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The official language in Indonesia is Bahasa Indonesia, commercial languages are English and to a decreasing extent Dutch. The many other languages of the archipelago fall into two main groups: the Malay-Polynesian language family and the "non-Austronesian" language family.

The Malay-Polynesian or Austronesian language family consists of about 250 languages, within which 40 main groups can be distinguished, such as Acehs, Malay, Buginese, Javanese and Sundanese.

Non-Austronesian languages include about 240 Papuan languages. More than a hundred of these Papuan languages have less than a thousand speakers.

Textbooks Bahasa IndonesiaTextbooks Bahasa IndonesiaPhoto: Laura Pro CC4.0 International no changes made

In present-day Bahasa Indonesia, the languages of the former rulers are still clearly identifiable. From the Portuguese words come mentega (butter), nona (miss) and sepatu (shoe). From Dutch are among others: mebel (furniture), bangrut (bankruptcy), karcis (cards), handuk (towel), pinter (clever) and donkrak (stupid power). Words like bodigar (bodyguard) and suplai (supply) are derived from English.

Bahasa Indonesia is a non-tonal language that is fairly easy to learn. The language is written in the Roman alphabet, words are pronounced as they are spelled, and the morphology is simple. Verbs and nouns are not conjugated.

The hardest part is using prefixes and suffixes to change base words into verbs and nouns. Accents are not indicated any more than in Dutch. The e at the end of the first syllable is always mute or toneless.

Like other languages, Indonesian has a predilection for abbreviations, which are often incomprehensible to outsiders (e.g. Pukesmas = Pusat Keséhatan Masyarakat).

From Malay to Bahasa Indonesia

The peoples of Sumatra and the Malay peninsula originally spoke different dialects of Malay. From these dialects a court language and a simple variant developed, which spread from Sumatra throughout the archipelago and served as a colloquial language mainly for the trade contacts between the various peoples. The need for a colloquial language was great because hundreds of languages were spoken in the archipelago. The fact that Malay had a simple structure was convenient. Malay, a trading language or "lingua franca" at the time, could easily be spread through the major trading centers on either side of the Straits of Melaka. Foreign groups such as Arabs, Chinese and Europeans also used this language.

Many Dutch migrants used an even simpler version of Malay when dealing with the indigenous population: Pasar Malay. Journalists and writers used Low Malay, a mixture of simple Pasar Malay and Classical Malay, incomprehensible to Javanese, the book language of the royal courts along the Sumatran coast. Writers, who wrote extensively in Low Malay, popularized Low Malay as a writing language.

Malay languageMalay languagePhoto: Kwamikagami at English Wikipedia CC 3.0 Unported no changes made

Malay spellings were very diverse until the 20th century, and there was no need to establish a standard. Europeans, on the other hand, had an interest in standardizing Malay, but were unable to answer the question of where the "best" Malay was spoken. The Protestant mission made a first attempt to provide a Bible translation in Classical Malay from the Riau Archipelago. Dutch and native officials used this Malay to communicate with each other, and it was therefore definitively elevated to Standard Malay. Important in this was the teacher C.H. van Ophuijsen, who wrote a "Malay grammar" and a "Malay textbook" at the beginning of the 20th century. As a result, the choice was made for a written language that was close to Classical Malay and that was very different from most other Malay dialects as well as from the popularized Low Malay.

Van Ophuijsen's Standard Malay gradually replaced Javanese Low Malay in the written language. In daily interactions, Malay-speaking Indonesians continued to use their own dialect, widening the gap between writing and colloquialisms.

On October 28, 1928, the participants in the Indonesian Youth Congress took the "Oath of the Young People", in which they promised, among other things, to fight for one language, Bahasa Indonesia. That Indonesian language was Van Ophuijsen's Standard Malay. Until the Second World War, however, Dutch remained an important competitor. Civil servants, for example, used Malay in contact with the population, but Dutch was taught in secondary schools. In 1942, the Japanese occupier banned the use of Dutch, which meant the definitive breakthrough of Indonesian as the national language. It became the language of education, civil service, politics, the press and literature.

Javanese is one of the most widely spoken languages in the worldJavanese is one of the most widely spoken languages in the worldPhoto: Day Translations Team CC 3.0 Unported no changes made

In order to obtain uniform grammar and uniform spelling, Indonesia worked together with Malaysia in a language union. In 1972 the two countries agreed on a new spelling, changing for example Djakarta to Jakarta and Aceh to Aceh.

At present, only a minority of the population speak the national language at home; it remains the language of the modern, especially urban elite. A large part of the population speaks no Indonesian at all and continues to communicate at home in the regional language or "Bahasa Daerah".

At the beginning of the eighties of the last century, Dutch was spoken by no more than one million Indonesians. Eighty percent of the population was born after 1950, so that Dutch is rapidly disappearing from Indonesia. The decline of Dutch is offset by the rise of English, a language that is also taught in secondary education.

The name Indonesia (Indonesia), first used by the British ethnologist G.R. Logan in 1850, is derived from the Latin. India and Greek nèsos (= island) means Indian archipelago.

Some words and expressions:


Dalton, B. / De Indonesië reisgids

Darmawie-van Oijen, J. / Indonesië : handboek voor reizigers
Babylon-De Geus

Homburg, E. / Indonesië


Lyle, G. / Indonesia
Chelsea House

Martyr, D. / Indonesië
Van Reemst

Mastenbroek, B. / Kijk op Indonesië

Muller, K. / Indonesië : het 13.000 eilandenrijk

Oosterman, I. / Indonesië
ANWB Media

Schulte Nordholt, N. / Indonesië : mensen, politiek, economie, cultuur
Koninklijk Instituut voor de Tropen / NOVIB

Te gast in Indonesië
Informatie Verre Reizen

Wassing, R. S. / Indonesië : Java, Bali, Lombok, Sumbawa, Komodo, Flores, Sumba, Timor, Sumatra, Zuid- en Oost-Kalimantan, Sulawesi, Singapore

Witjes, B. / Indonesië
Stichting Teleac

CIA - World Factbook

BBC - Country Profiles

Last updated May 2024
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