Contrary to some beliefs, the Indonesian language is not terribly hard to learn. It has no tones, like some other Asian languages, no genders or tenses, it uses the Roman alphabet, and has much simpler grammar and vocabulary than many languages. The complex affixation system might be somewhat of a challenge, but with some patience and regular practice, you will be able to master it as well.
This article will give you an overview over the key aspects of Indonesian grammar to give you an idea of what you should focus on learning.
In Indonesian, affixes take on an important role because slightly different affixes may have very different meanings. There are four types of affixes: prefixes (awalan), suffixes (akhiran), circumfixes (apitan), and infixes (sisipan).
Affixes are categorized into noun, verb, and adjective affixes. Root words are either nouns or verbs, which can take on affixes to generate new words, for example, masak (to cook) may become memasak (cooks), memasakkan (cooks for), dimasak (is cooked), pemasak (a cook), masakan (a meal, cookery), ‘’termasak’’ (accidentally cooked).
Many initial consonants alternate in the presence of prefixes: sapu (to sweep) becomes menyapu (sweeps/sweeping); panggil (to call) becomes memanggil (calls/calling), tapis (to sieve) becomes menapis (sieves).
Indonesian does not make use of grammatical gender, and there are only selected words that use natural gender. For instance, the same word is used for he/him and she/her (dia or ia) or for his and her (dia, ia or -nya). A majority of Indonesian words that refer to people generally have a form that does not distinguish between the sexes. However, unlike English, a distinction is made between older or younger.
Indonesian grammar does not regularly mark plurals. In Indonesian, to change a singular into a plural one either repeats the word or adds para before it (the latter for living things only); for example, “students” can be either murid-murid or para murid. Plurals are rarely used in Indonesian, especially in informal speech.
There are no articles in the Indonesian language.
There are grammatical adjectives in Indonesian. Stative verbs are often used for this purpose as well. Adjectives are always placed after the noun that they modify. Hence, “rumah saya” means “my house”, while “saya rumah” means “I am a house”.
While in English adverbs are usually formed by adding (-ly) to adjectives, in Indonesian many adverbs are formed in a slightly different way:
pelan (slow) becomes pelan-pelan (slowly)
sempurna (perfect) becomes dengan sempurna (perfectly)
However, that’s not always the case. Some words are adverbs by nature. For example: sekarang (now), benar-benar (really), segera (soon), malam ini (tonight), cantik (pretty), hampir (almost) are all Indonesian adverbs.
Personal pronouns are not a separate part of speech in Indonesian, but a subset of nouns. They are frequently omitted, and there are numerous ways to say “you”. Commonly the person’s name, title, title with the name, or occupation is used (“does Johnny want to go?”, “would Madam like to go?”); kin terms, including fictive kinship, are extremely common.
There are three common forms of “you”, Anda (polite), kamu (familiar), and kalian “all” (commonly used as a plural form of you, slightly informal). Anda is used with strangers, recent acquaintances, in advertisements, in business, and when you wish to show respect.
Pronouns aku, kamu, engkau, and ia have short possessive enclitic forms. All others retain their full forms like other nouns, as does emphatic dia: meja saya, meja kita, meja anda, meja dia “my table, our table, your table, his/her table”.
There are two demonstrative pronouns in Indonesian. Ini “this, these” is used for a noun which is generally near to the speaker. Itu “that, those” is used for a noun which is generally far from the speaker. Either may sometimes be equivalent to English “the”. There is no difference between singular and plural. However, plural can be indicated through duplication of a noun followed by a ini or itu.
In Indonesian, verbs are not inflected for person or number, and they are not marked for tense; tense is instead denoted by time adverbs (such as “yesterday”) or by other tense indicators, such as sudah “already” and belum “not yet”.
On the other hand, there is a complex system of verb affixes to render nuances of meaning and to denote voice or intentional and accidental moods. Some of these affixes are ignored in colloquial speech.
Here are a few examples:
duduk — to sit down
mendudukkan — to sit someone down, give someone a seat, to appoint
menduduki — to sit on, to occupy
didudukkan — to be given a seat, to be appointed
diduduki — to be sat on, to be occupied
terduduk — to sink down, to come to sit
kedudukan — to be situated
Four words are used for negation in Indonesian, namely tidak, bukan, jangan, and belum. Tidak (not), often shortened to tak, is used for the negation of verbs and “adjectives”. Bukan (be-not) is used in the negation of a noun.
For negating imperatives or advising against certain actions in Indonesian, the word jangan (do not) is used before the verb. For example,
Jangan tinggalkan saya di sini! — Don’t leave me here!
Word order in Indonesian is generally subject-verb-object (SVO), similar to that of most modern European languages, such as English. However considerable flexibility in word order exists, in contrast with languages such as Japanese or Korean, for instance, which always end clauses with verbs. Indonesian, while allowing for relatively flexible word orderings, does not mark for grammatical case, nor does it make use of grammatical gender.
Some common Indonesian prepositions are: setelah (after), di (at, in), antara (between), untuk (for, to), dari (of), pada (on), atas (over), dengan (with).
This is a very brief overview of Indonesian grammar. To truly master it, you will need to study each of the parts of speech in much more detail. However, this overview will hopefully give you a general idea of the Indonesian grammatical system and of the main points you should consider when learning.