Professor studies Baduy language in Indonesia

Bill Davies is a professor of linguistics at the University of Iowa. Through the support of a Fulbright Senior research scholarship, he led a team researching the language of the Baduy – a group living in Western Java, an Indonesian Island. Read on for a personal account of his experiences.

By Bill Davies

When you visit Indonesia, if you spend any time in Jakarta, one of the first words you’re apt to hear is macet. It means ‘stuck’. It refers to the traffic. And it’s true.

But Indonesia is a large country, consisting of between 13,000 and 17,000 islands with some 300+ ethnic groups speaking over 700 languages—a wealth of diversity in the fourth most populous country in the world.

I was fortunate to be able to spend January-June 2014 in Indonesia as a Fulbright Senior Scholar research fellow, and although I got caught in plenty of traffic, a lot of my experience was anything but macet.


The Baduy homeland.

The main purpose of my being there was to lead a team researching the language of the Baduy – a group living in the mountains in western Java, the principal island of Indonesia. The Baduy, who also refer to themselves as the Kanekes, are a small group of Sundanese (the second largest ethnic group in Indonesia) that went into seclusion in the 16th century, rejecting foreign influence in order to preserve its view of traditional Sundanese society and values.

The Baduy attempt to maintain life in the manner in which they believe their ancestors intended, both in their belief system and the protection of the natural environment.

There are two groups of Baduy: the Baduy Dalam, or ‘Inner Baduy’ (numbering 400-500), and the Baduy Luar, or ‘Outer Baduy’ (roughly 7,000-8,000).


Walking with some of the research team and a Baduy Luar friend in Ciboleger.

The Baduy Dalam adhere strictly to the traditional way of life and live in three villages, adults dressing in white (signifying purity) and eschewing all modern conveniences (including shoes).

The Baduy Luar inhabit some 40 villages intended to serve as a buffer between the Baduy Dalam and the outside world. They are identifiable by their dark clothing and blue batik. The research team consisted of faculty from Universitas Pendidikan Indonesia in Bandung. Together we collected folk tales, other narratives, and language data of the Baduy to create a digital archive of linguistic and cultural material.

Ciboleger, the Baduy Luar town we went to, can be reached by car. However, most people in the area live in homes in the dense forest, accessible only by trail (which made for some pretty exciting motorcycle rides).

Because outsiders are forbidden at the times of important ceremonies, we were unable to enter the Baduy Dalam lands. But several men and boys trekked from the inner territory to visit with us and share their language and culture. Two of the cultural highlights were the presentation of traditional angklung music played on 200 year-old instruments and the performance of a pantun, a ritualistic poem-song recited by a lone player, who in our case performed non-stop for at least two hours.

Recent economic developed have resulted in the Baduy having increased contact with the outside world, largely in the form of tourism. Additionally, the resource-rich Baduy territory has attracted the attention of business interests, posing an imminent threat to the Baduy and their way of life. This lends urgency to this ongoing project. The Baduy themselves are very concerned, as is evident in one of the videos we collected, Dongéng Kahawatiran Alam, one man’s description of his concern for nature.

Much of the team’s work was done away from the field at my host university’s campus. Like other visitors to Indonesia, I was warmly welcomed by the administration and faculty of UPI and people in Bandung, a city with a population of about 2.5 million people.


With the "welcoming committee" at Jambi University on Sumatra.

In addition to working with the team, I had the opportunity to work with students there, something I hadn’t had the chance to do in previous research trips to the country. I met bright, inquisitive, enthusiastic students—and I sometimes engaged in a little recruiting for Iowa. My recruiting efforts continued when I gave lectures on various linguistics topics at other universities on Java as well as the islands of Bali and Sumatra, again greeted warmly by the people, and usually with an oversized welcome sign.

As in any developing country, Indonesia has its share of challenges, but the nation is so much more than the natural disasters and political conflicts that make up most of the few news reports we receive in the U.S. It is a key ally in the President’s “pivot toward Asia”.

Of course, most Indonesians are quite enthusiastic about him, given his ties to the country; cab drivers, street vendors, and others I met smile broadly and say “Obama” when they find out I’m American. And it was fascinating to witness the presidential political campaign while I was there, watching as voters elected a new leader, Joko Widodo (popularly known as Jokowi), who made a meteoric rise in politics and evokes many parallels to Obama.

So, I hope to be able to witness the developments as they unfold when I return to Indonesia to continue my work on Madurese (which I have studied for many years), the language of the Baduy, and other linguistic projects. After all, I’ve only been to seven islands in Indonesia. There are many thousands left to explore.

View a digital documentation of the Baduy language here

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