Arabic Language in Contemporary Indonesian

One of the most often heard cliches is that Bahasa Indonesia is a simple language. I find this cliche is mainly used by those who have never mastered the language. Nevertheless, it should be admitted that Arabic is much more complex and difficult to master.

Before being posted to Jakarta, I expected that my knowledge of Arabic would be a great advantage in Indonesia. As I started studying Arabic in the 1960s and have lived and worked in various Arab countries for over 15 years, I thought I would have a soft linguistic landing when assuming my new responsibilities as Ambassador of the Netherlands in Jakarta in August 2005.

I expected things to be even easier because I was aware that Indonesian also contains numerous words of Dutch origin. According to European Loanwords in Indonesian (published in 1983 by the Indonesian Etymological Project), some 5,400 words in Indonesian are of Dutch origin.

According to a sister publication, Arabic Loan-Words in Indonesian (compiled by Russell Jones who focuses specifically on the root forms of Arabic- and Persian-derived words), there are some 2750 Indonesian words derived from Arabic.

This means that, even if some words in Jones’ list are now obsolete, the real number of Arabic words in Indonesian may be more than 3000. This is because Jones’ compilation does not include the derivative words which are so abundant in Indonesian. For example, syair, which produces bersyair, menyairkan, penyair, kepenyairan, syairi and so on.

Adding the 2,750 and 5,400 figures led me to suppose that I already knew more than 8000 Indonesian words, even before arriving in Jakarta. During my first ride by car on the highway from Soekarno-Hatta Airport to our new residence in Menteng, I tested my elementary vocabulary by reading the first large billboard we passed. It was the well-known sign warning against the dangers of smoking which reads: Merokok menyebabkan kanker, serangan jantung, impotensi, dan gangguan kehamilan dan janin (smoking causes cancer, heart disease, impotence, and pregnancy complications).

Enthusiastically I concluded from this first practical linguistic encounter, that of the ten different words mentioned here, I already knew more than half, because they were of either Dutch, European or Arabic origin: merokok, kanker and impotensi are easily recognizable by any Dutchman, whereas the Arabic origin of menyebabkan (from sabab), kehamilan (from hamil) and janin is easily identifiable for anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of both Arabic and the Indonesian system of prefixes and suffixes.

This led me to the optimistic — albeit somewhat premature — conclusion that, with my linguistic background, it would be a relatively easy task to learn Indonesian. And the other way around: that I could likely make good use of my knowledge of Arabic in my contacts with Indonesian society. This was also suggested to me by Indonesians on various occasions.

But the reality turned out to be rather different. Of course, I had a big advantage over other foreigners who did not know either Arabic or Dutch. But in practice I discovered that — despite what many people, including many Indonesians, say or believe — Bahasa Indonesia has a rich original vocabulary. Therefore I am obliged to consult my Indonesian dictionaries rather frequently.

In fact, I am not able to use Arabic particularly often, because — despite my expectations — there are few Indonesians who can actually communicate in Arabic. Nevertheless, speaking Arabic well in Indonesia is generally regarded as something prestigious, deserving of great respect.

I think that the Arabic component of Indonesian is rather overestimated. Certainly this is so when it comes to the real usage and knowledge of the words of Arabic origin in Indonesian daily life. The fact that some 3,000 — if not many more — words of Arabic origin can be found in Indonesian language dictionaries does not imply that these words are being used on a daily basis, let alone that their meaning is generally known to the Indonesian public, whether well-educated or not. Nor does it mean that people are generally aware of the particular Arabic origin of words they use in modern Indonesian.

As a participant in an intensive Indonesian language course at the well-known Alam Bahasa Indonesia Institute in Yogyakarta (formerly known as Puri), I was asked by my teacher to translate various texts from English into Indonesian, as part of my homework. Since I had only the Indonesian-Dutch dictionary of Professor A. Teeuw with me at the time, I could translate from Indonesian to Dutch but not the other way around. And so I experimented with searching the dictionary for the Arabic equivalents of the words to be translated. In several cases I found this method satisfactory.

Dr. Nikolaos van Dam, Ambassador of the Netherlands in Indonesia ( and former Ambassador to Iraq, Egypt, Turkey and Germany, studied Arabic and political & social sciences at the University of Amsterdam. He served most of his academic and diplomatic career in the Arab world, also covering Libya, Lebanon, Jordan and the Palestinian occupied territories. He has published extensively on the Arab world.