Three Interesting Things About Indonesian

January 19, 2016 |

By Sarah-Claire Jordan

Indonesia Ethnic Groups languagesWe have already discussed a bit about the main languages of Indonesia, and have come to see that Indonesian, a variety of Malay that became standardized, is the official language of the country and is spoken by the majority of its citizens. Before it was declared the official language of the country, it was used as a lingua franca for people from the different islands of Indonesia to communicate with each other.

Besides its history as a lingua franca and the fact that it is a variety of Malay, Indonesian still has its fair share of interesting characteristics. Here are just a few:

1. Arabic has influenced the language greatly

Given that Indonesia is the country with the greatest Muslim population in the world, it only makes sense that many of the words used in Indonesian have come from Arabic, the original language of Islam. Most of the words borrowed from Arabic are about religion, such as words for God and different positions for religious leaders. The interesting thing, however, is that these words have penetrated the rest of the language so much so that the word for God, even when talking about the Jewish or Christian God, is still Allah, and the word for Catholic priest is “imam”, which means “prayer leader” in Arabic.

2. There is almost no gender in Indonesian

In terms of gender, we are talking about grammatical gender, such as words that are used only to describe a person who is female or male. There are no words in Indonesian that mean “him/his” or “her/hers”, but there are gender neutral words that mean the same thing. The words “girlfriend” and “boyfriend” don’t exist either, with one word being used to say the same thing without referring to the gender of the person. Most words in Indonesian, with some exceptions of course, that refer to people do not have gender. That being said, there are a few words that do have gender, like the words for steward and stewardess, but most of these are borrowed from other languages that do have grammatical gender.

3. Regional languages influence Indonesian slang

Indonesia is a country with over 700 different native languages and yet only one official language, so it’s only logical that, when speaking in informal settings, some regional words will slip into the conversation. This is also largely due to the fact that, though the majority of the population speaks Indonesian, most people are also fluent in a regional language. One of these regional languages is actually a creole based on Malay. It is called Betawi Malay and is the language of the Betawi people of Indonesia. Some words and phrases from Betawi Malay have made their way into pop culture such as movies, TV shows, and music, and thus have been picked up as slang that many people now use. Sometimes this only comes across in terms of different pronunciation of a word, but other times it means a word is changed so much it hardly resembles the original Indonesian word. Some Javanese words are also used in informal situations.

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Category: Foreign Language

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