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Abigail C. Cohn: Unveiling the Sundanese language to the world

  • Setiono Sugiharto


Fri, January 4 2013 | 01:44 pm
Abigail C. Cohn: (JP/Setiono Sugiharto)(JP/Setiono Sugiharto)

Abigail C. Cohn: (JP/Setiono Sugiharto)Many people, be they are native Sundanese or foreign nationals, have introduced the Sundanese culture, the major culture of West Java, to the world through such means as musical instruments and historical artifacts.

 One of these cultural ambassadors is Abigail C. Cohn who unveils the richness of Sundanese linguistic heritage by researching, rigorously describing and documenting the sound systems and patterns of Sundanese — the third most widely spoken regional language in Indonesia.

For Cohn, the quality of the sound systems of the Sundanese language — spoken by an estimated 27 million speakers in West Java — is quite unusual, because many of the words in the language are pronounced with nasalization, or speech sounds that are produced mainly through the nose rather than mouth.

“The uniqueness of sound patterns in Sundanese can certainly inform the field of linguistics in general and phonological theory in particular”, she says.

As a phonologist, Cohn attempts to integrate theoretical phonology as an abstract representation of sound patterns and experimental phonetics as the real manifestation of these patterns.

She adds that apart from the unusual properties of the Sundanese sound system, the language is a high prestige language and exhibits considerable dialectal variation.

Cohn’s research findings on the Sundanese language and other vernacular languages in Indonesia such as Madurese and Acehnese have substantially enriched literatures on the world’s minority languages.

Most of her work on Indonesia’s vernaculars have been published in highly prestigious journals in the world such as Linguistic Inquiry, Phonology and Natural Language and Linguistic Theory. Most recently, she coedited the Oxford Handbook of Laboratory Phonology.

Cohn paid a visit to Indonesia for the first time in 1985 when she participated in the Advanced Indonesian Abroad Program (COTI) at Malang State University — formerly known as the Malang Teacher Training Institute.

Prior to studying in Malang, East Java, she participated in an intensive study of Indonesian at the South Asian Studies Summer Institute and the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor in 1984. She has done linguistic work on Indonesian and Indonesian languages since that time.

Now a professor of linguistic and Southeast Asian studies at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, Cohn is on a sabbatical leave, and using the time to conduct a study on language change and shifts under the auspices of the US Fulbright Senior Scholar Research Grant. To participate in this project, interested readers can email her at kuesionerbahasakita@gmail.com.

Indonesia’s linguistic richness has inspired her to continue her research here.

“Indonesia provides a fascinating test case, where the interwoven effects of national language policy, multilingualism, diglossia, register differences and the development of regional varieties all come together in the context of recent shifts in language use and practice throughout Indonesia,” Cohn explains.

Unlike her previous research on the sound system of Sundanese, this time Cohn is particularly piqued by the effects of language contact among Sundanese speakers and tries to document and analyze the complex patterns of change from a sociolinguistic vantage point.

She believes that her research will be useful in informing theoretical and applied questions and hopes it will serves as a model for similar studies on other languages.

Cohn’s academic endeavor to study language shifts is indeed opportune, given the Indonesian government’s sluggish efforts to preserve and promote the country’s local language varieties to international forums.

Despite its large number of speakers who make it a strong candidate for long-term maintenance, Sundanese, Cohn envisions, is at risk of becoming endangered in the future unless efforts are taken to continuously safeguard it.

“The tendency of Sundanese speakers to choose Indonesian for daily interaction could lead to a very rapid language shift.”

The factors of language shifts vary; however, Cohn observes that social factors such as the promotion of the use Indonesian, multiethnic teachers who teach at schools, heterogeneous communities and inter-ethnic marriage, among other factors, play a significant role in causing a speaker to shift from one language to another.

Although some schools have offered muatan lokal (local content) as part of regional government efforts to support the maintenance of local language and culture, Cohn argues that such efforts will not suffice, adding that interacting with parents and community members in local languages is also of paramount importance.

“One important issue is that it seems that many people don’t realize their orientation toward language choice, whether local, regional or global,” she says.

“I think it is important that individual speakers realize that their decisions of language choice affect their community and the future of their language.”

Cohn points out that the maintenance of one’s local language is vital for providing access to one’s local values, cultures and ideologies.



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