Learning Indonesian Week 8: Using Noun Phrases in Indonesian

In both English and Indonesian, noun phrases are one of the main building blocks of sentences. The way they are constructed in these two languages varies rather considerably however, so it is worth pointing out some of the most important differences.

1. Demonstrative Pronouns with Nouns

While English has four demonstrative pronouns (this, that, these, and those), Indonesian only has two (ini and itu). Ini is the Indonesian equivalent of this and these (there is no difference drawn between singular and plural in the Indonesian word) and itu is the equivalent for that and those.

The other difference is in the syntax. The patterns are backwards in English and Indonesian.

English: demonstrative pronoun + noun

Indonesian: noun + demonstrative noun

Eg. I like this cat.

Saya suka kucing ini.

2. Using Adjectives with Nouns

In English we place adjectives before the nouns they modify. In Indonesian, the adjective is placed after the noun. In other words, English uses pre-modification of nouns and Indonesian uses post-modification.

Eg. He is reading a red book.

Dia lagi membaca buku merah.

Apart from the different word order, it is worth noting that Indonesian does not have an obvious equivalent of the English determiners a, an and the. At any rate, Indonesian certainly doesn’t have anything that should be placed at the front of noun phrases. What it does have is the suffix -nya, which can be placed at the end of nouns. When the suffix -nya is placed at the end of a noun, the meaning is rather similar to the definite article (the) in English. When it appears in this place, the meaning of -nya is something like ‘the one we were talking about’ or ‘the only one’.

Eg. Budi painted the wall.

Budi mengecat dindingnya.

3. Complex Noun Phrases

Where you really start to see how different Indonesian and English are is in complex noun phrases. Indonesian has neither articles (such as ‘a’, ‘an’ and ‘the’) nor plurals. Furthermore, it does not have any equivalent of the word ‘of’, which we use in English to connect two different nouns in a single phrase. Therefore, longer and more complex noun phrases in Indonesian tend to look a little ‘bare’ compared to their English equivalents.

Look for example at this noun phrase from the website of an Indonesian university.

“pelaksanaan program pendidikan”

Now in English it would be quite odd to see three nouns lined up in a row like that without any linking words, but it is entirely normal in formal Indonesian. The English equivalent would be ‘the implementation of the education program.” You would need a pair of definite articles (the word ‘the’) and the linking word ‘of’ to form it in English.

Similarly, on an Indonesian health blog I recently encountered the phrase ‘pemeriksaan kesehatan jantung’. Literally this phrase translates as ‘inspection health heart’, which sounds very clunky to an English speaker who is unaccustomed to Indonesian syntax. However, it probably isn’t too hard to work out that this just refers to ‘a heart check-up’.

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