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What is Bahasa Indonesia?

By Brendan McGuigan
Updated May 23, 2024
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Bahasa Indonesia is the official language of Indonesia, and is spoken by more than 200 million people. It is a standardized language, and primarily serves as a second language for people in Indonesia to help them communicate with one another. Less than 30 million people speak Bahasa Indonesia as their native tongue. Bahasa Indonesia is sometimes referred to by people outside of Indonesia simply as Indonesian, or even as Bahasa. The name itself means “language of Indonesia,” and so calling it Bahasa is viewed by many as an incorrect abbreviation, since this means simply “language.”

Bahasa Indonesia took a popular dialect of the Malay language spoken throughout the Malay peninsula, and standardized it to be used as the national language of Indonesia after independence was declared in 1945. Speakers of Bahasa Indonesia can communicate with and understand speakers of Malay, and visa versa – the distinction between Malay and Bahasa Indonesia as discrete languages is more a matter of political significance than anything else.

Bahasa Indonesia has adopted a great deal of words from other languages, particularly from Dutch. Because much of Indonesia was a territory of the Netherlands, the Dutch lent an enormous quantity of words to Bahasa Indonesia, which span all areas of the vocabulary. These words have tended to change somewhat upon their adoption, to become closer in pronunciation to the sound of standard Bahasa Indonesia, especially when there are groups of many consonants – a situation uncommon in Bahasa Indonesia itself. Indonesia is a predominantly Muslim country, and so Arabic also plays an important role in the religious life of its people, and a number of Arabic words have also been adopted into Bahasa Indonesia.

The structure of Bahasa Indonesia is fairly basic when compared to some other languages, and speakers of English usually find it relatively easy to acquire. Pluralizing words in Bahasa Indonesia is done by simply repeating the word, so that monyet means "monkey," and monyet-monyet means "monkeys." There are no tenses in Bahasa Indonesia – time is related by using distinct time words – and verbs do not conjugate to refer to person or quantity either. Most words also have no gender distinction, so that the word for "brother" and "sister" is the same word: adik, meaning "sibling."

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Discussion Comments
By anon344213 — On Aug 06, 2013

'Bahasa Indonesia' is the Indonesian name for the Indonesian language. In English, we call it Indonesian. Calling it 'Bahasa Indonesia' in English is like calling Japanese 'Nihongo', German 'Deutsch' or Thai 'Phasa Thai'. The words 'phasa' and 'bahasa' come from the same Sanskrit word: 'bhasha'.

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