Blog: We need to talk about loanwords!

By Taufiq Hanafi & Tom Hoogervorst.

“What’s the point?” you inquire, adjusting your pince-nez sceptically. And to that, we reply: loanwords are monuments of cultural contact. Once detected as such, they reveal human agency and encounters previously concealed by the misty shrouds of time. When we dig deeper, loanwords inform us about the arenas in which contact took place, the directions of that contact, and circumstances under which it was made. For better or worse, they are reminders of our connectedness.

Now that most airports have turned into dystopian hellscapes, social media is the perfect place for reassessing the world’s linguistic connections. With this in mind, we recently stumbled across the above sign. It is in Maltese but all the nouns and adjectives originate from Italian. Forming similar sentences is possible in English – they can be littered with French or Latin nouns, adjectives, and verbs. And indeed, parallel examples soon flooded into the Facebook comments section.

“That’s cute,” interjected a speaker of Vietnamese, “but hold my phở!” In Vietnamese, one can compose sentences in which even the grammatical components are loanwords, in this case from Chinese; entirely Vietnamese and yet entirely the result of language contact.

And yet… we’re dealing with only a single donor language in this case. What if we showed you a language in which all-loanword sentences could be sourced from at least eight different donors?

Indonesia has one of the world’s most fascinating histories when it comes to language contact, dating from the ancient spice trade through to colonialism and globalization. So, can one come up with Indonesian sentences in which every word is borrowed from the same donor language? In this blog, we shall rise to this not entirely serious challenge, relying on the Loan-Words in Indonesian and Malay database and taking the liberty of adding affixes as we see fit.

1) Sanskrit
The classical language of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. Of Indonesia’s oldest inscriptions and latest neologisms. Of poetry and erudition. Of education and philosophy. Yes, this one shouldn’t be too difficult:

Kata guru, mendarmabaktikan jiwa raga bagi negara supaya jutaan manusia bisa merasakan kemerdekaan merupakan cita-cita mulia. (The teacher said that it’s a noble goal to dedicate one’s body and soul to the nation so that millions of people can experience independence.)

2) Arabic
A language of religion, law, and science. The harbinger of a new script, along with new ways of thinking. In other words, also not too much trouble, given the task at hand:

Walau izin hajatan akbar dibatalkan akibat masalah kesehatan, masyarakat nekat hadir. (Although the permit for the grand celebration was cancelled due to health problems, the community was determined to attend.)

3) Dutch
The former colonizers may not have contributed greatly to the archipelago’s spiritual well-being, but the names for innumerable technological and household items originate from their language. Indeed, the Dutch have single-handedly made it impossible for Indonesians and Malaysians to understand each other when it comes to toolboxes, car parts, and legal terminology…

Pas memarkir sepeda motornya, Om Hengky dilabrak sopir bus. (When he parked his motorbike, Uncle Henk got beaten up by a bus driver.)

4) Portuguese
The language of intrepid cavaleiros and fidalgos. The first and certainly not the last cohort of Europeans to burden the archipelago with their presence, while at the same time introducing a panoply of things and concepts from a continent 12,000 kilometres away.

Meskipun disekolahkan gereja, padri-padri memalsukan mentega. (Even though they were educated by the church, the priests counterfeited butter.)

5) Javanese
Spoken by Indonesia’s largest ethnicity and boasting one of Southeast Asia’s oldest and richest literary traditions, Javanese has enriched its surrounding languages from classical times through to the present. As a result, entire Javanese sentences can now be understood by Indonesians from other backgrounds:

Pak Lurah malah kepingin banget ketemu mbak jamu gendong… (And yet the village head was extremely keen to meet the girl selling herbal medicine…)

6) Persian
Historically used in governance and diplomacy, in hikayats and palaces. Sentences with Persian loanwords almost automatically end up sounding poetic, like a dash of rosewater applied to a lovelorn soul. Just behold the following example:

Nakhoda biadab mencambuk domba saudagar anggur. (The savage captain whipped the wine merchant’s sheep.)

7) Hokkien Chinese
A language of commerce, cuisine, and popular culture, leaving ample traces in the urban dialects of Jakarta, Semarang, Medan, and elsewhere. What would colloquial Indonesian be without it?

Engkong lu ngepoin koko gua! (Your grandfather is prying into my brother’s business!)

8) Tamil
Featuring on ancient artefacts and in medieval inscriptions, spoken by sailors, religious scholars, labourers, and private financiers, testimony to centuries of contact between South India and Maritime Southeast Asia. And yet we found it quite difficult to make an all-Tamil Indonesian sentence. This is what we came up with:

Modal persekutuan nelayan cuma kapal belaka. (The capital of the fishermen’s federation consisted of nothing more than ships.)

In view of the above intimacies, we take a leisurely breath and enjoy a genial chuckle when confronted with the curious contortions of modern language purists, who insist that Bahasa Indonesia (baku) is authentic and intrinsically of a higher quality than other varieties.

It seems the logic should be inverted. Indonesian has become the spectacular language it is today by virtue of lexical borrowing, not in spite of it. On occasion, to borrow James D. Nicoll’s famous description of English and apply it to this context, it “has pursued other languages down the alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary”. That’s certainly one way to ensure linguistic growth…

To sum up, thou shalt borrow, borrow some more, and become rich and beautiful in the process.

Photo by Marwan Kilani.

Taufiq Hanafi is a guest researcher at KITLV and Leiden University. He recently finished his thesis ‘Writing novels under the New Order: state censorship, complicity, and literary production in Indonesia, 1977-1986’. Tom Hoogervorst is a researcher at KITLV, interested in the histories and languages (Malay, Javanese, and all sorts of youth languages) of Indonesia.

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