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Bahasa Indonesia

The Indonesian language

Indonesian is the official language of Indonesia. The local term for it is Bahasa Indonesia (Language of Indonesia) and it is sometimes wrongly referred to simply as "Bahasa". It is the first language of many residents of the big cities (especially Jakarta) but outside the cities, in smaller town and villages, it is usually a second language behind the regional language of that area. So, if you have brushed up on your Indonesian and spend some time in East Java or Bali, for example, don't be surprised if you don't understand much. The people are probably speaking Javanese or Balinese. Not to worry however; Indonesia is the lingua franca of the archipelago and just about everyone understands and speaks it.

  • Online Indonesian Dictionaries
  • Bahasa Indonesia became Indonesia's official language after independence in 1945. As such, it is now almost exclusively used for education and in the media. Its use by most of the country's roughly 230 million people makes it one of the most spoken languages on Earth. It is similar to the Malay (Bahasa Melayu) used in neighboring Malaysia and Singapore. Malay became popular as a language of trade in the Strait of Malacca in the 15th century and from there it spread to other parts, including to parts of present-day Indonesia. Many of the differences between the two languages result from the influences of Javanese (the dominant social group) and Dutch (the old colonial power) on Indonesian. Ironically nowadays, Bahasa Indonesia is turning the tables and spreading back into Malaysia in the form of popular music and movies. This is proving a bit of a bone of contention for the Malay purists.

    Most foreigners agree that Indonesian is fairly easy to pick up, and many quickly become adept at conversational Indonesian. Even travelers here for a short time often learn enough basics to get by. Its syntax is fairly simple and vocabulary quite small. The Indonesian that most outsiders learn and that which is spoken by the majority of Indonesians themselves, is quite different from correct Indonesian. Proper Indonesian is used in literature and by most media, which is significantly more complex. Spoken or street Indonesian deviates from the correct form of the language in terms of regional dialects (most prominently the Betawi dialect of Jakarta), slang words, as well as Indonesia's fondness for abbreviations, acronyms and portmanteaus. You may hear a primary school (sekolah dasar) referred to as SD (which will sound like ‘ess day') or the scourge of the country: corruption, collusion and nepotism, (korupsi, kolusi, nepotisme) as KKN (ka ka en).  A store with a residence above it becomes a ruko from house (rumah) and store (toko) and, similarly, some of the hard stuff is called  miras from drink (minuman) and hard (keras). It all seems simple enough at first, but can get a bit confusing.

    Indonesians also love to adopt words from other languages. Unlike French, which has watchdogs to maintain its purity, Indonesian contains, even in its correct form, words happily snatched from other languages. These are usually the languages of countries that have had a direct influence on the archipelago in recent history. Many Dutch words are to be found, often for more recent innovations like the refrigerator (kulkas) or car tire (ban mobil). There is Portuguese (think Catholic) for church and Sunday (gereja/minggu); culinary-flavored Chinese for knife, noodles and teacup (pisau/mie/cawan); lofty Sanskrit for earth, humankind and religion (bumi/manusia/agama); Arabic for news and welcoming (kabar/selamat) as well as many Islamic terms and Javanese with the widely used term for I/me, aku. These are just a few of countless other examples. Even the French have got in there. A gift (kado) is a phonetic version of cadeau.

    English, as in many parts of the globe, is having more and more of an impact on Indonesian today. English words, despite the local equivalents, seem to be in fashion, infiltrating the local media. For installation and implementation, you'll hear instalasi and implementasi where pemasangan and pelaksanaan would do. Despite all these influences, or perhaps because of them, Indonesian remains a fun and vibrant language to use. It's no stickler for the rules - variations in spelling abound - and is often descriptive and charming. Sun is matahari (eye of the day), your loved one is your buah hati (fruit of the heart) and there is the lovely phrase given to a particular part of the female anatomy - buah dada meaning "fruits of the chest".


    To pronounce Indonesian words correctly, you need to listen carefully to teachers and native speakers, but the following guide will give you a rough idea how to sound words out. Unlike English, Indonesian is relatively consistent in matching sounds to spellings, but there are some exceptions to this, and there are several sounds that can sometimes be tricky for English speakers.

    The Alphabet

    Here's a very approximate guide to how an English-speaker might pronounce the Indonesian alphabet:

    A ah B bay C chay D day E ay F ef G gay
    H ha I ee J jay K kah L el M em N en
    O oh P pay Q key R air S es T tay U oo
    V vair W way X iks Y yay Z zet

    Oscar Kilo Uniform Sierra India

    Need to spell your name to an Indonesian over the phone? Or your pronunciation of the Indonesian alphabet sucks? Try learning the NATO phonetic alphabet, more formally the international radiotelephony spelling alphabet; all Indonesians know it! It's a legacy of Indonesia's militaristic past (and present to some extent).

    LetterCode wordPronunciationIPA from ICAO
    A Alfa AL FAH ˈælfɑ
    B Bravo BRAH VOH ˈbrɑːˈvo
    C Charlie CHAR LEE 
    D Delta DELL TAH ˈdeltɑ
    E Echo ECK OH ˈeko
    F Foxtrot FOKS TROT ˈfɔkstrɔt
    G Golf GOLF gʌlf
    H Hotel HO TELL
    I India IN DEE AH ˈindiˑɑ
    J Juliett
    JEW LEE ETT ˈdʒuːliˑˈet
    K Kilo KEY LOH ˈkiːlo
    L Lima LEE MAH ˈliːmɑ
    M Mike MIKE mɑik
    N November NO VEM BER noˈvembə
    O Oscar OSS CAH ˈɔskɑ
    P Papa PAH PAH pəˈpɑ
    Q Quebec KEH BECK keˈbek
    R Romeo ROW ME OH ˈroːmiˑo
    S Sierra SEE AIR RAH siˈerɑ
    T Tango TANG GO ˈtængo
    U Uniform YOU NEE FORM ˈjuːnifɔːm
    V Victor VIK TAH ˈviktɑ
    W Whiskey WISS KEY ˈwiski
    X X-ray ECKS RAY  ˈeksˈrei
    Y Yankee YANG KEY ˈjænki
    Z Zulu ZOO LOO ˈzuːluː

    Numbers and Counting

    1 - satu

    2 - dua

    3 - tiga

    4 - empat

    5 - lima

    6 - enam

    7 - tujuh

    8 - delapan

    9 - sembilan

    10 - sepuluh


    Good morning - selamat pagi

    Good evening - selamat malam



    Please - tolong

    Try - coba

    wish/hope - harap

    Thank you - terima kasih

    Useful Phrases

    One more Bintang beer, Miss! - Bir Bintang satu lagi, mbak!

    Contributor: Nick Aarons


      Marmalade   26 Dec 08 19:03

    The 'useful phrase' got me through the first couple of years! What about directions? For taxis etc...

    (Turn) left - (belok) kiri

    (Turn) right - (belok) kanan

    U-turn - putar balik

    Here - di sini (often shortened to sini)

    There - di sana (often shortened to sana)

    Stop - berhenti (or stop is usually ok. You will often hear 'op, 'op, op shouted by parking atttendants)

    Wait a moment, Sir - tunggu sebentar, Pak.

      RasGulla   11 Mar 09 12:41

    whilst this summation of the Indonesian language is all but pointless, has anyone noticed the new tendancy to refer to "Bank BCA" as "Bee-See-Ay", rather than "Beh-Chay-Ah", in line with the Malay way of doing things?

      okusi   11 Mar 09 13:49

    Use of "Che" and "Se" for the letter C has been interchangeable for quite some time. Perhaps it's because when we foreigners were first learning Indonesian we were taught to say "Che", and thus automatically assume this to be "correct".

      RasGulla   11 Mar 09 13:53

    While you might be "dictionary" right with "wish/hope - harap", in polite Indonesian, "harap" is considered to be a request, like "harus" or "wajib" or even "perintah". "Tamu harap lapor" - is more than just a vague hope that guests will report. Suwe ora jamu - wis.

      Santi   13 Nov 09 13:38

    Dear foreigners,

    I welcome you all professionals/business and students of many disciplines to participate in Bahasa Indonesia Tutoring Program at your office or home. My service coverages are around Jakarta, Bogor, Depok, Tangerang and Bekasi. As a Bahasa Teacher, I would be happy to share with you the Indonesian language and cultures in private and intensively, so that you can communicate Bahasa Indonesia both spoken and written fluently; and having knowledge about Indonesian cultures.

    Please feel free to contact my cell phone 6221 938 13 708 and email to santiayu@yahoo.com for details.

    Ayo Bicara Indonesia

    P.S.: I also do interpretation and translation projects.

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