Learn Indonesian Week 9: The Use of Classifiers

One of the features of Indonesian which is unfamiliar to English speakers is the use of classifiers. These classifiers are categories of noun, with the category placed first and the particular type/kind/specimen within that general category placed after it. This structure is even more common in Thai than Indonesian, but it takes some getting used to for people who have never learnt an Asian language before. This post aims to introduce some of the more common classifiers you may encounter in Bahasa Indonesia.

1. Ikan + Species

One of the common examples is ‘ikan’, which means ‘fish’. The Indonesian word for shark is ‘ikan hiu.’ The first word in the noun phrase is the classifier ‘ikan’, which lets you know you are dealing2 with a kind of fish, and the second word ‘hiu’ identifies which kind of fish, in this case a shark. Similarly a stingray is an ‘ikan pari’, the sardine is an ‘ikan sardin’ and the mackerel is an ‘ikan tenggiri’.

These classifications are linguistic rather than scientific. Charles Darwin would no doubt be appalled to learn that in Indonesian the whale is known as ‘ikan paus’. But it doesn’t matter that the whale is a mammal not a fish. In terms of Indonesian grammar, it is classed as a kind of ‘ikan’. Once again this is exactly the same as Thai, which classifies the whale as ‘bplaa waan’, which can be literally translated as ‘fish whale’.

2. Batu + Kind of Stone

Another common classifier in Indonesian is ‘batu’, which is te che Indonesian word for stone. It is used as a classifier for both rocks and gemstones.

For example, the emerald is known as ‘batu zamrud’, the ruby is ‘batu delima’, and the sapphire is ‘batu safir’. The same classifier is also used for types of rock. Marble is known as ‘batu marmer’ and granite is ‘batu granit’.

3. Pohon + Species of Tree

A third kind you may encounter is the classifier ‘pohon’, which means ‘tree’. Like the other classifiers, you will occasionally see the type used without the classifier, but it is important to know the structure, as it is very common in written Indonesian.

The casuarina, for example, which is a common sight along beaches on the Indian Ocean in Indonesia, is known as ‘pohon cemara’. The common pine tree is often known as ‘pohon pinus’, though, confusingly, it is sometimes called ‘pohon cemara’ too. The common names of trees are by no means scientific. the magnificent teak trees which once graced the North Coast of Java areknown as ‘pohon jati’. Sadly, these have now all but disappeared. However, a trace of their memory can still be found in place names such as Jatinegara and Jatibarang.

4. Rumah + Purpose of Building

There is one classifier which even the most elementary student of Indonesian will be familiar with and that is the classifier ‘rumah’, which literally means ‘house’. Anyone who has spent any time in Indonesia will have eaten at a ‘rumah makan’, which is the name for a simple restaurant. The Indonesian word for ‘hospital’ is a ‘rumah sakit’ (literally, a house for the sick). Finally, a government housing estate is known as a ‘rumah susun’.

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