Obama's Indonesian: the grand finale

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At the end of his abbreviated trip to Indonesia (cut short because of the volcanic eruptions of Mt. Merapi), President Obama gave a half-hour address at the University of Indonesia that finally showed off his skills in the Indonesian language, a subject we've been examining. Granted, it was a prepared speech, but Obama went out of his way to include Indonesian phrases and sentences that would resonate with the crowd (mostly composed of students and staff at UI), and he even worked in at least one ad-lib.

From the official transcript, here are the relevant Indonesian passages from the speech, accompanied by my quick analysis. (Video of the speech is available on C-SPAN here and on the White House site here.)

Terima kasihTerima kasih, thank you so much, thank you, everybody.  Selamat pagi.  (Applause.)

Terima kasih is "thank you," which Obama had occasion to say several times on his Indonesian trip. (Thankfully, the transcribers have spelled it correctly this time, unlike yesterday.) Selamat pagi is "good morning."

Assalamualaikum dan salam sejahtera.

Assalamualaikum is the Arabic greeting of "peace be upon you," which, as I mentioned in yesterday's post, is a standard oratorical formula in Indonesia, extending beyond Islamic usage into a secular greeting (though some in Indonesia have questioned how secular it is). He follows this with "…dan salam sejahtera," Indonesian for "…and prosperous greetings." This opening, Reuters reported, "drew whoops of approval from a crowd clearly impressed by his surprisingly good accent and delivery."

Pulang kampung nih.

Roughly: "Hey, I came home!" Here Obama moves beyond standard discursive routines that one would expect from a high government official and surprises the crowd with some colloquial Indonesian. Pulang kampung is an expression referring to going home, specifically to one's old kampung, which can mean either an urban neighborhood or village. It's widely used in Indonesia during Lebaran, the celebration ending the month of Ramadan, when everyone heads home for the holiday. The particle nih at the end is the masterful touch here. As this page explains, Indonesian discourse particles like nih "form a link between the speaker and listener, functioning as intimacy signals or sharing devices, reinforcing the social links between speaker and listener." It worked like a charm for the UI audience. This was as close as Obama got to an Ich bin ein berliner moment.

Let me begin with a simple statement:  Indonesia bagian dari diri saya.  (Applause.)

This translates as "Indonesia is a part of me (lit. 'my self')." (The official transcript misspells diri "self" as didi. This could have been a mishearing of the trilled /r/ that Obama used for the word.) This statement introduces the section of the speech where Obama offers reminiscences from his childhood in the Jakarta neighborhood of Menteng Dalam, including the sounds of street vendors:

I still remember the call of the vendors.  Satay!  (Laughter.)  I remember that.  Baso!  (Laughter.)

His imitation of the food-hawkers' cries was another crowd-pleaser. In Jakarta and other major cities, sellers of satay, ba(k)so, and other street food each have distinctive calls. This is as much a part of the urban soundscape in Indonesia now as it was in Obama's childhood. Not included in the official transcript is Obama's aside about the street food: "Enak, ya?" ("It's delicious, isn't it?") That was another very nice touch indicating both his linguistic ease (if not fluency) and his appreciation of the local flavors.

But I believe that the history of both America and Indonesia should give us hope.  It is a story written into our national mottos.  In the United States, our motto is E pluribus unum — out of many, one.  Bhinneka Tunggal Ika — unity in diversity.  (Applause.)

The national motto of Indonesia is a Sanskritic expression by way of Old Javanese. Its similarity to e pluribus unum has long been a favored touchstone for diplomats between the U.S. and Indonesia trumpeting the two countries' founding principles of social tolerance.

As a child of a different race who came here from a distant country, I found this spirit in the greeting that I received upon moving here:  Selamat Datang.

Selamat datang means "welcome" in Indonesian. Obama finished with a flourish:

Sebagai penutup, saya mengucapkan kepada seluruh rakyat Indonesiaterima kasih atas…  Terima kasihAssalamualaikum.  Thank you.

"In closing, I say to all the people of Indonesia: thank you for… Thank you. Peace be upon you." Obama stumbled a bit on this, his longest stretch of Indonesian in the speech. First, he pronounced the "c" in mengucapkan "to say, utter, express" as /k/ instead of the correct /tʃ/. (He had made this same mistake earlier when pronouncing Pancasila, the name for Indonesia's state philosophy.) Some local media reports transcribed the word with the nearly synonymous mengungkapkan, likely on the basis of his mispronunciation. Reading orthographic "c" as /k/ instead of /tʃ/ is a common error among Westerners attempting to read Indonesian, pointing to the limits of Obama's familiarity with the formal, written variety of the language.

He also seemed to have something longer originally written to follow terima kasih atas ("thank you for…") but then self-repaired to a simple terima kasih. (Or perhaps he was trying to go off-script, as he did with his earlier Enak, ya? aside, but decided not to be so ambitious.)

Despite these minor stumbles in pronunciation and delivery, it was a bravura performance that made a big impression on the audience and generated much praise in the local coverage. Though there wasn't a single phrase along the lines of Kennedy's Ich bin ein Berliner that will likely be remembered by posterity, it hit just about all the right notes, including the linguistic ones.

[Update, 11/11/10: Jeff Hadler alerts me to this interview Obama conducted with an Indonesian television news correspondent in Washington last March. He responds briefly in Indonesian (saying he only remembers a little of the language) and also reminisces about the satay and bakso sellers, as he would later do in the UI speech.

And welcome readers of The Atlantic!]

[Update, 11/12/10: I talked about Obama's use of Indonesian on WNYC's "The Brian Lehrer Show."]


  1. John Cowan said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 2:14 pm

    The variation in the pronunciation of Indonesia(n) is interesting too. The first time, he uses a purely Indonesian pronunciation; the second time, it's English. Thereafter, it's mostly English but with some variation into /sj/ or /ʃ/ rather than the usual /ʒ/.

    He's quite good keeping his initial voiceless stops unaspirated when speaking Indonesian, too, while not confusing them with his voiced stops.

  2. Coby Lubliner said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 3:54 pm

    I think I heard the Indonesian pronunciation of "Indonesia" only in the phrase "University of Indonesia." Perhaps he treated it as the proper name of the university, as distinct from the country.

  3. groki said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 4:53 pm

    question about ya in "enak, ya?":

    per the goog's translate, ya = "yes" and similar affirmatives–which I expected, given the suggestive resemblance to English "yeah."

    so is Indonesian ya a cognate with English (Dutch?), or is it unrelated etymologically but just happens to mean something similar (eg, like the word so in English and Japanese)?

  4. Rubrick said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 5:09 pm

    I've been somewhat confused by your reference to an "Ich bin ein Berliner moment", since in my mind that moment is famous both for its impact and its faulty, horribly-accented German.

    For years — I'm 42 — I only knew about the latter part; I thought the quote was famous as JFK's "I am a jelly donut!" blunder. Only when I spent time in Berlin in my 20s did I learn that it made him a national hero, and that the error was a mere nitpick.

    I suspect Obama's familiarity with Indonesian actually precludes his having the sort of impact Kennedy had. (That and, of course, Indonesia is not currently the crux of a defining global power struggle.)

  5. Ben Zimmer said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 5:12 pm

    Groki: I'm pretty sure Malay/Indonesian (i)ya is only coincidentally similar to Dutch/German ja, English yeah, etc. But it does make language-learning slightly easier for speakers of Germanic languages!

    Rubrick: Kennedy's "blunder" was no such thing. See the debunkings here, here, and here.

  6. Don Sample said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 5:18 pm

    I would think that to really get an "Ich bin ein Berliner" moment, Indonesia would first have to be a besieged nation, with Obama coming in to promise that they would continue to have unwavering American support.

  7. Guadalupe R. Brubaker said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 5:34 pm

    Ini adalah bahasa yang baik kau tahu .. Thanks for sharing :)

  8. GeorgeW said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 5:39 pm

    This may not be an Ich-bin-ein-Berliner moment, but it may go a ways toward mitigating the perception of America as Islamophobic.

    On the other hand, it may support, the secret-Muslim notion among the 'birther' community at home.

  9. SilenceIsGolden said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 7:22 pm

    "Assalamualaikum", similar to "Shalom" is such a wonderful, literally peaceful greeting that I, as an atheist, am often tempted to use it. I'd think that's what religion should be about: peace and love! (But what do I know…)

    It's much less religious (in the sense of mono-theism) than, e.g., the pushy Bavarian greeting "Grüß Gott" (a shortened "Grüß dich Gott", i.e. "May you be greeted (read: blessed) by god"). Or the response to somebody's sneezing: "Bless you."

  10. Kylopod said,

    November 10, 2010 @ 11:53 pm


    "Assalamu alaikum" is actually cognate to the Hebrew "Shalom Aleichem," the traditional Jewish greeting. Modern Hebrew as spoken in Israel uses the bare "Shalom" instead, which simply means "peace." The full expression means "peace be upon you," and "you" is plural.

  11. groki said,

    November 11, 2010 @ 1:09 am

    @Ben Zimmer

    terima kasih atas… both the posting and (i)ya. assalamualaikum.

  12. david said,

    November 11, 2010 @ 5:22 am

    So did he speak indonesian as an american monoglot who has memorised a few phrases (with the typical horrendous accent), or as someone who is or at least was halfway compentent in the language?

  13. Ben Hemmens said,

    November 11, 2010 @ 8:04 am

    The Kennedy Berliner quote is interesting. It wasn't a gaffe, because it was meant as an analog of "civis romanus sum". But in general it isn't the most natural way to say one is a native of Berlin. It's just that when saying you're from Berlin you don't generally want to emphasize with such pride that "I am ONE of them".
    The donut joke is obviously the rest of Germany's way of having a bit of a laugh at the Berliners being singled out for this compliment; and Kennedy more or less invited this with the aside "I appreciate my interpreter translating my German".
    And the Frankfurter/Wiener thing has a rational explanation: the sausages were originally made in Vienna by a butcher who had come from Frankfurt:

  14. Ben Zimmer said,

    November 11, 2010 @ 8:37 am

    @David: Yes, I'd say he's more than halfway competent in conversational Indonesian, as evidenced by his idiomatic ad-lib (Enak, ya?). His pronunciation was generally on-target, except for minor problems in some of the longer, more formal words (sejahtera, Pancasila, mengucapkan), but that's not surprising considering he was ten years old when he left Indonesia.

  15. Brian said,

    November 12, 2010 @ 3:35 am

    Actually, this is how Indonesian and Malaysian politicians punctuate their English speeches with bits of bahasa. It is also really funny for the crowd to hear the President of the United States doing an impression of a street vendor, something even an Indonesian politician couldn't pull off without seeming condescending or silly.

  16. Atmir Ilias said,

    November 14, 2010 @ 4:39 am

    Groki: I'm pretty sure Malay/Indonesian (i)ya is only coincidentally similar to Dutch/German ja, English yeah, etc.
    I’m not sure that the “ja”(yeah) is coincidentally similar; which is also a second word for “Yes” In Albanian and it can likewise be used in stead of the "po"(yes),
    When we can not explain something, generally we try to define it as something else. We can not figure out in our modern days why “ja" means “yes”? Why "Yes” means “Yes”?.We do not really figure out our 'yes". How could be said that Malay "ya" is coincidentally similar? We also do not know the time when it is created and which is the oldest one .

  17. yankervitch said,

    November 14, 2010 @ 8:04 pm

    "…and, of course, Indonesia is not currently the crux of a defining global power struggle."

    I realize you meant this as an aside, but for what it's worth, I hope it stays that way.

    Indonesia's the largest Muslim country in the world, and is the fourth largest country in the world, after China, India, and the US. The future of the world very much depends on not only good US-Indo and US-Sino relations, but on US involvement and engagement with a diverse Islamic world.

  18. grrljock said,

    November 23, 2010 @ 5:08 pm

    I missed the news of Obama finally visiting my country because I was in Berlin at the time (true story). I'm with John Cowan in noticing the different ways he pronounced "Indonesia" (in the Indonesian way, then in the "bule" way). Also, Obama did mispronounce one other word in his closing: "seluruh" (last syllable, "rah" instead of "ruh", sorry, don't know the symbols).

    Overall, I'm impressed with how much Indonesian Obama has retained. He was in full Obama the Charmer mode, and it worked (on the crowd, and on me).

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