Toba Batak language

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Toba Batak
Hata Batak Toba
Toba Bataknese script.svg
Batak written in Surat Batak (Batak script)
Native toIndonesia
RegionSamosir Island (2° 30′ N, 99°), and to the east, south, and west of Toba Lake in north Sumatra.
Native speakers
(2 million cited 1991)[1]
Latin, Batak alphabet
Language codes
ISO 639-3bbc
The distribution of Batak languages in northern Sumatra. Toba Batak is the majority language in the blue-colored areas labeled with its ISO 639-3 code "bbc".
A Toba Batak speaker.

Toba Batak /ˈtbə ˈbætək/[3] is an Austronesian language spoken in North Sumatra province in Indonesia. It is part of a group of languages called "Batak".

There are approximately 2,000,000 Toba Batak speakers, living to the east, west and south of Lake Toba. Historically it was written using Batak script, but the Latin script is now used for most writing.

Herman Neubronner van der Tuuk was involved in translating the Christian Bible into Batak Toba.

Name of the language[edit]

Manuscript in Batak Toba language, central Sumatra, early 1800s.

The name of this language arises from a rich and complex history of ethnic identity in colonial and post-colonial Indonesia. It is a generic name for the common language used by the people of the districts of Toba, Uluan, Humbang, Habinsaran, Samosir, and Silindung, centered upon the Island of Sumatra; more particularly, at Lake Toba. Linguistically and culturally these tribes of people are closely related. Other nearby communities such as Silalahi and Tongging may also be classified as speakers of Toba Batak.

The term "Toba Batak" is, itself, a derivation of the Toba Batak language. As such, it is used both as a noun and an adjective; both to describe a language, and also to describe the people who speak the language.

Among the aforementioned districts, Toba is the most densely populated and politically the most prominent district so that "Toba Batak" became a label for all communities speaking a dialect closely akin to the dialect spoken in Toba. In contemporary Indonesia the language is seldom referred to as "Toba Batak" (bahasa Batak Toba), but more commonly and simply as "Batak" (bahasa Batak). The (Toba)-Batak refer to it in their own language as "Hata Batak". This "Batak" language is different from the languages of other "Batak" people that can be divided in speaking a northern Batak dialect (Karo Batak, and Pakpak-Dairi Batak – linguistically this dialect group also includes the culturally very different Alas people), a central Batak dialect (Simalungun) and closely related other southern Batak dialects such as Angkola and Mandailing.

Description of the language[edit]

Toba Batak houses and residents in a photograph by Christiaan Benjamin Nieuwenhuis.

There are several dictionaries and grammars for each of the five major dialects of Batak (Angkola-Mandailing, Toba, Simalungun, Pakpak-Dairi, and Karo). Specifically for Toba Batak the most important dictionaries are that of Johannes Warneck (Toba-German) and Herman Neubronner van der Tuuk (Toba-Dutch).


Toba Batak has verb-initial, VOS word order, as with many Austronesian languages. In (1), the verb mangallang 'eat' precedes the object kue 'cake', and the verb phrase precedes dakdanak i 'the child'.

(1) Mangallang kue dakdanak i.
AT-eat cake child the
'The child is eating a cake.' (Silitonga 1973:3)

SVO word order (as in English), however, is also very common (Cole & Hermon 2008). In (2), the subject dakdanakon 'this child' precedes the verb phrase mangatuk biangi 'hit the dog'.

(2) Dakdanak-on mang-atuk biang-i.
child-this ACT-hit dog-DEF
'This child hit the dog.' (Cole & Hermon 2008)

Cole & Hermon (2008) claim that VOS order is the result of VP-raising (specifically, of VoiceP) (Figure 1). Then, the subject may optionally raise over the verb phrase due because of information structure. This analysis provides a basis for understanding Austronesian languages that have more fully become SVO (e.g. Indonesian: Chung 2008; Jarai: Jensen 2014).

Figure 1: VP movement to derive VOS word order.

Like many Austronesian languages (e.g. Tagalog), DP wh-movement is subject to an extraction restriction (e.g. Rackowski & Richards 2005). The verb in (3a) must agree with aha 'what' (in (3a): TT or "theme-topic") for it to be extracted in front of the verb. If the verb agrees with the subject, si John 'John' (in (3b): AT or "actor-topic"), aha 'what' may not extract.

(3a) Aha diida si John?
what TT.see PM John
'What did John see?' (Cole & Hermon 2008)
(3b) *Aha mangida si John?
what AT.see PM John
Intended: 'What did John see?' (Schachter 1984:126)


  • Reference to contemporary Batak Bible
  • Example translation of Biblical Scripture (published by the Language Museum, a site published by Zhang Hong, an internet consultant and amateur linguist in Beijing China)
  • Musgrave, Simon. Non-subject Arguments in Indonesian: Department of Linguistics and Applied Linguistics, THE UNIVERSITY OF MELBOURNE. See page 112 (doc page 101) and reference to Cole, Peter & Gabriella Hermon (2000) Word order and binding in Toba Batak. Paper presented at AFLA 7, Amsterdam
  • Sejara Indonesia An Online Outline of Indonesia History.
  • Neubronner van der Tuuk, Hermanus. A grammar of Toba-Batak. The Hague, 1971. First English edition, first published in Dutch in 1864-1867. Translation J. Scott-Kemball, edited by A. Teeuw and R. Roolvink.
  • Rackowski, Andrea & Norvin Richards. 2005. "Phase Edge and Extraction: A Tagalog Case Study." Linguistic Inquiry 36.4:565-599.
  • Cole, Peter & Gabriella Hermon. 2008. "VP Raising in a VOS Language." Syntax 11(2): 144-197.
  • Schachter, Paul. 1984. "Semantic-Role-Based Syntax in Toba Batak." UCLA Occasional Papers in Linguistics 5:122-149.
  • Silitonga, Mangasa. 1973. "Some Rules Reordering Constituents and their Constraints in Batak." Ph.D. Thesis, University of Illinois.
  • Jensen, Joshua. 2014. Jarai clauses and noun phrases. Mouton de Gruyter.
  • Chung, Sandra. 2008. "Indonesian clause structure from an Austronesian perspective." Lingua 118:1554–1582.


  1. ^ Toba Batak at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
  2. ^ Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2017). "Batak Toba". Glottolog 3.0. Jena, Germany: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  3. ^ Laurie Bauer, 2007, The Linguistics Student’s Handbook, Edinburgh