Why “you” is never easy in Bahasa Indonesia?

Why YOU in Bahasa Indonesia is never easy

First of all, everyone reading this (Indonesians or not) might instantly say “what an idiot writer… you is kamu in any dictionaries you read.” Ask any Indonesian and they (some! Not all) might come up with “kamu” or if you’re lucky enough, they will consider “Anda” as the answer. Well guess what? They’re absolutely right. I have no objection whatsoever with that opinion. But here’s the thing… do they really use those words (kamu and Anda) in everyday life as often as they might think? The answer would probably be no.

Instead of hearing Indonesians use the more formal and distant “Anda” or the more intimate “kamu”, you will not hear it at all. You might hear them omit the subject or use a completely different word. Before we discuss what those words are, I’d like to point out some reasons for this.

The first reason for this is that, Bahasa Indonesia, like other Asian languages (such as Japanese, or even Thai) do not always need subjects to make a sentence work much like English does. You can say “mau makan apa?” to a person without having to use ‘kamu’ or ‘Anda’. It’s already implied, so it’s unnecessary. Of course we’re talking spoken Indonesian, not the written one.

The other reason for this is, in my opinion, more profound and reflects how Indonesians think and behave. Indonesia was an archipelago with kingdoms and colonialism. What do kingdoms and colonialists have in common? The society is based on hierarchy. Indonesian society is basically a feudalistic society. Instead of having the generic ‘you’, Indonesians tend to be less direct by either removing the ‘you’ in the sentence when it’s implied or change it to something more personal yet polite when necessary. Saying ‘Anda’ to your mother sounds not just odd but also rude because it implies that you are deliberately creating a distance. Saying ‘kamu’ to her, on the other hand is plain insolent and impertinent. An Indonesian with common sense will not do that.

So what are the alternatives for ‘Anda’ then? Brace yourselves! It’s gonna be more complicated that deciding whether we have to use ‘Sie’ or ‘du’ in German.

Salutations, such as ‘bapak’, ‘ibu’, ‘mas’, or ‘mbak’ are often used as opposed to ‘kamu’ or ‘Anda’. Those are used depending on who you are talking to and what relationship you and the person have. Regional variations are available as well. Suppose you’re talking to a man around your age who has a child, you can call the person ‘bapak’, while on a similar case but this time without a child you might call him ‘mas’. Sometimes we also use names as substitutes for ‘kamu’. You can also use both ‘kamu’ and name as ‘you’ when addressing the same person.

A : Ibu sudah makan? (a son talking to her mother. Instead of saying ‘Anda’ he says ‘ibu’)

B : Sudah. Kamu sudah makan? (ibu uses ‘kamu’ to her child).


A: Mas Agung mau ke mana? (a person asking someone named ‘Agung’)

B: Saya mau ke rumah sakit. Martha mau ikut? (here, Agung uses ‘Martha’, instead of ‘kamu’)

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