Print September 12, 2005

Foreigners mingle with locals during the Jl. Jaksa festival. The big gap between the daily bahasa and the one learned at schools makes it difficult for foreigners to master the language. JP/. Berto Wedhatama

Wanna learn Bahasa? 'So what, gituloh!'

An official recently announced a  government plan for all expatriate workers to pass a proficiency test in Bahasa Indonesia. This week's cover story is not concerned with the pros and cons of the policy, but rather how difficult it is to study the language and the big gap between the daily Bahasa and the one learned at schools.

Moch. N. Kurniawan, The Jakarta Post/Jakarta

You know I really like it these days kalo mereka pengen nyela sesuatu (if they want to interrupt) dengan kayak pengen nunjukin itu tuh (with willingness to show that) gak ada artinya\"apa sih\"... (there is no meaning\"what is it\") funny yourself man... It's like, So what, gituloh?! (Saykoji)

Those lyrics are from the song So what, gituloh, which, with its extensive use of slang and foreign words, recently became a hit in the country. Gituloh has no actual meaning, but is used among the younger generation to emphasize the statement immediately preceding it.

For some Indonesians, the linguistic muddle of the song is creative, or a reflection of everyday spoken Indonesian.

But for others, the lyrics are an insult to the national language. While, for foreigners, the words are probably hard to understand.

Kalo is slang for kalau (if), pengen is ingin (want), nunjukin is tunjukkan (show), gak is tidak (no).

"It is an informal language that makes conversation more natural," said young film director Joko Anwar.

"It means that new words can be taken up in Bahasa Indonesia, and there is nothing wrong with that."

For example, Joko said, he would use kamu (you) to address a new friend, but after a while he would use lu (you) to indicate friendship.

"I also use slang in my films to reflect reality. If the film is set in the present day, we cannot avoid the use of slang, but if it's set in the 1960s, we have to be true to the spoken language of that time," he said.

University student Novi A, however, said using slang was detrimental to the national language.

"The next generation will not know whether slang is proper Indonesian or not, but they will use it daily," she said.

Australian Igor O'Neill, who learned Indonesian from talking with friends here, quickly realized that spoken Bahasa Indonesia and written Bahasa Indonesia were different.

"I learned to speak Bahasa Indonesia and I know some slang," he said. "The problem is that we can't use those words in written Bahasa Indonesia, so when I write a formal letter I am a bit confused."

For example, nggak (no) is only used in spoken Bahasa Indonesia, while in a formal letter tidak (no) is used, he said.

However, he said, that did not mean learning Indonesian -- which is spoken by some 200 million people from Aceh to Papua -- was difficult.

"Bahasa Indonesia, which uses the Latin alphabet, straightforward spelling and pronunciation, is among the easiest languages to learn compared to Mandarin or Japanese," he said.

Informal words appeared in Bahasa Indonesia, which is based on Bahasa Melaya, as early as the 1960s. In Pantjawarna magazine, a caricature used the word lu instead of the formal kamu (you) and gue (me) rather than saya.

In the 1980s, a popular film Si Unyil introduced the informal phrase ogah Ah (lazy huh). The words memble (bad), and amrik (the U.S) also crept into daily conversation around that time.

In the 1990s, jomblo (single), bego (stupid), bonek (good spirit), and keren (cool) were introduced.

Some slang words have withstood the test of time while others are no longer in use.

Meanwhile, many foreign words particularly English ones have been absorbed by Bahasa Indonesia.

Globalization has become globalisasi; organization, organisasi; and institution, institusi.

Linguist Dede Utomo said the use of slang and foreign words indicated that Bahasa Indonesia was an open language.

"Slang words are a reality and show that Bahasa Indonesia is growing," he said. "There is no need for concern, people will be able to distinguish between formal and informal language."

Although slang words do not appear in most Bahasa Indonesia dictionaries, advertising companies often use them, he said.

He advised expatriates to learn both formal and informal vocabulary.

Joko concurred with Dede, saying dictionaries should include commonly used words.

"Dictionaries need to be updated to include slang," he said.