English is Changing The Grammar Of Indonesian

If words are flesh and grammar is bones, then the flesh of Indonesian has an unmistakable English flavour by now. What you might not know is that English is shaping the bones of the language as well.

This is not a new thing for Indonesian. For the last century or so it has been absorbing new English-type structures. In the early days they came fromDutch, whose grammar resembles English in a lot of ways. Now they come from English instead and more are entering the language all the time. Let’slook at a few examples below.

1. “Talking …,” (present participle constructions)

One fairly new structure comes from imitating English sentences like:

  • Talking in front of journalists yesterday, he explained that …
  • Answering a reporter’s question, she denied …

We wonder for a moment, Who is talking? Only later in the sentence do wefind out: ‘he …’

Until recently, Indonesian had nothing like this. But nowadays in the presswe often read the same pattern:

  • Berbicara di depan wartawan kemarin, (dia …)
  • Menjawab pertanyaan wartawan, (dia …)

Formerly, you had to say something like ‘Dia berbicara di depanwartawan dan …”

2. “Located …,” (past participle constructions)

In the same way, a new structure has appeared to match English sentenceslike:

  • Located in the hills, that village is well-known for …
  • Arrested in his house at daybreak, Rusli did not try to …

Once again, we wonder at first, ‘What is located? And only later inthe sentence do we find out: ‘that village…’

In the Indonesian press nowadays we often come across the same pattern.

  • Terletak di perbukitan, desa itu…,
  • Tertangkap di rumahnya pada dini hari, Rusli …”

Formerly you would have had to say something like “Desa yang terletakdi perbukitan itu …”

3. adalah

Another structure comes from imitating this English one:

  • Tuti is a small child
  • They are good people

We do not simply say: “Tuti, a small child”. We insert a form ofthe verb “to be”, called a‘copula’.

Traditional Malay/ Indonesian does not put a word in that slot. You just say Tuti anak kecil, and so on. But Indonesians who knew Dutch started sometimes toinsert a copula when writing – namely adalah or ialah.

And due to recent pressure from English, this adalah is used by writers moreand more often nowadays, even in simple little sentences where it is not reallyuseful at all. So for example:

(a recent reader’s letter to a newspaper)

‘Saya adalah seorang karyawan swasta.
‘I am an employee of a private firm.’

(a recent short story by a well-known writer)

Saya adalah seorang tukang ketik pada Lembaga [X].
‘I am a typist at the [X] Institute.’

(Notice the unnecessary seorang in those examples too. It’s as if thewriters are reluctant to leave out any parts of the English sentence “I– am – a …”.

4. “a book which I will buy” (object relative clauses)

One quite new structure, bound to irritate many teachers, is a matter ofword order. It comes from imitating English phrases like:

  • a book which I will buy
  • questions which we can answer
  • a song which I once heard

Notice how the underlined part has the word order of an active sentence. Itsays “I – will – buy,” just like in the sentence‘I will buy a book’.

That order is not possible in traditional Malay/Indonesian. You have to sayinstead:

  • buku yang akan saya beli
  • pertanyaan yang bisa kita jawab
  • lagu yang pernah saya dengar

Why? Because you are not really saying ‘a book which I willbuy’. You are saying ‘a book which will be bought by me’. Itis passive, not active. And so those words saya- beli must stay together. Because saya beli, indivisible, means ‘be bought – by me’.

But now many educated Indonesians have started to say and write thingslike:

  • buku yang saya MAU beli
  • pertanyaan yang kita BISA jawab
  • lagu yang saya PERNAH dengar

This is a radical change, because now it is active, not passive. It says ‘book which I will buy’, ‘question which we cananswer’, etc, as in English.

As if that wasn’t bad enough for the purists, there are even signs oftotal surrender to English. I have found well over a hundred texts whereeducated Indonesians say or write things like buku yang saya akan membelipertanyaan yang kita bisa menjawab

The me- here on membeli, menjawab makes it an even more blatant copy of English. No-one could deny that it says “which I will buy”. Andalthough this ‘me-’ variant is still totally wrong according tomost careful speakers, it’s a new one to watch.

Translation effect

You may have guessed by now that the practice of translating texts from English is a big reason new structures enter Indonesian. News stories fromglobal agencies like Reuters are hastily rewritten in Indonesian byjournalists, best-selling works of fiction and non-fiction (e.g. thriller novels and guides like Rich Dad, Poor Dad) have mostly been translated just ascarelessly, with their English bones still largely intact. By reading this typeof thing, educated readers become more and more familiar with English-typestructures and start to use many of them themselves.

Let’s look at just two more borrowings from English:

5. “countries, children”

Indonesian has started to imitate this English feature:

  • book – bookS
  • country – countrIES
  • child – childREN

English marks nouns as plural, usually with “-s”, when referringto more than one.

In earlier Malay/ Indonesian as well, nouns were sometimes marked as plural, by doubling them and saying negara-negara, etc. But doubling nouns to showplural meaning was not common. For instances you didn’t say thingslike:

  • banyak negara-negara – ‘many countries’
  • beberapa murid-murid – ‘some pupils’
  • ratusan ribu anak-anak – ‘hundreds of thousands of children’

Why not? Because it is obvious you are talking about more than one country, pupil or child without a doubled noun.

But because Dutch marks nouns as plural even when the plural sense isobvious, some educated Indonesians started to do it even with words like banyakand beberapa.

And nowadays thanks to pressure from English you even hear it with numbers sometimes, such as ratusan ribu anak-anak – although purists object thatthe presence of a number like ratusan ribu makes doubling the noun simplywrong.

6. “it” (third person singular inanimate pronoun)

The last new structure we will look at is based on this English one:

  • I like that mosque. It was built nearly a thousand years ago.

To refer to the mosque the second time, we said “it” – theEnglish pronoun for non humans. There is no such word in traditionalMalay/Indonesian. But during the last few decades, some westernised writers have started to use dia or ia for the same purpose. Look at this sentence in a recent magazine article

(talking about the National Language Centre):

Sekarang namanya Pusat Bahasa. Dia tidak hanyamengurus bahasa Indonesia, tetapi bahasa daerah.

‘Now its name is the Pusat Bahasa. Itdoesn’t only manage Indonesian, but also …’

And similarly, in the same magazine issue, we find:

Bahasa Indonesia bukan anugerah yang diturunkan dari langit. Dia adalah buah… Ia juga senjata …

‘Indonesian is not a gift that was handed down from the sky. It is thefruit of … It is also a weapon …’

In traditional Malay/ Indonesian we have to find a different way to conveythe meaning of “it” instead, such as saying:

… namanya Pusat Bahasa. Lembaga itu …(i.e. ‘… This institution …’)


No matter how you feel about this whole trend towards English-style grammar ,there is one minor moral to the story. If you’re a student who makes awise habit of trying to soak up natural sentence patterns by noticing them asyou read, avoid texts that are translations of English. They are often riddled with English structures that no Indonesian person would normally use. Original texts, on the other hand, still often contain structures recently borrowed from English – and those ones deserve your respectful attention. You might even like to try some out!


Badudu, Yus (1996) Dari bahasa Melayu ke bahasa Indonesia. In Soenjono Dardjowidjojo (Ed.) Bahasa Nasional Kita. Bandung: ITB, pp 28-38
Hassall, Tim (in press) Taboo object relative clauses in Indonesian. In Paul Sidwell (ed.) SEALSXV: Papers from the 15th Meeting of the Southeast Asian Linguistics Society. Canberra: Pacific Linguistics.
Kaswanti Purwo, Bambang (1984) Deiksis Dalam Bahasa Indonesia. Jakarta: Balai Pustaka
Kaswanti Purwo, Bambang (1996) Perkembangan sintaksis bahasa Indonesia.
In Soenjono Dardjowidjojo (Ed.) Bahasa Nasional Kita. Bandung: ITB, pp 192- 209
Moeliono, Anton M. (1992) Contact-induced language change in present-day Indonesian. Indonesian Studies 9 (1-2): 24-33
Sneddon, James (2003) The Indonesian Language: Its History and Role in Modern Society. Sydney: UNSW Press

About author

Tim Hassall has a PhD in Applied Linguistics, an MA in TESOL, and a Graduate Diploma in Secondary Education. He coordinates and teaches courses on Indonesian language and aspects of Indonesian linguistics at the Australian National University, Canberra. His main research interests are the acquisition of second language pragmatics and the influence of English on Indonesian. He has published a number of articles in refereed journals and book chapters.

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