Western Loanwords in Indonesian

Indonesian has thousands of words that resemble English words. Lots of them serve an obvious purpose: they fill a gap in the vocabulary. Examples of these are pistol, helikopter, komputer. There was no word to convey those concepts before those borrowed words came along.

But the more interesting ones are the many that do not fill a gap. Instead they exist alongside a ‘twin’ word – either native to the language or long ago assimilated into it – that means virtually the same.
For example, diskusi exists alongside pembicaraan, both meaning “discussion”.

There are hundreds of such pairs: so many that when a speaker or writer consistently chooses western words over their nonwestern twins it creates a distinctive style. And the number of these pairs is growing all the time.

A few examples only of such pairs:

western word

older synonym

berkompetisi bersaing to compete
diskusi pembicaraan discussion
evaluasi penilaian evaluation
identitas jati diri identity
informasi keterangan information
kualitas mutu quality
memprediksi meramalkan to predict
mengoreksi membetulkan to correct
opini pendapat opinion
populasi penduduk population
respons tanggapan response
sensitif peka sensitive
situasi keadaan situation

Now I’m not suggesting that the two words in each of these pairs are perfect synonyms. There will be situations where one word in the pair sounds clearly more suitable, so for example where jati diri sounds better than identitas or vice-versa. But all these pairs also have a large area of overlap situations where either can be used and so where educated speakers can choose between the two.

By the way, the reason I call these words ‘western’ and not simply ‘English’ loanwordsis that many of them were originally borrowed from Dutch rather than English. But in many cases you can’t tell which of the two languages it came from, and younger Indonesians today probably regard virtually all of them as borrowed from English.

Attitudes of Indonesians towards them

Indonesians often complain about this invasion of western words that serve no obvious purpose. The Pusat Bahasa or central language planning body condemns them. Members of the public grumble about them too, in letters to the newspapers. But no criticism seems to have any effect: journalists, business
and government leaders, and thousands of ordinary educated Indonesians keep coining and using more of them all the time.

Why do Indonesians use them?

One major reason is prestige. English carries very high status in Indonesia, and so when a speaker uses words that sound English, a certain prestige may attach to him or her as a result. The speaker can sound – or hope to sound – modern, sophisticated, and highly educated.

But that is not the only reason people use them. In a modern setting a western loanword often sounds more suitable than its older twin. This is because the older words acquired their meanings in more traditional settings, so when they are used to refer to modern ideas they can sound a little out of
place. For example, the word penilaian is a perfectly good word meaning ‘evaluation,’ but if high school teachers or students are talking about evaluation of academic performance they tend not to use it. Instead, they will talk about evaluasi. The current western-style school system in Indonesia was inherited natural in that context.

What about Australian learners?

My strong impression is that Australian students ‘underuse’ these loanwords. That is, in situations where educated Indonesians would tend to use them, they generally do not. And I believe this is largely because they dislike them. Learners dislike them because they consider them too easy. Learners work hard to become good at Indonesian, are justly proud of their ability, and enjoy exercising it, both to display it to others and for their own satisfaction. But western loanwords don’t show how good you are at
Indonesian – the hearer is likely to think that you only know the word because it’s the same as English. Nor do they feel intellectually challenging to retrieve from the memory and produce. And using them feels like a dangerously soft option; students fear that they will fail to learn he ‘real’ words or else forget them.

What should you do?

Whether you shun western loanwords or embrace them is largely up to you. If you do want to be able to use them, as educated Indonesians do, then the big challenge is to learn when each one is appropriate. So when you come across one in speech or writing you should note the situation: who is using it to whom, in what setting, and to refer to what? That’s how you start to get a feel for how the word is used: when it might sound pretentious, when it will sound fine, and when it is virtually obligatory.

These are just a few remarks on the topic. However, I hope they help make you more aware of an issue that some learners have strong feelings about and which affects how you come across as a user of Indonesian.


Hassall, T. (1999) Budaya or Kultur? Learning and teaching Western loan words. Wacana Vol 5, http://intranet.usc.edu.au/wacana/5/hassall.html

Lowenberg, P. (1983) Lexical Modernization in Bahasa Indonesia: Function allocation and variation in borrowing. Studies in the Linguistic Sciences 13 (2), 73-86

Marcellino, M (1990) The forms and functions of Western loan words in selected Indonesian print media. Unpublished PhD dissertation, Georgetown University.

Sneddon, J. (2003) The Indonesian Language. UNSW Press, Sydney

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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