Kevin W. Fogg

Islamic History in Southeast Asia

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"You" in Indonesian

By Kevin W. Fogg, Aug 11 2014 09:15AM

I’ve just finished re-reading James T. Siegel’s Fetish, Recognition, Revolution, which uses literature (mostly from the colonial period, but a few published and unpublished items from after independence) to trace the build towards de-colonization in Indonesia. It is a thought-provoking book in many ways, and good to revisit as I prepare my own manuscript on the revolution.


Something struck me, though, about Siegel’s focus on the shifting “I” pronoun, or “ik” or “saya”, etc. In fact, I do not find shifting “I” to be the great danger in Indonesian. There are a few different ways that one can express the first person singular (the most standard being “saya” and “aku”, followed closely by referring to oneself in the third person, and several non-standard forms like “gue”). These are fairly easily navigable. The great danger, in my mind, is assessing and naming the second person; when speaking Indonesian, one has tremendous difficulties not with shifting “I”, but shifting “you.”


I first noticed this several years ago at my Indonesian sister’s house (in the US) when meeting some other foreign students of the Indonesian language. My sister was throwing a party (as she is wont to do) so that a crew of ten to fifteen students of Indonesian at the local army base could practice the language with local native speakers (and, apparently, me). I was struck by how these new students would constantly refer to me in the second person as “Anda”. “Anda dari mana?” (Where are You from?) “Siapa nama Anda?” (What is Your name?) I learned much of my Indonesian usage through trial-and-error on the street, and hearing “Anda” in polite party conversation rang a little strange in my ears.


Not that “Anda” does not mean “you”—in fact, “Anda” was coined as a term in the 1950s precisely so that Indonesian would have a generic and respectful “you.” (1) With this neologism, the second person is always capitalized out of respect, rendering it “You” (contrast the usage in English, where the first person “I” receives the capitalization; cultural studies insta-article alert). But “Anda” is not the usual term that one would use in addressing others in Indonesian. There are a few other pronouns for the second person singular (the most common are “engkau”—sometimes just “kau”—and “kamu,” for informal speech also “lu”), but even these are not the most common in usage. UPDATE: My esteemed colleague Petra Mahy notes that I failed to mention the other formal option: Saudara / Saudari, meaning brother or sister, which became particularly popular in the egalitarian time of the Revolution and is still in formal usage today. Similar to "Anda," it seems to me this is not something that one says in conversation, though, but rather a formal option in writing (or speeches, I suppose).


Instead, the way that one addresses someone else in Indonesian is generally through the use of an appropriate title. The two most common in standard Indonesian are probably “Bapak” (meaning father, for men) and “Ibu” (meaning mother, for women), but a myriad of other Indonesian terms for family relations (uncle, aunt, brother, older sibling, younger sibling, grandmother, grandfather) also stand in for “you.” Beyond this, a plethora of regional terms are deployed in daily usage, ranging from the fairly generic “mas” (young man) and “mbak” (young woman) from Javanese, to more specific titles, like “puang” for Buginese individuals of noble descent, “ustad” for Arab men, “ompung” for elderly Batak individuals. And, of course, calling someone in the second person by their personal name is an option once one knows them well enough.


The trick is that it’s not always evident what pronoun one should use when addressing someone new. One has to size up that individual’s gender, age (in relation to one’s own), social status, social connectedness (i.e., is this an old friend of the family, or a neighbor who has always been very standoffish?), ethnic background, and on and on. Similarly, the other interlocutor will be performing a similar if inverse calculus to choose an appropriate term of reference in reverse. The terms are almost never parallel (they might initially default to the generic Ibu or Bapak, but soon differentiate), but say an awful lot about the relationship.


This can be really precarious, especially for foreigners. My esteemed friend and senior colleague Fachry Ali in Jakarta (whom I address as “Bapak”) once regaled me with the story of another, now-famous American academic who, I’m sure unwittingly, really annoyed a senior Indonesian public intellectual by always calling him “kamu.” And I have certainly been told off by people on Sumatra who did not want to be addressed by the Javanese title “Mas.” I even had a funny time with an American colleague in the field when he tried to use an Acehnese title for respected elderly men when we were in West Sumatra. (As it happens, the title was “buaya,” which is great in Aceh but in standard Indonesian means “crocodile” rather than “respected sir.”)


All this to say, I think Prof Siegel might have missed the point on shifting pronouns in Indonesian. The transition between the relatively few forms of the first person “I” pales in comparison to the constant navigation between the many roles that one plays as different “you”s throughout their daily life in Indonesian: from Mbak to Ibu to Nenek all the while being Kak or Dik to some, their own name to others, and different forms of “you” in different towns. These shifts, incredibly defined by our interlocutors rather than ourselves in most situations, are the true challenge of pinning down an identity in Indonesian.



(1) Lars Vikør, “Language Policy and Language Planning in Indonesia and Malaysia,” in Thommy Svensson and Per Sørensen, eds., Indonesia and Malaysia: Scandinavian Studies in Contemporary Society, Studies on Asian Topics no. 5 (London: Curzon, 1983): 62.

2 comments
Aug 11 2014 01:30PM by George Quinn

Hi Kevin. Interesting piece. Thank you. Quite a few years ago when I was teaching in Indonesia a student of mine submitted a term paper titled "The 52 words for 'you' in Salatiga". I've lost the paper now, but it became the basis for an entry in my Learner's Dictionary of Today's Indonesian in which I list a mere 24 words for 'you' in common use in Indonesian. But for me, the most interesting and difficult feature of the second person pronoun in Inodnesian is 'you avoidance". As you will have noticed, sometimes people go through quite extraordinary verbal gymnastics in order to avoid using ANY second person pronoun. I'm not sure why, but I think it is possibly because second person pronouns are so minutely specific and precise, that when you use a certain second person pronoun you (as it were) make a very specific statement about how you view your relationaship with the person you are addressing. And that is a risky thing to do if you get it wrong. So you try to avoid it. The English "you" is an amorphous blob of a word that you can use to all and sundry without too many social risks.

Aug 11 2014 01:42PM by Kevin Fogg

Thanks for the comment, George, and I think you've hit the nail on the head. Although in my experience non-Javanese speakers of Indonesian are less likely to go to great lengths for "you avoidance" (a great term), all are conscious of the process of defining oneself and one's interlocutors through choosing a second person term. I feel that this is present, lurking in the background of daily Indonesian in a way that the shifting "I" to which Siegel pointed is not.

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The thoughts and opinions presented on this blog do not represent any institutions or other organization with which I am affiliated.  They are mine and mine alone, and should not be copied or reprinted (beyond fair use) without my written permission.  My hope is that these entries will help to further discussion about Southeast Asia, Islamic history, academia in a time of technological change, and other subjects worthy of attention.

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The image above comes from a manuscript of Dala'il al-Khayrat, probably copied in West Sumatra in the first half of the twentieth century and now in the collection of Prof. Bruce B. Lawrence.