Most people in Bali today are bilingual, yet some are multilingual having grown up speaking Balinese and Bahasa Indonesia (the national language), and studying English at school as well. Due to the development of tourism many equip themselves with other languages such as Japanese and Mandarin. The Balinese language is a dialect of the West Malay-Polynesian group of languages that is spoken in Malaysia, and in Indonesia as far East as Moluccas. Other variations of this dialect are spoken in Sumatra, Java, Madura, Kalimantan, Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines. Among those variations, more detailed variation can still be identified.
Like many other languages Balinese is a dialect that has evolved over time adopting words from the Sanskrit, Arab, Chinese, Dutch and English languages. The development of the written Balinese language has allowed both the consolidation and the study of the language. From the written text we can trace its vocabulary and patterns. During 9th to 10th centuries its documentation was predominantly in Sanskrit. From the 10th until 14th centuries the old Balinese language was recorded in inscriptions issued by the kings. From 14th century onwards we are aware of changes in the language and this was probably only in the written form, that revealed a mix of old Balinese, old Javanese and Sanskrit.
The form of the spoken language however, is not well known and we could assume that it must be similar in terms of pattern and vocabulary to the written form. If we are to make comparisons with the modern version of the spoken language the older versions sounds much different. Except for dialogues used in wayang puppet performances, some traditional dances and by the priests, the older language is never spoken.
Nowadays Balinese is very much used by those who live in the urban areas. Younger generations however, are more interested in speaking Bahasa Indonesia, and even English for daily conversations. The written form of the Balinese language is increasingly unfamiliar and most Balinese use the language only in the spoken form, with a mix of Indonesian. In the transmigration areas outside of Bali, the Balinese language is extensively used and believed to play an important role in its survival, mostly due to the complexity of the language making it difficult to study.
The Balinese Hindu caste system dictates which level of the language is used when addressing certain people. A member of the higher cast is granted respect through the use of special words attributed to, for example, their actions, possessions, and character. The difference between the levels of the language is not in the patterns or grammatical rules, but in the vocabulary. Due to the multi levels of Balinese society a complex vocabulary has evolved and that is why for those who study Balinese, especially foreigners, they are encouraged to study the culture as a whole to make the learning of the language easier.
The modern spoken Balinese languagehas variations including the polite language (Basa Alus). This level introduces what is called “Alus Sor and Alus Singgih”. Alus Sor means words used to put the speaker’s status lower than his/her speaking counterpart, and “Alus Singgih” are the vocabulary used to put the position of his/her speaking counterpart at higher status. Next variation is the formal language (Alus Madia), a generally accepted language spoken in public by someone as presenter or head of meeting, and among those who do not know each other. The last variation is the folk language (Basa kasar), spoken by the majority of the Balinese, the Sudra caste, the lowest level in the cast system.
Studying the written language involves another level of complexity as it features characters from various language from India. The main influence came from the Pallava scripts then followed by Çera and Vengi scripts of South India. Written Balinese is very similar to the Javanese language, which too is facing its own survival problems.