Indonesian (Bahasa Indonesia, literally “the language of Indonesia”) is an Austronesian language and a standardised version of Malay. Indonesian is an official language in the Republic of Indonesia and a working language in East Timor, as well as being spoken in Singapore, Brunei and southern Thailand. Indonesian is the 6th most spoken language in the world: there are 23 million native speakers and 140 million people speak it as a second language. Most of the population of Indonesia have other regional languages as their mother tongue, for example Javanese, but in a country with 18,000 islands and 300 native languages Indonesian plays an important unifying role and is the language used for business, in the media and in the government. Indonesian is also the language of education throughout the country. Close to 100% of the population can speak Indonesian and it is spoken as a native language in urban areas like Jakarta.
Indonesian is derived from the language Malay, which was the lingua franca of the islands of Indonesia for 500 years. It was an important trade language in Indonesia, allowing native tradesmen to communicate with each other and with European businessmen, and it was spoken in the important mediaeval trade state of Malacca. When the Dutch colonised the islands (and renamed them the Dutch East Indies) they continued to use Malay as it was the only way for the government to communicate with the people. In the 1930s Malay was chosen as the language of independence by the emerging independence movement. It was standardised and this standardised register was named ‘Bahasa Indonesia’, which then became the official language in 1945 after Indonesia’s declaration of independence. As a result of the language being so closely linked to Malay, Malaysian and Indonesian are mostly mutually intelligible today – in fact approximately 80% of Indonesian is understandable to a Malaysian speaker.
Indonesian has been influenced by many other languages during the course of its history. In order to make Indonesian easier to adopt as the official language, it accepted influences from the different regional languages spoken across the islands. Javanese was the biggest influence as it is the largest minority language in Indonesia – in fact, there are more native speakers of Javanese than there are of Indonesian. There are also loanwords from Sanskrit, for example ‘manusia’ (mankind); Arabic, which are mainly terms concerned with religion, and Chinese, which are primarily words to do with trade. Dutch has been a major influence on Indonesian; it has contributed around 10,000 words to the language including ‘kantor’ for ‘office’ (from ‘kantoor’) and ‘polisi’ for ‘police’ (from ‘politie’). Indonesian has also contributed some words to English, such as ‘gong’, ‘orangutan’ and ‘sarong’, and the phrase ‘to run amok’ comes from the Indonesian verb ‘amuk’ which means ‘to run out of control killing people indiscriminately’.
Indonesian uses the Latin alphabet which was introduced by the Dutch colonisers. Today there are many different dialects of Indonesian, often resulting from a combination of Indonesian with the local native languages. Indonesian does not always differentiate between the sexes. It does, however, make a distinction based on age, for example ‘adik’ is a younger sibling of either sex, whereas ‘kakak’ is an older sibling of either sex. The Centre for Language Development is currently responsible for researching, standardising and creating new Indonesian terms.
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