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Politics, Theology and Christian Humanism

Indonesian, Malay, slang and Arabic names

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Greater Indonesia or in the Malay language, In...

Most languages and dialects have slang, and much is playful, but Indonesians seem to take language play to a higher level. The linguistic heritage of the archipelago gives the perfect ingredients for wordplay.

The official language Indonesian (Bahasa Indonesia) is derived from ‘market Malay‘ (bahasa pasar, the language of the bazaar), which served as lingua franca throughout the region. Although the official, standardised languages of Malaysia and Indonesia are both Malay languages with mutual intelligibility of around 80%, Malaysia‘s places far more weight on court Malay (bahasa istana, particularly the Classical Malay of the Malaccan Sultanate), while Indonesia’s emphasizes the language of the market. This can be illustrated with the faux amis budak, which means ‘child’ in Malaysia, ‘slave’ in Indonesia, and percuma which means ‘free of charge’ in Malaysia, ‘worthless’ in Indonesia. The colonial influence of English and Dutch in Malaysia and Indonesia respectively is illustrated by the word pair polis and polisi: in Malaysia they mean ‘police’ and ‘policy’, but in Indonesia they mean ‘policy’ and ‘police’ (from Dutch polis and politie).

Only around 10% of the around 240 million inhabitants of Indonesia speak the official language as their mother tongue. Most of these first-language speakers are city dwellers who have relegated their regional language in the melting pot of the city. The Malays of Sumatra, Riau and Moluccas (Maluku) speak a regional language that is close enough to the standard language for them to be considered first-language speakers too. The 90% of Indonesia’s population speak over 700 closely related regional languages, the top three are Javanese (basa Jawa), Sundanese (basa Sunda) and Madurese (basa Madhura). The influence of English in the creation of neologisms, especially in technology, is strong in both Malaysia and Indonesia. Only the older generations in Indonesia can remember much Dutch; younger generations are taught English.

A classic case of Indonesian slang is the word bokep. Especially when rendered as the active verb ngebokep it is difficult to imagine that this word is originally English. Bokep is Indonesian slang for a porn film. It started life as the English euphemism ‘blue film’. This was then initialised to ‘BF’. As is common with many initialisms in Indonesia, this became a word in itself: be’ef. Because /f/ is not a native sound in Indonesian, it is often replaced by /p/, and so it became be’ep. One favourite substitution made in Indonesian slang is to replace all but the intial consonant of the first syllable with -ok, which may, or may not, be popular use of ‘OK’. And thus, ‘blue film’ became bokep.

Abdurrahman Wahid, President of Indonesia Copy...Many Indonesians have just a single name and no surname. The use of patronymns is common and increasing. Often this is the simple placing of one’s father’s name after one’s own, so Ahmad Ali is Ahmad the son of Ali. In the case of the politician Megawati Sukarnoputri, she has her famous father’s name, Sukarno (or Soekarno), with the added word putri, meaning ‘daughter’ (interestingly, in Malaysia puteri means ‘princess’). However, the name I find interesting is that of the fourth President of Indonesia, Gus Dur. It could be construed from outside Indonesia that his name is Gus and he comes from the Dur family; with a bit of knowledge, one might posit that Dur is his father’s name rather than a family name. Actually, gus is a title and Dur is an abbreviation of the former president’s personal name. Gus Dur’s legal name was Abdurrahman Addakhil son of Abdul Wahid Hasjim, which was usually shortened to Abdurrahman Wahid. He came from a religious Muslim family in East Java, and was named after the great 8th-century founder of Umayyad Córdoba, Abd al-Rahman I (عبد الرحمن الداخل ʿAbdu ‘r-Raḥmani ‘d-Dāḫil). Both Gus Dur and his father had classical Arabic names of the ‘Abdul’ type. These names consist of the Arabic word ʿAbd (عبد), meaning ‘servant’ followed by one of the 99 Names of God from the Qur’an, like al-Raḥman (الرحمن ‘the Merciful’) or al-Wāḥid (الواحد ‘the One’). Two interesting things happen to the Arabic definite article al- (ال‍): if the following consonant is of the set of ‘sun letters’ the ‘l’ coalesces with it (al-Raḥmanar-Raḥman), and the vowel of the classical case ending of the previous word eliminates the ‘a’ (ʿAbdu ar-RaḥmanʿAbdu ‘r-RaḥmanʿAbdurraḥman). Thus, Gus Dur’s name comes from the second syllable, being the final consonant of ʿAbd with the completely replaced al→ur. In the same way, many men whose names end in -uddīn (الدين ‘of the faith’) are called Din for short. The title gus is a shortened form of the Malay word bagus, meaning ‘excellent’, which is an honorific given in a pesantren (an Indonesian Islamic boarding school) to the son of the kyai, the master.

Author: Gareth Hughes

A priest of the Church of England, who is Chaplain of Hertford College, Oxford, and doing Syriac research at Oxford University.

8 thoughts on “Indonesian, Malay, slang and Arabic names

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