Formality in Javanese

In language class, I’ve started learning the higher level of Javanese because presumably I have enough of a basis in the lower level that I can get by. While I’d argue with that, my ngoko has gotten noticeably better. My accent is still a mess, but I’m able to say a whole lot more than I could a few months ago. Whether anyone cares to listen is another matter entirely. Most of my friends think I sound hilarious when I speak Javanese and don’t have the patience to sit through an actual conversation with me. So, with a few exceptions, my Javanese is used more for exclamatory remarks than anything else. Still, I can back up those exclamatory remarks with actual language if need be, which is a big step from where I used to be.

Luckily, krama is here to bring me down a few notches. Krama is the polite form of Javanese that you use with strangers, at the office (sort of), and with your elders or betters. Krama, it turns out, is actually comprised of two separate sets of vocabulary. Sometimes they’re the same and sometimes they’re not. Sometimes one of them is like the ngoko form of the word instead.

This in itself is bad enough, but then comes figuring out when to use which one, which leads us to a whole new level of informal/formal confusion. One form is used to lower your level in the conversation slightly—to show that you’re acknowledging the other person to be of a higher social standing than you yourself. You use it with words related to you. The other is used to raise the person you’re talking about. This is used only for words applying to them.

So, not only do you have to worry about not letting any ngoko words wander in and make you sound crass, you also have to worry about what krama word you want to use. Whose house are we talking about, mine or yours? What do I want to try to imply about our relative levels of importance when I say this one word?

My language teacher reassured me that a lot of the people speaking Javanese on the street aren’t thinking about this. Indeed, when I was tasked with going to interview some other teachers (asking their names, where they live, and their phone numbers because that’s all I can say so far), almost no one did this linguistic gymnastic trick of changing words in the middle of the conversation. Usually I was the only one mentally ringing my hands while I tried to not reply with the same word that had been used in the question.

Don’t worry, though, things get even more complicated. My language teacher went on to say that in a lot of situations people mix ngoko and krama. For example, when she speaks to her parents, her sentences are about 50% ngoko and 50% krama, which I guess is supposed to indicate that her parents are important but that they also have a close relationship. She said sometimes friends talk this way too.

At this point I tried, once again, to quiz someone on formality rules that they grew up with and so never really think about. In what sort of situation would you talk to your friends like this? I have never heard my friends mixing ngoko and krama. It’s possible that I haven’t noticed, but lately I’ve gotten quite good at feeling out whether something is ngoko or krama even if I can’t understand it.

My language teacher was not able to provide an explanation to my liking, which isn’t really surprising. This whole formality thing mystifies me when in actuality it’s not that important. It’s important to understand that speaking ngoko to your elders is rude. It’s not so important to get all worried about with which friends you have to start bringing krama into the picture. If anything, you just follow their example.

That probably won’t stop me, though. Prepare yourself for more confusion about formality, never mind the fact that I’m probably not going to be using Javanese any time soon anyway, especially formal Javanese.


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