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Number of Speakers: About 190,000,000

Key Dialects: Jakarta

Geographical Center: Indonesia

Indonesian is a form of Malay, spoken in Indonesia. The term “Indonesian” is political rather than linguistic, as Indonesian Malay (called Bahasa Indonesia in Indonesia) is virtually identical with Bahasa Melayu, another variety of Malay, as spoken in Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei. The term “Indonesian” was adopted in the beginning of the 20th century, as Indonesian became the national language of Indonesia.

There are about 35,000,000 first language speakers of Indonesian, and about over 150,000,000 second language speakers. Outside Indonesia, Indonesian is spoken in the Netherlands, Phillipines, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, and the US.

Indonesian belongs to the Austronesian language family. The Austronesian language family is one of the largest linguistic families of the world. According to the most widely accepted classification of the Austronesian languages, Indonesian belongs to the Western branch of the Malayo-Polynesian group of the Austronesian family. According to Ethnologue, Indonesian is classified in the following way: Indonesian < Local Malay < Malayan < Malaic < Sundic < Western < Malayo-Polynesian < Austronesian. Related languages include Javanese, Madurese, and Sundanese.

The dialectal differences among the speakers of Indonesian are insignificant, although there are some lexical differences between the two varieties of Malay, spoken in Indonesia on the one hand and Malaysia on the other hand. Indonesian Malay has been influenced to some extent by Javanese. Standard Indonesian pronunciation is based on the language of Jakarta.

Indonesian uses the Latin script, introduced in the beginning of the 20th century by Europeans. It underwent a reform in 1972, whereby the spelling of the following sounds was modified, cf. j [j] > y; tj > c; dj > j; nj > ny; ch > kh; ’ > k. The letter e is used to denote two sounds, viz. the front vowel [e] and the central schwa vowel. The vowel [e] is sometimes denoted by é, in order to distinguish it from schwa (especially in older books).

Indonesian has 21 consonants, 2 affricates, 8 monophthongs and 3 diphthongs. The consonants q, v, x, and z occur only in foreign vocabulary. The affricates are c and j. The diphthongs are ai, au and oi. The stress falls on the penultimate syllable. In Indonesian, assimilation is very active, and it plays an important role in derivational morphology (see examples in the morphological section below).

Indonesian is usually considered to be an isolating language, but it has an elaborate system of derivation and widely uses affixation. In Indonesian, there is no inflexion, and primary (non-derived) words are bare roots, e.g. api ‘fire’, makan ‘eat’. Relationship between words within a sentence is expressed entirely by means of syntax.

Indonesian words (including nouns, adjectives, verbs etc.) can be classified into primary and derived. Primary words are monomorphic, e.g. luang ‘free’, buat ‘to make’, air ‘water’, etc. Derived words can be classified further. The first group, which are derived by means of affixation, consists of the following sub-groups: prefixed, e.g. pengendara ‘driver’ (peng- + kendara ‘drive’); suffixed, e.g. dataran ‘plain’ (datar ‘flat’ + -an); circumfixed, e.g. pembuatan ‘production’ (pem- + buat ‘make’ + -an). Another group of derivatives are reduplicated words, e.g. api-api ‘matches’ (< api ‘fire’). Within this group there is a little semantic sub-group of irregularly reduplicated nouns, such as lauk-pauk ‘all sorts of spices’ (< lauk ‘spice’), sayur-mayur ‘all sorts of vegetables’ (< sayur ‘vegetable’), etc. The third group of derivative words are compounds, e.g. masuk-argin ‘catch a cold’ (< masuk ‘enter’ + argin ‘wind’), air-batu ‘ice’ (< air ‘water’ + batu ‘stone’). The fourth group contains words of mixed type. These words are often formed by means of reduplication used along with affication, e.g. menari-nari ‘to dance’ (< men- + reduplicated tari ‘dance’), dengar-dengaran ‘to listen carelessly’ (redupl. dengar ‘listen’ + -an), pukul-memukul ‘hit each other, exchange blows’ (redupl. pukul ‘blow’ + infixed -me-), etc.

Indonesian may be said to have a category of definiteness. To make words definite, the particles si and sang (honorific) can be used. Plurality is generally left unexpressed, and is made clear by the context. Sometimes a superscribed index ‘2’ is used in order to express plurality, cf. rumah2 ‘houses’ (undefined plural). Another way to form plurals is through reduplication. Indonesian words do not have grammatical gender, but natural gender can be expressed by means of the auxiliary words laki-laki or le-laki for male persons, and perempuan or wanita for females. Speaking about animals, the auxiliary words jantan (for male creatures) and betina (for females) are used. The nouns dewa ‘god’ (< Sanskrit deva- ‘id.’) and dewi ‘goddess’ (< Sanskr. devī ’id.’) have preserved the gender of their base words. Verb categories, such as voice and tense, are expressed by means of particles and auxiliary words.

The most common word order in Indonesian is SVO, but OVS and OSV occur as well.

Indonesian has a large number of loanwords. Many of them have entered the language from Sanskrit during the Middle Ages. The Sanskrit loanwords include bahasa ‘language’, danta ‘ivory’, guru ‘teacher’, isteri ‘woman’, kesatria ‘warrior’, raja ‘king’, etc. After Indonesia adopted Islam, a number of words was borrowed from Arabic, e.g. Allah ‘Allah, God’, Alkitab ‘the Bible’, iktisab ‘profit’, hakim ‘judge’, etc. There is a large group of borrowings from the European languages, e.g. tempo ‘time’ (from Portuguese), sepéda ‘bicycle’ (from French), buku ‘book’, hem ‘shirt’ (both from Dutch), etc. Indonesian also has a small amount of Chinese borrowings, e.g. capcai ‘stir-fried vegetables’.

Indonesian is the official language of Indonesia. The standard dialect of Indonesia is that of the capital, Jakarta (island of Java). The Jakartan dialect has been influenced to some extent by Javanese and Sundanese, other two major languages of Indonesia. There is an 88.5% literacy rate.

It is believed that the homeland of Malay was in Sumatra (western Indonesia), and proto-Malay people came there shortly before the beginning of our era. The earliest texts, written in an archaic form of Malay, date back to the 7th century AD. These early texts (stone inscriptions) were written in the ancient Pallavi script, which evolved out of southern varieties of Indian Brahmi script. They were created in the early stages of the Srivijaya empire, a powerful Buddhist state, and one of the most powerful states and main cultural centers of that time. Its capital was Palembang, one of the largest cities of that time. In the course of time Srivijaya declined, and was succeeded by other empires, the most extensive of which was the one established by the successors of prince Vijaya, with the capital Majapahit. This empire underwent a major crisis in the middle of the 15th century, and gradually disintegrated. In the 15th century Indonesia adopted Islamic faith, and has been predominantly Islamic until the present day.

During the epoch of Srivijaya and other empires, Indonesia was an important trade center, and Malay emerged as the main trade language of the region. In the course of time, under influence from the languages of traders of non-Indonesian origins, such as Arabic, Chinese, later also Western European (Portuguese and Dutch), this language underwent major changes, becoming essentially a pidgin language. The Malay spoken by traders, was generally called “bazaar Malay”. On the contrary, the Malay as spoken in the Indonesian court remained more or less unaltered. Court Malay is considered “classical Malay” and is the language in which the large corpus of medieval Malay literature was written.

The beginning of the 20th century marked the beginning of a new era for the Indonesian language. In 1928, the Indonesian Youth Congress took place in Jakarta, and in this Congress it was decided that Indonesia should have an official national language, which would thenceforth be called “Indonesian” (bahasa Indonesia). As the base for this language, classical Malay was selected. The pronunciation of Jakarta was chosen as the standard Indonesian pronunciation.

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Alijeva, N. F.; Arakin, V. D.; Ogloblin, A. K.; Sirk, Y. H. 1972. “Grammatika indonezijskogo jazyka”. Izdatel’stvo “Nauka”, Moskva.

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Phillips, N. G. 1994. “Austronesian Languages”. In: Asher, R. E. (Editor-in-Chief). 1994. “The Encyclopedia of Languages and Linguistics”. Vol. 1. Pergamon Press, Oxford – New York – Seoul – Tokyo. Pp. 274 – 6.

Sirk, Y. H. 1998. “Indonezijskije jazyki”. In: Jarceva, V. N. (Editor-in-Chief). “Jazykoznanije. Bol’šoj enciklopedičeskij slovar’”. Naučnoje izdatel’stvo “Bol’šaja russkaja enciklopedija”. 1-oje izdanije 1990. Moskva. P. 192.

Steinhauer, Hein. 2001. “Malay/Indonesian”. In: “Facts about the World’s Languages: An Encyclopaedia of the World’s Major Languages, Past and Present”. Edited by Jane Garry and Carl Rubino. The H. N. Wilson Company, New York and Dublin. Pp. 452 – 8.

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