Obama's Indonesian pleasantries: the video

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Just last week I reported on a couple of accounts describing Barack Obama's conversational skills in Indonesian, a language he learned living in Indonesia from age six to ten. In both of the accounts, Obama was said to handle conventional Indonesian greeting routines with aplomb. Now thanks to ABC News we have the video evidence, from an exchange that President Obama had with State Department staffer Charles Silver on Thursday as the president worked the State Department rope-line. Silver has been stationed in Jakarta at various times since 1969 and now works in the State Department's Office of Inspector General.

Silver initiates the conversation by saying Selamat siang, Bapak ("Good afternoon, sir"). Obama responds with Terima kasih ("Thank you") and then follows up with Apa kabar? ("How are you?" lit. "What's the news?"), the same standard greeting that Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said Obama used when they had a phone conversation last November. Silver responds with the equally standard Baik-baik saja ("Just fine"), and then Obama code-switches out of Indonesian and into English with "Are you, uh…" Silver responds in English, explaining, "I've served in Indonesia many times."

Obama compliments Silver on his "flawless" accent, and they go on to discuss Menteng, the Jakarta neighborhood where they both lived. Obama says he didn't live in the rich section of Menteng, but rather in the subdivision known as "Menteng Dalam," which he glosses as "below Menteng." I'd translate it as "inner Menteng," but perhaps Obama was thinking in terms of the status hierarchy of the neighborhood rather than strict geographical location.

Though this conversation, like the previously reported ones, doesn't rise above basic pleasantries, the readiness of Obama to engage in Indonesian chitchat is still remarkable. Indonesians call such exchanges basa-basi, and the ability to deploy them is seen as central to establishing the pragmatics of polite interaction. Of course, one could say much the same thing about routines of courtesy in any language. But now we know for sure that Obama is, if not bilingual, at least bi-courteous.

[One pet peeve: the ABC News report refers to Obama's proficiency in "Bahasa Indonesian." The language is called Indonesian in English and Bahasa Indonesia in Indonesian. "Bahasa Indonesian" is a mix-up of the two terms. This confusion could be avoided by simply referring to the language, in English, as Indonesian, but the imprecise use of the term Bahasa on its own (which simply means "language") by expats and journalists has apparently led to further misunderstanding about the name of the language.]


  1. Merri said,

    January 23, 2009 @ 10:51 am

    I don't see what's imprecise with 'bahasa'.
    Many peoples call their language simply 'the language'.
    And since the words is different in other languages, we know which one is meant.
    It is as if one said that 'Inuit' is imprecise because it only means 'the people'.

  2. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    January 23, 2009 @ 10:55 am

    Merri: Indonesians themselves would not refer to the national language simply as Bahasa. They talk about bahasa Indonesia (Indonesian), bahasa Jawa (Javanese), bahasa Sunda (Sundanese), etc. As best as I can determine, standalone Bahasa to refer to the Indonesian language is a usage that emerged among English-speaking expats and journalists over the last few decades. I chalk it up to the same desire to show an "insider" perspective on the language that has led English speakers to refer to the Persian language unnecessarily as Farsi.

  3. HeyTeach said,

    January 23, 2009 @ 11:23 am

    Wait …

    … it's NOT Farsi? Dang! I hate to think that all this time I was unwittingly playing into an insidious Western Euro-centric media conspiracy.

    Please open the eyes of this Euro-centric child foundering in deep socio-linguistic waters, here. I'm going to ask the obtuse question, albeit sincerely, and hope that some kind person will let me borrow their swimmies:

    Why does it matter how SOMEONE ELSE refers to MY native tongue, especially if they're unfamiliar with it, don't speak it, never heard it spoken, etc.?

  4. Amy Reynaldo said,

    January 23, 2009 @ 11:32 am

    Kudos to you, Ben, for "bi-courteous," which made me laugh. It looks like a genius coinage at first glance, but Google suggests that it's already out there as an eggcorn which…is just so wrong.

  5. Mark Liberman said,

    January 23, 2009 @ 11:37 am

    HeyTeach: Why does it matter how SOMEONE ELSE refers to MY native tongue…?

    What's under discussion is how WE refer to SOMEONE ELSE's language.

    In the case of the national language of Iran, English-speakers have referred to it as "Persian" from the 16th century forwards, although a transliteration of the word for it in Persian would be "Farsi". Similarly, we call Français "French", and we say "German" rather than Deutsch, and "Spanish" rather than Español, and so on through hundreds of similar pairs. In fact, there are very few cases where the normal English word for a language is a simple transliteration of the language's name for itself.

    There are enough linguistic varieties that might be called "Persian" that some people prefer to use "Farsi" for the standard dialect of modern Iran. The case of Indonesian (or Bahasa Indonesia) has special features, because it's in some sense a made-up language, a form of Malay that was codified for use as a national language at the time of Indonesian independence in 1949. As a result, the English name (whichever one is chosen) is only about 60 years old.

    There's no insidious conspiracy, Western Euro-centric media or otherwise; but there's apparently a certain amount of confusion about the facts.

  6. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    January 23, 2009 @ 11:41 am

    @Amy: Thanks for the kudos. I was inspired by the late great Molly Ivins, who called our previous president "bi-ignorant."

  7. Philip Spaelti said,

    January 23, 2009 @ 12:22 pm

    Just to be a nit-picker: Germans would actually call it Deutsch (without a final "e"). Of course I would call it Tüütsch.

    [(myl) Sorry — I first wrote "Deutsche Sprache", as in "Institut für __".]

  8. Nigel Greenwood said,

    January 23, 2009 @ 12:29 pm

    Re Farsi. There's a further ratcheting effect which leads many Iranians to call their language Farsi when speaking English. They've heard foreigners call it Farsi so consistently that they imagine that's the normal English word for the language — so, not unreasonably, they go along with it. Only the more sophisticated English-speaking Iranians seem to call it Persian.

    During my time in Iran (60s & 70s) my working rule was that the English called it Persian, while most other expats (particularly Americans) seemed to go for Farsi.

    One Iranian acquaintance of mine calls it Irani in English — but that seems to be a personal quirk!

  9. Jongseong Park said,

    January 23, 2009 @ 12:56 pm

    I remember an American soldier stationed in Korea who apologised because he 'didn't speak hangul'. That is a rather extraordinary use of the native name of the Korean alphabet to refer to the spoken language. Many Koreans incorrectly use the name hangul to mean the Korean language itself, but it was especially jarring to hear in another language.

    I find this misuse of the name hangul especially annoying, as it is nearly often accompanied by a confusion of the concepts of written language and spoken language, which is detrimental to any serious discussion about linguistics. For example, there was an anecdote circulated in a Korean linguists' mailing list about someone who believed that prior to the invention of the Korean alphabet in the 15th century, Koreans spoke Chinese.

    It would also be really strange to hear someone refer to the Korean language as hangugeo or hangungmal (the correct native terms for the spoken language) in English. I don't think Koreans call any foreign languages by their native names.

  10. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    January 23, 2009 @ 1:39 pm

    @Nigel: "There's a further ratcheting effect which leads many Iranians to call their language Farsi when speaking English…"

    Much the same can be said of Indonesians speaking English, who might say, "Oh, you speak Bahasa?" when they would never say the equivalent (Bahasa for bahasa Indonesia) when speaking Indonesian. It's an accommodation to a (mistaken) norm — reminiscent of descriptions of pidgin communication where each side of the linguistic exchange assumes they're speaking the "other" language.

  11. Derek said,

    January 23, 2009 @ 2:16 pm


    Why are the terms Farsi and Bahasa "mistaken" and "unnecessary"?

    Why the prescriptivism in the realm of language names? If these were words for 'horse' or 'egg' we wouldn't call them mistaken or unnecessary, we'd call it change, note it, and study it.

  12. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    January 23, 2009 @ 2:36 pm

    @Derek: I did flag this as a "pet peeve," to indicate I was entering the realm of peevology. But I think I have a good basis for my annoyance. The popularization of Bahasa in English is based on a misunderstanding of the name of the language arising from the partial knowledge of a group I've been labeling "expats and journalists." For Farsi, the popularizers are similar (according to this discussion among Persianists), though it's not as great an error since Farsi at least is a legitimate local linguonym (hence I find it more unnecessary than erroneous).

    Of course, the descriptivist in me realizes that once Bahasa and Farsi have become entrenched as English-language linguonyms, there's not much point in griping about it. So much of our lexicon is grounded in cross-linguistic confusion, after all.

  13. Nick Z said,

    January 23, 2009 @ 2:49 pm

    I'm with HeyTeach here. Since we don't generally call any country or language exactly what its inhabitants/speakers call it, even when we try, why does it matter whether we call it by one wrong name or another in general?

    Obviously for specialists it's helpful to use terms consistently (not that they usually do; at least, not in my field). And I can see why specialists would find the ignorance of non-specialists frustrating. But really, why get het up about it?

    Incidentally, I think that the ignorance here (of which I was certainly an unwitting part) is due to an increasing desire to undo the colonial "misnaming" of languages and places – we Westerners feel, or at least pretend to feel, guilty about our imperial past, so we start calling Bombay Mumbai and Peking Beijing, on the understanding that this is the "right" way to say it. Similarly, I suspect with Persian/Farsi. This may be ignorant, mistaken and irritating, both at home and abroad, but at least it's well-intentioned.

  14. Mark Liberman said,

    January 23, 2009 @ 3:10 pm

    NIck Z: Since we don't generally call any country or language exactly what its inhabitants/speakers call it, even when we try, why does it matter whether we call it by one wrong name or another in general?

    This is just another question about usage, basically.

    In the specific case under discussion, there's variation in English-language usage: some people say "Indonesian", some people say "Bahasa Indonesia" — and apparently some journalists have started to use the blend "Bahasa Indonesian". (Maybe there are some people who insist on "Malay", I don't know.)

    So what's being discussed is why the variants exist, who tends to use which version, and what someone might want to keep in mind in deciding which to choose.

    If you don't think this discussion matters, you're welcome not to join it.

  15. Helma said,

    January 23, 2009 @ 3:12 pm

    Is 'Persian' avoided in part because the strong association of the name, by way of Persia, to the regime of the shah, while Farsi (cognate, yes?) makes the link invisible or at least less transparent?

  16. Nigel Greenwood said,

    January 23, 2009 @ 3:54 pm

    @ Derek & Helma: First of all, I take D's point about prescriptivism. Maybe there's even a bit of snobbery about it. Few of those who've actually studied the language (probably using textbooks entitled Persian Grammar etc) are likely to call it Farsi when speaking English.

    As for association with the Shah, it was actually the last Shah's father (Reza Shah) who changed the country's official international name to Iran (it had of course previously been known to the rest of the world as Persia).

    Yes, Persia & Fars (the southern province, with its capital at Shiraz) are cognate: Persia was the Greek version of Fars.

    You may enjoy this clip of the Iranian standup comedian Omid Djalili (and we could even discuss why he spells his surname with a D!). At 0:30 he discusses the use of Persian.

  17. Harry Campbell said,

    January 23, 2009 @ 6:16 pm

    Another example would be Euskadi and euskera for the Basque Country and language, now used widely in Spanish, and sometimes in English by those who like to think (or rather show off) they are au fait and hip with Basque patriotic aspirations. How it can possibly be wrong to call it el País Vasco or the Basque country I have no idea, in fact to me it seems distinctly patronising to drop into a language one doesn't speak when referring to that language or place.
    A comparable though less developed tendency among English speakers is to refer (in English) to Wales as Cymru and Welsh as Cymraeg in an ostentatious show of support for the language — pretty much a dead giveaway that the person speaking is not a competent Welsh speaker, but fondly imagines they are being polite to Welsh speakers. Again, for me this goes beyond unnecessary into annoying and condescending.
    It can also lead to absurdity, as when people who know a little Spanish refer (in English) to Andalucia, complete with lisp (depite the fact that generally ceceo is not generally characteristic of Andalusia) and penultimate stress (though probably lacking the diacritic that denotes it), and even end up inventing a completely spurious adjective *Andalucian. There is no such word in either language, of course: in English it's Andalusia(n) (5 syllables, antepenultimate stress) and Spanish it's Andalucía and andaluz.
    I wonder how Bangladeshis feel about the use of Bangla for Bengali: can anyone comment?

  18. Rick S said,

    January 23, 2009 @ 6:56 pm

    I'm guilty of calling it Farsi since I was young, before I knew enough about phonetics to realize the relationship between p and f and that e was just a fronted a. It seemed perfectly reasonable, in view of the fact that I also knew there was no such language as Chinese. Since there was no longer any country called Persia, and nobody was calling the language Iranian as far as I recall, it made as much sense that the language of Iran was Farsi as that the language of The Netherlands was Dutch. The way it was presented, anybody who called the Iranian language Persian was showing themselves to be ignorant and/or hopelessly antiquarian. So while it might seem pretentious of journalists to have adopted the name Farsi, I don't think the same can be said of the many, many Americans (and other English speakers?) who believed them.

  19. Troy S. said,

    January 23, 2009 @ 7:07 pm

    My understanding of the historical development is that modern-day Fars province was originally call Parsa, and the people and the language were Parsi. After the Arab conquest, since the Arabs did not have a voiceless bilabial stop, many words underwent an imposed sound change from /p/ -> /f/ Hence today we have Farsi, and seveeral other words where both forms exist side by side, although the /f/ for is usually preferred colloquially."Pil" / "fil" for example to mean "elephant" or sefid / sepid for "white."

    In English, we call the group of Zoroastrian Iranians who fled the Arab invasion to India "Parsi" as well. It seems strange to me, for example, that the great poet who sought to remove Arabic influence from the language is called Ferdowsi when he probably would have called himself Perdowsi (cognate, incidentally, with the English "paradise.")

    As far as what to call it, Persian is fine to me, but Farsi is usually invoked to distinguish it from Dari and Tajiki (dialects in Afghanistan and Tajikistan).

  20. John Cowan said,

    January 24, 2009 @ 2:05 am

    I don't have an actual count, but surely the great majority of the 7000 languages listed at Ethnologue are known in English by their native names.

    [(myl) I think you might be wrong about this. A few examples: Navajo (= Diné Bizaad); Japanese (=Nihongo); Russian (= Russkij Jazyk); Cherokee (= Tsalagi Gawonihisdi); Chinese (= Hànyǔ); Vietnamese (= Tiếng Việt); Bengali (= Bangla); Berber (= Tamazight); and so on.]

  21. Jongseong Park said,

    January 24, 2009 @ 3:31 am

    Do we count as native names only the fully affixed forms such as 'Kiswahili' instead of 'Swahili'? I have a feeling that would significantly affect the number of languages known in English by their native names.

    I'm not sure how I feel about the use of 'Kiswahili' instead of 'Swahili' in English.

  22. Spectre-7 said,

    January 24, 2009 @ 4:09 am

    Perhaps I'm missing something here, but I find it more than a little ridiculous to insist on having local names for other nations, peoples and languages. Is there some logical reason other than tradition for retaining an English-specific name for foreign languages? If the Iranians refer to their own language as Farsi, then I don't see any issue with doing the same. I similarly have no problem with Deutsch, Euskara, Nihongo, Francais or any other language, and I have great difficulty imagining why anyone would. People will get their knickers in a bunch over anything, I suppose.

    At the very least, it ever so slightly reduces a bit of pointless redundancy in the world. Every language whose proper name I become familiar with is one word I now have in common with a foreign people… and one less word they need learn when trying to communicate with me.

  23. Jongseong Park said,

    January 24, 2009 @ 5:59 am

    Spectre-7: I can see a number of problems with changing traditional names as you suggest.

    Logic suggests that if we call languages by their native names, we should start using native names for the names of the people and the places as well—that is, unless you want to have Germans in Germany speaking Deutsch, the Japanese in Japan speaking Nihongo, etc. Can you imagine how complicated that will be? We would need to learn that the Deutsche in Deutschland speak Deutsch, the Nihonjin in Nihon speak Nihongo, the Svenskar in Sverige speak Svenska, the Batswana in Botswana speak Setswana, the Türkler speak Türkçe in Türkiye, etc. If we do simplify the system, then that undermines your rationale for learning the native names—having those words in common with the people speaking other languages.

    Some languages have no single agreed-upon native name. Korean would be called hangugeo or hangungmal in the South, but joseonmal in the North, and is actually more often called gugeo (national language) or urimal (our language) and even, incorrectly, hangeul (the Korean alphabet). Which name should we use in English, and which romanization would we use?

    Finally, learning how the native name is transcribed in English is not the same as learning the name in the native language itself. Most English speakers will be unable to come close to approximating the native pronunciation of isiXhosa. Nor will they learn the full declension of some native names, and in cases like Korean, it would be difficult for them to learn which native name is appropriate for a given situation. So using the native name in English won't entirely eliminate the need to learn how the name is used in the original language.

  24. VS said,

    January 24, 2009 @ 6:56 am

    Thinking about the names we give languages in English – could it be that a lot of people call Indonesian 'Bahsa Indonesia' rather than Indonesian to emphasise the fact that it is not the mother tongue of lots of Indonesians? German is called German because it is the mother tongue of the overwhelming majority of Germans. Same with French, Italian etc. But, with languages in multi-linguistic countries, it would be misleading to use the same word for the name of the language as well the name of the people. So, to call Bahsa Indonesnia Indonesnian would be a bit misleading to use for English-speakers who don't know a lot about the country since it would imply that the bulk of Indonesians spoke it as their mother tongue. Perhaps that is also why, in English, we call the most-commonly spoken language in India Hindi rather than 'Indian' since about 60% of Indians don't speak it as their mother tongue. And I suppose we call Urdu by that name rather than 'Pakistani' for the same reason – that most people who live in the boundaries of that country don't speak that language as their mother tongue. Am not sure whether that is the reason, but it sounds plauisible if we want to avoid confusion between the name used to describe inhabitants of a country and the name used to describe languages.

  25. Lugubert said,

    January 24, 2009 @ 9:42 am

    Iranian certified translators testify that they have translated from an original in Persian. That settles that question for me.

  26. language hat said,

    January 24, 2009 @ 10:18 am

    I chalk it up to the same desire to show an "insider" perspective on the language that has led English speakers to refer to the Persian language unnecessarily as Farsi.

    I don't think the situations are the same (assuming your description of the use of "Bahasa" is correct; I'm not familiar with it myself). It is extremely common to use "Farsi" for Persian; I probably do it about half the time myself. "Persian" increasingly has a musty, British Empire feel to it, and I'd bet that within a couple of decades "Farsi" will be the universal way to refer to the language in English (except for the stubborn archaists, God bless 'em). Clinging to old shibboleths is human but leads to reverse snobbism.

    I find it more than a little ridiculous to insist on having local names for other nations, peoples and languages. … People will get their knickers in a bunch over anything, I suppose.


    So, to call Bahsa Indonesnia Indonesnian would be a bit misleading to use for English-speakers who don't know a lot about the country since it would imply that the bulk of Indonesians spoke it as their mother tongue.

    1) It's Bahasa, not "Bahsa."
    2) You've misunderstood: the problem isn't that they call it "Bahasa Indonesia," which would be fine if a tad pretentious, it's that they call it simply Bahasa, which is just wrong.
    3) It would imply no such thing, any more than "Russian" implies that Bashkirs, Tatars, and Yakuts all speak Russian. It's just the name of the language.

  27. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    January 24, 2009 @ 10:39 am

    @language hat: You may very well be right about current and future usage of Farsi, but I was talking about what set off the usage in the first place. What I gathered from the previously linked Persianist discussion is that English-language references to Farsi in place of centuries-old Persian began among the same type of expat/journalist network as the Bahasa-users. This is supported by the OED entry cited therein showing that before c1979 Farsi was simply considered what Iranians and Arabs called the language (and that by 1984 Persianists were already annoyed by creeping Farsi-ization).

    Of course, there are other factors to consider, such as Troy S.'s point that Farsi is useful for setting off the standard Iranian dialect from Dari and Tajiki, so it's not entirely straightforward.

  28. Spectre-7 said,

    January 24, 2009 @ 2:24 pm

    Jongseong Park:
    I appreciate your perspective, but I somehow fail to see how that would be any more complicated than the system we have now, except perhaps in cases you describe like Korean. *shrug*

    Language Hat:
    If my knickers are in a bunch, it's over accusations above of pretense, patronization and condescension. I'm honestly not at all bothered by folks using localized names for other languages, although I do think it's a little silly. On the other hand, when someone insists I use localized names, describes efforts otherwise as insulting and openly ridicules them, I'm liable to take a little offense.

  29. John Lawler said,

    January 24, 2009 @ 3:48 pm

    As I recall from my time at Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, most Malaysians use "Bahasa" as ordinary shorthand for what is known officially as "Bahasa Malaysia", and semi-formally as "Bahasa Melayu", i.e, pretty much the same language as Bahasa Indonesia.

    This may be due to the fact that there really are no other Austronesian languages that are currently spoken in (peninsular) Malaysia, the way Bahasa Jawa, Bahasa Aceh, and divers others are in Indonesia. The other big languages in Malaysia are English (Bahasa Inggeris), spoken by almost everybody to some degree, and various Chinese and Dravidian languages (including Mandarin, Hakka, and Tamil), spoken only by members of the respective ethnic groups, inside those groups.

    Plus everybody there knows that Bahasa Malaysia is just the nationalistic name for Bahasa Melayu, just like Bahasa Indonesia is, so "Bahasa" as a proper noun is quite straightforward and unambiguous in a Malaysian context. Or so it seemed to me, anyway; there are so many informal idiomatic modes in Bahasa that it's hard to tell how orang Melayu really talk when there aren't foreigners around.

  30. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    January 24, 2009 @ 4:04 pm

    John Lawler's recollections of Malaysian usage adds a dimension to the story I hadn't considered. It's possible, then, that early Anglophone usage of Bahasa in Indonesia was influenced by those already exposed to a similar application of the term in Malaysia. This could actually dovetail with my expat/journalist theory, since many of these English-speaking foreigners could have had experience living in both countries and have transferred a usage from one to the other.

  31. Jongseong Park said,

    January 24, 2009 @ 5:02 pm

    Spectre-7: You're right that the current situation in English is massively complicated as it is. You have a number of adjective endings like -ish, -(i)an, -(n)ese, -ic, etc. to choose from, and there are plenty that are simply irregular and don't fit into these patterns. But there is some predictability; for instance, if you have a place name ending in -ia, then the corresponding adjective or language name probably ends in -ian.

    If we go with native names, however, any predictability goes out the window (knowing that the name of the country is Việt Nam offers no clue as to what the native name of the language would be for the average English speaker). In addition, there may arise nasty problems with distinctive forms for grammatical number and gender, things you wouldn't worry about with traditional names.

  32. marie-lucie said,

    January 24, 2009 @ 11:22 pm

    There have been other discussions of the subject of how to refer to countries, cities and languages earlier on this blog. As for myself, I prefer using traditional English names when conversing in English, traditional French names when conversting in French, etc. For instance, I wouldn't feel particularly pleased if someone asked me in English whether I would prefer to speak frawnsey rather than "French". If the word is used as an adjective for something else, for instance "French food", should the adjective in frawnsey food stay that way or agree in gender with the French equivalent of "food" (something which is not obvious to translate as it depends on the context and the register)? the French language would also place the adjective after the noun, not before. The result would end up as "word salad". As Jongseong Park says, there are too many difficulties in the implications of trying to use a word from a language one doesn't know. Even without the grammatical problems, the pronunciation is almost certain to be incorrect, especially if the language to be imitated includes sounds which are not in one's own, and could even cause embarrassment if one's pronunciation reminded the native speaker of a different word. I acknowledge the good intentions, but good intentions do not guarantee pleasing results.

  33. merlyna said,

    January 25, 2009 @ 1:34 am

    it was nice to hear Obama speaking some words in bahasa Indonesia. yes, now we know that he is, at least, bi-courteous.

    about 'bahasa' — i am so glad that finally a foreign Indonesian speaker understood how irritating it is for indonesians to hear expats and journalists keep using 'bahasa' instead of 'bahasa indonesia' or 'indonesian'….

    which bahasa!?!? bahasa jawa? bahasa batak? ugh…
    many thanks!!! really appreciate it.

  34. Nigel Greenwood said,

    January 25, 2009 @ 6:28 am

    @ Troy S & BZ: Oh dear, the question of Farsi is getting more complicated by the minute. If someone starts using the term, is he or she (or u, as they say in … Iran):

    1. An expat/journalist type

    2. A scholarly type wishing to make it clear u's not talking about Dari or Tajik

    3. An Iranian conforming to current English usage

    4. A person who would rather say Persian, but is conforming to the other speaker's preference?

    The only way to begin to form a judgment might be to ask u to pronounce a place name such as Ahvaz, Abadan or Khorramshahr …

    I think this had better be my last OT comment here.

  35. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    January 25, 2009 @ 10:19 am

    @Nigel: Or 5: None of the above, since as language hat points out, Farsi has become increasingly standard in contemporary English, despite the protestations of Persianists and assorted peevologists.

  36. Sili said,

    January 25, 2009 @ 2:37 pm

    I think the real question is this: Is Charles Silver an LL reader? Did he put on this show just to satisfy out curiousity?

    I say, yes, because it'd be awesome.

  37. K. said,

    January 25, 2009 @ 2:53 pm

    As long as I can remember, while speaking English my father has referred to his native language as "Farsi." He occasionally alternates it with "Persian", particularly when referring to the the written form. Since most English speakers seem to understand the term fine, I'm pretty sure that's what I will continue to call the language whenever I mention it (in English or Farsi). I don't feel particularly self-conscious about that.

    My real problem is with talking about it in Mandarin. It's not a word commonly found in bilingual dictionaries, and the ones I have found are obscure and contradictory. And it's not a word one can easily ask a local how to say, since most people (in America and in China) think Iranians speak 阿拉伯语 ("Arabic"). I have no idea if it's standard, but I usually just go with 伊朗语: it gets the point across.

  38. K. said,

    January 25, 2009 @ 2:59 pm

    Sorry, I forgot to gloss 伊朗语 (and I know how it feels to be unable to follow a language discussion). It literally means "Iran language," and usually elicits nods of understanding and conversational progress, but may not be the formal Chinese name of the language.

  39. Nigel Greenwood said,

    January 25, 2009 @ 4:20 pm

    @K. Interesting post. Chinese usage seems to be more conservative than English: 波斯语 Bosiyu (Bosi: the traditional phonetic transcription of Persia) gets about 788 Kghits, as opposed to only 23 Kghits for your 伊朗语 Yilangyu (Iran language). The Chinese Wikipedia article on Persian language is called Bosiyu, too.

    I don't know whether there's a Chinese version of "Farsi" (I haven't got the software for easy googling in Chinese). I suppose Farsi would be something like "Faerxi-yu".

  40. Nigel Greenwood said,

    January 25, 2009 @ 5:10 pm

    PS If you want to discuss Farsi with either Silver or the President, you can safely call it Bahasa Persia — I think.

  41. K. said,

    January 25, 2009 @ 11:47 pm

    @ Nigel Greenwood

    Thanks for the insight. I had seen 波斯语 was one of the forms I have seen suggested before, but various dictionaries glossed it as both "Bosnian" and "Persian." I had I hadn't thought of using Google to confirm it, but a quick search shows that the top hits are all clearly referring to Farsi. I'll probably start using 波斯语, and I will probably be met with more blank stares and have to explain, but it's a good excuse to provide a little lesson in linguistics.

  42. Nigel Greenwood said,

    January 26, 2009 @ 6:00 am

    @K. Good luck with your education programme! As for Bosnian, the Chinese WikiP entry is 波斯尼亚语 Bōsīníyà-yǔ — starting, indeed, with the same 2 characters as Bōsī-yǔ. Sounds a bit like the Austr[al]ian confusion.

  43. Jongseong Park said,

    January 26, 2009 @ 6:41 am

    In Korean, 이란어 (Iran-eo, "Iran language") appears in the standard dictionary, but the definition makes it unclear whether it refers to the Iranian languages or just Persian. Perhaps that's why the term 페르시아어 (Pereusia-eo, "Persia language") is often used instead, although it doesn't appear in the standard dictionary. The only Persian-Korean dictionary I can find on the market uses Pereusia-eo, while a Persian conversation primer is titled "Iran-eo Conversation" and is subtitled Pereusia-eo.

    A quick search reveals that 파르시어 (Pareusi-eo, "Farsi/Parsi language") appears mainly in contexts that seem to have been translated from English, as in news articles and advertisements for international language courses. Those knowledgeable in the language seem to stick to Iran-eo or Pereusia-eo.

  44. amad said,

    January 28, 2009 @ 1:00 am

    just wanted to report that yesterday I heard Maya Soetoro-Ng talk to Radio Voice of America about Mr. Obama's "proficiency" in Indonesian. apparently Mr. Obama used to ask for a massage ("Maya, pijat sebentar,") if he's tired and she happened to be around, then gave her compliments/complaints for her firm hands ("Aduh, tangannya kuat ya!") i too wouldn't call this fluent, but at least he can handle simple conversations in Indonesian.

  45. benjamin said,

    January 28, 2009 @ 1:46 am

    Great to find the script and the video here. Thanks Ben!

    Regards from Jakarta, Indonesia.


  46. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    January 28, 2009 @ 2:26 am

    @amad: Thanks for the tip. Maya also told the massage anecdote in an interview with Inilah.com last October. I'll see if I can track down the audio for the VOA interview.

  47. Darmawan said,

    January 28, 2009 @ 11:49 am

    Bahasa means literally, language. We Indonesian use bahasa as a pronoun to the Language itself, maybe because Indonesia, like many other vast-area races of the world, have so many different sub-ethnic groups with totally different dialects. Only those live on the border area could understand each other rather well because their language are a mixed dialect. For a country with thousands of islands, and 5 major (big) islands, we can not communicate inter-island-wise, unless we use bahasa Indonesia. Very similar to China and their national language: the Mandarin language, although multitude of dialects not understood by the others.

    On Malaysian language ( Bahasa Malaysia ), I would suggest that both bahasa Indonesia and Malaysia came from the same root: bahasa Melayu ( Sumatra and Malaysian peninsula ). So the Indonesian-Sumatran, can speak with the Malaysian much better than the rest of the Indonesians.

    Obama's memory and vocabulary of the language is typical of that a child, growing up with a language spoken in Jakarta, BUT, the fact that he still remembers most of it shows that he is indeed a humble and courteous man. It will come in handy when he needs the support of 200 million Indonesian-Muslims (mild mannered, not radical) behind him, someday.

    I know of a few Indonesian friends, moving to the U.S. after highschool, completely lost the ability to speak Bahasa Indonesia after 30 years living in the U.S. What a comparison to people like Obama.

    Salam dari Jakarta, Indonesia

  48. jaka said,

    January 28, 2009 @ 12:02 pm

    I wish this link was not sent before:


    It indicates Obama's Indonesian level of ability.

    Nice posting though. Thanks! ;-)

  49. Ken Westmoreland said,

    October 14, 2011 @ 1:24 pm

    You're right about the expat practice of calling Indonesian 'Bahasa' to make themselves sound more culturally aware than they are. When I hear the word 'Bahasa' used, I think 'pretentious'.

    There is something politically correct and affected in the practice of calling a language by the name used in the language itself. In addition to calling Indonesian 'Bahasa Indonesia' or, even worse, 'Bahasa', some people in New Zealand refer to Maori as 'te reo Maori', or 'te reo'.

    Indonesian is more successful as a lingua franca in Indonesia than Malay has been in Malaysia – hence the fact that nobody calls it 'Malaysian'. In Singapore, Malay is just called Malay, but while the national anthem is in Malay, most Chinese Singaporeans probably can't understand the words.

    Someone I met from East Timor told me that her teachers would say in Indonesian 'bicara bahasa!' ('speak [the] language!') so she didn't realise that 'bahasa' wasn't the name of a language until much later. There is a tendency in Indonesia and East Timor to describe regional languages as 'dialects', when they're as different from each other as Portuguese is from Finnish.

    In South Africa, the names of the nine African languages with official status are often prefixed by the local word for 'language' – so 'isiZulu', 'isiXhosa', 'seTswana'. 'seSotho', 'isiTsonga' etc. An yes, there are even right-on people who prononce 'Xhosa' with a click.

    The name 'Afrikaans' is confusing to Dutch speakers because in Dutch it literally means 'African'. Dutch speakers someotimes calle it 'Zuid-Afrikaans' or 'South African'. It's still a Germanic language derived from Dutch, but with simpler spelling and grammar, with no verb inflections. (Despite its connotations with apartheid, it started life as a kitchen dialect spoken by Indonesian and Malay slaves.) In Zulu it's called 'isiBunu' – literally 'Boer language'

  50. Nait said,

    November 9, 2012 @ 3:54 pm

    it's really interesting to see this discussion about the use of the term "Bahasa" to refer to the Indonesian language.

    it sounds very unusual because no native Indonesian would say only "Bahasa" to refer to the Indonesian language. they'll always say "Bahasa Indonesia" just as they'd say "Bahasa Inggris" for English (language), "Bahasa Jerman" for German (language), "Bahasa Spanyol" for Spanish (language), "Bahasa Portugis" for Portuguese (language), "Bahasa Belanda" for Dutch (language), etc.

    probably it has something to do with the fact that in English we're used to employ just one word, which in this case is the adjective, to refer to the language.
    thus we say simply "English" to refer to "English language", "Chinese" for "Chinese language", "Spanish" instead of "Spanish language", etc.
    yet to shorten "Bahasa Indonesia" to "Bahasa" is like saying "Language" instead of "English language", and that is pretty much how "Bahasa" used in the context of "Indonesian language" sounds like to Indonesians and that's the reason why Indonesians say "Bahasa Indonesia" in spite of the fact that "Bahasa" would be much shorter.

    as for Persian, in a way, "Farsi" is a poor comparison to the use of "Bahasa" due to the fact that:
    1) unlike "Bahasa", "Farsi" corresponds to the normal (shortening) use of the adjectival form to refer to the language in English as explained above.
    2) it's not unusual for native Persian speakers to use the word "Farsi" in the context as it often is used in English, whereas, as mentioned, no native Indonesian speaker would say only "Bahasa" to refer to the Indonesian language.

  51. Jack said,

    November 21, 2012 @ 11:23 am

    Why 'Bahasa Indonesia' should be translated/globalized as 'Indonesian' :

    1) it's twice as short! (see Nait above; Occam's razor; best practices for translation; the plain English trend, etc). One word should be enough and software/localization industry should enforce (cost factor). Meanwhile, in

    2) in some contexts (law, science, etc.) Indonesian *is* imprecise and difficult. But you'd think Indonesian would want the focus on how it's actually an easy bang-for-your-buck tongue — no bonus points for mystery

    3) the length problem complicates other ones. I don't know where it began (see Lawler), but the attempt to say 'Bahasa Indonesia' in 1word are gonna continue. Perhaps it's mostly in mixed talk (originally in Malaysia?) that people refer to "Bahasa" (natives do it 2, if speaking w/ foreigners) — since 'Bahasa Indonesia' is miserably long (for English); whereas 'Indonesian' would in many cases be misunderstood by Indonesians (cuz of intonation, surprise factor, etc). So that may be why it's coming out 'Bahasa' over the water cooler in KL or Jakarta.

    4) so far the 'ian' suffix is working great for designating languages like Russian, Egyptian, Hungarian whereas the 'bahasa' prefix alternative is a presumed fail

    4) please check, but 'Indonesian,' as an modifier, is vastly 'underused' by Indonesian speakers who are *much* more likely to write "Indonesia's culture" than "Indonesian culture" (based on 2L assumptions, doesn't matter what culture of course). So it's not 'push back' when Indonesians translate "Bahasa Indonesia" into English as "Bahasa Indonesia" — it's more cuz 'Indonesian' looks like a weirder, less viable translation option than it actually is. (Meanwhile, while non-Indonesians may speak Bahasa (oops ; ) they rarely write it; so both sides are agreeing to ignore, as usual)

    5) to their credit, Indonesians really aren't fussy about this type of thing; while Indonesian itself is hardly old and brittle. Precisely b/c Indonesian is rapidly evolving, Indonesians often (maybe mostly in Java?) don't even care whether/how their *own* names are (mis)spelled, including by themselves. So it's not to late.

    6) only this solution ('Indonesian' instead of 'Bahasa Indonesia') can prevent the (usually) silly sound of the one-word version ('Bahasa') or — much, funnier still — 'Bahasa Indonesian' ) ha! (see language hat)

    *Obviously, my take is practical, based on what looks easiest. Likely as not there are some theoretical implications somewhere in there, as regards what it did/does/will mean to say "Bahasa Indonesia" in ethno-linguistic or historical context. EG, u can also look up old documents like the Sumpah Pemudah (1928) to see if the B on bahasa Indonesia is capitalized (it's not), etc. Does that help ? : )

    Also, should go w/o saying that in this part of the Malay-influenced world there's a very handy, reliable 2-step for referring to language & ethnic groups :
    1) orang/bahasa (people/language) + 2) whatever they call themselves

    Example A) ORANG JAWA = Javanese (the people). Example B) BAHASA BALI = Balinese (the language).

    And it does *does* suck to have to translate this into English. Esp. if u're the 1st ever, in the case of lesser-translated peeps. Guess that's just cost of going global.

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