The Complications of Simplicity

Indonesian is said to be a fairly simple language. Even the Indonesians themselves will say so. And theoretically, they are right — it is a fairly simple language, conceptually.

But there are two problems.

One is its abbreviated sort of structure. It’s simply downright un-American, and certainly downright un-English. English is a language of many grammatical requirements, and its forms are very specific. You may say for instance, I am going to school, or I will go to school, or I went to school, or I go to school. In Indonesian, the whole ball of wax is contained in three words: Saya ke sekolah, literally ‘I to school.’ The particulars are implied in the context — which is to say that the hearer will fill in the blanks according to the context in which the sentence is uttered. If there is any confusion, certain specifying words may be added, such as ‘sudah’ (already) ‘belum’ (not yet), or ‘sedang’ (in the process).

For those who speak English as their native language, the simplicity is … well, way too simple. It is the foreignness of structure, therefore, that baffles. It is not a ‘normal’ way of expressing one’s thoughts.

Secondly, although Indonesian is at its core a simple language, consisting of a much smaller vocabulary than English, it has been greatly expanded by the common people with all kinds of alternative words and colloquial expressions and forms. One may understand an Indonesian who is speaking directly to oneself, because he will be employing common, correct forms; but one will likely not completely (or even near completely) understand Indonesians as they speak with one another, as they will be employing a dizzying tongue of slang, colloquialisms, alternate words, and so on. Add to this that they may well be salting the whole conversation with words from a shared second language, such as Balinese or Javanese. For instance, when I arrived at the neighborhood Starbucks the other day, the Barista happily greeted me with the word “Tumben”.

“Tumben? What is that?” I ask.

“Tumben? It’s … hmmm … I don’t know. Let’s see now … What is the Indonesian word?”

“You’re asking me?”

“Ha-ha! Hmm. Oh! Sudah lama! That’s it! Long time, no see. It’s Balinese word.”

There’s a young fellow who works part-time as the parking attendant at the Circle K  store just up the street. If he is there when I stop by, the unspoken rule in that I must sit and chat for a while. Which I happily do. But to be honest, this young man’s use of language is so terrifically heavy on slang, that I generally understand no more than half of what he is saying. He, of course, understands all of what I say because I am employing only the basic core Indonesian that all Indonesians understand.

I was pleased, however, the other night when he said “Tumben malam” — because I understood it! I learned it at Starbucks! ‘Tumben: Long time, no see, plus malam: Nighttime = ‘Long time, no see at nighttime’, or, in English, ‘It has been a long time since you’ve come here at night.’

Regarding whatever he said afterwards, I am still uncertain.


Words Matter

When Samuel arrived yesterday morning to clean the house, I found him in unusually high spirits. It soon became clear that the reason for this was that his wife had just given birth to their first child, a son.

“Well, that is happy news!” I said.

As there were no cigars in the house, I offered him a shot of whiskey instead, which Samuel enjoyed so much that he offered himself another, and another.

“Just take the whole bottle,” I said. “I don’t drink anyway. It’s just been sitting here untouched for a year.”

When Sam was done working, we sat and talked for a time (strangely, he was rather more talkative than usual), and before he left, I congratulated him once again on the birth of his son.

Later on in the afternoon, I was visiting with my friend, Hendra, at the nearby Starbucks, and I mentioned the unexpected celebration of the morning. I explained to him that Sam’s wife “beranak”, which I understood to mean ‘had a baby’.

Hendra broke into laughter.

“No, no, Bapak. You can’t say that! Beranak is only for animals. If a human being, you must say ‘melarhirkan’.


I really must apologize, next time I see Samuel, for referring to his wife as an animal!