Indonesian borrowings

The majority of words that Dutch and English have borrowed from other European languages overlap broadly – Italian musical terms and the like. That doesn’t apply to borrowings from the respective former colonial areas, though.

I’ve been involved for the last little while in translating a novel set in the former Dutch East Indies. And it was highly noticeable that Dutch people assumed that all kinds of borrowed Javanese and Malay (and other) words would be understood by your average English reader. This is simply not the case.

  • there are very few non-obvious words of Javanese or Malay origins in English, other than foods: gingham, amok, bantam, caddy, compound (in the military sense, from kampong), sarong and that’s about your lot.
  • plus a bunch of foods, animals and plants that aren’t native to Europe, of course: pangolin, rambutan, orang utan and the like.
  • but Dutch people’s familiarity with Indonesian restaurants and similar has put different things on their menu of borrowings. My parents would know the words satay and ketchup and that’s about it. Even where the foods in question are known in English, few people would recognize the words tauge (bean sprouts), koenjit (turmeric), kroepoek (prawn crackers), sambal (chili sauce), santen (coconut butter), sereh (lemon grass) and others.
  • Note also that that Dutch phonetic spellings should be anglicized when the words are borrowed: krupuk and kunyit in the above, for instance. This also applies to proper names such as Soerabaja => Surabaya

I’ve been a bit lax with these posts over the last week or two, largely because of a desperate rush to get real-world work out of the way before finally being able to get abroad after the lockdown and finally see e.g. ageing parents again.

Prevalence: low. One of the many aspects that can make translating menus for hotels and restaurants a right pain in the neck. Otherwise rare.
Frequency: very high. In this particular project? Awkward enough and frequent enough to be a serious bugbear.
Native: no. Well-travelled individuals and those who frequent the few Indonesian restaurants in the UK will do better, but Joe Q. Sixpack won’t.

Published by Mike Wilkinson

Twenty years of translating and editing Dutch into English, as well as writing and publishing in English.

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