Riau Indonesian: The Simplest Language in The World?

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: THE STORY OF HUMAN LANGUAGE

By John McWhorter, Ph.D.Columbia University

Some languages are so complex that children don’t really speak the language until they are about ten. This is opposed to English speakers, where, by the time you’re six, you’re pretty much talking and nobody has to slow down. It takes longer in many of the smaller languages of the world. But sometimes some languages can be on the other extreme, when contact comes into play. What happens in such a situation?

Two elderly rural Southeast Asian people.
Riau Indonesian is a language which is surprisingly free of complex structures and grammar. (Image: SantiPhotoSS/ Shutterstock)

A Surprisingly Simple Language

An example of the simplification of the verbal elements of a language, is one dialect of Indonesian. It’s a dialect called Riau Indonesian. Riau Indonesian is spoken in a region of the island of Sumatra. It is a bizarrely simple language. Standard Indonesian is a normal language, as languages go. It’s got a rather complex kind of prefixation and suffixation. It has a variation on active versus passive, which is quite counterintuitive to the newcomer. So standard Indonesian is quite normal.

But while some languages, like Tsez, make you wonder how anybody could speak it without having an aneurysm, with Riau Indonesian you wonder how anybody could speak it and be understood, because there’s just so very, very little in it.

There are no endings; no endings of any substance. No tones. There are no articles. There is no word order. You can put things in any order you feel like and context will take care of it. There is only a little bit of indicating things in time. Really, for the most part, Riau Indonesian leaves tense unmarked. You might say ‘already’ or you might want to say ‘tomorrow’ if explicitness is desired.

And they’ve got a couple of markers, but they don’t use them very much. There is no verb ‘to be’. The same word means ‘he’, ‘she’, ‘it’ and ‘they’. So, there is just this one third-person word. There is very, very little in the language.

So, context is everything. You almost think that nobody could speak Riau Indonesian unless they were standing right in front of somebody having all the same experiences because everything is context.

Learn more about what language is.

The ‘Chicken Eat’ Example

Two hens in a grassy field.
The two simple words for ‘chicken’ and ‘eat’ in Riau Indonesian have a multiplicity of meanings. (Image: goodbishop/ Shutterstock)

For example, in Riau Indonesian, ayam is chickenmakan is eat. So ayam makan. This is becoming a mildly famous example in the linguistics world; it’s called the ‘chicken eat’ example. Ayam makan. That can mean the chicken is eating; it can mean the chicken ate; it can mean the chicken is going to eat; it means the chicken is being eaten; it can mean the chicken is making somebody eat; it can mean somebody is eating for the chicken; it can mean that chicken over there that is eating; it can mean where the chicken is eating; it can mean when the chicken is eating; it can mean how that chicken eats. The meaning of ayam makan is all based on context.

Because, let’s face it, spoken language tends to be bound in context. You don’t usually stand in a valley and shout out Ayam makan. Presumably, if you utter that sequence, there is a chicken somewhere interacting with food in some way and you were all looking at it anyway. So, presumably, you can get away with that. But still, it’s a very unusual state for a language to reach. Why would that be?

This is a transcript from the video series The Story of Human Language. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The Human Impact of Riau Indonesian

Languages always tend to become more complex in isolation. So there’s no reason why some language would basically run into the ground like Riau Indonesian had unless something unusual had happened. And it wasn’t an asteroid. It wasn’t a controversial election count or anything like that. It was actually learning this language as a second language. That is what did it.

Riau Indonesian is spoken in a region where people who spoke various languages related to Indonesian had come together over the centuries. What this has meant is that Indonesian has been used much more as a second language than as a first language in this area.

Just like we sweat through our language-learning classes, all adults anywhere in the world have trouble with such things. But most people wouldn’t think of learning a language as trouble. The fact is that needing to learn the language completely is kind of a hobby; kind of a Western obsession. As long as you can get along, you’re doing fine.

Learn more about the story of human language.

An Abbreviated Indonesian?

A painting of Riau, Dutch East Indies, painted between 1859 and 1861
Riau has been a region where people from various areas have traveled to and settled in over the years. (Image: S.A. Buddingh – Neerlands-Oost-Indie/ Public domain)

So, people would come to this region, and, as far as they were concerned, would learn Indonesian, but it was not Indonesian in its complete sense. It was still viable for communication. The people who live in this Riau region are just fine and have thriving nuanced lives and relationships. But still, it was not the Indonesian of the past. It’s not the Indonesian that is captured on the page that one learns today.

So, the languages that these people spoke natively are typically complex, full of prefixes and suffixes and marking of active and passive, just like regular Indonesian. They tend to be more complex than regular Indonesian, as a matter of fact. But these people did not learn Indonesian completely. As a result, Riau Indonesian is a kind of an abbreviated Indonesian, which is fine as a human language. But as it happened, it became the way it is because of a kind of a train wreck. It got interrupted; people didn’t learn it well, and as a result it became a new kind of language.

That kind of simplicity would never occur independently. There is no such thing as a language that just takes the route of becoming naked. Languages, if you let them go, are like a cat. A cat will climb up a tree, taking higher and thinner branches, and it will stay there, until you bring it down by force. Similarly, languages are always trying to become more and more complex.

But Riau Indonesian has become one of simplest languages in the world precisely because of the interaction of other language speakers with Indonesian, stripping it of almost all its complexity, and leaving just the simplest communicative elements.

Common Questions About Riau Indonesian

Q. Where is Riau Indonesian spoken?

Riau Indonesian is spoken in one region of the island of Sumatra in Indonesia.

Q. How is Riau Indonesian different from most other languages?

Riau Indonesian is different from most other languages in how simple it is. There are no endings of any substance, no tones, no articles, and no word order. There is only a little bit of indicating things in time. For the most part, Riau Indonesian leaves tense unmarked, they don’t use too many markers, or verb ‘to be’. There is just one third-person word. There is very, very little in the language in terms of complexity.

Q. What is the popular example of Riau Indonesian which showcases its simplicity?

The phrase ayam makan is the Riau Indonesian phrase that is becoming a mildly famous example in the linguistics world; it’s called the ‘chicken eat’ example. In Riau Indonesian, ayam is ‘chicken’, makan is ‘eat’. Ayam makan can mean, depending on context: the chicken is eating; the chicken ate; the chicken is going to eat; the chicken is being eaten; somebody is eating for the chicken, and many more such interpretations.

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