Pronouncing Indonesian

Some English-speaking learners of Indonesian tend to put stress on the final syllable of a word. Except for certain words of foreign origin and words that are being given special emphasis, this is almost always wrong. So Apa kabar, for example, is not /ā.pā.k’BĀR/ but /Ā.pā.KĀ.bār/  .

There is a tendency for foreigners to mispronounce certain place names in Indonesia.

Denpasar is often mispronounced /DÈN.p’SĀR/ but it should be /DÈN.PĀ.sār/
Medan is often mispronounced /m’DĀN/ but it should be /MAY.dān/
Semarang is often mispronounced /simmer.RĀNG/ but it should be /s’MĀ.rāng/

You trash your credibility as a speaker of Indonesian if you don’t pronounce common place names as Indonesians do. You put yourself in danger of sounding like a goofy foreign tourist, or worse, a journalist.

Stress on Syllables

In English there are stressed and unstressed syllables. For example, if you say the phrase “a car park” it has three beats, the first is weak (unstressed) and the second and third are strong (stressed).

Indonesian also has stressed and unstressed syllables, though the patterns of stress are somewhat different to those of English. In Indonesian there is roughly even stress on each syllable with – in most, but far from all cases – a slightly heavier stress on the second-to-last syllable.

One exception to this rule occurs when a word has an unstressed “e” in it, like the “e” in the English words “later” and “after” or the “e” sounds in “phenomenon”. When this kind of “e” appears in an Indonesian word, the following syllable is usually stressed, even when that syllable is the last syllable in a word. Here are some examples:

terima /t’REE.mā/, kenalkan /k’NĀL.kān/, Jepang /j’PĀNG/, Mesir /m’SEER/

Pure Vowels
Vowels in Indonesian are normally pronounced “pure”, that is they don’t tend towards diphthongs as is often the case in English.

saya /SĀ.yā/ (not like “soya”)
biasa /bee.YĀ.sā/ (not like “bee ass err” or “by ass err”)
Yunani /yoo.NĀ.nee/ (not like “yew nanny”)
Cina /CHEE.nā/ (not like “Chai na”)
Australia /au.s’TRĀ.lee.yā/ (not like “Orstrailya”)

One of the words most frequently mispronounced by English speaking students is tidak. This is not pronounced like “tee-dack”, but more like “tee-dah” with the final /k/ not actually uttered but caught and trapped in the throat, a bit like the sound you make in English if you are warning a toddler not to do or touch something by saying “ah ah”.


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