Indonesian’s difficulty lies in its simplicity
Prior to arriving in Indonesia, you often hear that Indonesian is easy. The grammar is basic, with plurals and tenses usually discarded in favour of clarifying context. There’s no masculine, feminine or neutral, and no tones to adapt your ears to. It’s almost wholly phonetic, which allows an easy transition between the written and spoken word, and in terms of number of words, there are relatively few to master. Objectively, there is less to learn than in, say, French or Mandarin Chinese.
Yet it’s simplicity belies real challenges in getting a nuanced message to a broad audience, the work of brands, marketers and creatives. These challenges stem from the language’s relatively recent adoption by the vast majority of Indonesians.
The origins of Bahasa Indonesia
Indonesia was founded after the defeat of Japan during World War II and the repulsion of Dutch colonisers. The government’s first step in uniting over 1,000 permanently settled islands spanning more than 5,000km – with peoples using a multitude of languages and dialects under a single flag – was to find a common means of communication. Though the notion of Indonesia as a nation was conceived in Java, the Javanese language was much too complicated to unify the archipelago, and thus the simple register of Malay, which had been present as a trading language for centuries before independence, was selected and standardized instead. The national language, Bahasa Indonesia, is basic by design.
But does basic mean easy? Only if what you want to convey is simple.
Take, for example, the relatively small vocabulary. This means less rote-learning when you start studying as well as the potential to use one word in a multitude of ways. Cantik translates in English as pretty, beautiful, gorgeous, attractive, good looking and more. Yet the need for a subtle variation of meaning in communication has not disappeared – it just has to come from somewhere other than the selection of a single word.
The same applies to Indonesian’s formal grammar structure, which exists but isn’t really followed when spoken. Here too, that formal grammar is mostly overlooked does not reduce the need for it, but promotes a solution to this need that is found elsewhere.
The solutions to a limited vocabulary and simple grammar come in three main forms.
1. Through context
Building context is vital for being understood in Indonesian. There is often a requirement for more space on the page for the written word and more time in the air for the spoken one. You must use what you have – more words, more sentences, more anecdotes and more analogies – to clarify the exact meaning that you hope to convey.
When context is not built adequately, the simplicity of the grammar becomes a barrier to comprehension. Scarcity of words become a hindrance to expression. For example, “jauh di mata dekat di hati” would literally translate to “out of sight near by heart”, yet through context it can be made to mean although distance tears two people apart, memories of each other live on.
2. Through assimilation and adaptation
When Indonesian was formally introduced as the national language in 1945, it was the native tongue of only about five per cent of the population, and so has been constantly adapted by Indonesians ever since. Initially, the population assimilated many words from Dutch and native dialects, replacing gaps in the Indonesian vocabulary with words already known from existing languages. This is a natural process in any context of reclamation following a foreign occupation, but perhaps one with heightened importance in Indonesia, where the national language being implemented was quite rudimentary.
3. Through imagery and metaphor
Much of the richness of Indonesian comes through imagery and metaphor. Most of these are organic creations that, again, comprise the informal slang that forms a large part of every day speech. Jalan tikus literally means ‘rat’s street’. It’s a tremendously evocative phrase that brings to mind a labyrinth of small alleyways, and is actually used to describe a shortcut, away from the main road.
Alay is another example, from the fusion of anak (child) and layang (kite). This literally means ‘kids playing kites’, but is instead used to denote youth of a lower-economic status hanging around on the street, playing loud music, being coarse and creating a nuisance. Cabe means ‘chili pepper’, but is commonly used to describe someone dressing provocatively. Polisi tidur or sleeping policeman is how one describes speed bumps. The list of examples goes on and on.
To say that formal Indonesian has rather basic components is correct. To claim that it’s relatively easy to pick up and be understood on a rudimentary level is fair. But to say that Indonesian is easy is false. The need for richness, nuance and complex meaning in communication is as strong in Indonesia as it is anywhere else, and it can be especially challenging for those of us who make a living understanding and sharing meaning.
Some take-outs for a marketer arriving in Indonesia for the first time
-- Vocabulary is more limited, so many specific words in English will need to be translated using multiple words or words with additional context. If you’re speaking to people to understand their thoughts, spend more time listening to and exploring the stories and anecdotes they tell to understand the essence of a feeling, instead of trying to find one word that sums it all up neatly. Such a word may not exist.
-- Everyday spoken language is very different to formal and written language. Often language used in sitcoms or advertising is more formal than that spoken day to day. But there’s a fine line between formality and relevance that needs to be found. We’ve had long debates about this balance, questioning, for example how teens nowadays write ‘you’: is it lo, loe or lu? In big campaigns, it’s the challenge of finding the sweet spot of formal-yet-relevant language.
-- Finally, many Indonesians don’t speak Indonesian on a daily basis, and instead use their local language or dialect. Generally, if a campaign goes national, it will be done in Bahasa Indonesia. But there are also campaigns where it’s essential to use a local language or dialect. Likewise, as a researcher traveling around the country speaking to individuals, ensure that you have a translator who can understand local dialects, as for sure some of the dialect will have been incorporated into their Bahasa Indonesia.
- Article by Max Roche