Apr 17, 2024 Last Updated 3:10 AM, Apr 15, 2024

Youth Indonesian

David Saxby

One of the first lessons that any student of Indonesian learns is that ya means ‘yes’ and tidak means ‘no’. A relatively uncomplicated rule of thumb. Or so I thought. After spending some time in Indonesia, however, I realised that using tidak in conversation with young people is unlikely to win you many friends. For the youth of Indonesia, tidak carries connotations of authority, formality and the older generation. It is unmistakably and totally uncool.

In place of tidak, you are much more likely to hear young people use nggak, kagak or ga. These have essentially the same meaning as tidak, but are far more acceptable in speech between young Indonesians. This is just one example of a youth style of language that has developed in marked contrast to standard Indonesian. Youth Indonesian is distinctly casual, undeniably cool and matches the style of contemporary Indonesian youth.

A shared dialect allows young people to claim their own cultural space and to carve out a unique identity within mainstream Indonesian society. Language is deliberately used to define who is a member of the youth subculture and who is not. By using an alternative system of communication, young people can avoid unwanted adult eavesdroppers and snub the prevailing parent culture. Language also clearly expresses the identity and lifestyle of Indonesia’s young generation.

Dating, mating, humiliating

Youth Indonesian is at its most creative and dynamic when dealing with subjects such as social life, relationships, love and sex. Discussion of such topics is best not understood by adults!

The world of dating has developed much youth-specific terminology. Things get started when you are a jomblo (single). Once you have a gebetan (someone you’re keen on), you should try a PDKT or pendekatan (the stage of flirting or hitting on someone). If that goes well, you will soon have a do’i (girlfriend/boyfriend). Further down the track, you might have a meeting with the camer (calon mertua, future in-laws). Or, if you aren’t quite so serious, maybe you just want a TTM (teman tapi mesra, casual sex partner). But that suggestion might cause your partner to ngambek (get angry and not speak to you). If that’s too much for you, putus aja (break up)!

Although taboo in mainstream Indonesian culture, for many young Indonesians sex is just another part of life and inevitably, there is a rich youth vocabulary concerning sex. Formal words for sexual intercourse (like bersetubuh and bersenggama) just don’t cut it with modern Indonesian youth. More common is ML an abbreviation of the English term ‘making love’ which can be used as a noun or a verb. Cruder terms are ngewe and ngentot. Of course, if you’re currently a jomblo, you might have to resort to cokli (ngocok pelir, masturbation) or S3 (seks self service).

Attitude and image is another treasure chest of original youth Indonesian expression. Gaul is a word meaning ‘popular’ or ‘sociable’ that is used to describe anyone who is cool. Cuek describes the common ‘couldn’t care less’ adolescent attitude. GR (from gede rasa) means arrogant, jaim (jaga imej) means superficial, matré means materialistic. Telmi (from telat mikir) describes someone who is a little bit slow on the uptake. Garing and jayus, perhaps best translated as ‘lame’, are used for unfunny jokes or a person who tries too hard. Bawel is what you call that friend who never shuts up.

New terminology has also evolved to describe quintessentially youth pastimes. When young Indonesians go clubbing they use the term dugem, an abbreviation of dunia gemerlap (literally, the world of bright lights). At the club, they might ngedance, ngedrink ngedrug or ngegebet (dance, drink, do drugs, or try to pick up). Other popular pastimes are ngafe (go to a café), jalan-jalan (cruise the streets) or simply nongkrong (hang out) with friends.

Crossing boundaries

Modern media and technology are a significant factor in the development of an Indonesia-wide youth dialect. Mass media has enabled youth culture and its associated jargon to spread and develop swiftly across the whole Indonesian archipelago, ignoring geographic, ethnic and class boundaries. On television, teen soap operas, advertisements and MTV-style pop culture shows propagate a style of youth culture and language to youth all over Indonesia. The same can be said of youth magazines, novels, films and, increasingly, internet websites and chat-rooms.

The majority of contemporary Indonesian youth culture originates from the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, which is the major centre for television, film, music, fashion and entertainment. These industries generate many of the tangible aspects of youth culture that are consumed Indonesia-wide. In many ways, Jakarta sets the trend for Indonesia and this includes language development.

Youth culture from Jakarta proudly carries a distinct Jakarta accent and it is this style of Indonesian language that spreads to youth all over Indonesia. There is also a strong link between language and lifestyle. Media representations of youth who are wealthy, stylish, sophisticated and speak with a Jakarta accent help to cement the Jakarta style as the cool way to speak all over Indonesia.

Of course, it would be an exaggeration to say that approximately 50 million young Indonesians, spanning the nation’s entire range of ethnicities and socio-demographics, speak the same way. Speech style inevitably depends upon social context. However, it is important to realise that mass media has enabled youth language and culture to develop uniformly in a multitude of geographical sites and independently of demographics. The media’s influence in shaping youth language is so great that the Jakarta style of language is evident even in Dili, East Timor, in radio programs for young people.

Mix and match language

The Jakarta style of Indonesian originates from the capital’s regional language, Betawi, and is a significant influence on youth Indonesian. Indonesian sociolinguists have observed that this dialect possesses a kind of prestige and street credibility for young Indonesians. The influence of Betawi is evident in words, phrases, accent and even word-formation rules that have been absorbed into the broader youth dialect.

The Betawi accent is evident in the pronunciation of benar (correct) as bener, kalau (if) as kalo, and bohong (to lie) as bo’ong. Prefixes and suffixes, too, have been borrowed from Betawi. For example, the -in suffix, used to make verbs, is common in youth speech and supplements the standard Indonesian suffixes -i and -kan. The -in suffix can be used in place of -i and -kan and is sometimes used in sentences where standard Indonesian goes without suffixation (e.g. bantuin in place of membantu). Young Indonesians casually choose from all three suffixes and it is not uncommon to find both standard and non-standard verbs in the one sentence.

Also originating in Jakarta and evident in youth Indonesian are loanwords from prokem, a linguistic code system that developed in the Jakarta underclasses in the 1960s. Prokem became popular among youth in Jakarta from about 1975 onwards and spread from there to youth all over the nation. Like Betawi, prokem words carry a significant amount of street credibility amongst youth.

From prokem we have bokap, a derivative of bapak, which means ‘father’. Partnering bokap is nyokap meaning ‘mother’. And an amalgamation of these, bonyok, is the word for ‘parents’. Along with these, prokem words such as ngokar (to smoke), kece (cute) and boké (got no money) are now commonly used by young Indonesians outside Jakarta. A few prokem words such as cewek (chick) and cowok (bloke) have entered mainstream informal Indonesian.

Proficiency in English is highly regarded by young Indonesians and can be a status symbol related to higher education or overseas travel. English words and phrases are often used even when there are Indonesian alternatives. There are many examples of word appropriation from English in youth Indonesian usually accompanied by Indonesianisation of pronunciation and often by a shift in meaning as well. Plis, tengkiu and sori are used for ‘please’, ‘thank you’ and ‘sorry’. Gue lagi bad mood means ‘I’m in a bad mood’. Jangan negative thinking dong! means ‘don’t be negative!’ And many phrases slipped into casual conversation like ‘it’s up to you lah’ need no translation at all!

Language reflects lifestyle

The way young Indonesians communicate with each other is vibrant, creative, dynamic and, above all, fun. Young people in Indonesia practise and propagate the youth style of Indonesian as an expression of their identity and as a means to build solidarity with their peers. Their language is distinctly informal and opposes the formality of good and proper Indonesian. The easy-going attitude of young people all over Indonesia is reflected in the way they speak.

Youth Indonesian is not simply Bahasa Indonesia without the grammar. Young people have developed their own characteristic grammar and their own vocabulary by creating, appropriating, amalgamating and abbreviating. Swift dissemination through the media has facilitated the development of a relatively uniform dialect that transcends social and regional boundaries. The result is a youth dialect that is an integral part of Indonesian youth culture which embodies the attitude and lifestyle of young people throughout Indonesia.

David Saxby (dsaxby@optusnet.com.au) completed a research project on youth language through the ACICIS program.

Inside Indonesia 85: Jan-Mar 2006

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