Languages are artifacts of culture, created by humans and their groups. They can be likened to bricolages of disparate elements that fit a given purpose, which this or that language must serve at a given moment. Unsurprisingly, these elements may be quite disparate, dictated by vagaries of history and human folly. As a result, the boundaries of incomprehension among languages may not be as constant and definite as they are popularly believed. We tend to see these boundaries as absolute lines, which you are unable to scale without having devoted years to study a ‘foreign language’ (or the one that is different from the language you customarily use at home, with friends, at school and in state offices).


The metaphor is of Cold War-style militarized frontiers physically carved out in space with the employment of fences, barbed wire, plowed no-man’s land and watch towers. In this approach, we are victims of the twentieth century of totalitarianisms. Prior to the Great War, state borders were not policed or lined with (in)security reinforcements. The passport was all but an unknown document, at most issued to diplomats. The average person in the street or a street-less hamlet would cross from state A to state B just walking, or when in money, he would pay his fare across the ocean from Europe to the Americas. Likewise, before 1914 people tended to be multilingual, and did not find languages as daunting as we do nowadays in this freshly post-totalitarian age. The European Union and the Schengen Area of borderless travel opened Europe up to all its inhabitants anew, but it takes time before the old thinking about the political reality adjusts to these changes.

In this borderless Europe of nowadays, where people think little about borders when driving or flying from Lisbon to Warsaw and from Athens to Reykjavík, they still view languages – very much so in the Cold War fashion – as discrete entities. As self-contained balls that can collide with one another but never merge or permeate. This conviction makes us blind to the fact that languages being make-shift constructs built and managed by people alone, we can negotiate them, and no one would stop us to ask for a passport or visa. For instance, within the Germanic dialect continuum that extends from Britain to Austria, an English-speaker from the north can understand much of basic Dutch and Frisian that spatially intervenes between English and German. German-speakers are capable of the same from the south, especially if they live in north Germany and talk in the local dialect, which actually is closer to Dutch than to standard German.

It is no news to point out that in the highfaluting (be it academic or stiff official) registers of English, the number of Romance words (that is, of Latin, Anglo-French, or standard French origin) may amount to anything between 60 and 80 per cent of all words in a text. Thanks to this Romancizing tendency of English, speakers of this language can negotiate – to a varying degree – texts in French, Latin or Italian, without any formal study of the language. The boundary between English and these languages is quite permeable, and there is nothing to stop an English-speaker from reading French-, Italian- or Latin-language articles, especially in an area he specializes in. Practice makes the master. Although, it is good to remember that being able to read a text in one of these languages would not mean that you would be able to pronounce it in a way that would be intelligible. For achieving this feat you would need many hours of intensive conversations with speakers of the Romance tongues.

Negotiating languages may be fun and full of surprises. When I heard that the composite symbol of Pancasila forms the basis of the ideology of Indonesia’s statehood and nationhood, the term sounded eerily familiar to my Slavophone ear. ‘Panc-’ of this term is quite similar to Polish pięć for ‘five,’ and ‘-sila’ to Polish siła for ‘strength.’ And Slovak sila for ‘strength’ is exactly the same as the Indonesian ‘-sila.’ I decided not to jump to any conclusions, because it could be just a coincidence of no causal value. As an interdisciplinarist dealing in languages, I knew that Indonesian is an Austronesian language, and as such genetically (in its origin) would have nothing to do with Indo-European – let alone, Slavic – languages.

However, a quick search on the web yielded in no time that Pancasila means ‘five principles,’ ‘panc-’ standing for ‘five’ and ‘-sila’ for ‘principle(s).’ Something was at the issue. My hunch seemed to be correct. But how come, given the lack of any genetic relation between Polish and Indonesian? Well, the two elements of Pancasila were browed from Javanese, which – like Indonesian itself, is an Austronesian language, too. So no explanation here.
In European languages, since the eighteenth century, the fashion has been to develop names for new devices and newly discovered phenomena by employing words from ancient Greek and Latin. For example, the at present ubiquitous term ‘television’ was cobbled from the Greek word τῆλε (tèle) for ‘far’ and the Latin visio, which denotes ‘sight.’ The prestigious language from which Indonesian-speakers borrow terms in such a fashion is Arabic, due to the predominantly Muslim character of Indonesia’s population. (By the way, in demographic terms, Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim state.) But Arabic is a Semitic language, genetically as distant from Polish as Indonesian.

The answer to the dilemma at hand is the spread of Hinduism and Buddhism from India across mainland and maritime Southeast Asia (or from Burma to Vietnam and Indonesia) in the fourth and fifth centuries. Both religions arrived in the region with the previously unknown there technology of writing. This technology was invariably connected to Sanskrit, which became the language of intellectual cultivation and commerce in the region where so many radically incomprehensible languages brush shoulders with one another. When these local languages began to be used in writing, for a long time they remained secondary to Sanskrit. Sanskrit continued as the model and source of cultural prestige, so these local languages did borrow from it copiously, including Javanese, or the Austronesian language of Java, the most populous island in the world, where well over half of Indonesia’s 255 million inhabitants live. Sanskrit retained its elevated position on Java until the sixteenth century. The subsequent ascendancy of Islam and Arabic did not manage to dislodge numerous Sanskrit elements from the Javanese language.

The Javanese officialese is replete with borrowings from Sanskrit. The words from which the term ‘Pancasila’ was coined are all of Sanskrit origin, too. Sanskrit is an Indo-European language, like the Slavic tongues. It is thanks to this Indo-European connection dating back to several millennia ago that the modern-day Indonesian concept of Pancasila sounds familiar to me. This is the causal explanation of the surprising phenomenon.

However, not to leave the reader scratching his head what the five principles of Pancasila might be, let me enumerate them: monotheism, humanity, unity, democracy and social justice.

June 29, 2015