Language of the Month: Balinese

Language of the Month: Balinese

There are about 6 totally unrelated languages called Bali, spread over the world. The one we’re talking about today is Basa Bali, the language of the Indonesian island of Bali, one of the Lesser Sunda islands. At the time of writing it’s in the news with a new eruption of its volcano, Mount Agung, described by geologists as ‘mild’ and ‘strombolian’ a geologist’s word for not that serious. Bearing in mind that it’s spewing lava and ash up to 2kms from its crater and 8000 feet into the air, there could be a little understatement at play here.

It’s one of the group of languages known as the Bali-Susak-Sumbawa languages, forming part of the Malayo-Polynesian family which spread widely across the Pacific Ocean.

It has some interesting, but not unique, features. It exhibits what linguists call an evidential mode, so you’d use one verb form if you were reporting something you knew about directly and a different form if you had no direct knowledge or even if you thought it might be hearsay. We can do it in English, of course, when we distinguish between

Did that dog bite you.” “Yes. It did


Did Jeremy go to training last night?”I think he did.” (He said so, but he may have gone to the pub)


Is Anna totally trustworthy?” “I guess so.” (Uncommitted, lack of evidence)

But in languages with an evidential mode, this subtlety is incorporated in to the verb-form.

… or at least, I guess so….

Bali doesn’t use left and right (i.e. relative directional prepositions) to indicate direction. Instead. It uses absolutes, like North and Southwest. It also has a middle preposition between this/that or here/there, to indicate three levels of proximity rather than just two. That’s not so strange; English used to use ‘here’, ‘there’ and ‘yonder’ to indicate stuff that was, respectively, near at hand, potentially reachable and a long way away.

Knowing your place in society is important, too, if you want to speak correctly, because there are different usages if you are speaking to someone above you in the social order, on the same level, or beneath you. The highest ‘register’ of Basa Bali is called Royal Speech, and the register used for ceremonial and religious usage is heavily influenced by the ancient form of the Javanese language, called Kawi.

Mostly, the language is used on the island of Bali, itself, with just less than a million speakers using it regularly, usually in conjunction with Indonesian. It has two scripts, the ubiquitous latin alphabet and its own rather beautiful script, derived from Indian Brahmi writing, which unfortunately, perhaps, is little used today.

Even the latin script isn’t used a lot; it’s essentially a spoken language.

Dance is a big deal in Balinese culture, with many dances kept secret, away from the public, for the delight of family, tribe and friends. There are many connections between the majority religion, Hinduism, and the dance stories.

There are dozens of dance forms, including the Jangar which is performed sitting down, the Warrior Dance and the Monkey Dance, enacting a Hindu story of a wife being kidnapped by monkeys.

Why not learn how to say useful phrases in Basa Bali with Tribalingual? You could learn “Help, help, a monkey has kidnapped my wife.” and “Why is there molten lava flowing down the main street.?

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