Frequently people will, when speaking about learning the Indonesian language, claim it is a very simple and easy language. While Indonesian lacks anything similar to the abstruse grammatical rules so frequently found throughout English, it is still just as difficult a language to master as any other.
Spoken Indonesian is fairly easy to pick up. The basic information on how to form simple sentences and express straightforward ideas is not difficult to grasp. To converse about anything beyond the most ordinary of subjects requires a much wider breadth of knowledge regarding Indonesian grammar. Nonetheless it is a very fun language to speak and there are quite a number of oddities and quirks throughout the language that add to a sense of novelty.
One of the first things I found to be interesting about bahasa Indonesia is that “Anda,” the word for “you,” is capitalized. Whenever one of the language instructors would write out Anda on a board they always used a capital a. Initially I thought that maybe they simply found writing the upper-case form of a easier. It wasn’t until a few weeks into language classes when the issue was clarified that Anda is always capitalized.
In English we do not capitalized any pronoun other than the first-person one, I. It would be easy to interpret this difference in capitalization convention as a manifestation of opposing viewpoints between the importance of the individual versus others, or the group. Though in English it’s difficult to say whether or not I is capitalized because of some unspoken and connate belief that a single person is somehow more or less important than another or group of others.
Easy, but maybe not correct. I’s use as the Roman numeral for one could also be read as saying something about the value of the individual. Me is not capitalized, and I don’t think that most native English speakers could explain the difference between me and I. From what I understand, I is capitalized because i, in lower-case form, is rather unsightly. There are other explanations as well, but that’s pretty much it.
English, being a complicated language with myriad influences coalescing into a somewhat standardized form some 500 years ago, can be an etymological challenge. Indonesian, however, with a language that has as much, if not a longer history than English, benefits from having undergone three separate instances when the orthography of the language was reworked within the past century. Anda is spelled with a capital a because of a general cultural orientation to focus more on others than self. Interestingly, Malay, which is what Indonesian is derived from, does not capitalize the a in Anda.
Only first and second person pronouns have formal and informal forms. The third person pronouns do not change based on politeness or familiarity. The first person pronoun, saya, which is never capitalized, originally meant “your slave,” though this isn’t commonly known. I don’t think I need to explain the significance of using the phrase “your slave” every time you want to refer to yourself. Anda and saya are only used for advertisements, introductions, and when people are trying to be very polite. There are many other forms of pronouns that can be used depending on situation, but the main ones encompass almost all circumstances.
Mr. and Mrs. are commonly translated as bapak and ibu though they literally mean father and mother, respectively. Similar to Anda, bapak and ibu are both to be capitalized when used to address someone. In Sundanese people typically use akang and teteh for second person though these words translate to brother and sister. I hope that these basic examples have at least partially made clear how Indonesians are disposed to lessen the emotional distance between speaker and addressee based upon the language they use.
In 1984, George Orwell writes, “But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” Of course, I am not to mean Indonesian is a language which corrupts its speakers, but rather the influence a language holds on the people who speak it is great. Perhaps it is this feeling of kinship that Indonesians feel towards everyone else which makes them comfortable asking total strangers where they’re going or if they’re married yet.