Learning Indonesian: Week 1 Installment

With the authorities in Indonesia planning to introduce a Bahasa Indonesia test in 2015 (an issue this blog has been following closely), I have been reminded of my own early days in Indonesia and my struggle to understand and speak Indonesian. As a result, I have decided to devote one blog post a week to issues facing Bahasa Indonesia learners. The main aim will be to help people avoid some of the pitfalls that I met in picking up the language. Obviously the intended reader is someone who is living in Indonesia and has only a basic command of the language. I do not profess to be an “expert” in this language but I can read Indonesian newspapers without reaching for the dictionary and I understand the great majority of spoken Indonesian.

What Is Bahasa Gaul?

One of the first issues that people will encounter in learning Indonesian (and this will apply especially to people living in Jakarta) is the influence of so-called Bahasa Gaul, which is a slangy or informal version of Indonesian. The name Bahasa Gaul first took root in the late 1990s apparently, and its influence has spread rapidly thanks to urbanization, mass media and the influence of the Internet. It is especially popular with young people, and many of them use it to appear cool or trendy. However, this is one aspect of this Bahasa Gaul which is not always mentioned, and that is the fact the many ‘gaul’ words are actually borrow words from the Betawi dialect. The Betawi dialect takes its name from the old Dutch name for Jakarta, Batavia. Jakarta is a polyglot city with people from all over the country arriving in search of money and success, and the Betawi are now only a minority in Jakarta but their dialect has had a disproportionately large influence on the evolution of Bahasa Gaul.

Recognizing the difference between formal Indonesian and Bahasa Gaul takes time, and it adds another level of complexity to developing Indonesian fluency. As a general rule of thumb, Bahasa Gaul is ‘the language of the streets’, and formal Indonesian is what you hear in offices, schools, government buildings and during news broadcasts. If you intend to seriously try and learn the language it is something you will need to negotiate.

Bahasa Gaul Variant Spelling: ‘a’ becomes ‘e’

Many Bahasa Indonesia words have variant spellings in Bahasa Gaul (street Indonesian). These can throw you at first, but they tend to follow several basic rules. One of the most common is that the letter ‘a’ is often replaced with the letter ‘e’, which is variously attributed to Javanese or Betawi influence. For example:

benar  …  bener    (right)

segar  …  seger    (fresh)

malas …  males    (lazy)

bosan …  bosen   (bored)

cakap …  cakep   (cute/attractive)

pintar …  pinter   (smart)

The thing to notice about these words is that the a~e transformation usually happens in adjectives and it is the second syllable in which the transformation takes place. Obviously, the alteration affects both spelling and pronunciation.

Bahasa Gaul Variant Spellings: ‘kan’ becomes ‘in’

Another important one you will encounter is switching the verb suffix -kan for -in. This one is borrowed from Betawi but has now become very common in Bahasa Gaul, especially in Jakarta. There is no change in meaning, but the spelling can cause confusion at first.

For example:

membersihkan  …  membersihin   (to clean)

membetulkan   …   membetulin    (to correct)

menggambarkan .. menggambarin (to draw / describe /depict)

In addition, people may also leave off the meng- prefix altogether in either Indonesian or Bahasa Gaul, but that is an issue for another installment.

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