I recently read on Twitter a post from someone that said: “In Bahasa, the word for ‘stay’, is the same as the word for ‘leave.’ What a beautiful thing.” And I thought to myself, yes that is a beautiful thing - unless of course you are breaking up with someone, in which case it might be pretty fucking confusing. I think this perfectly captures the wonderful and frustrating complexity of the Indonesian language, which on its face is so deceptively simple.
When I first set foot in Southeast Asia several years ago, I leapt headlong into trying to learn as many local languages as I could. After all, in America as a speaker of both English and Spanish I was quite exceptional and in true American fashion this made me feel a totally unearned sense of confidence about my ability to master any language and do everything. This illusion melted away like a butter dream as soon as I got to Thailand. You see, before I entered the Kingdom of Thailand I didn’t really understand what a tonal language was. I don’t think many people from English-speaking countries do.
Basically, in a tonal language the meaning of words is based on tonal shifts - the same “word” means different things depending on how it is pitched, whether the intonation rises or falls, that kind of thing. Linguistically, there is nothing like it in English, except when you ask a question like “Did you pee in the flowerpot again, Alex?” as your voice will usually rise at the end of that sentence. But that’s about it. Ours is mostly just a flat, workmanlike language, happy to sail along in monotone, only occasionally peaking and inflecting when we want to show our disappointment with the meatloaf at Hometown Buffet.
Tonal languages are a completely different sort of thing and any native English speaker who claims they can speak one - and didn’t grow up from a very young age being immersed in it - is probably full of shit. The thing is tonal languages are so alien to English, that person may not even realize how bad they are at it. Whenever a white person tells me they can speak Mandarin, I am always very skeptical. The more likely explanation is just that the Chinese people they’ve been speaking to in Mandarin were too polite to tell them to their face that they sucked at it.
Mandarin is probably the most widely used tonal language, but many peninsular Southeast Asian countries also use them - Vietnam, Thailand, Lao. They are all impossibly difficult for a native English speaker. I’ve ultimately just resigned myself to learning a few basic phrases from different countries, which I know I am not pronouncing right, but which have been useful in my travels such as “I like spicy, “I’m drunk”, “You’re pretty”, “How much?” Unless you have an ear like Mozart, it would take many, many years to properly learn even one of these languages.
There is, however, one major Southeast Asian language that is not tonal - the lingua franca of Malaysia and Indonesia, known as Bahasa. Malaysian Bahasa and Indonesian Bahasa are actually a little bit different, but both are a lot more accessible to a native English speaker than any tonal language. For one, they use a Roman script which is easy to read and fairly easy to pronounce, as long as you know how to roll your rrrrrs and can spit out hard g’s. Also, people are fond of (falsely) claiming that Bahasa is a grammar-less language, but of course that is not true. It is just not as complicated as most Latin-based languages - there are no grammatical genders, plurals or complicated verb conjugations, and tenses are specified using time adverbs, if they are specified at all. So, it is simpler than the impossibly stupid rules governing the English language, but that does not mean it has no grammar.
Anyway, I eventually came to the conclusion that Bahasa would be the easiest language to become fluent in, and this heavily influenced my doctoral research because I believe if you are going to study a foreign country, you should become fluent in the local language. Language is really the key to understanding other cultures and societies, because so much meaning and nuance is lost in translation. This is true even in Latin-based languages that share loads of similarities like English and Spanish. There are simply concepts and ideas in Spanish that don’t exist in English, and trying to bridge that gap is the stuff of poetry. So you can imagine how much further removed an Austronesian language like Bahasa is from English is. If you want to do your job right as a student of a foreign country, you must learn the language.
Again, and this is no doubt due to the American hubris built into my DNA, I thought this would be easy. And actually, learning basic, formal Bahasa Indonesian from a textbook is not that hard. But here is the dirty little secret of learning to speak Bahasa - nobody you will meet in your everyday life in Indonesia talks like a textbook. I found this out, and got put in my place pretty quickly, when my girlfriend and I went on our first date and I tried to impress her with my command of her native language. She straight-up laughed in my face (clearly she is not as polite as a Chinese person!) and said, “You sound like an old romance novel.”
This will probably come as a surprise to no one, but it turns out people don’t talk like language textbooks. I was walking around Jakarta thinking I was the shit, speaking like the Indonesian equivalent of fucking Shakespeare - imagine that. In their daily life, Indonesians frequently use vernacular, slang, regional dialects, informal sentence structures and so on. And this is compounded to infinity in Indonesia because of how diverse the archipelago is. This was something I was not truly able to understand until I actually started living here, though of course I had read about it in many books. People writing about Indonesia love to toss out the stats - 300 ethnic groups and 700 regional languages spanning thousands of islands. This is one reason why Indonesian nationalists in the early 20th century pushed for a national language like Bahasa Indonesia - it was a way to fuse the disparate parts of the archipelago together through a shared linguistic bond. But regional languages, for the most part, didn’t just disappear.
So what happened to them? Well, they stuck around, and depending on where you go in Indonesia they co-habitate in every day spoken language along with Bahasa Indonesia. Let’s take where I live, in Central Java, as an example. Most people here speak some combination of formal Bahasa and Javanese. Javanese is a very complex language. Like Japanese, the type of Javanese you are speaking changes depending on the social status of who you are talking to. So middle-class Javanese will be different from what you might find in the desa (village), for instance, and kids speak more formally than adults, which is kind of weird as a 21st century American. Then again, Javanese spoken in Yogya will be a bit different from Javanese spoken in Magelang, even though Magelang is only 17 miles away. Different intonations, some different vocabulary. Then, again, East Javanese is different from Central Javanese, so when I go to Bojonegoro on the border of East and Central Java to stay with Laura’s family, they speak a different kind of Bahasa mixed with their own rural version of East Javanese. Even Laura, who was born there, can only understanding about 70% of what her grandmother is saying.
So when I first arrived in Yogya, I was puzzled because I could sometimes understand some of what people, like my Javanese landlord, were saying, but a lot of what he was saying was unintelligble to me. Part of this is because he speaks in a thick, Jokowi-like accent. And part of it was because he was actually speaking a lot, like a fucking a lot, of Javanese, so of course I couldn’t understand it. And he knows I don’t speak Javanese, but, you know, that’s the language he likes to speak so good on ya mate! He also sells me beer, which is kind of hard to find in this town, so I love this dude.
And that’s just Javanese. In West Java, they speak Sunda. In Bali, they speak Balinese. In Jakarta, Betawi. You can leap-frog to any province in Indonesia, and they will be speaking a mix of their regional language and Bahasa Indonesia, using vernacular and slang that you’ve never heard of. And these are not just regional dialects with small superficial differences, like how in America some Midwestern hot dog farmers refer to soda as “pop.” These are completely different languages, so if a person from Central Java moves to Bali they won’t be able to understand Balinese. Because the Jakarta dialect is so prominent in mass media, everyone knows that “Gue” means “I” in Jakarta slang, but generally speaking as you move about Indonesia, people start lapsing into the pronouns of their regional language. This can be, obviously, very confusing. And this is just a brief, very brief, sampling of the complexity of the way Indonesians actually communicate with one another. Language here is an active thing, very much alive and breeding and hopping around and it’s fucking hard to grab hold of if you’re a noob.
Having said that, most people will understand you just fine if you speak in standard, formal Bahasa. The deeper you go into rural areas, this will be less true, and those with less access to education during their lives will also be less likely to have mastered both languages. So all of this is just a long-winded way of saying that when people talk about diversity in Indonesia, it is no joke. That diversity is baked into everyday language and the way people communicate, and if you come here with your language textbook assuming you can master Bahasa because you think it’s fairly straightforward, I am here to disabuse you of that notion. You haven’t even scratched the surface of what is really going on in the language. And that’s OK. It’s still easier than learning Thai, I’ll guarantee you that.
There are a few other things that make Bahasa a little bit tricky at first (disclaimer: these are not real complaints, just some good-natured observations I have made). One is that Indonesians love to talk fast. Like super-fast. They also like to drive fast on motorbikes, and will literally risk killing themselves to save maybe 2 seconds on their commute. And yet they are always late. But I digress. Indonesians are a fast-talking people. And I believe they assume everyone else on Planet Earth to also be fast-talkers, because once an Indonesian starts a conversation with you in Bahasa and they see that you can understand them, they will immediately launch a hyper-sonic volley of words at you, some of which are probably local vernacular so you wouldn’t know what they meant even if you could hear them, and eventually the mass of verbs and nouns just spills into and covers your brain like pancake batter.
A good example of this is the phrase “Tidak apa apa.” This means “No problem.” However, Indonesians hardly ever say the word “Tidak” preferring instead the informal word for “No” which is “Nggak.” Now, if you are a white person, saying “Nggak” is going to be difficult unless you are fairly proficient in Klingon, but that’s another story. So now the phrase is “Nggak apa apa.” But naturally, this is still too long for Indonesians, who love verbal compression, so the phrase is usually expelled at a high rate of speed and thus becomes something that sounds kind of like “Ga pa pa.” And you have to say it fast; it should sound like machine-gun fire. I like to say it in my typical lazy California drawl, and I am aware that people think I sound like a buffoon.
In fact, you should really pronounce the word like this: “Gapapa.” And indeed when Indonesians write this word in text messages, they will simply shorten it to “gpp” which is phonetically how it sounds. This brings me to another interesting quirk of the language here, which is that people love - I mean love - to abbreviate. It’s really almost an art. As I just explained, “Tidak apa apa” was eventually distilled down to its most essential components, “gpp”, which is usually how it appears when you are texting people. This is very common when Indonesians text each other, and it’s basically the same as when we in the US text something like “where u at?” except in Indonesia all three words would be phonetically abbreviated into “km d mn?” Unlike my brother, who seems to find shorthand texting offensive as he was brought up in Miss Mortimers School of Manners and Texting Etiquette, this sort of thing doesn’t bother me. It’s actually very efficient. It’s also very confusing when you are first trying to communicate with your Go-Jek driver. You are not gonna know what the fuck they are saying, and the handy translate feature won’t either. But rest assured, they are most likely just asking you six million unnecessary questions about your order.
The love of linguistic compression doesn’t stop at texting though. Indonesians are also really, really fond of 2 things that can be very confusing for a beginner: combining two or sometimes more words into a single word, and acronyms. Maybe it’s just me, but after living in both Singapore and Indonesia, I have noticed that both countries share an absolute fucking love affair with acronyms. Any morning traffic report in Singapore will start off with: “The PIE to the SLE is slower than usual because of congestion on the KPE. Best take the ACT to the SAT.” For a country enamored with standardized tests, I suppose this makes sense.
Indonesia also uses a lot of acronyms. They use them for people (SBY, TGB). For places (NTB, DIY, DKI). For schools and organizations (TNI, SMK, SMA). For concepts (SMD). Basically, you need two dictionaries when you’re reading an Indonesian news article - one for the Indonesian words you don’t know, and one to look-up acronyms. But OK, that’s not too weird. We use acronyms too - CIA, IRS, LOL. But where Indonesia is truly an innovator, is in the fusion of multiple words into one single word.
I don’t know where this comes from, to be honest with you. But it can be really fucking confusing! I’m not sure if there are even really any rules governing how this is done, or if people just come up with these things and see what sticks. Here are some examples. “Pemilihan Presiden” means “Presidential Election.” But you will never see it written like that. Instead it is always shortened into Pilpres. They seem to have cherry-picked a few letters until they got a suitably cool sounding phrase. Lots of official things are referred to this way, but also things like food and returning home for the holidays. Kementerian Perhubungan (Ministry of Transportation) becomes Kemhub. Menteri Luar Negeri (Foreign Minister) becomes Menlu. Nasi goreng (friend rice) becomes Nasgor. Pulang Kampung (going home for the holidays) is Pulkam.
But my absolute favorite example of this concept pushed to, and possibly beyond, its logical limit is how people refer to the metropolitan area of Jakarta. This sprawling urban pie chart consists of the cities of Jakarta, Bogor, Depok, Tangerang and Bekasi. Now, obviously, that’s a mouthful! So, someone, I have no idea who, decided to just smash all of those bits together into a word sausage, and now the region is known as Jabodetabek. Is that simpler than just saying Jakarta Metropolitan Area? I don’t know. All meaning becomes a closed-loop in the presence of such wordery. Do words mean anything at all, or do we just live in a fizzing cauldron of sounds, useless, qualking things, pregnant with abstraction as they bounce off the insides of our skulls. I don’t know. All sound is fury. And all fury is nothing.