The official language of Indonesia, very similar to Malay, and in fact derived from it. Came into being very recently, with the independence movement (One language, one nation!). Exceptionally easy for westerners to learn, among the asian languages.

No tones. No plurals. No verb tenses. No articles. Very few different vowels. Very few consonant clusters.

Most importantly, English and bahasa Indonesia are linguistic twins...not that they are historically related, but they share in common almost all important linguistic parameters, such as subject-verb-object and head-initial word order. The effect of this is that if you do a word-for-word translation of something in Indonesian, the chances are good that you will come out with something close to a grammatical sentence in English, without having to swap everything around. Don't try this with Japanese...or German for that matter. Calling it simply "bahasa" is a common mistake. Bahasa means language.

Indonesian/Malay is the largest member of the very widespread Austronesian language family. About the only difference between Indonesian and Malay was the spelling, derived from their respective colonial languages, but the Dutch-based spelling was abandoned in the 1970s in favour of the English-based Malay orthography, so they are now spelt the same.

Malay is in origin a lingua franca, a simplified common form of local languages such as Javanese, Sundanese, and Balinese. Languages such as these have considerable formality levels built into them, which Malay/Indonesian mostly lacks. In addition to modern Dutch or English borrowings, it has a fair bit of vocabulary from Arabic and Sanskrit.

The word bahasa just means 'language': Bahasa Melayu = Malay, Bahasa Inggeris = English. The word for 'person' is orang, as in Orang Indonesia 'Indonesian (person)'.


  • C is as in cello, church (formerly tj)
  • J is as in jam (formerly dj)
  • NG is as in singer, and the compound sound in finger, mango is written NGG
  • R is rolled
  • SY is as in sugar, shirt (formerly sj)
  • Y is as in yes (formerly j)

H is pronounced even at the end of a word (masih 'still'). K at the end of a word is a glottal stop, and a glottal stop is also attached to any initial vowel: so anak 'child' is [?ana?].

Stress is generally penultimate. The letter E represents two different sounds, one a full vowel as in 'bed'. In dictionaries this is sometimes marked with an acute, as in péndék 'short'. The other use of E is as a schwa or neutral vowel, usually inserted between two consonants that are hard to pronounce together: pilem 'film', delapan 'eight', negara 'country'. This is unstressed, so belum 'not yet' is almost [blum], and Inggeris 'English' is almost [?iŋgris].


Instead of tenses it uses temporal adverbs, and other words that function like English modals:
Hasan minum kopi 'Hasan drinks, drank, or will drink coffee'
Hasan sedang minum kopi 'Hasan is drinking coffee'
Hasan sudah minum kopi 'Hasan has drunk coffee'
Hasan akan minum kopi 'Hasan will drink coffee'
Hasan masih minum kopi 'Hasan is still drinking coffee'
Hasan mau minum kopi 'Hasan wants to drink coffee'
Hasan bisa minum kopi 'Hasan can drink coffee'

Hasan tidak minum kopi 'Hasan does not drink coffee'
Hasan belum minum kopi 'Hasan has not yet drunk coffee'
Hasan tidak mau minum kopi 'Hasan does not want to drink coffee'

Most transitive verbs can take two prefixes, me- (with some phonetic change) if the subject is focused and di- if the object is:

Ratna membeli kopi 'Ratna buys coffee'
Kopi dibeli Ratna same meaning, more common than the English passive 'Coffee is bought by Ratna'.

It distinguishes inclusive and exclusive first person plural: kita means 'I and some others (but not you)', while kami means 'I and you (and maybe some others)'.

There is no word 'the' but its place may be supplied by ini 'this' or itu 'that' after the noun: buku itu 'that (or the) book'. These are also the pronouns: apa itu? 'what (is) that?' -- itu buku besar 'that (is) (a) big book'.

Possession is indicated by simple juxtaposition: buku saya 'my book' (saya = 'I'), buku Ratna 'Ratna's book'. But the third person possessive pronoun is the suffix -nya, e.g. bukunya 'his, her, its, or their book'.

The pronoun 'you' is engkau or kamu, but these are familiar; more formally you use the person's name or a title like saudara or tuan 'sir', nyonya 'madam', nona 'miss', ibu 'mother, elderly lady', bapak 'father, elderly man':

apa engkau mau minum? 'what do you want to drink?'
or apa Hasan mau minum?
or apa saudara mau minum?

The numerals one to ten are satu, dua, tiga, empat, lima, enam, tujuh, delapan, sembilan, sepuluh. The combining form of satu is se-: the words for 20, 30 etc are dua puluh, tiga puluh etc. As with many Asian languages, numbers take a classifier. So people are counted with orang 'person', sheets (of paper etc.) with helai, and there are various others. 'Child' is anak, so 'one child' is seorang anak, 'three children' is tiga orang anak. Plurals are not needed, but may be formed by reduplication: anak-anak.

The old (Dutch) spelling of Bahasa Indonesia

Bahasa Indonesia used to be spelled more in line with Dutch pronunciation than it is currently. I believe the change was made at the time it was declared the official language after World War II, or some time thereafter.
Some examples are:
  • dj became j, as in:
    • Djakarta -> Jakarta
    • djangan -> jangan
  • oe became u, as in:
    • Bandoeng -> Bandung
    • soedah -> sudah
    • doeloe -> dulu
    • doerian -> durian
As for the two variants of the language, namely Malay and Indonesian, the difference goes further than just spelling. A lot of words were borrowed from the 'occupying' language. In Malay from English, in Indonesian from Dutch.
For example:
  • knalpot (old Dutch: knalpot) for exhaust pipe (of a car)
  • polisi (Dutch: politie) for police
  • pabrik (Dutch: fabriek) for factory
  • paspor (Dutch: paspoort) for passport
  • abonemen (Dutch: abonnement) for subscription (e.g. for a magazine)
Of course, English and Dutch are also related, so the word for police is nearly identical in both Bahasa Indonesia and Bahasa Malaysia (IIRC, in Bahasa Malaysia it is polis).

As for written plurals in Bahasa Indonesia, the short form for these is to append a superscript '2' to the plural form of a word. For example:
  • anak2 is short for anak-anak, the plural of anak, which means child
  • angan2 is short for angan-angan

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