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The complicated etiquette rules of the Javanese language immediately indicate that Javanese society is rigorously stratified, for it would have to be in order to find such a system necessary and in order to maintain it. Linguistic appropriateness here is not just a matter of simple proper address forms or a choice between two pronouns, as the vocabulary of almost every sentence is affected by etiquette considerations: “It is nearly impossible to say anything without indicating the social relationship between the speaker and the listener in terms of status and familiarity. . . . The difference is not minor, a mere du and Sie difference” (1).*1 Both the linguistic forms used to build words and sentences*2 and the style*3 in which speech is delivered are determined by the status of the speaker relative to the addressee and their familiarity to each other.*4
Javanese has (at least) three dialects, and Geertz indicates that: (1) the dialect which a speaker employs is not a matter of voluntary choice but a matter of social class, and (2) while these dialects are themselves socially ranked, this is a feature of any stratified society, not particular to Java. The Urbanite Dialect is spoken by those urban-dwellers who are somewhat educated, and is the most common dialect in town. The Peasant Dialect is spoken by the peasants and uneducated townspeople, and is the most common dialect in absolute numbers. The Prijaji Dialect is that of the group with the highest prestige, and is considered the ideal speech even though it is actually spoken by very few. (2).
Within each of these dialects there exists various levels which allow a speaker to express his or her social relationship with the addressee, but not all dialects have the same levels. There are three main levels–Hi, Middle, and Low–which consist of linked conjugates and are known as stylemes. Each styleme may be subdivided by the use of honorifics, a group of special words which raise the level “one-half notch,” (5). Honorifics themselves may be either high or low, with only high honorifics allowed within the high styleme, no honorifics are used in the middle styleme, and both high and low allowed within the low styleme. This system of gradations indicates the importance and subtlety of status ranking in Javanese society. The manner in which these various levels are utilized by each social class is a product of the group’s image of its self and others.
The Urbanite Dialect uses all three stylemes and both high and low honorifics for a total of 5 levels: High w/ H, High, Middle, Low w/ H, Low w/ L, Low. This symmetrical schema is useful for cosmopolitan urban dwellers who must be flexible enough with their language to accommodate whomever they may encounter.
The Peasant Dialect uses only the middle and the low stylemes, and only low honorifics in the low styleme, limiting speakers to just three “status meanings”: Middle, Low w/ L, Low. This reduced selection seems a result of the peasants’ less differentiated perception of themselves as a group and their lack of understanding of the high styleme (11). Like children who acquire the morphological rules for regular verbs and then mistakenly apply them to irregular verbs, resulting in a novel word they have never heard before (and for which others might chide them), in attempts to emulate the Prijaji Dialect, peasants will often formulate words which seem to follow the rules but instead only provide fodder for those prijaji eager to belittle them.
The Prijaji Dialect, like the Urban Dialect, has 5 levels total, but the arrangement is not the same: High w/ H, High, Low w/ H, Low w/ L, Low. The organization of Prijaji Dialect belies their dichotomous view of society in which there are those who are like them–of high status and therefore worthy of respect–and those who are not. In this view there is no middle class and therefore the middle styleme is not used. The Low w/ H combination is unique to the Prijaji Dialect and is reserved for situations possible only from their station:
between prijaji who know one another fairly well and are of equal status but regard each other to be so elevated as to make the reciprocal use of [Low stylemes] . . . unseemly. Thus sentences on this level resolve the conflict between familiarity and respect . . . with a greater delicacy and subtlety than is possible in either the ‘urbanite’ or ‘peasant’ dialects. (10)
Only the wealthiest and most self-confident village chiefs can ignore the Javanese system of etiquette and speak to everyone in the same styleme, i.e., Low, and even they dare not do so with those of highest rank (11).
Geertz asserts that “basically . . . the Javanese pattern their speech behavior in terms of the same [status] axis around which they organize their social behavior” (1). But such pervasive social prescriptions of language might not only be a product (or reflection) of a strictly stratified society, they may also actually be (at least in part) a source thereof, as strong sociolinguistic rules can constantly reinforce (and legitimize) the existing social structure and perpetuate the status quo (I believe that this is in line with the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis). A change in either the Javanese language or the Javanese social structure would probably require (or precipitate, depending on your focus) a corresponding change in the other.
(1) My copy of C. Geertz’s “Linguistic Etiquette,” excerpted from his The Religion of Java (Free Press, 1960), does not have page numbers. Therefore, all citations referring to this excerpt will treat the first page thereof as page 1, and so forth.
(2) Javanese status markers are both lexical and morphological.
(3) All Javanese think and speak when excited in the lowest level of their dialect (see below). As the level of styleme increases, speech becomes slower and softer, conjugates become longer, and the speaker’s manner takes on more pomp.
(4) Situational factors such as social setting, subject matter, and presence of a third party can also influence choice of styleme (see below).