“You” Avoidance

Contributed and posted by ‘The Indonesian Way’, a textbook for the Indonesian language by George Quinn and Uli Kozok.

The use of second person pronouns is one of the most difficult areas of Indonesian.  Even the few tentative steps we are starting to take at this point present fairly formidable, prickly, subtle difficulties.

If it is any consolation, you might be interested to know that Indonesians themselves often put the choice of the right pronoun into the too hard basket. In fact, very often people will go through some fairly spectacular contortions (verbal contortions, that is) to avoid altogether using a word for “you”, especially if they are in doubt about whether to be casual or formal with the person they are talking to.

You have already met an instance of “you-avoidance” in the greeting Mau ke mana? Other similar phrases are Tinggal di mana? (Where do you live?), Mau makan apa? (What would you like to eat?), Turun di mana? (Where are you getting off?). A slightly bizarre variant of this, but also very common, is the substitution of the more neutral third-person pronoun –nya for the second person pronoun. Thus you will hear people say, for example, Rumahnya di mana?(Where is your house?) or Anaknya berapa? (How many children do you have), and evenNamanya siapa? (What is your name?)


About author
George Quinn is the retired head of the Southeast Asia Centre at the Australian National University (2000 to 2008) where he taught Indonesian and Javanese, and contributed to courses on Indonesian linguistics, literature and culture, Indonesian religion and politics, and East Timor. He continues to teach Javanese at the ANU. One of his main publications is The Learners Dictionary of Today’s Indonesian (2001).

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