Indonesian language

From Academic Kids

Indonesian (Bahasa Indonesia) 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. Indonesian is a standardized dialect of the Malay language, and the two languages remain quite similar. The phonology and grammar of Indonesian are relatively simple, and it is said that 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.

Indonesian (Bahasa Indonesia)
Spoken in: Indonesia, East Timor
Region: Indonesia, Malaysia, East Timor
Total speakers: 17–30 million native
140 million total
Ranking: 56
Genetic classification: Austronesian

      Local Malay

Official status
Official language of: Indonesia
Regulated by: Pusat Bahasa
Language codes
ISO 639-1id
ISO 639-2ind
See also: LanguageList of languages


Bahasa Indonesia is a normative form of the Malay language, 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 very similar to the official Malaysian form of the language. 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; meja, table; jendela, window or gereja, church), Chinese (pisau, knife or dagger; loteng, [upper] floor), Hindi (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, Indonesian is modeled after the Riau Malay spoken in northeast Sumatra.

Geographic distribution

Indonesian is spoken throughout Indonesia, although it is used most extensively in urban areas, and less so in the rural parts of Indonesia.

Official status

Indonesian is the official language of Indonesia.


There are six pure vowel sounds: a (as in English father), e (as in pay), i (as in me), o (as in go), u (as in do), the schwa (as in putt) 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 ([tS/tʃ], like the ch in cheese), j ([dZ/dʒ] as in English), 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).

In the guide to vowel sounds above, note that the pronunciation of English words assumes an American accent, and is an approximation. Vowel sounds in Indonesian are short and clear. For British and Australian people, use the following guide: a (as in English hut), e (as in pet), i (as in hip), o (as in top), u (as in put), the schwa (as in the e in taken) which is also spelled e; and three diphthongs (ai as in bike, au as in how, oi as in boy).

Here are a few useful tips for the learner:

  • Indonesian pronunciation is similar in many ways to Italian. If you completely new to Indonesian and are at all familiar with Italian pronunciation, it may help to think of how Italians pronounce certain words such as pasta or Napoli.
  • However, in Indonesian, the g is always hard as in got, never soft as in giraffe.
  • Indonesian is pronounced with the tongue further forward in the mouth than in English.
  • k, p, and t are unaspirated, ie they are not followed by a noticeable puff of air as they often are in English words.
  • The t is pronounced with the tongue forward, against the back of the top teeth, (halfway between the English "t" and "th" sounds). For the letter d, the tongue position is the same as in the English d. This is not essential for the learner of Indonesian, but it will help to distinguish t from d, which are otherwise almost identical.
  • The glottal stop: When k is at the end of a word, the sound is cut off sharply (a "glottal stop"), e.g. "baik", "bapak". This is similar to some British (esp. London) accents where the final t is dropped ("got", "what"). A few Indonesian words have this sound in the middle, e.g. "bakso" (meatballs), or represented by an apostrophe in Arabic derived words such as "Al Qur'an".
  • The accent is placed on the second-last syllable of each word.

For more, and to listen to examples, see SEASite Guide to Pronunciation of Indonesian (


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 younger 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 the plural is not implied by the context. Thus person is orang, and people is orang-orang, 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 affixes 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.

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.

See also List of borrowed words in Indonesian

Writing system

Indonesian is written using the Latin alphabet. It is more phonetically consistent than many languages—the correspondence between sounds and their written form is generally regular.

One common source of confusion for foreign readers, particularly when reading place names, is the spelling changes in the language that have occurred since Indonesian independence. Commonly-used changes include:


The first of these changes (oe to u) occurred around the time of independence in 1947; all of the others were a part of an officially-mandated spelling reform in 1972. Some of the old spellings, which were more closely derived from the Dutch language, do survive in proper names; for example, the name of a former president of the Indonesia is still sometimes written Soeharto, and the central Java city of Yogyakarta is sometimes written Jogjakarta, which is how it is pronounced.

See also

External links

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de:Malaiische und indonesische Sprache eo:Indonezia lingvo es:Idioma indonesio fr:Indonsien id:Bahasa Indonesia it:Indonesiano nl:Indonesisch ja:インドネシア語 fi:Indonesian kieli pl:Język indonezyjski th:ภาษาอินโดนีเซีย


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