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Why ‘Bahasa Indonesia’ should normally be translated as ‘Indonesian’ November 21, 2012

Posted by Sharehouse Jakarta in Uncategorized.
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Once upon a time there was a video of Barack Obama speaking Indonesian at a press event. This was right after he became president, and before he had delivered any impressive speeches in “Bahasa,” here in Indonesia. So people were talking about how awesome his Indonesian was, after all those years.

And then Indonesia-linked journo-linguist Ben Zimmer posted the video on a University of Pennsylvania linguistics Penn LDC Language Log and tagged it up as #bilingualism #LanguageAndPolitics #multilingualism #pragmatics.


The original post included this note:

One pet peeve: the ABC News report refers to Obama’s proficiency in “Bahasa Indonesian.” The language is called Indonesian in English and Bahasa Indonesia in Indonesian. “Bahasa Indonesian” is a mix-up of the two terms. This confusion could be avoided by simply referring to the language, in English, as Indonesian, but the imprecise use of the term Bahasa on its own (which simply means “language”) by expats and journalists has apparently led to further misunderstanding about the name of the language.

After all, no one says “I had fun practicing my Français in Paris last week” — unless they’re playing. So is top 15 global language Bahasa Indonesia — Benedict Anderson’s “Revolutionary Malay” — somehow different?  After all, until very recently, no one at all spoke Indonesian as a first language, and there was no such thing as Indonesian literature.

No. It’s not different. Thus, may safely conclude that the best reason for saying, “Last month I was in Jogjakarta practicing my Bahasa Indonesia” is that you didn’t get enough practice while you were there.

Just in case, I’ve thought up a few reasons why it makes perfect sense — to me — not to say Bahasa Indonesia when I’m speaking English.

Reasons why:

1) If we continue to translate Bahasa Indonesia into English as Bahasa Indonesia, then people will continue trying to shrink that down to “Bahasa.” And then we’re just one step away from absurdities like “Bahasa Indonesian.”

2) “Bahasa” isn’t a good abbreviation for Bahasa Indonesia in Indonesian or English. Odd conventions do arise over the water cooler or in the field  — those situations when you’re speaking half this, half that,  and all you really care about is not looking dumb or offending the other guy. But that doesn’t make “Bahasa” [language] the official language of Indonesia.

3) Indonesian is one word, not two. Bahasa Indonesia is twice as long but much more ambiguous. This matters, as computers aren’t real flexible thinkers and software localization teams don’t have a whole lot of time on their hands to ponder socio-lingustics and the role of national languages in the construction of the imagined community.

4) Indonesia is so chock full of mystery and wonder, there’s hardly any need to mystify the name of the national language.

In some contexts (e.g., law and science), “Indonesian” may actually be imprecise — whenever it’s unclear whether the reference is to the people, the place — or what. After all, this isn’t an ancient language that everyone has definitely-and-for-sure heard of (like Malay).

But, nope. Indonesian is a joy. It’s easy to speak (phonetic alphabet, no tones, little grammar misery); it’s easy to write (no characters); and it even has an easy name: Indonesian.

5) What’s wrong with the -ian suffix? We’ve got Russ-ian, Egypt-ian, Hungar-ian and tons of others … so why not Indones-ian?

6) While editing, I often find the lovely qualifier, Indonesian, very much neglected by my Indonesian editees (because of second language interference, or whatever you might call it). That is, they almost always opt for “Indonesia’s culture”  and “Indonesia’s market” over “Indonesian culture” and “the Indonesian market.”

Admittedly, “Indonesia’s language” isn’t going to work as a way of bringing Bahasa Indonesia into English.  But what’s wrong with this little conversion process here: Bahasa Indonesia >>  the Indonesian language >> Indonesian.

7) No idea who is behind this Bahasa Indonesia  ≠ Indonesian myth. Apparently it’s a  cross-cultural conspiracy comprising native and non-native speakers of Indonesian.

One thing I do often hear Indonesian translators say is, “You can’t translate proper nouns like Universitas Indonesia or Bahasa Indonesia.” While this appears to be a non-rule, it must have a basis in something.

Still, native English speakers are arguably the ones most at fault for not being able to work out that, in English, the word for Bahasa Indonesia is Indonesian.


NOTE: The approach above is supposedly a practical one — that may benefit translators, computer programmers and geography students (#pragmatics). But will be other approaches and other considerations (#LanguageAndPolitics).

The ideas of Benedict Anderson are surely on point here. The author of Imagined Communities coined the memorable term Revolutionary Malay to help explain how a non-language becomes one of the world’s most widely spoken languages in two generations.

Anderson knew Indonesian as well as anyone. He died last year, aged 80, on a lecture circuit in Indonesia .



1. gema - November 21, 2012

Kamu bisa bicara Language?

2. Ajie - April 7, 2013

Sorry to disagree. I like “Bahasa Indonesia” better than Indonesian since it will always refer to the “language” when Indonesian may refer to the people or the culture.

ayatayatadit - May 31, 2016

So does the word “English” may refer to language or people.

3. Elis Nurmalia - August 30, 2013

Hi Jesse,,

Googling your name on my way to office and found this.. Nice article to read, amazed how you still think and concern about Indonesia much more than me as Indonesian (bad indonesian) *as B always say to me* :p
Anyway these successfully distract me from bad jam, bagus banget..
Hope you still remember me 🙂


4. Ken Westmoreland - June 2, 2016

Well said! It’s so pretentious when Western expats use ‘Bahasa Indonesia’ or even worse, ‘Bahasa’ as if to say ‘look at me, I’m an old hand, an insider’. In New Zealand, people do the same with Maori, by calling it ‘te reo Maori’ or ‘te reo’.

In Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei, the situation with Malay is different because of the rivalry with English, the rivalry between the different ethnic groups (who identify Malay with Malays) and the rivalry between the three countries – no way would Singapore say they have ‘Malaysian’ as one of their languages.

If Malaysia wants to refer to its national language in English as ‘Bahasa Malaysia’ instead of ‘Malaysian’, just as it calls its head of state ‘the Yang Di-Pertuan Agong’ instead of ‘the King’, that’s a matter for Malaysia – but it’s irrelevant to Indonesia, and to Indonesian.

If we are to call the Indonesian language ‘Bahasa Indonesia’ in English, then we should logically call an Indonesian person ‘an orang Indonesia’!

5. Raguel (@RaguellewiS) - June 2, 2016

i agree! Indonesian !

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