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17.3.10

Generally Speaking

Indonesian is a very curious language. It is one of the easiest I have found to get started, and one of the hardest I have found to master. I say that as a Westerner, but also languages have been a life-long hobby of mine. Before coming here, I was fluent in three and conversant in another seven.

Indonesian uses the standard Roman alphabet, which makes it one of the easiest Asian languages to learn for a Westerner. The letters f and x are almost never used. Instead the letter p sounds like f when it appears in the middle of a word. The letter x is replaced with ks, such as taksi. The letter c is pronounced like the English ch. The vowels are the same as most Euro languages: ah, ai, ee, oh, oo.

Indonesian comes from Mulayu, which was a trading language among the islands of the archipelago. Malasian, Indonesian and Tegulu (Phillipines)are all cognates. Though there are dialectical differences, learning one gives you a kick-start for understanding the others. It's the same concept as the romantic or germanic languages of Europe. Knowing Spanish helps with Romanian. Knowing German helps with Norwegian, and so on. Because Indonesian was a trading language, things like numbers and basic concepts like eat, sleep, buy, and sell are ridiculously easy to learn. A Westerner can learn the alphabet in an hour and the number in a day. Concepts like sell/jual just add di at the beginning to become "for sale."

Other easy concepts include plurals. Doubling a noun makes it plural. Orang/person becomes orang-orang for people. In the same way, verbs can be doubled to intensify them. Dengar/hear becomes dengar-dengar for listen.

Pronouns are fairly straight-forward. They don't change based on function, so saya means I/me/my. The tricky ones are pria/ia/dia, which equate to he/she/it, except that dia is a genderless pronoun for a person, not a thing. It functions like they in English when you don't want to use the object's gender or it's not important. The other head-scratcher is kita/kami. Kita means we when the listener is included in the group. Kami means we when the listener is excluded. Indonesian has a formal you, just like all Euro languages (thou/thee/thy in English), but it also has a formal I. In fact, for I and you, there are three levels of formality: saya/aku/gue for I, and Anda/kamu/lu for you. Incidentally, Anda was only added in 1956, and is used mostly in advertising and in very formal communication.

There are a great number of words that have been borrowed into Indonesian that a Westerner will recognize right away. Tranportasi, operasi, dokter, and proyek to list a few. English has borrowed Indonesian words also, such as kecap.

Where Indonesian gets difficult is its structure. The grammar is like nothing I have encountered in European languages. It requires a radical shift in visualization or "framing," as I call it. Things like: rame meaning crowded, noisy and/or chaotic; matahari meaning sun, but is literally "eye day"; buah can mean fruit, each or thing depending on context. A prime example is hati, which means liver or guts in general, but hati-hati means caution and perhatian means attention or beware. This is a very limited list, but it gives you the idea.

Indonesian has a host of affixes that are added to words to change their function or meaning. These include, meng-, peng-, ber-, per-, ter-, -i, -kan, -nya, and -lah. Some of them are quite easy, such as peng-, which added to a verb makes it the person who does the action (tulis=write, penulis=writer). Ter- is a superlative or intensifier, such that bakar/fire becomes terbakar/burn, or baik/good becomes terbaik/best. Others are very difficult, such as meng-, which is added to nouns or verbs and has several different meanings depending on the word and the context. It can change a noun into an adjective, flavor a word (e.g.-lihat/see, melihat/visit, scrutinize or look in on someone) and create continuous action like adding -ing in English. You might have noticed the affixes also create spelling issues, as letters drop or change when adding them, and the rules are arbitrary. For instance, meng- and lihat become melihat, but meng- and obrol become ngobrol.

The one I have the most trouble getting my head around is -nya. I find it most helpful to translate it as "it is." For instance, you might ask someone, "Tidurnya nyenyak?" This equates to, "Sleep (it is) sound?" The "you" is inferred by context. Another example is "istrinya," which is used to when referring to a third person's wife, but never to my or your wife. I'll get back to you on this one when I get it figured out.

Indonesian has no tenses in the sense an English speaker thinks of them. The easiest is the future, where one simply adds akan before the verb, like English adds will. Past tense uses affixes with a very complex set of time statements. For example, before can be said five different ways, depending on whether something happened before in the past, will happen before something else in the future, or that you should do something before something else (like, turn before the river). Words like sedang can indicate a continuous action, like running, or indicate a simultaneous action, like while. When translating sedang, you just have to guess which meaning from context. The same for harus, which can mean must, could or should.

Many verbs are not negated, but rather have separate words for the negative sense. In other words, you don't say may and may not, you say mari and dilarang. Other examples include adalah/is and bukan/isn't, buat/do and jangan/don't. This feature of the language effectively multiplies the vocabulary one must learn in order to read signs and get instructions.

There are a whole slew of speech particles that act as a kind of verbal punctuation that don't have an English translation, making them difficult to conceptualize. They also don't appear in dictionaries, even though they are very common in spoken communication. Some examples are deh, neh, sih and dong. Deh relates two things, like the expression, "Kasihan deh lu," which more or less means "poor baby." Another popular expression is, "Cape deh," which means, "makes me tired," in the sense of saying, "oh hell!" Neh directs a statement to a nearby thing. In fact, just saying neh is a way of getting someone's attention. Sih softens a question so that it is not pointed or harsh. A common expression is, "apa sih?", which is like asking softly, "what is it, dear?" Dong is my favorite. It is a statement of the obvious. For instance, you say, "Its raining," when we are up to our knees in flood waters, and I respond, "Ya dong!"

Finally, there are the things that just don't fit into a Western mind-set. A prime example is love. The Indonesian word for love is kasih, but is almost never used when expressing love for someone. It is mostly used in the sense of the Greek agape, or spiritual love, like God's love. Instead, you would tell your loved one, "Aku cinta pada (ka)mu," which literally means, "I suffer for you." You would also tell them, "Sayang kamu," which translates as, "I pity you." In English, they sound harsh or strange, but in Indonesian, they are tender words cooed to a special person. Other examples are counting animals by the tail instead of the head, counting objects by the fruit, or using completely different words for sing, singer and song. These are the types of concepts that are most difficult to learn because they require radically different conceptualization, or "framing."

In the end, understanding the language is to understand the people and the culture. At first blush, Indonesia is a very different world. Once you begin to understand how folks think here, you can begin to understand why the culture is the way it is.

The next step is manners, but that's another essay altogether.

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