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Indonesian is the official language of Indonesia and a remarkable language in several ways. To begin with, only a tiny fraction of the inhabitants of Indonesia speak it as a mother tongue; for most people it is a second language. In a certain sense it is very modern: officially it came into being in 1945, and it is a dynamic language that is constantly absorbing new loanwords. Learning Indonesian can be a rewarding experience for a foreigner, as phonology and grammar are relatively simple. The rudiments that are necessary for basic everyday communication can be picked up in a few weeks. The Indonesian name for the language is Bahasa Indonesia (= literally language of Indonesia), and this name is also sometimes used in English.
Bahasa Indonesia is based on Malay, an Austronesian (or Malayo-Polynesian) language which had been used as a lingua franca in the Indonesian archipelago for centuries, and was elevated to the status of official language with the Indonesian declaration of independence in 1945. It is essentially the same language as Bahasa Malaysia, the official language of Malaysia. It is spoken as a mother tongue only by 7% of the population of Indonesia and 45% of the population of Malaysia, but all together almost 200 million people speak it as a second language with varying degrees of proficiency; it is an essential means of communication in a region with more than 300 native languages, used for business and administrative purposes, at all levels of education and in all mass media.
The Dutch colonization left an imprint on the language that can be seen in words such as polisi (police), kualitas (quality), telepon (telephone), bis (bus), kopi (coffee), rokok (cigarette) or universitas (university). There are also some words derived from Portuguese (sabun, soap; jendela, window), Chinese (pisau, knife or dagger; loteng, [upper] floor), Hindi (meja, table; kaca, mirror) and from Arabic (khusus, special; maaf, sorry; selamat …, a greeting).
Please see also below for an extended list of foreign loanwords in Indonesian.
Indonesian is part of the Western Malayo-Polynesian subgroup of the Malayo-Polynesian branch of the Austronesian languages. According to the Ethnologue, Indonesia is modeled after the Riau Malay spoken in northeast Sumatra.
Indonesia is spoken throughout Indonesia, although it is used most extensively in urban areas, and less so in the rural parts of Indonesia.
Indonesian is an official language of Indonesia.
There are six pure vowel sounds: a (similar to the sound in bus), e (as in get), i (shorter than in eat), o (shorter than in dawn), u (as in put), and a neutral vowel like the second vowel of water which is also spelled e; and three diphthongs (ai, au, oi). The consonantic phonemes are rendered by the letters p, b, t, d, k, g, c (pronounced like the ch in cheese), j, h, ng (which also occurs initially), ny (as in canyon), m, n, s (unvoiced, as in sun or cats), w, l, r (trilled or flapped) and y. There are five more consonants that only appear in loanwords: f, v, sy (pronounced sh), z and kh (as in loch).
Compared with European languages, Indonesian has a strikingly small use of grammatically gendered words; the same word is used for he and she or for his and her. Most of the words that refer to people (family terms, professions, etc.) have a form that does not distinguish between the sexes; for example, adik can both refer to a (younger) brother or sister; no distinction is made between girlfriend and boyfriend. In order to specify gender, an adjective has to be added: adik laki-laki corresponds to brother but really means male sibling. There is no word like the English man that can refer both to a male person and to a human being in general.
Note: There are some words that are gendered, for instance putri means daughter, and putra means son; words like these are usually absorbed from other languages (in these cases, from Sanskrit through the Old Javanese language).
Plurals are expressed by means of reduplication, but only when not implied by the context; thus, orang-orang is people, but one thousand people is seribu orang, as the numeral makes it unnecessary to mark the plural form. (Reduplication has many other functions, however).
There are two forms of we, depending on whether you are including the person being talked to.
The basic word order is SVO. Verbs are not inflected for person or number, and there are no tenses; tense is denoted by time adverbs (such as yesterday) or by other tense indicators, such as sudah, meaning already. On the other hand, there is a complex system of verb prefixes to render nuances of meaning.
Indonesian as a modern dialect of Malay has borrowed heavily from many languages, among others: Sanskrit, Arabic, Portuguese, Dutch, Chinese and many other languages, including other Austronesian languages. It is estimated that there are some 750 Sanskrit loanwords in modern Indonesian, 1000 Arabic (Persian and some Hebrew) ones, some 125 Portuguese (also Spanish and Italian) ones and a staggering number of some 10,000 loanwords from Dutch. The latter also comprises many words from other European languages, which came via Dutch, the so-called “International Vocabulary”. The vast majority of Indonesian words, however, come from the root lexical stock of its Austronesian heritage.
Although Hinduism and Buddhism are no longer the major religions of Indonesia, Sanskrit which was the language vehicle for these religions, is (still) held in high esteem and is comparable with the status of Latin in English and other West European languages. Especially many people in Bali and Java are proud of the Hindu-Buddhist heritage. Sanskrit is also the main source for neologisms. These are usually formed from Sanskrit roots. The loanwords from Sanskrit cover many aspects of religion, art and everyday lives. The Sanskrit influence came from contacts with India long ago from the beginning of the Christian Era. The words are either directly borrowed from India or with the intermediary of the (Old) Javanese language. In the classical language of Java, Old Javanese, the number of Sanskrit loanwords is far greater. The Old Javanese?English dictionary by prof. P.J. Zoetmulder, S.J. (1982) contains no fewer than 25,500 entries. Almost half are Sanskrit loanwords. Unlike other loanwords, Sanskrit loanwords have entered the basic vocabulary of Indonesian, so by many these aren’t felt as foreign anymore. In addition to that the phonology of Sanskrit doesn’t differ that much from the phonology of Indonesian.
The loanwords from Arabic are mainly concerned with religion, in particular with Islam, as can be expected. Many early Bible translators, when they came across some unusual Hebrew words or proper names, used the Arabic cognates. In the newer translations this practice is discontinued. They now turn to Greek names or use the original Hebrew Word. For example Jesus was translated ‘Isa. It is now spelt as Yesus. Psalms used to be translated as Zabur, the Arabic name. But now it is called Mazmur which corresponds more with Hebrew.
The Portuguese loans are common words, which were mainly, connected with articles the early European traders and explorers brought to Southeast Asia. The Portuguese were among the first westerners who sailed east to the “Spice Islands”.
The Chinese loanwords are usually concerned with the cuisine, the trade or often just exclusively things Chinese. There is a considerable Chinese presence in the whole of Southeast Asia. According the Indonesian government the relative number of people of Chinese descent in Indonesia is only 3.5%. Whether this is true or not is still a matter for debate, many think the number is much higher. But what is sure, in urban centres the number can be as high as between 10-25%.
The former colonial power, the Dutch, left an impressive vocabulary. These Dutch loanwords, and also from other non Italo-Iberian, European languages loanwords which came via Dutch, cover all aspects of life. Some Dutch loanwords, having clusters of several consonants, pose difficulties to speakers of Indonesian. This problem is usually solved by insertion of the schwa. For example Dutch schroef ['sxruf] => sekrup [sĕ'krup].
As modern Indonesian draws many of its words from foreign sources, there are many synonyms. For example, Indonesian has three words for book, i.e. pustaka (from Sanskrit), kitab (from Arabic) and buku (from Dutch). These words have, as can be expected, slight different meanings. A pustaka is often connected with ancient wisdom or sometimes with esoteric knowledge. A derived form, perpustakaan means a library. A kitab is usually a religious scripture or a book containing moral guidances. The Indonesian word for the Bible is Alkitab, thus directly derived from Arabic. The book containing the penal code is also called the kitab. Buku is the most common word for books.
Indonesian is written in Latin script and is phonetic, especially since the spelling reform of 1972, which changed spellings based on the Dutch language, such as tj for the sound ch. Another spelling convention that goes back to the Dutch, the use of oe for the sound u, had already been eliminated in 1947, but still survives in proper names, for example Soeharto.