too informal.
  3. Krama is the polite and formal style. It is used between persons of the same status who do not wish to be informal. It is also the official style for public speeches, announcements, etc.

In addition, there are also "meta-style" words — the honorifics and humilifics. When one talks about oneself, one has to be humble. But when one speaks of someone else with a higher status or to whom one wants to be respectful, honorific terms are used. Status is defined by age, social position and other factors. The humilific words are called krama andhap words while the honorific words are called krama inggil words. For example, children often use the ngoko style when talking to the parents, but they must use both krama inggil and krama andhap.

Below some examples are provided to explain these different styles.

  • Ngoko: Aku arěp mangan (I want to eat)
  • Madya: Kula ajěng nědha.
  • Krama:
    • (Neutral) Kula badhe nědha.
    • (Humble) Dalěm badhe nědha.
  • Mixed:
    • (Honorific - Addressed to someone with a high(er) status.) Bapak kěrsa dhahar? (Do you want to eat? Literally meaning: Does father want to eat?)
    • (reply towards persons with lower status) Iya, aku kěrsa dhahar. (Yes, I want to eat).
    • (reply towards persons with lower status, but without having the need to express one's superiority) Iya, aku arěp mangan.
    • (reply towards persons with the same status) Inggih, kula badhe nědha.

The use of these different styles is complicated and requires thorough knowledge of the Javanese culture. This is one element that makes it difficult for foreigners to learn Javanese. On the other hand, these different styles of speech are actually not mastered by the majority of Javanese. Most people only master the first style and a rudimentary form of the second style. Persons who have correct mastery of the different styles are held in high esteem.


There are three main groups of Javanese dialects based on the subregion where the speakers live. They are: Western Javanese, Central Javanese and Eastern Javanese. The differences between these dialectical groups are primarily pronunciation and, to a lesser extent, vocabulary. All Javanese dialects are more or less mutually intelligible.

The dialects

The Central Javanese variant, based on the speech of Surakarta (and also to a degree of Yogyakarta), is considered as the most "refined" Javanese dialect. Accordingly standard Javanese is based on this dialect. These two cities are the seats of the four Javanese principalities, heirs to the dynasty of Mataram II, which once reigned over almost the whole of Java and beyond. Speakers spread fom north to south of the Central Java province and utilize many dialects, such as Muria and Semarangan, as well as Surakarta and Yogyakarta.

Western Javanese, spoken in the western part of the Central Java province and throughout the West Java province (particularly in the north coast region), contains dialects distinct for their Sundanese influences and which still maintain many archaic words. The dialects include North Banten, Banyumasan, Tegal, Jawa Serang, North coast, Indramayu (or Dermayon) and Cirebonan (or Basa Cerbon).

Eastern Javanese speakers range from the eastern banks of Kali Brantas in Kertosono to Banyuwangi, comprising the majority of the East Java province, excluding Madura island. However, the dialect has been influenced by Madurese, and is always referred to as Surabayan speech. Since 2003, an East Java local television station (JTV) has broadcast some of its programmes in East Javanese dialect. Three such programmes are Pojok kampung (News), Kuis RT/RW and Pojok Perkoro (a criminal programme).

The most aberrant dialect is spoken in Balambangan (or Banyuwangi) in the eastern-most part of Java. It is generally known as Basa Osing. Osing is the word for negation and is a cognate of the Balinese tusing, Balinese being the neighbouring language directly to the east. In the past this area of Java was in possession of Balinese kings and warlords.


Most Javanese people, except those who live in West Java, accept the pronunciation of the phoneme "a" as (). Therefore, there is a different pronunciation of many words; for example apa (Eng.=what) is pronounced (apa?) in Western Javanese and (:P:) in Central and Eastern Javanese.

When there is a condition of phoneme stem VCV (Vowel-Consonant-Vowel) with the same vowels, Central Javanese speakers drop the second vowel into another sound, with the following formula: (i) becomes (e) and (u) becomes (o), the Easterns drop both of the vowels, whereas Western Javanese maintains the sounds (i) and (u). So the word cilik (Eng.= small), is pronounced (čile?) in Central, (če:le?) in Eastern, and (čilik) in Western Javanese; the word tutup is pronounced (tutop) in Central, (to:top) in Eastern, and (tutup) in Western Javanese.


The vocabulary of Javanese language is enriched by dialectal words. For example, to get the meaning of "you", Western Javanese speakers say rika (rika?), Eastern Javanese use kon (kn), and Central Javanese speakers say kowe (kowe). Another example is the expression of "how": the Tegal dialect of Western Javanese uses kepriben (kěpribn), the Banyumasan dialect of Western Javanese employs kepriwe (kěpriwe) or kepriwen (kěpriwen), Eastern Javanese speakers say yok apa (y?p) - originally means "like what" (Javanese: kaya apa), and Central Javanese speakers say piye (piye).

Brief history of the Javanese language

Old Javanese

While evidence of writing in Java dates to the Sanskrit "Tarumanegara inscription" of 450, the oldest example written entirely in Javanese, called the "Sukabumi inscription", is dated March 25, 804. This inscription, located in the district of Pare in the Kediri regency of East Java, is actually a copy of the original, dated some 120 years earlier; only this copy has been preserved. Its contents concern the construction of a dam for an irrigation canal near the river Śrī Harijing (nowadays Srinjing). This inscription is the last of its kind to be written using Pallava script; all consequent examples are written using Javanese script.

The 8th and 9th centuries are marked with the emergence of the Javanese literary tradition with Sang Hyang Kamahayanikan, a Buddhist treatise and the Kakawin Ramayana, a Javanese rendering in Indian metres of the Vishnuistic Sanskrit epic, Rāmyaṇa.

Although Javanese as a written language appeared considerably later than Malay (extant in the 7th century), the Javanese literary tradition is continuous from its inception to present day. The oldest works, such as the above mentioned Rāmyaņa, and a Javanese rendering of the Indian Mahabharata epic are studied assiduously today.

The expansion of the Javanese culture, including Javanese script and language, began in 1293 with the eastward push of the Hindu-Buddhist East-Javanese Empire Majapahit, toward Madura and Bali. The Javanese campaign in Bali in 1363 has had a deep and lasting impact. With the introduction of the Javanese administration, Javanese replaced Balinese as the language of administration and literature. Though the Balinese people preserved much of the older literature of Java and even created their own in Javanese idioms, Balinese ceased to be written until the 19th century.

See also: Kawi language

Middle Javanese

The Majapahit Empire also saw the rise of a new language, Middle Javanese, which is an intermediate form between Old Javanese and New Javanese. In fact, Middle Javanese is so similar to New Javanese that works written in Middle Javanese should be easily comprehended by Modern Javanese speakers who are well acquainted with literary Javanese.

The Majapahit Empire fell due to internal disturbances and attacks by Islamic forces of the Demak kingdom on the north coast of Java. There is a Javanese chronogram concerning the fall which reads, "sirna ilang krĕtaning bumi" ("vanished and gone was the prosperity of the world"), indicating the date AD 1478. Thus there is a popular belief that Majapahit collapsed in 1478, though it may have lasted into the 1500s. This was the last Hindu Javanese empire.

New Javanese

In the 16th century a new era in Javanese history began with the rise of the Islamic Central Javanese empire Mataram II, originally a vassal state of Majapahit. Ironically, the Mataram Empire rose as an Islamic kingdom which sought revenge for the demise of the Hindu Majapahit Empire by first crushing Demak, the first Javanese Islamic kingdom.

Javanese culture spread westward as Mataram conquered many previously Sundanese areas in western parts of Java; and Javanese became the dominant language in more than a third of this area. As in Bali, the Sundanese language ceased to be written until the 19th century. In the meantime it was heavily influenced by Javanese, and some 40% of Sundanese vocabulary is believed to have been derived from Javanese.

Though Islamic in name, the Mataram II empire preserved many elements of the older culture, incorporating them into the new religion. This is the reason why Javanese script is still in use as opposed to the writing of Old-Malay for example. After the Malays were converted, they dropped their form of indigenous writing and changed to a form of the "script of the Divine", the Arabic script.

In addition to the rise of Islam, the 16th century saw the emergence of the New Javanese language. The first Islamic documents in Javanese were already written in New Javanese, although still in antiquated idioms and with numerous Arabic loanwords. This is to be expected as these early New Javanese documents are Islamic treatises.

Later, intensive contacts with the Dutch and with other Indonesians gave rise to a simplified form of Javanese and influx of foreign loanwords.

Modern Javanese

Some scholars dub the spoken form of Javanese in the 20th century Modern Javanese, although it is essentially still the same language as New Javanese.

Demographic distribution of Javanese speakers

Javanese is spoken throughout Indonesia, neighbouring Southeast Asian countries, the Netherlands, Suriname, New Caledonia and other countries. However, the greatest concentration of the speakers is found in the six provinces of Java itself, and in the neighbouring Sumatran province of Lampung. Below a table with an estimated number of native speakers is provided.

Province Total Population Number of Javanese Speakers % of TP
Banten 9.000.000 > 500.000 >5%
Jakarta 10.000.000 unknown n.a.
West Java 30.000.000 5.700.000 15%
Central Java 34.000.000 32.980.000 97%
Yogyakarta 3.500.000 2.800.000 80%
East Java 38.000.000 30.400.000 78%
Lampung 7.000.000 5.600.000 80%
Suriname 500.000 75.000 15%
Total 139.500.000 78.055.000 a

Table data from various sources.

In Banten, the descendants of the Central Javanese conquerors who founded the Islamic Sultanate there in the 16th century still speak an archaic form of Javanese. The rest of the population mainly speak Sundanese and Indonesian as this province borders directly on Jakarta. Many commuters live in the Jakartan suburbs in Banten, comprising 33% of the total population there. The number of the descendants of the Central Javanese conquerors with their distinct dialect is at least 500.000.

It is estimated that at least 33% of the population of Jakarta is of Javanese descent and as such speak Javanese or have knowledge of it. In Jakarta, all regional languages of Indonesia are spoken and also various foreign languages such as English, Dutch, and various Indian and Chinese languages.

In the province of West Java, many people speak Javanese, especially those living in the areas bordering Central Java, the cultural homeland of the Javanese.

Yogyakarta, which also lies in Central Java, is a special district based on the former sultanate of Yogyakarta; the area is given special privileges and has the status of a province. The many universities and schools in this area attract people from throughout Indonesia and the world, and thus the number of the speakers of Javanese is somewhat lower than would be expected given its location.

The province of East Java is also home of the Madurese people who number almost a quarter of the population (mostly on the island of Madura), but many Madurese actually have some knowledge of colloquial Javanese. Since the 19th century, Madurese was also written with the Javanese script. Unfortunately, the aspirated phonemes of Madurese are not reproduced in writing. The 19th century scribes apparently 'forgot' or were ignorant of the fact that the Javanese script does possess these characters.

In Lampung the original inhabitants, the Lampungese, only make up some 10% of population. The rest are the so-called transmigrants, most of whom are Javanese who settled there since the 19th century.

In the former Dutch colony of Suriname (formerly called Dutch Guiana), approximately 15% of the population of some 500.000, is of Javanese descent, thus accounting for 75.000 speakers of Javanese.

Although Javanese is not an official language, it has a recognised status as a regional language in three Indonesian provinces where the biggest concentration of the Javanese people are found, i.e. Central Java, Yogyakarta and East Java. Javanese is taught at schools and is also used in mass media, both electronically and printed. There is, however, no longer a daily newspaper in Javanese.

Languages Spoken in Java
Languages Spoken in Java

See also

External links


es:Idioma javans id:Bahasa Jawa jv:Basa Jawa ms:Bahasa Jawa nl:Javaans ja:ジャワ語 pl:Język jawajski sv:Javanesiska



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