Double Vision

Is my eyesight failing me? Or is seeing double just part of the adventure of living on this island?

I’ve been studying bahasa Indonesia (Indonesian language) since I arrived, and although my ability to speak and understand is improving, I’m far from fluent.

Nevertheless, my greatest joy in learning this language has been in discovering what are technically known as “reduplicated” or “cloned” words. Just my luck, here are THREE examples in ONE photo!

IMG_3143I revel in the sheer genius or beauty of these imaginative linguistic concoctions. Quite often, reduplicated words are merely the plural form of a given word.

One chicken is ayam; more than one are ayam-ayam.

One book is buku, but two or more are buku-buku.

Anak means child, so anak-anak are children.

You can find dozens if not hundreds of these doubled, cloned or reduplicated words in bahasa. These are among my favorites:

Cepat is fast, whereas cepat-cepat is hastily.IMG_5010

Kupu-kupu is butterfly

Kelip-kelip is a firefly… so is kunang kunang.

Awang-awang are clouds.

Pelan pelan means go slow.

Mohon means to ask, but mohon-mohon is a plea, as in begging.

Layang means overpass… Layang-layang is a kite. Smart and poetic, right?

Sama-sama, which literally translated into jointly or together, in everyday language means you are welcome.

Gado-gado, which translates into hodgepodge, is actually a traditional Indonesian dish with steamed vegetables and peanut sauce.

There are countless such conjunctions: Alat-alat.Undang-undang.Kira-kira. Kadang-kadang. Kue-kue. Tas-tas.

Some of these combinations are meaningful in ways that diehard linguists would surely appreciate:

Oblok-oblok, in its literal sense, translates to a dish consisting of leftovers. But in everyday usage, that phrase means the offspring of an interethnic marriage. Humorous metaphors abound.

Ngut-ngut (where the g is guttural, nearly silent) means twitch. Something slightly onomatopoeic about that…!

In my two years of basic (but burgeoning!) bahasa, I’ve decided that this (also seen in the photo above) is the most soulful example of reduplication: hati-hati means caution, as in be careful. And hati on its own? Would you be surprised to learn that it means… heart?! The Indonesian language meisters certainly knew how to infuse their words and phrases with double meanings.

I was reminded of the uniqueness of these gems yet again when today’s “word of the day” reached my inbox. In addition to my pitiful attempts to study from a language book and English-Indonesian dictionary, the daily “word” – sent out by – is one of the tools I use to build my vocabulary. Today’s word was: mata = eye. I also learned that cuci mata = window shopping (literally, eye wash!)

But it was the note that accompanied the one-word lesson that I loved most:

Note: It is generally understood when using the word “mata” that people have two… This is important to know since the usual way of doubling a word to indicate plural if it is not otherwise indicated in the sentence does not apply to the word “mata” because… mata-mata =  spy.

How I LOVE this language, let me count the way-way 😉


  1. Kata Ulang (Reduplicated word) was one of my favorite topics in Indonesian Language Class. It got more interesting when I learned about “irregular reduplication”. Warna is “color”, warna – warna is “many or several colors”, warna – warni is “colorful”. Fun, isn’t it?
    When I was in Bali, there was an expat telling how confusing the affix system in Bahasa Indonesia was. Here in Binjai, my hometown, I often hear school students complaining about how hard it is to remember to change the form of the verb based on the tenses. 😀

  2. Love this post. I am always amused when my Indonesian friends text or post to Facebook doing things like teman2, instead of teman-teman so they don’t have to write as much. And my favorite mata word is matahari, for sun 🙂

    1. Thanks for dropping by Lydia! Yes, I’m always using that shorthand – esp kira2.. sometimes I have fun with it: teman4 or anak100 (instead of banyak anak)! So much of fun as you know! I love your favorite word too 😉

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