How the Dutch Language Influenced Bali

Lisa’s vivid Writing
Apr 8 · 9 min read
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1947, two years after Indonesia declared its independence. A Dutch soldier hands out clothes to the inhabitants of an Indonesian island because of a textile shortage.

This year is a historic one when it comes to the Netherlands facing its aggressive history with Indonesia.

King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands formally apologized for his country’s colonial rule of Indonesia during his first state visit to the country in the seven years he’s been on the Dutch throne.

So why is that so special?

Because until 2013, The Netherlands never apologized for its 350 years of colonial rule. And that year, it was the then Dutch Ambassador to Indonesia Tjeerd de Zwaan who did, not the king.

It’s very telling that the apology only came after the Dutch government was taken to court by widows of resistance members who were murdered by the Dutch military. Talking about a little too late.

King Willem-Alexander also formally recognized Indonesia’s independence date 1945, which no Dutch royal had done before.

In whatever way today’s Suku Bali (= ‘Balinese people’) may remember their colonial time, it’s a fact that the Dutch language had some influence over their culture and the language they speak.

This post will dig into some Dutch words and expressions that have left their mark on Bali. And you can use the Indonesian translations next time you’re visiting the island!

A Short History of the Dutch in Bali

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Although Indonesia escaped Dutch rule in 1945, western tourists are still very much drawn to Bali. Photo by Artyom PJ (Unsplash)

In case you were wondering how long western tourists have been taking over Bali, that would be about 400 years.

Dutch merchants of the Dutch East India Company arrived in Indonesia in the 17th century and turned a lot of the country’s 17.500 islands into crop, spice and rubber suppliers for Europe.

A faraway country like the Netherlands taking control of Indonesia was possible because back then, it wasn’t a country. The archipelago was made up of many different kingdoms whose people often spoke different local languages. Even small islands, like Bali, had multiple raja (= ‘local kings’).

The Dutch East India Company made economic treaties with many of those kingdoms, and they were mostly in Dutch favor. The so-called Bali-bundel (from the Dutch word for ‘bundle’) had left the raja feeling “Hustled, threatened, tricked, cajoled, deceived, and betrayed in making commitments which they never intended.” That’s according to the book A Brief History of Bali (Piracy, Slavery, Opium and Guns : The Story of a Pacific Paradise).

Suddenly, the kingdoms were the property of the Dutch East India Company. Indonesian farmers were forced to work for the Dutch and had fixed working hours.

In 1800, after the Dutch East India Company was declared bankrupt, the archipelago came under the rule of the Dutch government and was named the Dutch East Indies.

Although shortly afterward, from 1806 to 1811, the country was in the hands of France. Because of the Napoleonic Wars, France had gained control over the Netherlands and its colonies. The United Kingdom conquered the Dutch East Indies and eventually returned the archipelago to the Netherlands in 1816 after a treaty.

Indonesia had had three European colonizers in just ten years.

The Dutch East Indies finally knew how to escape Dutch colonial rule in 1945, although the Netherlands refused to acknowledge the country’s independence. Only four years later, after unsuccessfully trying to maintain control of their former colony, the Netherlands recognized Indonesia as an independent nation. Bahasa Indonesia (= ‘Indonesian’) was declared the official language.

Although Indonesian is considered a young language, it was based on a 16th-century trade language, Malay, which is why it’s so similar to modern-day Bahasa Malaysia (= ‘Malaysian’). According to the book Indonesian Slang: Colloquial Indonesian at Work, the language also “Contains words from Sanskrit, Arabic, Chinese, Dutch, Portuguese and English, a legacy of the merchants, warriors, laborers and holy men who traveled to the archipelago over the centuries.”

Politics: Brifing and Haatzaai Artikelen

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Despite his political aversion to the west, Indonesia’s first president Sukarno used Dutch, French, and English terms in his brifing.

In 2007, for example, the Indonesian Constitutional Court revoked Haatzaai Artikelen (= ‘hate sowing articles’, a literal loanword from Dutch). They were laws that the country inherited from the Dutch after its independence.

The laws were flexible, like rubber, and allowed the prosecution of anyone who spread bad information about the government. Therefore, a mocking name was pasal karet (= ‘rubber articles’, pasal meaning ‘article’ and karet meaning ‘rubber’).

Even in speeches after Indonesia’s independence, the use of Dutch words would be common, despite a political aversion to the West. Sukarno (seen in this picture), Indonesia’s first president until 1967, often gave brifing (= ‘briefings’), full of Dutch, French, and English terms.

Food: Rijsttafel and Air Belanda

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A typical Dutch-Indonesian rijsttafel consisted of rice and dozens of side dishes. Photo by Louis Hansel (Unsplash)

During the Dutch colony days, plantation owners ate a lavish meal that combined many Indonesian dishes, called rijsttafel (= ‘rice table’ in Dutch). According to Indonesian Slang: Colloquial Indonesian at Work, “It consisted of rice and dozens of side dishes: curried meats, fish, vegetables, fruits, relishes, pickles, sauces, condiments, nuts, and eggs. The goal was to blend and balance salty, spicy, sweet, and sour tastes.”

Although the idea of rijsttafel faded away when the Dutch occupation ended, some Balinese hotels and restaurants still serve it to nostalgic tourists for a hefty price. A well-known place to eat the traditional meal is Bumbu Bali 2. The restaurant offers a Balinese cooking class as well.

A Dutch cooking term that’s still used in Balinese cuisine is bistik, which comes from the Dutch ‘biefstuk’ (= ‘beefsteak’). Bistik refers to any meat fillet cooked in a Western style, so don’t be surprised if your beefsteak in a Balinese restaurant is not what you expected it to be.

Accompanying that bistik (whatever it is you unknowingly ordered), might be a bir (= ‘beer’), which was introduced by the Dutch as well.

Bali’s most popular beer is Bintang (= ‘star’). The producer is Heineken Asia Pacific, and the beer tastes like Heineken. Both of them have the red star in their logo.

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‘The most famous star’. Ad from imgur.com

Bintang jang paling termasyhur (termashoer in the old Indonesian spelling, which will be explained later), as it’s written in this old ad, means ‘the most famous star’.

And for Indonesians or Dutch who preferred something fresh, soft drinks were introduced, which for a while were known as air belanda (= ‘Dutch water’, air confusingly enough meaning ‘water’).

The Dubble Meaning of Coklat

Because if Indonesians only started using coklat for the color brown after they founded their official language, then what did they use to describe the color before? In Malaysian, the word used for brown is the same!

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Sapodilla fruit is used to describe the color brown. Photo by Sugeesh at Malayalam Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Sawo matang, meaning ‘ripe sawo’, or sapodilla fruit, is also used to describe the color. But again, this doesn’t seem to be a proper name.

An explanation for the lack of another word meaning ‘brown’ in Indonesian, is that the archipelago is home to around 1.300 ethnic groups, who speak over 300 native tongues. It’s highly likely that each of those older, local languages have their own words for the color.

The way people describe color also depends on their culture. Gula merah (= ‘red sugar’, merah meaning ‘red’), for example, would become ‘brown sugar’ in the English language.

Spelling: Depending on When You Were Born

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Lampoe instead of the modern lampu. Ad from imgur.com

That’s because the country has had three different spelling systems. Before 1896, Indonesians used the Arabic script because of the primary influence of Islamic culture. After that, the Dutch codified Malay, which was used in trade, to the Roman alphabet.

The new spelling was written according to Dutch spelling standards.

A silent ‘d’ was typical for the spelling system, as in, for example, ‘Djakarta’. Another trait was the use of ‘oe’ instead of the modern ‘u’. This old ad uses the old Indonesian form lampoe, instead of lampu (= ‘lamp’).

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Crispy peanuts of the highest quality! Ad from imgur.com

Another common spelling aspect the Dutch installed was the use of ‘tj’ instead of ‘c’. So instead of kacang (= ‘peanuts’), this ad mentions katjang. Also, notice how the Dutch loanword kwaliteit (= ‘quality’) is used. Garing means ‘crispy’: crispy peanuts.

In 1947, The Indonesian and Malaysian governments worked together to create a new spelling system: EYD (Ejaan yang disempurnakan = ‘perfected spelling’). It was supposed to be more practical and consistent. Although it’s still in use today, the system has had revisions over the years.

The new system had significant effects, even on the spelling of proper names. You can tell when people were born by how they write their names. Presidents Sukarno and Suharto, who wrote their names with ‘oe’ instead of ‘u’, were born before 1947, and Indonesia’s sixth president, Yudhoyono, was born in 1949.

Daily Life: If You’re White, You’re Dutch

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Belanda was used for all white foreigners, no matter where they came from. Photo by Artem Beliaikin (Unsplash)

An old Balinese term for Caucasian is belanda (= ‘Dutch’) or londo (= ‘Dutch’ in Javanese, the traditional language of the island of Java). It was used for all white foreigners, no matter where they came from.

Today, a common way Balinese may refer to Caucasians is by calling them bule. Many Balinese don’t mean the term to be offensive.

Where bule comes from is unclear. Some Indonesians will tell you it’s a shortening of the word bulai (= ‘white’). Others claim it’s a shortening of the French word ‘boulevard’, because white people, most often the Dutch, lived on big lanes during the colonization of Indonesia.

Whatever the history of the word is, these are some other words the Dutch bule introduced to the Indonesian language.

  • Sekolah, coming from ‘school’, written the same way as the English word. Bali’s most prestigious school is the Green School, and it’s worth checking out because of its bamboo architecture and its ecological initiatives.
  • Kantor polisi, coming from ‘politiekantoor’, meaning a ‘police office’.
  • Rokok, coming from ‘roken’, meaning ‘to smoke’.
  • Tante (= ‘aunt’ in Dutch), referring to the female manager of a brothel.
  • Bangku, coming from ‘bank’, the financial institution, and written the same way as the English translation.
  • Handuk, coming from ‘handdoek’, meaning ‘towel’.

But the cultural aspect the Dutch introduced that was probably most significant to Balinese society, was samenleven (= ‘living together’ in Dutch). Balinese traditionally live with their families in compounds, smaller communities in villages. (If you’d like to know what a compound looks like, check out this post.)

According to Indonesian Slang: Colloquial Indonesian at Work, “Westerners, viewed as sexually uninhibited, exported the custom of samenleven to Indonesia.” Since the eighties, more Indonesian university students lived with their partner without getting married. The book says, “Financial independence and the loosening of family ties made it easier for unmarried couples to live together, though many keep it a secret from their relatives.”

Dutch Influence in Bali: From Pasal to Bir

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Politics, food, spelling, and daily life use Dutch loanwords to describe anything from laws to beer. Photo by Joyce Romero (Unsplash)

Despite historical Balinese aversion towards the former Dutch colonizers, the language still seems to be present in today’s Indonesian. Politics, food, spelling, and daily life use Dutch loanwords to describe anything from laws to beer.

Have you ever heard Balinese use any Dutch words? Let me know which ones and I might add your contribution to one of my next posts!

If you’re interested in an in-depth history of Bali and its time under Dutch rule, I highly recommend this book: A Brief History of Bali (Piracy, Slavery, Opium and Guns : The Story of a Pacific Paradise).

If you’d like to know more about Bali or learn some Indonesian words that aren’t derived from Dutch, check out these posts!

Sources

Hanna, F. W., A Brief History Of Bali: Piracy, Slavery, Opium and Guns: The Story of an Island Paradise. Clarendon: Tuttle Publishing, 2016.

Torchia C. and Djuhari L., Indonesian Slang: Colloquial Indonesian at Work. Tokyo: Tuttle Publishing, 2011.

Bali in a few words.

What the Indonesian language can tell you about Bali

Lisa’s vivid Writing

Written by

Freelance blogger and content creator for hire. Specialized in travel and nature. Passionate about Renaissance art and eighties hits.

Bali in a few words.

Next time you’re in Bali, be prepared. Let the posts in this guide help you understand the island and its culture. Pick up some Indonesian and distinguish yourself from millions of other tourists by knowing more than what a nasi goreng is.

Lisa’s vivid Writing

Written by

Freelance blogger and content creator for hire. Specialized in travel and nature. Passionate about Renaissance art and eighties hits.

Bali in a few words.

Next time you’re in Bali, be prepared. Let the posts in this guide help you understand the island and its culture. Pick up some Indonesian and distinguish yourself from millions of other tourists by knowing more than what a nasi goreng is.

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