Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Oh my, what big WORDS you have!

Many students of Indonesian are rather intimidated when they first see the marathon words that can be found in the written language. But it's not as difficult as it looks. Really!

I've often compared Indonesian to medical terminology, which is also known for its words of many letters. But like medical terminology, once you learn to identify the different pieces that are strung together, you will easily be able to impress your friends with sophisticated sounding lingo. The best part is you'll actually understand what you are saying, so the words won't be so hard to remember either! Let's explore how Indonesian word formation usually works.

The Root of the Matter

Root words are the first part of the equation. Most root words in Indonesian are actually quite short, maybe one, two, or at most, three syllables. Then prefixes (something fixed to the front of the word) and suffixes (something fixed to the end of a word) are added to the root words, sometimes several times over, to form new verbs and nouns. These are what can cause words to quickly grow to monstrous proportions. However, we actually do something rather similar in English too.

Let's look at an English example of this basic process first, just to make the concept seem more friendly. Take the word uncompromisingly. Now to a person who can't speak English, that looks like a pretty big word. It doesn't really scare us though because we recognize right away that the root word is compromise. Once you understand the root word and what each of the other components mean, it is usually easy to understand the new word.

root: compromise = to give in, meet half-way
un- = not
-ing = in the process of doing something
-ly = makes it an adverb, which describes a verb (action)
uncompromisingly = describing an action that is in the process of not giving in

Indonesian is similar, but even better (in my opinion). Many of the root words are much smaller than the word in our example. The prefixes and suffixes are easily recognized, since they play a major role in the Indonesian language and are therefore used constantly. Let's look at an example to demonstrate how once you know a simple root word, as well as some of the most common prefixes and suffixes, you can grow your vocabulary practically overnight!

kata dasar = root word = tulis = write
Add the prefix pe- = penulis = writer
Add the prefix ter- = tertulis = to be written
Add the prefix me- = menulis = to write
Add the prefix ber- = bertulis = to be written on
Add the suffix -an = tulisan = something written

There are also combinations of prefixes and suffixes used together:

Add me- kan = menuliskan = to write something down; use something to write with
Add pe- an = penulisan = process of writing

Look at all the words you can get from just one little root word when you start adding decorations to the front and back of it! Affixes, as they are called, are quite numerous in Indonesian. The example above is only a sampling of some of the popular combinations. There are quite a few more that are not even listed here!

Doing the Two-Step

The easiest way to learn the dance with affixes is by doing the two-step. That is, learning how to attach these prefixes and suffixes yourself.

1. Get some practice at learning to identify root words so you can look them up in your dictionary and learn their basic meaning. This is probably most easily done by getting some experience with informal language. In spoken Indonesian, often prefixes and suffixes are dropped, and only the root words are used.

If, however, you are not in a situation where you would hear much Indonesian spoken by native speakers, you can also use an online dictionary such as KEBI when you come across any new words. It lists the root word to practically any word you type in. This too will give you some exposure to all the different affixes and their meanings as applied to the root word under examination.

2. Learn the mechanical rules for how to add the various affixes to root words, and how they change the meaning of the word. This is best done one affix (or prefix-suffix combo) at a time so that you can learn through practice and repetition. In time, you won't have to think much about it and you will just know intuitively how to do it.

In future Kelas Bahasa articles we will discuss some of the most common affixes and how to use them. Until then, don't let any of those big, bad Indonesian words scare you. They are just harmless little root words with prefixes and suffixes dangling off of them.

Until next time...selamat belajar!