Indonesian language

2008/9 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Languages

Bahasa Indonesia
Spoken in: Indonesia, East Timor 
Region: Southeast Asia
Total speakers: about 200 million (17 million native speakers) 
Ranking: 52 (by native speakers)
Language family: Austronesian
   Nuclear Malayo-Polynesian
       Local Malay
Writing system: Latin alphabet 
Official status
Official language in: Indonesia
Regulated by: Pusat Bahasa
Language codes
ISO 639-1: id
ISO 639-2: ind
ISO 639-3: ind

Indonesian or Bahasa Indonesia, based on the Riau version of Malay language, was declared the official language with the declaration of Indonesia's independence in 1945, following the 1928 "unifying language" declaration in the Indonesian Youth Pledge.

With fluency approaching 100% among the quarter billion inhabitants of the world's fourth most populous nation, Bahasa Indonesia has become one of the most widely spoken languages in the world. Most Indonesians, aside from speaking the national language, are often fluent in another regional language or local dialect (examples include Minangkabau, Sundanese and Javanese) which are commonly used at home and within the local community. Most formal education, as well as nearly all national media and other forms of communication, are conducted in Indonesian. In East Timor, which was an Indonesian province from 1975 to 1999, the Indonesian language is recognised by the constitution as one of the two working languages (the other is English, alongside the official languages of Tetum and Portuguese).

The Indonesian name for the language is Bahasa Indonesia (lit. "the language of Indonesia"). This term can sometimes still be found in written or spoken English. In addition, the language is sometimes referred to as "Bahasa" by English-speakers, though this simply means "language" and thus is also not an official term for the Indonesian language.


To a certain degree, Indonesian can be regarded as an open language. Over the years, foreign languages such as Sanskrit, Tamil, Chinese, Arabic, Portuguese, Dutch and English have influenced and expanded the Indonesian language, mostly through trade contacts and international media.

Because of its semi-open status, there are those who regard Indonesian (as well as other forms of Malay) as lacking sufficient vocabularly and specialist terminologies. Yet some linguists consider this view to be a misconception, as a vast majority of foreign adopted words also have sufficient native equivalents. For example, the word asimilasi (from the Dutch word assimilatie) can also be expressed in Indonesian as penggabungan. Many words describing more modern inventions, objects or ideas are often Indonesianised adoptions of foreign words (e.g. computer becomes komputer), although many of these words also have native Indonesian equivalents. For example, a "cell/mobile phone" can be referred to in Indonesian as either pon-sel/ telepon seluler (lit. cellular-telephone), HP (pronounced hah-péh - the acronymic form of hand phone) or telepon genggam (lit. "hold-in-the-hand telephone"). Other words such as "rice cooker" may be referred to simply as "rice cooker" or, again, in a more native Indonesian/ Malay form, as penanak nasi (a word formed from the verb menanak, meaning 'to cook rice by boiling' + nasi, meaning 'cooked rice'). Overall, the use of native and non-native words in Indonesian is equally common and reflects the country's efforts towards modernization and globalization.

In the initial stages of study, many aspects of Indonesian grammar are relatively simple, making it one of the easier languages to learn for adults. This is because Indonesian does not require conjugation of verb tenses or participles, plural forms, articles and gender distinction for the third person pronouns. Although, it is important to note that neither do many other languages traditionally regarded as 'complex', including Chinese (see Chinese grammar) and Thai for example. In spite of this, Indonesian and Malay are regarded as easier languages to learn because they are non- tonal languages and no longer use complex characters within their writing system, instead utilizing the Latin alphabet. Similar cases can also be seen in other Southeast Asian languages such as Vietnamese and Tagalog.

However, Indonesian does possess a complex system of affixations. The absence of tenses in the language is substituted through the use of many aspect particles and (as with any language) Indonesian grammar often presents an array of exceptions and inconsistencies. Also, the simplicity of Indonesian grammar at a beginners or basic level has the disadvantage of misleading many learners of the language into thinking that more advanced Indonesian grammar is just as simple.


Indonesian is a normative form of the Malay language, an Austronesian (or Malayo-Polynesian) language which has been used as a lingua franca in the Indonesian archipelago for centuries. It was elevated to the status of official language with the Indonesian declaration of independence in 1945, drawing inspiration from the Sumpah Pemuda (Youth's Oath) event in 1928.

The earliest known inscription in Malay language was found in sumatra dates back to 7th century - known as Kedukan Bukit Inscription discovered by the Dutchman M. Batenburg on 29 November 1920 at Kedukan Bukit, South Sumatra, on the banks of the River Tatang, a tributary of the River Musi. It is a small stone of 45 by 80 cm.

Because of its origins, Indonesian (in its most standard form) is mutually intelligible with the official Malaysian Malay. However, it does differ from Malaysian Malay in some aspects, with differences in pronunciation, diction, spelling, accent and vocabulary. These differences are mainly due to the Dutch and Javanese influences on Indonesian.

Whilst Indonesian is spoken as a mother tongue (first language) by only a small proportion of Indonesia's large population (i.e. mainly those who reside within the vicinity of Jakarta), over 200 million people regularly make use of the national language - some with varying degrees of proficiency. In a nation which boasts more than 300 native languages and a vast array of ethnic groups, the use of proper or 'good and correct' Indonesian (as opposed to Indonesian slang or regional dialects) is an essential means of communication across the archipelago. Use of the national language is abundant in the media, government bodies, schools, universities, workplaces, amongst members of the Indonesian upper-class or nobility and also in many other formal situations.

Most native speakers of Indonesian would agree that the standard, correct version of the Indonesian language is rarely used in daily communication. One can find standard and correct Indonesian in books and newspapers, or listen to it when watching the news or television/radio broadcasts, but few native Indonesian speakers use formally correct language in their daily conversations. While this is a phenomenon common to most languages in the world (for example, spoken English does not always correspond to written standards), the degree of "correctness" of spoken Indonesian (in terms of grammar and vocabulary) by comparison to its written form is noticeably low. This is mostly due to the fact that most Indonesians tend to combine certain aspects of their own local languages (eg. Javanese, Sundanese, Balinese, and even Chinese dialects, particularly Hokkien) with Indonesian. The result is the creation of various types of 'regional' Indonesian, the very types that a foreigner is most likely to hear upon arriving in any Indonesian city or town. This phenomenon is exacerbated by the use of Indonesian slang, particularly in the cities. A classic example of a speaker of accented Indonesian is former president Suharto, whose Javanese accent came through whenever he delivered a speech.

The Dutch colonisation left an imprint on the Indonesian language that can be seen in words such as polisi (police), kualitas/kwaliteit (quality), wortel (carrot), kamar (room, chamber), rokok (cigarette), korupsi (corruption), persneling (gear), kantor (office), and resleting (zipper). Alongside Malay, Portuguese was the lingua franca for trade throughout the archipelago from the sixteenth century through to the early nineteenth century. Indonesian words derived from Portuguese include sabun (soap), meja (table), boneka (doll), jendela (window), gereja (church), bendera (flag) and Minggu (from domingo = Sunday). Some of the many words of Chinese origin (presented here with accompanying Hokkien/ Mandarin pronunciation derivatives as well as traditional and simplified characters) include pisau (匕首 bǐshǒu - knife), loteng, (楼/层 = lóu/céng - [upper] floor/ level), mie (麵 > 面 mi'àn - noodles), lumpia (潤餅 (Hokkien = lūn-piáⁿ) - springroll), cawan, (茶碗 cháwǎn - teacup), teko (茶壺 > 茶壶 = cháhú [Mandarin], teh-ko [Hokkien] = teapot) and even the widely used slang terms gua and lu (from the Hokkien 'goa' 我 and 'lu/li' 你 - meaning 'I/ me' and 'you'). From Sanskrit came words such as kaca (glass, mirror), raja (king), manusia (mankind) b(h)umi (earth) and agama (religion). Words of Arabic origin include k(h)abar (news), selamat/ salam (a greeting), dunia (world), and kamus (dictionary). There are also words derived from Javanese, e.g. aku (meaning I/ me (informal) and its derivative form, mengaku (to admit or confess). Through earlier influence of South Indian Tamil Chola empire that ruled over the region, many Tamil and Sanskrit words may be found in Bahasa Indonesia such as kapal (ship in Tamil), kolam (lake in Tamil) and kedai (shop in Tamil).


The Indonesian language is part of the Western Malayo-Polynesian subgroup of the Malayo-Polynesian branch of the Austronesian languages. According to the Ethnologue, Indonesian is modelled after Riau Malay, a form of Old Malay originally spoken in Northeast Sumatra.

Geographic distribution

This is a Map of where Indonesian is predominantly spoken.  Dark green represents where Indonesian is spoken as a major language.  Light green represents where it is a minority language.
This is a Map of where Indonesian is predominantly spoken. Dark green represents where Indonesian is spoken as a major language. Light green represents where it is a minority language.

The language is spoken throughout Indonesia (and East Timor), although it is used most extensively as a first language in urban areas and usually as a second or third language in more rural parts of Indonesia. It is also spoken by an additional 1.5+ million people worldwide, particularly in the Netherlands, the Philippines and Malaysia. Also spoken as daily language in some parts of Australia ( mostly in Christmas Island and Cocos (Keeling) Islands ), Brunei, Singapore, some parts of Thailand ( Southern Thailand ), East Timor, Saudi Arabia, Suriname, New Caledonia, and the United States.

Official status

Indonesian is the official language of Indonesia.



The following are phonemes of modern Indonesian.

Front Central Back
Close-mid e ə o
Open-mid (ɛ) (ɔ)
Open a

Indonesian also has the diphthongs /ai/, /au/, and /oi/. In closed syllables, such as air (water), however, the two vowels are not pronounced as a diphthong.

Labial Apical Postalveolar Palatal Velar Glottal
Nasal m n
ɲ ŋ  
Plosive p b t d     k g ʔ
Affricate     ʧ ʤ      
Fricative (f) s (z) (ʃ)   (x) h
Liquid   l r        
Approximant w     j    

Note: The vowels between parentheses are allophones while the consonants in parentheses are loan phonemes and as such only occur in loanwords.

Learning pronunciation

Here are a few useful tips for the learner:

  • /k/, /p/, and /t/ are unaspirated, i.e. they are not followed by a noticeable puff of air as they often are in English words.
  • /t/ and /d/ are dental, rather than alveolar as in English.
  • When /k/ is at the end of a syllable it becomes a glottal stop, which sounds like it is cut off sharply e.g. baik, bapak. This is similar to a number of English dialects where final /t/ is glottalized ("got", "what"). Only a few Indonesian words have this sound in the middle, e.g. bakso ("meatballs"), and it may be represented by an apostrophe in Arabic derived words such as Al Qur'an.
  • The letter 'c' is pronounced /tʃ/, like an English ch, e.g. kucing (meaning "cat") is pronounced /kutʃiŋ/ ("koo-cheeng"). It is never pronounced /k/ as in "call" or /s/ as in "certain".
  • Stress is placed on the penultimate (second-to-last) syllable of each base word. But if this syllable contains a schwa then the accent moves to the last syllable.

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


Word order

Adjectives, demonstrative pronouns and possessive pronouns follow the noun they modify.

The basic word order of Indonesian is Subject Verb Object (SVO). However many Indonesians will speak in a passive/objective voice, making use of the Object Verb Subject word order. This OVS word order in Indonesian will often permit the omission of the subject and/or object (i.e. ellipses of noun/pronoun) and can benefit the speaker/writer in two ways:

1) Adding a sense of politeness and respect to a statement or question

For example, a polite shop assistant in a store may avoid the use of pronouns altogether and ask:

Ellipses of pronoun (Subject & Object) Literal English Idiomatic English
Bisa dibantu? Can + to be helped? Can (I) help (you)?

2) Convenience when the subject is unknown, not important or implied by context

For example, a friend may enquire as to when you bought your property, to which you may respond:

Ellipses of pronoun (Implied Subject) Literal English Idiomatic English
Rumah ini dibeli lima tahun yang lalu House this + to be purchased five year(s) ago The house was purchased five years ago

Ultimately, the choice between active and passive voice (and therefore word order) is a choice between actor and patient and depends quite heavily on the language style and context.

Word Formation

Indonesian is an agglutinative language and new words are generally formed via three methods. New words can be created through affixation (the attaching of affixes onto root words), formation of a compound word (a composition of two or more separate words), or reduplication (repetition of words or portions of words).


Unlike in English, adjectives in the Indonesian language follow the nouns that they describe:

Indonesian English literal gloss English free translation
Mobil merah Car red Red car
Dia orang yang terkenal sekali He/she person which well-known very He/she is a very famous/well-known person
(Sebuah) cerita panjang (A) story long A long story


The Indonesian language utilises a complex system of affixes (i.e. prefix, infix, suffix and confix (circumfix)). Affixes are applied with certain rules which depend on the initial letter of a base word (BW = base word, eg. a habitual verb, adjective, etc in its simplest form), and/or the sound combination of the second syllable. For example:

  • The affix Ber + ajar (teach) = BeLajar (Note the deletion of 'R' and the addition of 'L')

= to study

  • The affixes Me + ajar + -kan = meNGajarkan (Note the addition of 'NG')

= to teach (transitive)

By comparison

  • The affix Ber + judi (gamble) = Berjudi (Note that Ber- remains unchanged)

= to gamble

  • The affixes Me + judi + -kan = meNjudikan (Note the addition of 'N')

= to gamble away (money, one's life, etc)

Also, depending on the affix used, a word can have different grammatical meanings (e.g. me + makan (memakan) means to eat something (in the sense of digesting it), while di + makan (dimakan) means to be eaten (passive voice), ter + makan (termakan) means to be accidentally eaten. Often two different affixes are used to change the meaning of a word. For example, duduk means to sit down, whereas men + duduk + kan (mendudukkan) means to sit someone/ something down. Men + duduk + i (menduduki) means to sit on something, di + duduk + kan (didudukkan) means to be sat down, diduduki (diduduki) means to be sat on, etc).

As with any language, Indonesian grammar can often present an array of inconsistencies and exceptions. Some base words when combined with two affixes (eg. me + BW + kan) can produce an adjective rather than a verb, or even both. For example, bosan when combined with the affixes me- and -kan produces the word membosankan, meaning boring (adjective) or to bore (someone) (active verb). However, not all base words can be combined with affixes, nor are they always consistent in their subsequent usage and meaning. A prime example is the word tinggal which, when combined with affixes, can change quite dramatically in both meaning and grammatical use:

  • Tinggal (base word (BW) form) = to reside, live (in a place)
  • Meninggal (MeN+BW) = to die, pass away (short form of 'Meninggal dunia' below)
  • Meninggal dunia (MeN+BW + world) = to pass away, to die (lit. pass on from the world)
  • Meninggalkan (MeN+BW+kan) = to leave (a place); to leave behind/abandon (someone/ something)
  • Ketinggalan (Ke+BW+an) = to miss (a bus, train, etc); to be left behind
  • Tertinggal (Ter+BW) = to be (accidentally) left behind
  • Ditinggalkan (Di+BW+kan) = to be left behind; to be abandoned
  • Selamat tinggal (word + BW) = goodbye (said to the person staying)

Noun affixes are affixes that form nouns upon addition to base words. The following are examples of noun affixes:

Type of noun affixes Affix Example of root word Example of derived word
Prefix pe(N)- duduk (sit) penduduk (resident)
ke- hendak (want) kehendak (desire)
Infix -el- tunjuk (point) telunjuk (index finger, command)
-em- kelut (dishevelled) kemelut (chaos, crisis)
-er- gigi (teeth) gerigi (toothed blade, serration)
Suffix -an bangun (wake up, raise) bangunan (building)
Confix ke-...-an raja (king) kerajaan (kingdom)
pe-...-an kerja (work) pekerjaan (occupation)

(N) and (R) indicate that if a word begins with certain letters (most often vowels or consonants k, p, s, t), the letter will either be omitted or other letters will replace it, most commonly with the letters in the bracket or m, ng, ny and l.

Similarly, verb affixes are attached to root words to form verbs. In Indonesian, there are:

Type of verb affixes Affix Example of root word Example of derived word
Prefix be(L)- ajar (teach) belajar (to study) - Intransitive
me(N)- tolong (help) menolong (to help) - Active transitive
me(NG)- gambar (picture) menggambar (to draw) - Active transitive
di- ambil (take) diambil (is being taken) - Passive transitive
memper- dalam (depth) memperdalam (to deepen)
dipe(R)- dalam (deep) diperdalam (is being further deepen)
te(R)- makan (eat) termakan (to have accidentally eaten)
Suffix -kan letak (place, keep) letakkan (keep) - Imperative transitive
-i jauh (far) jauhi (avoid) - Imperative transitive
Confix be(R)-...-an pasang (pair) berpasangan (to be paired)
be(R)-...-kan dasar (base) berdasarkan (based upon)
me(M)-...-kan pasti (certain) memastikan (to ensure)
me(N)-...-i teman (companion) menemani (to accompany)
mempe(R)-...-kan guna (use) mempergunakan (to misuse, to utilise)
mempe(L)-...-i ajar (teach) mempelajari (to study)
ke-...-an hilang (disappear) kehilangan (to lose)
di-...-i sakit (pain) disakiti (is being hurt)
di-...-kan benar (right) dibenarkan (is allowed to)
dipe(R)-...-kan kenal (know, recognise) diperkenalkan (is being introduced)

Adjective affixes are attached to base words to form adjectives:

Type of adjective affixes Affix Example of root word Example of derived word
Prefix te(R)- kenal (know) terkenal (famous)
se- rupa (appearance) serupa (similar (to))
Infix -em- cerlang (radiant bright) cemerlang (bright, excellent)
-er- sabut (husk) serabut (dishevelled)
Confix ke-...-an barat (west) kebaratan (westernized)

In addition to these affixes, Indonesia language also has a lot of borrowed affixes from other languages such as Sanskrit, Arabic and English. For example maha-, pasca-, eka-, bi-, anti-, pro-, pra-, etc.

Compound words

In Indonesian, new words can be formed by conjoining two or more base words. Compound words, when they exist freely in a sentence, are often written separately. Compound words are only attached to each other when they are bound by a confix or when they are already considered as stable words.

For example, the word rumah which means house and makan which means eat, are compounded to form a new word rumah makan (restaurant). Similarly, ambil alih (take over) is formed using the root words ambil (take) and alih (shift), but will link together when a circumfix is attached to it, i.e. pengambilalihan (takeover). Certain stable words, such as kakitangan (personnel), and kerjasama (co-oporation; corporation), are spelled as one word even though the words they consist of can also exist freely in sentences.

Initial Consonant Morphing

Indonesian makes use of initial consonant morphing when using the prefixes me- and pe-. This means that according to the initial sound of the base word, the sounds used in the prefix will differ; this is based on the place of articulation.

The sound following the me- or pe- suffix is usually a nasal(m, n, ny, ng) or liquid(l, r) sound. Which sound is used depends on the point of articulation. E.g. the initial sound of beli, /b/, is a bi-labial sound (pronounced using both the lips), so the nasal bi-labial sound, /m/ is placed before the base word, creating membeli.

The initial consonant is dropped if it is unvoiced(/p/, /t/, /s/, /k/), e.g. menulis/tulis, memilih/pilih.

Grammatical gender

Generally Indonesian does not make use of grammatical gender, and there are only select words that use natural gender. For instance, the same word is used for he and she (dia/ia) or for his and her (dia/ia/-nya). No real distinction is made between "girlfriend" and "boyfriend" (except in the more colloquial terms cewek (girl, girlfriend) and cowok (guy, boyfriend). A majority of Indonesian words that refer to people generally have a form that does not distinguish between the sexes. However, unlike English, distinction is made between older or younger (a characteristic quite common to many Asian languages). For example, adik refers to a younger sibling of either gender and kakak refers to an older sibling, again, either male or female. In order to specify the natural gender of a noun, an adjective must be added. Thus, adik laki-laki corresponds to "younger brother" but really means "younger male sibling".

There are some words that are gendered, for instance putri means "daughter", and putra means "son" and also pramugara means "air steward" (male flight attendant) and pramugari meaning "air stewardess" (female flight attendant). Another example would be olahragawan, which equates to "sportsman", and olahragawati, meaning sportswoman. Often, words like these (or certain suffixes such as "-a" and "-i" or "-wan" and "wati") are absorbed from other languages (in these cases, from Sanskrit through the Old Javanese language). In some regions of Indonesia such as Sumatera and Jakarta, abang (a gender-specific term meaning "older brother") is commonly used as a form of address for older siblings/ males, whilst kakak (a non-gender specific term (meaning "older sibling") is often used to mean "older sister". Similarly, more direct influences from dialects such as Javanese and Chinese languages have also seen further use of other gendered words in Indonesian. For example: Mas (Jav. = older brother), M'bak (Jav. = older sister), Koko ( Hokkien = older brother) and Cici or Cece(Hokkien = older sister).

Measure words

Another distinguishing feature of Indonesian language is its use of measure words. In this way, it is similar to many other languages of Asia, including Chinese, Vietnamese, Burmese, and Bengali.

Examples of these measure words are: ekor (used for animals), buah (generally used for non-living things), orang (used for people), lembar (used for paper), helai (used for long, thin and generally flat things), biji (used for tiny, round things), batang (used for long, stick-like objects), etc. However, these measure words may not always be used in informal conversation.

Indonesian Literal English translation Normal English translation
Tiga ekor sapi Three tails (of) cow Three cows
Sepuluh orang tentara Ten people soldiers Ten soldiers
Lima lembar/ helai/ carik kertas Five sheets/pieces of paper Five sheets/pieces of paper
Sebelas buah apel Eleven fruits (of) apple Eleven apples
  • Importantly, when a measure word is being used in conjunction with only one object, the numeral prefix se- is used in front of the measure word, not satu. Therefore a banana would be translated as (se + MW + object) = sebuah pisang.


There are three major forms of negation used in the Indonesian language, namely tidak, bukan and belum.

  • Tidak (often shortened to tak (written) and nggak (spoken) or by Javanese as ndak) is used for the negation of a verb and adjective.

For example: "saya tidak tahu" = I do not know OR "Ibu saya tidak senang" = My mother is not happy

  • Bukan is used in the negation of a noun.

For example: "Itu bukan anjing saya" = That is not my dog

  • Belum is primarily used to negate a sentence or phrase with the sense that something has not yet been accomplished or experienced. In this sense, belum can also be used as a negative response to a question.

For example: "Anda sudah pernah ke Indonesia (belum)? "Belum, saya masih belum pernah pergi ke Indonesia" = Have you ever been to Indonesia before, (or not)? No, I have not yet been to Indonesia OR "Orang itu belum terbiasa tinggal di Indonesia" = That person is not (yet) used to living in Indonesia.

NB: Another kind of negation involves the word jangan, which equates to the English equivalent of "don't" or "do not". Jangan is used for negating imperatives or advising against certain actions. For example, "Jangan tinggalkan saya di sini!" = 'Don't leave me here!'


Plurals are expressed by means of reduplication, but only when the plural is not implied in the context. Thus "person" is orang, and "people" is orang-orang, but "a thousand people" is seribu orang, as the use of a numeral (i.e. seribu) renders it unnecessary to mark the plural form.

For foreigners learning Indonesian, the concept of grammatical reduplication is not as easy to grasp as it may seem. Besides expressing plurals, reduplication can also be used to create new words that differ in meaning. For instance, hati means "heart" or "liver" (depending on context) whereas hati-hati means "to be careful" and is often used as a verb. As stated above, orang means "person" while orang-orang means "people", but orang-orangan means "scarecrow". Also, not all reduplicated words indicate plural forms of a word with many words naturally expressed in reduplicated form. Examples of these include, biri-biri (sheep), kupu-kupu (butterfly) which can imply both a singular or plural meaning, depending on the context or numeral used.

By contrast, there are also some types of plural words that are expressed by reduplication of a similar sounding (but essentially different) word. In these cases the general sound of a word/phrase is repeated, but the initial letter of the repeated word is changed. A common example of this is sayur-mayur (not sayur-sayur) meaning "vegetables" (plural). Another type of reduplication can be formed through the use of certain affixes (e.g. pe- + -an). For instance, pepohonan ([various kinds of] trees, from the word pohon [tree]), perumahan (houses/ housing, from the word rumah [house]) or pegunungan (mountains, mountain range, from the word gunung [mountain]), and so on.

Another useful word to remember when pluralizing in Indonesian is beberapa, which means "some." For example one may use beberapa pegunungan to describe a series of mountain ranges, and beberapa kupu-kupu to describe (plural) butterflies.


There are two forms of "we", kami or kita, depending on whether the speaker includes the person being talked to. Kami (exclusive) is used when the person or people being spoken to are not included, while kita (inclusive) includes the opposite party. Their usage is increasingly confused in colloquial Indonesian. There are two major forms of "I", which are saya and aku. Despite having the same meaning, saya is definitely the more formal form, whereas Aku is used often used with family, friends and between lovers. There are three common forms of "you", which are kamu, Anda and kalian. Anda is the more polite form of "you" and is used in conversations with someone you barely know, advertising, business situations or with someone whom you wish to respect. Kalian is the common plural form of "you" and is often said to be slightly informal.

NB: Because of the overall structure of Indonesian society and influences from regional dialects, many more different pronouns exist in Indonesian. Some of these 'additional pronouns' may show utmost politeness and respect (eg. saudara/saudari = you (male/female) or Anda sekalian = you (polite, plural form)), may be used only in the most informal of situations (eg. gua/ lu = me/ you - see Indonesian slang), or may even possess somewhat romantic or poetic nuances(eg. daku/dikau = me/you).

Common Indonesian Pronouns

Type Indonesian English
First Person Saya (standard, polite), Aku (informal, familiar), Gua/Gue (informal, slang) I, me
Kami (excl.), Kita (incl.) We, us
Second Person Anda (polite, formal), Saudara(male)/Saudari(female) (polite, formal) You
Kamu (familiar, informal), (Eng)kau (familiar, informal), Lu (informal, slang) You
Kalian (plural, informal), Anda sekalian (plural, formal), Saudara(i)-saudara(i) (polite) You (plural)
Third Person Ia, Dia He, she, it
Beliau (addressing to high respected person ) He, She
Mereka They

Possessive pronouns

Type of possessive pronouns Possessive pronouns Example of root word Example of derived word(s)
First person Saya, Aku (I) -ku meja (table) mejaku (my table)
Kami (we, referring to 1st and 3rd person), kita (we, referring to 1st and 2nd person) ... (milik) kami/kita kursi (chair) kursi (milik) kami, kursi (milik) kita (our chair)
Second person Kamu (you) -mu meja (table) mejamu (your table)
Anda, Saudara (you(polite)) ... (milik) Anda/Saudara kursi (chair) kursi (milik) Anda/Saudara (your chair)
Kalian (you(plural)) ... (milik) kalian kursi (chair) kursi (milik) kalian (your chair)
Third person Dia, Ia (he, she, it) -nya meja (table) mejanya (his, her, its table)
Beliau (he, she, it (polite)) ... (milik) Beliau meja (table) meja (milik) Beliau (his, her, its table)
Mereka (they) ... (milik) mereka kursi (chair) kursi (milik) mereka (their chair)

Demonstrative pronouns

There are two kinds of demonstrative pronouns in the Indonesian language. Ini (this, these) is used for a noun which is generally near to the speaker. Itu (that, those) is used for a noun which is generally far from the speaker. There is no difference between singular form and the plural form. However, plural can be indicated through duplication of a noun followed by a demonstrative pronoun. Also, the word yang is often placed before demonstrative pronouns to give emphasis and a sense of certainty, particularly when making references or enquiries about something/ someone.

Various Uses

Demonst. Pronoun Simple Use English Meaning
Ini Buku ini This book
Itu Kucing itu That cat
Demonst. Pronoun Plural Form (via Noun duplication) English Meaning
Ini Buku-buku ini These books
Itu Kucing-kucing itu Those cats
Demonst. Pronoun + yang Example Sentence English Meaning
Yang ini Q: Anda mau membeli buku yang mana?

A: Saya mau beli yang ini

Q: Which book do you wish to purchase?

A: I would like this one (this book)

Yang itu Q: Kucing mana yang makan tikusmu?

A: Yang itu!

Q: Which cat ate your mouse?

A: That one (that cat)!


Verbs are not inflected for person or number, and they are not marked for tense; tense is instead denoted by time adverbs (such as "yesterday") or by other tense indicators (sometimes referred to as aspect particles), such as belum (not yet) or sudah (already). On the other hand, there is a complex system of verb affixes to render nuances of meaning and denote active-passive voices. Such affixes include prefixes, infixes, suffixes, and their combinations; whose usage rules are often ignored in informal conversations.


Although the basic word order of Indonesian is Subject Verb Object (SVO), as mentioned above, it is possible to make frequent use of passive voice or to scramble word order, thus adding emphasis on a certain sentence particle. The particle being emphasised is usually placed at the beginning of the sentence. In spoken Indonesian, the aspect of the sentence being emphasised is usually followed by a short pause before continuing on with the remainder of the sentence.

Some examples include:

  • Saya pergi ke pasar kemarin "I went to the market yesterday" — neutral, or with emphasis on the subject.
  • Kemarin saya pergi ke pasar "Yesterday I went to the market" — emphasis on yesterday.
  • Ke pasar saya pergi, kemarin "To the market I went yesterday" — emphasis on where I went yesterday.
  • Pergi ke pasar, saya, kemarin "To the market went I yesterday" — emphasis on the process of going to the market.

NB: Some of the above examples (namely the latter two) are more likely to be encountered in spoken Indonesian rather than written forms of the language.


Indonesian as a modern dialect of Malay has borrowed heavily from many languages, including: Sanskrit, Arabic, Persian, Portuguese, Dutch, Chinese and many other languages, including other Austronesian languages. It is estimated that there are some 750 Sanskrit loanwords in modern Indonesian, 1,000 Arabic loans, some of Persian and Hebrew origin, some 125 words of Portuguese (also Spanish and Italian) origin 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 (incl. Old Malay) 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 Western European languages. Residents of Bali and Java tend to be particularly 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 life. The Sanskrit influence came from contacts with India long ago before the time of Christ. 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. Sanskrit loanwords, unlike those from other languages, have entered the basic vocabulary of Indonesian to such an extent that, for many, they are no longer perceived to be foreign.

The loanwords from Arabic are mainly concerned with religion, in particular with Islam, as can be expected. Allah is the word for God even in Christian Bible translations. 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, the name Jesus was initially translated as 'Isa, but 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.

Loanwords from Portuguese 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 to sail east to the " Spice Islands".

The Chinese loanwords are usually concerned with cuisine, trade or often just exclusively things Chinese. There is a considerable Chinese presence in the whole of Southeast Asia. According to the 2000 census, the relative number of people of Chinese descent in Indonesia is almost 1%, although this may likely be an underestimate.

The former colonial power, the Netherlands, 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 [sə'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, unsurprisingly, slightly 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 words for the Bible are Alkitab and Injil, both directly derived from Arabic. The book containing the penal code is also called the kitab. Buku is the most common word for books.

In addition to those above (and the borrowed words listed under the sub-heading History towards the top of this article), there are also direct borrowings from various other languages of the world, such as "karaoke" from Japanese, and " modem" from English.

Spoken & informal Indonesian

In very informal spoken Indonesian, various words are replaced with those of a less formal nature (e.g. tidak (no) is often replaced with the Javanese nggak whilst seperti (like, similar to) is often replaced with kayak (pronounced kai-yuck)). As for pronunciation, the diphthongs ai and au on the end of base words are typically pronounced as /e/ and /o/. In informal writing the spelling of words is modified to reflect the actual pronunciation in a way that can be produced with less effort. E.g.: capai becomes cape or capek, pakai become pake, kalau becomes kalo.

In verbs, the prefix me- is often dropped, although an initial nasal consonant is usually retained. E.g.: mengangkat becomes ngangkat (the basic word is angkat). The suffixes -kan and -i are often replaced by -in. E.g.: mencarikan becomes nyariin, menuruti becomes nurutin. The latter grammatical aspect is one often closely related to Indonesian found in Jakarta and surrounding areas.

Writing system

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

Consonants are represented in a way similar to Italian, although c is always /ʧ/ (like English "tch"), g is always /g/ ("hard") and j represents /ʤ/ as it does in English. In addition, ny represents the palatal nasal /ɲ/, ng is used for the velar nasal /ŋ/ (which can occur word-initially), sy for /ʃ/ (English "sh") and kh for the voiceless velar fricative /x/. Both /e/ and /ə/ are represented with an e.

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:

oe u
tj c
dj j
j y
nj ny
sj sy
ch kh

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.

Idioms and Proverbs

Ada gula, Ada semut.

Lit. "Where there's sugar, there are ants". Equivalent to the modern English idiom "Where there's a will there's a relative". Where there is a good thing (sugar) there will be people taking advantage of it (ants). Indonesian idioms can be quite cynical.

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