Arabic loanwords in Indonesian revisited

How did Arabic loanwords end up in Indonesian?1 Various answers to this intriguing question have been put forward in an effort to trace the long road these words may have followed before becoming part of the Malay or Indonesian vocabulary. Some of the arguments used may be theoretically correct,also from a historical point of view, but they rarely provide any solid linguistic evidence. Conclusions have sometimes been drawn on the basis of only a few words, or nonrepresentative or obsolete words. Occasionally, academics have taken over arguments and hypotheses from one another without independent research into their reliability. Some of these arguments and hypotheses seem to have gained the status of ‘established fact’ as a result of being repeated time and again. In short, some existing theories on Arabic loanwords in Indonesian do not stand up to a reality check.

I shall deal with four questions:

  1. Traces of colloquial Arabic in loanwords in Indonesian. Is there any clear linguistic evidence for a connection with the Arabs of South Arabia or Hadramaut?
  2. Does spelling follow pronunciation or does pronunciation follow spelling?
  3. What is the significance of pseudo-classical endings in Arabic loanwords, such as nafsu and salju?
  4. Notes on the origin of -ah and -at endings in Arabic loanwords as described in Stuart Campbell (1996a). Can a Persian connection be demonstrated statistically?

This article is an extended version of a lecture delivered at the Universitas Indonesia, Jakarta,on 20 May 2009, as part of a workshop on loanwords in Bahasa Indonesia, organized by the Wacana Journal of Humanities in cooperation with the Department of Linguistics of Universitas Indonesia. I am most grateful for many valuable comments by Rudolf de Jong, which were incorporated when preparing this article.

About author
Nikolaos van Dam (born April 1, 1945, in Amsterdam, the Netherlands) is a Middle East scholar, former Dutch Ambassador to Iraq, Egypt, and Indonesia, and author. Van Dam studied Arabic and Political & Social Sciences at the University of Amsterdam (cum laude), where he obtained the degree of Doctor in Literature in 1977. He taught Modern Middle Eastern History at the University of Amsterdam (1970–75). A fully updated edition of his best-known book, The Struggle for Power in Syria, was published recently. He studied Arabic and Indonesian language and literature at Leiden University in the Netherlands.

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