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Indonesian language

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Bahasa Indonesia
Native to


East Timor (as a "working language")
Native speakers 23 million  (2000)
Over 140 million L2 speakers
Language family
  • Malayo-Polynesian
    • Nuclear Malayo-Polynesian
      • Sunda–Sulawesi
        • Malayic
          • Malayan
            • Malay
              • Malacca ("Riau") Malay
                • Indonesian
Writing system Latin ( Indonesian alphabet)
Official status
Official language in Indonesia
Regulated by Badan Pengembangan dan Pembinaan Bahasa
Language codes
ISO 639-1 id
ISO 639-2 ind
ISO 639-3 ind

Indonesian (Bahasa Indonesia) is the official language of Indonesia. It is a standardized register of Malay, an Austronesian language which has been used as a lingua franca in the Indonesian archipelago for centuries.

Indonesia is the fourth most populous nation in the world. Of its large population, the number of people who speak Indonesian fluently is fast approaching 100%, making Indonesian one of the most widely spoken languages in the world.

Most Indonesians, aside from speaking the national language, are often fluent in another regional language (examples include Javanese, Sundanese and Madurese) which are commonly used at home and within the local community. Most formal education, as well as nearly all national media and other forms of communication, are conducted in Indonesian. In East Timor, which was an Indonesian province from 1975 to 1999, Indonesian is recognised by the constitution as one of the two working languages (the other being English), alongside the official languages of Tetum and Portuguese.

The Indonesian name for the language is Bahasa Indonesia (literally "the language of Indonesia"). This term is occasionally found in English. Indonesian is sometimes called "Bahasa" by English speakers, though this literally just means "language".

Speakers and geographic distribution

Map of where Indonesian is predominantly spoken. Dark blue: as a majority language. Light blue: as a minority language.

Indonesian has 23 million native speakers and 140 million second language speakers, who speak it alongside their local mother tongue. It is used extensively as a first language by Indonesians in urban areas, and as a second language by those residing in more rural parts of Indonesia.

The VOA and BBC use Indonesian as their standard for broadcasting in Malay. Indonesian is 80% cognate with Malaysian. In Australia, Indonesian is one of three Asian target languages, together with Japanese and Mandarin, taught in some schools as part of the Languages Other Than English programme.


Indonesian is a standardized register of "Riau Malay", which despite its common name is not the Malay dialect native to Riau, but rather the Classical Malay of the Malaccan royal courts. Originally spoken in Northeast Sumatra, Malay has been used as a lingua franca in the Indonesian archipelago for half a millennium. Although it might be attributed to its ancestor, the Old Malay language (which can be traced back to the 7th century), the Kedukan Bukit Inscription is the oldest surviving specimen of Old Malay, the language used by Srivijayan empire. Since the 7th century, the Old Malay language has been used in Nusantara (Indonesian archipelago), marked by Srivijaya inscriptions and in other inscriptions of coastal areas of the archipelago, such as those discovered in Java. Trade contacts carried on by some ethnic peoples at the time was the main vehicle to spread the Old Malay language, as it was the communication device amongst the traders. By that time, the Old Malay language had become a lingua franca and was spoken widely by most people in the archipelago.

Indonesian was elevated to the status of official language with the Indonesian declaration of independence in 1945, drawing inspiration from the Sumpah Pemuda (Youth's Oath) event in 1928. Indonesian (in its standard form) is essentially the same language as the official Malaysian and Brunei standards of Malay. However, it does differ from Malaysian in several aspects, with differences in pronunciation and vocabulary. These differences are due mainly to the Dutch and Javanese influences on Indonesian. Indonesian was also influenced by the "bazaar Malay" that was the lingua franca of the archipelago in colonial times, and thus indirectly by other spoken languages of the islands. Malaysian Malay claims to be closer to the classical Malay of earlier centuries even though modern Malaysian has been heavily influenced, in lexicon as well as in syntax, by English. The question of whether High Malay (Court Malay) or Low Malay (Bazaar Malay) was the true parent of the Indonesian language is still in debate. High Malay was the official language used in the court of the Johor Sultanate and continued by the Dutch-administered territory of Riau-Lingga, while Low Malay was commonly used in marketplaces and ports in archipelago. Some linguists have argued that it was the more-common Low Malay that formed the base of the Indonesian language.

Whilst Indonesian is spoken as a mother tongue by only a small proportion of Indonesia's large population (i.e. mainly those who reside within the vicinity of Jakarta and other large predominantly Indonesian-speaking cities such as Medan and Balikpapan), over 200 million people regularly make use of the national language, with varying degrees of proficiency. In a nation which boasts more than 300 native languages and a vast array of ethnic groups, it plays an important unifying and cross-archipelagic role for the country. Use of the national language is abundant in the media, government bodies, schools, universities, workplaces, amongst members of the Indonesian upper-class or nobility and also in many other formal situations.

Standard and formal Indonesian is used in books and newspapers and on television/radio news broadcasts; however, few native Indonesian speakers use the formal language in their daily conversations. While this is a phenomenon common to most languages in the world (for example, spoken English does not always correspond to written standards), the degree of "correctness" of spoken Indonesian (in terms of grammar and vocabulary) by comparison to its written form is noticeably low. This is mostly due to Indonesians combining aspects of their own local languages (e.g., Javanese, Sundanese, Balinese, and Chinese dialects) with Indonesian. This results in various "regional" Indonesian dialects, the very types that a foreigner is most likely to hear upon arriving in any Indonesian city or town. This phenomenon is amplified by the use of Indonesian slang, particularly in the cities.

Official status

Indonesian is official language in Indonesia, used in all aspects, such as education. Ujian Nasional (national examination) is written in Indonesian and is itself also one of the examination subjects.
Indonesian is also the language of Indonesian mass media, such as magazine. Printed and broadcast mass media are encouraged to use proper Indonesian, although more relaxed popular slang often prevailed.

The status of Indonesian language is the official language of the Republic of Indonesia, thus its usage is encouraged throughout Indonesia. The Constitution of Indonesia 1945 Chapter XV specifies the flag, official language, coat of arms, and national anthem of Indonesia. The Indonesian law No. 24 year 2009 Chapter III Section 25 to 45 mentioned specifically about Indonesian language status. The function of Indonesian language is as the national identity, national pride, and unifying language among diverse Indonesian ethnic groups, and also serves as a communication vehicle among Indonesian provinces and different regional cultures in Indonesia. The language is used as national official language, the language for education, communication, transaction and trade documentation, used for the development of national culture, science, technology, and mass media in Indonesia. It has become one of the national symbols of Indonesia.

According to Indonesian law, the Indonesian language is the language proclaimed as the unifying language during Sumpah Pemuda in 28 October 1928, developed further to accommodate the dynamics of Indonesian civilization. It was mentioned that the language was based on Riau Malay, though linguists note that this is not the local dialect of Riau, but the Malaccan dialect that was used in the Riau court. Since its conception in 1928 and its official recognition in 1945 Constitution, the Indonesian language has been loaded with nationalist political agenda on unifying Indonesia (former Dutch East Indies). This status has made Indonesian language relatively open to accommodate influences from other Indonesian ethnics' languages, most notably Javanese as the majority ethnic group in Indonesia, and Dutch as the previous colonizer. As a result, Indonesian has wider sources of loanwords, as compared to Malay. It was suggested that the Indonesian language is an artificial language made official in 1928. By artificial it means that Indonesian was designed by academics rather than evolving naturally as most common languages have, in order to accommodate the political purpose of establishing an official unifying language of Indonesia. By borrowing heavily from numerous other languages it expresses a natural linguistic evolution; in fact, it is as natural as the next language, as demonstrated in its exceptional capacity for absorbing foreign vocabulary.

The disparate evolution of Indonesian and Malaysian has led to a rift between the two standards. This has been based more upon political nuance and the history of its standardization than on cultural reasons, and as a result there are asymmetrical views regarding each other's standard among Malaysians and Indonesians. In Malaysia, the national language is Malaysian; in Indonesia, it is Indonesian. The Malaysians tend to assert that Malaysian and Indonesian are merely variants of the same language, while the Indonesians tend to treat them as separate, albeit related, languages. The result of this attitude is that the Indonesians feel little need to harmonize their language with Malaysia and Brunei, whereas the Malaysians are keener to coordinate the evolution of the language with the Indonesians. although the 1972 Indonesian alphabet reform was largely a concession of Dutch-based Indonesian to the English-based spelling of Malaysian.

Writing system

Indonesian is written with the Latin script. It was originally based on the Dutch spelling and still bears some similarities to it. Consonants are represented in a way similar to Italian, although ⟨c⟩ is always /tʃ/ (like English ⟨ch⟩), ⟨g⟩ is always /ɡ/ ("hard") and ⟨j⟩ represents /dʒ/ as it does in English. In addition, ⟨ny⟩ represents the palatal nasal /ɲ/, ⟨ng⟩ is used for the velar nasal /ŋ/ (which can occur word-initially), ⟨sy⟩ for /ʃ/ (English ⟨sh⟩) and ⟨kh⟩ for the voiceless velar fricative /x/. Both /e/ and /ə/ are represented with ⟨e⟩.

Spelling changes in the language that have occurred since Indonesian independence include:

oe u
tj c
dj j
j y
nj ny
sj sy
ch kh

The Indonesian Language was originally written using the system as known as van Ophuijsen system, named from the advisor of the system, Charles Adriaan van Ophuijsen. This spelling system was most influenced by the then current Dutch spelling system. In 1947, the spelling was changed into Republican Spelling or Soewandi Spelling (named by at the time Minister of Education, Soewandi). This spelling changed formerly-spelled oe into u (however, the spelling influenced other aspects in orthography, for example writing reduplicated words). All of the other changes were a part of the Perfected Spelling System, an officially-mandated spelling reform in 1972. Some of the old spellings (which were derived from Dutch orthography) do survive in proper names; for example, the name of a former president of Indonesia is still sometimes written Soeharto, and the central Java city of Yogyakarta is sometimes written Jogjakarta.


A modern dialect of Malay, Indonesian has also borrowed from other languages, including Sanskrit, Arabic, Persian, Portuguese, Dutch, Chinese and Austronesian languages. It is estimated that there are some 750 Sanskrit loanwords in modern Indonesian, 1,000 Arabic loans, some of Persian and Hebrew origin, some 125 words of Portuguese (also Spanish and Italian) origin and 10,000 loanwords from Dutch The vast majority of Indonesian words, however, come from the root lexical stock of its Austronesian (incl. Old Malay) heritage. There are also words derived from Javanese, e.g. aku (meaning I/ me (informal) and its derivative form, mengaku (to admit or confess).

Loan words

The study of Indonesian etymology and loan words reveals both its historical and social contexts. Examples are the early Sanskrit borrowings (probably during the Srivijaya period), the borrowings from Arabic and Persian during the time of the establishment of Islam in particular, and the ones from Dutch during the colonial period. Linguistic history and cultural history are clearly linked.

The Sanskrit influence came from contacts with India since ancient times. The words were either borrowed directly from India or with the intermediary of the Old Javanese language. Although Hinduism and Buddhism are no longer the major religions of Indonesia, Sanskrit which was the language vehicle for these religions, is still held in high esteem and is comparable with the status of Latin in English and other Western European languages. Sanskrit is also the main source for neologisms, these are usually formed from Sanskrit roots. The loanwords from Sanskrit cover many aspects of religion, art and everyday life. Sanskrit loanwords, unlike those from other languages, have entered the basic vocabulary of Indonesian to such an extent that, for many, they are no longer perceived as foreign. From Sanskrit came such words as भाषा bahasa (language), काच  kaca (glass, mirror), राज- raja (king), मनुष्य manusia (mankind), भूमि bumi (earth/ world), आगम agama (religion), Istri (wife/women), Jaya (victory/victorious), Pura (city/temple/place), Raksasa (giant/monster), Dharma (rule/regulations), Mantra (words/poet/spiritual prayers), Satria (warrior/brave/soldier), Wijaya (greatly victorious/victory), etc. Sanskrit words and sentences are also used in names and titles of the Indonesian Police and National Army such as: Bhayangkara, Laksamana, Jatayu, Garuda, Dharmakerta Marga Reksyaka, Jalesveva Jayamahe, Khartika Ekha Phaksi, Swa Bhuana Phaksa, Yudha Siaga, etc. The Sanskrit words also still makes the Indonesian language more powerful in meaning from the usage of the National Armed Forces titles such as (above) and more meanings that also contributes to official and formal languages of Indonesia.

The loanwords from Arabic are mainly concerned with religion, in particular with Islam. Words of Arabic origin include dunia (from Arabic: دنياdunya = the present world), Sabtu (from Arabic: السبتas-sabt = Saturday), kabar (خبر ḵabar = news), selamat/ salam (سلام salām = a greeting), jumat (الجمعة al-jumʿa = Friday), ijazah (إجازة ijāza = vacation), kitab (كتاب kitāb = book), tertib (ترتيب tartīb = orderly) and kamus (قاموس qāmūs = dictionary). Allah, as it is mostly the case for Arabic speakers, is the word for God even in Christian Bible translations. Many early Bible translators, when they came across some unusual Hebrew words or proper names, used the Arabic cognates. In the newer translations this practice is discontinued. They now turn to Greek names or use the original Hebrew Word. For example, the name Jesus was initially translated as 'Isa, but is now spelt as Yesus.

The Chinese loanwords are usually concerned with cuisine, trade or often just things exclusively Chinese. Words of Chinese origin (presented here with accompanying Hokkien/ Mandarin pronunciation derivatives as well as traditional and simplified characters) include pisau (匕首 bǐshǒu – knife), loteng, (樓/層 = lóu/céng – [upper] floor/ level), mie (麵 > 面 Hokkien mī – noodles), lumpia (潤餅 (Hokkien = lūn-piáⁿ) – springroll), cawan (茶碗 cháwǎn – teacup), teko (茶壺 > 茶壶 = cháhú [Mandarin], teh-ko [Hokkien] = teapot), 苦力 kuli = 苦 khu (bitter) and 力 li (energy) and even the widely used slang terms gua and lu (from the Hokkien 'goa' 我 and 'lu/li' 你 – meaning 'I/ me' and 'you').

Alongside Malay, Portuguese was the lingua franca for trade throughout the archipelago from the sixteenth century through to the early nineteenth century. The Portuguese were among the first westerners to sail eastwards to the " Spice Islands". Loanwords from Portuguese were mainly connected with articles that the early European traders and explorers brought to Southeast Asia. Indonesian words derived from Portuguese include meja (from mesa = table), boneka (from boneca = doll), jendela (from janela = window), gereja (from igreja = church), bendera (from bandeira = flag), sepatu (from sapato = shoes), keju (from queijo = cheese), mentega (from manteiga = butter), and Minggu (from domingo = Sunday).

The former colonial power, the Netherlands, left a sizable amount of vocabulary that can be seen in words such as polisi (from politie = police), kualitas (from kwaliteit = quality), rokok (from roken = smoking cigarettes), korupsi (from corruptie = corruption), kantor (from kantoor = office), resleting (from ritssluiting = zipper) and gratis (from gratis = free). These Dutch loanwords, and many other non-Italo-Iberian, European language loanwords which came via Dutch, cover all aspects of life. Some Dutch loanwords, having clusters of several consonants, pose difficulties to speakers of Indonesian. This problem is usually solved by insertion of the schwa. For example Dutch schroef [ˈsxruf]sekrup [səˈkrup].

As modern Indonesian draws many of its words from foreign sources, there are many synonyms. For example, Indonesian has three words for "book", i.e. pustaka (from Sanskrit), kitab (from Arabic) and buku (from Dutch); however, each has a slightly different meaning. A pustaka is often connected with ancient wisdom or sometimes with esoteric knowledge. A derived form, perpustakaan means a library. A kitab is usually a religious scripture or a book containing moral guidance. The Indonesian words for the Bible and Gospel are Alkitab and Injil, both directly derived from Arabic. The book containing the penal code is also called the kitab. Buku is the most common word for books.

There are direct borrowings from various other languages of the world, such as "karaoke" from Japanese, and " modem" from English.


Generally Indonesian does not make use of grammatical gender, and there are only selected words that use natural gender. For instance, the same word is used for he/him and she/her (dia/ia) or for his and her (dia/ia/-nya). No real distinction is made between "girlfriend" and "boyfriend", both pacar (although more colloquial terms as cewek girl/girlfriend and cowok guy/boyfriend can also be found). A majority of Indonesian words that refer to people generally have a form that does not distinguish between the sexes. However, unlike English, distinction is made between older or younger (a characteristic quite common to many Asian languages). For example, adik refers to a younger sibling of either sex and kakak refers to an older sibling, again, either male or female. In order to specify the natural gender of a noun, an adjective must be added. Thus, adik laki-laki corresponds to "younger brother" but really means "male younger sibling".

There are some words that have gender, for instance putri means "daughter", and putra means "son" and also pramugara means "air steward" (male flight attendant) and pramugari meaning "air stewardess" (female flight attendant). Another example would be olahragawan, which equates to "sportsman", and olahragawati, meaning sportswoman. Often, words like these (or certain suffixes such as "-a" and "-i" or "-wan" and "wati") are absorbed from other languages (in these cases, from Sanskrit through the Old Javanese language). In some regions of Indonesia such as Sumatera and Jakarta, abang (a gender-specific term meaning "older brother") is commonly used as a form of address for older siblings/ males, whilst kakak (a non-gender specific term (meaning "older sibling") is often used to mean "older sister". Similarly, more direct influences from dialects such as Javanese and Chinese languages have also seen further use of other gendered words in Indonesian. For example: Mas (Jav. = older brother), M'bak (Jav. = older sister), Koko (older brother) and Cici (older sister).

Colloquial Indonesian

In informal spoken Indonesian, various words are replaced with those of a less formal nature (e.g. tidak (no) is often replaced with the Javanese nggak whilst seperti (like, similar to) is often replaced with kayak (pronounced kai-yah)). As for pronunciation, the diphthongs ai and au on the end of base words are typically pronounced as /e/ and /o/. In informal writing the spelling of words is modified to reflect the actual pronunciation in a way that can be produced with less effort. For example, capai becomes cape or capek, pakai become pake, kalau becomes kalo.

In verbs, the prefix me- is often dropped, although an initial nasal consonant is often retained, as when mengangkat becomes ngangkat (the basic word is angkat). The suffixes -kan and -i are often replaced by -in. For example, mencarikan becomes nyariin, menuruti becomes nurutin. The latter grammatical aspect is one often closely related to the Indonesian spoken in Jakarta and its surrounding areas.

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