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English borrowings in Indonesian

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Halo Bos!
English borrowings in Indonesian
by Ivana Amerl

• A brief history
• Indonesian in the 3rd millennium
Era globalisasi and international words in Indonesian
• Modern living and English loan words
• What's your name?
• False friends
• Further reading
• Next in the series

A brief history

The Indonesian language, also known as Bahasa Indonesia, is a relatively rare phenomenon in that it is a modern language, officially superimposed in 1945 as a lingua franca on an immense geographical area of the former Dutch East Indies, mainly due to ideological considerations.

Inspired by Sumpah Pemuda (The Youth Oath) in 1928, the idea behind the Indonesian language is unity and independence of all Dutch colonies in the East Indies through, among other things, a common language. During the era of colonialist struggles, the idealist youth saw a free nation based on the following principles: one archipelago, one nation, one language. These concepts became the driving force behind Pancasila, the guiding principles in Indonesian life and politics until now. As the language was used in the anti-colonial movements to strengthen the nation at the beginning and middle of the 20th century, so it is used now to keep separatist movements at bay.

Indonesian as spoken today is in fact a standardized dialect of Malay, an Austronesian language. It was chosen over any of the local languages in part because of its presumed neutrality – if one of the local languages had been chosen as the national language it would have greatly favoured that ethnic group and as such would go against the principle of equality that was sought and partly because compared to most of the languages in the area, it didn't contain as many levels of language and thus reflect casts this again supporting the choice of Malay as a tool to a modern, democratic state.


Indonesian in the 3rd millennium

Bahasa Indonesia is still the official language of Indonesia, the world's 5th most populous nation. As such, it is spoken to some degree of fluency by over 220 million people, but oddly enough, less than 10% of the population actually speaks it as their mother tongue. The rest of the population speaks one of over 700 local languages (the number of languages recorded in Indonesia varies according to the study, some stipulating over 1000 languages in West New Guinea alone), and uses Indonesian only in formal situations or to communicate with other ethnic groups.

From its inception, Indonesian has been a dynamic language, full of Arabic, Dutch, Chinese and Sanskrit vocabulary and characterized by its absorption of loan words and readiness to create neologisms. Though there is a standardized version of the language, spoken on newscasts and printed in the national media, Indonesian varies from region to region. Local languages greatly influence spoken Indonesian, as do local trends and culture and the presence of other ethnic groups. As such, the dialect of Java is strongly influenced by the Javanese language (spoken by the most numerous ethnic group in Indonesia, or some 80 million people) and might be incomprehensible to a foreigner who learned to speak Indonesian by immersion in, say, Flores; whereas the Indonesian dialect spoken in Makassar in South Sulawesi is full of the local Makassarese and Chinese.

The Jakarta dialect is a story in itself, and as with most national capitals, possibly seen as the most prestigious. Since Jakarta is the centre of national media as well as political, social and business life in Indonesia, all of which are areas that due to the global dominance of English see the largest number of borrowings and influence from English, so it is that most English words do enter Indonesia via Jakarta and are then diffused throughout the rest of the archipelago.


Era globalisasi and international words in Indonesian

Whether introduced through Dutch influence or later through English, Indonesian contains an astounding number of international words many with roots in Latin. This is particularly true of politics, technology, economics and the entertainment industry. In most cases the orthography is immediately adjusted to Indonesian pronunciation: so we have publik (public), alersi/alergi (allergy) and kontrak (contract). Very much on topic, the following four words are now truly part of Bahasa Indonesia: nasional, internasional, global and lokal. Ergo the era of globalisation as shown in the subheading above.

Of these, the easiest seem to be words ending in -ion. Not only do their meanings by and large remain unchanged, their Indonesian counterparts follow an easily predictable pattern, always a helpful tool for people trying to learn Indonesian to sound a lot more fluent than they might in fact be! Thus we have: promosi, aksi, atraksi, tradisi, evaluasi, ambisi, profesi, diskusi, konsepsi, emisi, transmisi, oposisi, globalisasi, informasi. The Indonesian ending -si can also be seen in other words borrowed from English: akademisi (an academic) or teknisi (a technician), and as such does not correspond to the English -ion which is used primarily for abstract nouns.

The area of politics is one that has seen a particular number of new words due to both the international nature if it and the birth of new concepts and phenomena. The term politik clearly derives from 'politics', as does politikus (politician). All the -isms are also present in Indonesian: komunisme, terorisme, kapitalisme, konsumerisme, kolonialisme, to list but a few. There is also korupsi, kolusi and nepotisme, which are in the way of reformasi. When a new kasus (case) arises, it involves polisi and demonstrasi (usually shortened to just demo). In some cases the presiden or the gubernur may be overthrown.

The world of business has also seen many borrowings. So we have direct ones: proposal, seminar, modal, media, status, bank; Indonesianized spellings give us proyek/proyeksi/proyektor, perspektif, arsitek, kartu kredit, kreditor, bisnis, taktik, konsultan, direktur, komersial, karir, fasilitas, infrastruktur, investor/investasi and risiko (risk). This is a very dynamic area, and new words are absorbed constantly. Many also get fully accepted into the language, using Indonesian prefixes and suffixes. Here is a list of a few:

English word Direct borrowing Indonesian neologism English
connection koneksi terkoneksi connected
participation partisipasi berpartisipasi to participate
subsidy supsidi disupsidi
to subsidize
to be subsidized
facilitating fasilitasi memfasilitasi to facilitate
prediction prediksi memprediksi
to predict
bank bank perbankaan banking
product produk memproduksi
to produce
to be produced


Modern living and English loan words

As opposed to these words which have been around long enough to develop Indonesian spelling, many more recent words have been imported from English without changing them, or by just shortening them. This is true in particular of sports vocabulary: whereas both body language and jogging remain the same, basket (for 'basketball') and volley/voli (for 'volleyball') have been shortened. Fitness remains the same, but with a change of meaning, to mean the place where one goes to get fit. Coincidentally, when Indonesians talk of being fit, it is a larger concept encompassing overall health and not just the size of the muscles! Compared to these newer imports, some sports related vocabulary has been around longer, and as such has undergone more changes: the Indonesian bola is a clear relative of English 'ball', kontes to our 'contest' and kiper to our 'goalkeeper'.

Similarly, a lot of new words have been borrowed due to the development of IT. Consequently, we have komputer, internet, e-mail, posting, chatting (usually used synonymously to 'e-mail'), and password and member. These last two show another typical phenomenon: the English words are used only in Internet and other 'hip' topics, but in daily life the Indonesian words are still the norm. Finally, IT itself actually switches to TI, from 'information technology' to teknologi informasi: the foreign words are borrowed, the spelling Indonesianized and the word order adapted to Indonesian grammar.

Similar adaptability in borrowing is evidenced by the music and entertainment industry: some words stay as they are, some have the spelling changed, others are shortened, some have a slight shift of meaning and others even get Indonesian prefixes. To the first group belong: single, film, disco, DJ and album; to the second the easily discernible vokalis, grup, konser, bend, sinema, serial, musik, musisi, televisi, aransemen and model. The word tape is actually used to mean 'tape deck' (cassette player) and the word artis is generally used for movie stars or singers (the English concept of an artist corresponds to the Indonesian seniman). From the English 'actor' we have aktor and also the verb berakting; the English 'duet' is used as is but also as berduet, or to sing a duet. Slightly newer borrowings spreading rapidly from Jakarta are the words nge-fans and nge-top, where the nge- is borrowed from Javanese and turns our nouns into verbs. Though the most literal English translation would actually use the verb 'be' Saya nge-fans Mick Jagger/ I am a fan of Mick Jagger the prefix actually makes it a lot more active, so it might be more precise to say 'I adore Mick Jagger'.


What's your name?

One really interesting and very recent development among the more educated youth in Indonesia is the use of the English word 'you'. As mentioned at the beginning, Malay was chosen over the local languages as the lingua franca largely due to its lack of levels of language. However, most of Indonesia wasn't fully ready to give up its semi-feudal cast system and so many 'socially appropriate' ways of addressing people were imported from the local languages into Indonesian. Where English uses one word and French two for the formal and informal, Indonesia literally has hundreds of ways of addressing the person you are talking to, depending on both the status of the person being addressed and the geographical area, and using the wrong one is a serious faux pas if not an insult. So this simple question 'What's your name?' actually becomes really problematic.

There was an effort to introduce a neutral anda which would correspond to the English 'you', but over the years, it was seen as too formal between equals or to an inferior and nowhere near respectful enough to address the elders or in formal contexts, and is now used mainly by foreigners or in some limited contexts. More spontaneously, Indonesia's younger generations, raised in a more open context, have noted the need for one democratic, egalitarian way of addressing people, and we can now hear the word 'you' used in all the larger cities.


False friends

Despite the large number of English loan words in Indonesian, there are still some false friends. One of the most troublesome is the Indonesian air, pronounced ah-ee-r, which actually means 'water'. Mesti is 'should' and not 'must', demi and para are not taken from Latin but mean 'for the sake of' and 'many', respectively. Similarly, rumah is not a 'room' but a 'house'. 'Room' is kamar, possibly from the same root as 'chamber'.

Seksi is not 'sexy' but a 'section', mesin on its own is an 'engine', abstraksi generally means a 'summary', karat is not a 'carrot' but 'rusty' and mister, when not being used as the infamous greeting to foreigners, Helo mister, actually means a 'ruler' (for measuring). Misteri has become more specific and is nowadays used generally for 'ghost stories'. Kopi can mean both 'coffee' and 'photocopy', and pabrik is a 'factory' (closer to its Latin root) and not 'fabric'. Stainless refers to pots and pans made of stainless steel, Kentucky (in a variety of spellings) is synonymous with 'deep fried chicken', and melon is actually a 'cantaloupe'. In public places (busses, jackets, graffiti, etc.) we can also see the word piss, but don't be alarmed! It's only Indonesian spelling for the English 'peace'.

Finally, if someone greets you with Halo bos!, they are using the English word boss, but mean it in a friendly, fun and informal way.


Further reading

For a brief history of the Indonesian language and a list of other borrowings, in particular from Sanskrit, Arabic, Dutch and Portuguese, see:
For the historical and ideological background for establishing a national language, see:
For a more detailed discussion of the language, see:
For a pronunciation guide, see:
For more on Pancasila, see:


Next in the series
You can read about Arabic and English in our next issue.