About a month ago, I conducted interviews on people’s use of Javanese in Paciran, just to get people talking. Some I did with the help of a research assistant, and some I did by myself! I was pretty proud of that, to be able to explain myself enough to be well-understood, and to be able to improvise on the spot, depending on their answer. There are definitely times when I was just like “he eh, he eh….yes, yes” (here, no means yes), encouraging people to keep talking when I had no idea what they were saying. That was especially with this one guy who had 3 teeth left……yeeeeeeeessss, yes, he eh, he eh.
So a well-known and prominent feature of Javanese is that this language has many different speech levels, which are used according to who you are speaking to. There is the low, informal level “ngoko” used when speaking to friends; there is the mid-level “madya” used when speaking maybe in business situations, although this level is not used that much; and there is the high level “kromo”, used when speaking to someone of a higher rank than you (e.g. student to teacher), or when speaking to someone older than you. It’s like the French “tu” vs. “vous”, except on a way more giant scale – each speech level is in fact an entirely different vocabulary set, so it’s pretty much like you are speaking a different language (same syntax at least, but totally different vocab). For example, if I say, “I already ate” to my friend, I can say “aku wes mangan, mbak” but to an older woman, I would say “kulo sampun dahar, bu”. Totally different, ya! Then, on top of these 3 levels, there is a set of vocabulary called “kromo inggil” that you can use in each of the 3 speech levels to ‘dress up’ the speech level and make it a bit more formal. It’s quite complicated.
My research is only on the ngoko level, the lowest speech level, and it’s also the level that I’m most comfortable in. It’s okay in Paciran, since it’s far away from the Javanese royal courts where the speech levels are much more pronounced and used daily. But still, it’s important for me to use words like “nggeh” for “yes” instead of “iyo” to older people just to show respect and to honour them. This speech level system is in a way very much part of the culture, showing how much the elderly, the educated, and the royal family is honoured apart from the ‘regular folk’.
So during the interviews, I was interested in getting people to talk about their perception of how they used their own language here in Paciran. One of the questions that I asked was “In your opinion, what is the percentage of people in Paciran that can speak kromo?” The answers ranged from most people in Paciran can speak kromo, only old people can speak kromo, 50% of people can speak kromo, to very few people can speak kromo. It was really surprising and revealing that people don’t really know whether people can speak kromo or not in Paciran. It might have had to do with who they are and who they are interacting with – e.g. the younger people interviewed said that only old people can speak kromo, while older people who are fluent in kromo, who then also interact with others that can speak kromo said that most people in Paciran CAN speak kromo. But maybe it has to do with the knowledge of numbers too – most people have no idea what the population is of their own village, or of their own country, for that matter. Do you know the population of Canada?