Syntax and Semantic Differences between English and Indonesian

The syntax of Indonesian and English word phrases and sentences is similar in order of statements, determiner, passive and active sentences, as well as prepositions (Felt, 2020; Kamayani & Purwarianti, 2011), but not in questions, plural noun forms, and tenses. Both Indonesian and English sentences have the same order that consists at least of subject, verb, and object (optional). Big parts of the sentence ‘Orang yang sangat senang itu di rumah itu memasak kue yang lezat di panci dengan pegangan’ are mainly ordered the same in English from subject, verb, and object. The plurality of nouns in English and Indonesian needs some determiners. For example, ‘beberapa mobil’ in Indonesian will be translated into ‘several cars’ in English where ‘several’ means similar to ‘beberapa’

Figure 1. What is the syntax?

Meanwhile, some differences are more frequently found when it comes to ordering, tenses, singularity/plurality of nouns, and complex prepositional phrases (British Council, n.d). The sentence mentioned above is written in English differently considering in order of adjective phrases, tense, and the singularity of the noun. In English, the adjective phrase ‘the quite happy person’ will be translated into ‘sangat senang orang’ in Indonesian. Indonesian adjective phrase puts an adjective after the noun. Since English sentence also depends on tenses, the verb ‘cook’ will be added with a suffix -s as in ‘cooks’. The verb in Indonesian does not require any inflectional process for any singular or plural noun and verb as in ‘memasak’. To make a question, English requires an auxiliary that precedes the subject, while Indonesian does not. For example, “are you fine?” will be translated into “Kamu baik-baik saja?” which does not have any auxiliary. Although both languages share some determiners, there are some determines which are not applicable to either one of them. For example,  ‘banyak uang’ in Indonesian is not translated into ‘many moneys’ but ‘a lot of money’ since the word ‘money’ is uncountable and does not need any inflection.

Semantically, both Indonesian and English share commonalities such as figurative speech, meaning process, passive voice, and loan words (words borrowed from foreign languages) (Siregar, 2017). Semantic is a deconstruction of words, signals, and sentence structures that affect our comprehension (Kittelstad, 2022). Since English and Indonesian also borrow words from each other, their words might be shared. For example, English words such as ‘television’, ‘pencil’, ‘soda’ will be translated into ‘televisi’, ‘pensil’, ‘soda’ in Indonesian. In addition, some loan words they borrow from other languages also change in meaning over time. For example, in English, the word ‘mannequin’ from Dutch ‘manneken’ borrowed into English could mean two things: a little man or a doll used to display a gown (Okrent, 2019). Likewise, in Indonesian, the word ‘kepala’ borrowed from Sankrit could mean two things: a head or a leader, depending on the context (Siregar, 2017). The semantic rule is also similar in passive voice between Indonesian and English. Passive sentences in both languages could be cross-read with the same meaning, but not for the word ‘mau’ (mau) since the volition is not aligned with the experiencer (Polinsky & Potsdam, 2007). For example, the sentence ‘Buku dibaca ibu’ translated to ‘book is read by Mom’ can be cross-read to be ‘Ibu membaca buku’ or ‘Mom reads a book’. Different from this example, the sentence “Ibu mau membaca buku” is not acceptable to be cross-read as “Buku mau dibaca Ibu” which could be permissible as “The book will be read by Mom”  in English.

Figure 2. Semantics between English and Indonesian

However, semantic differences are found in the use of determiners between Indonesian and English. For example, in Indonesian, the use of the determiner ‘a’ or ‘an’ is not common. For example, the imperative sentence ‘ambilkan apel di atas meja’ (please get me apple on the table) does not use any indefinite determiner because the preposition of place suffices the context. This sentence could mean one or more fruit in Indonesian. Meanwhile, a such determiner is very important in English because it could lead to misinterpreting numbers if it is not mentioned before a noun. Another example of a determiner that does not exist in Indonesian is ‘the’. English uses ‘the’ to refer to a specific thing, while Indonesian tends to use the suffix -nya for the same purpose. The sentence ‘aku menyimpan toplesnya di sana’ (I kept the jar there) uses -nya for a specific jar, while English uses ‘the jar’ (Jones, 2020). 

A translator needs to have knowledge of syntax and the semantic distinction between the source language and the target language. When she/he translates English texts to Indonesian, the translated texts must be able to deliver the semantical meaning in Indonesian. Is it a hard job? Absolutely. We never understand how to translate properly without mastering the very basic aspect of a language. Similar to translating English texts to Indonesian texts, Indonesian-to-English translation demands semantic and syntax accuracy. There is no easy way for translators to translate texts. Whether they want to translate texts related to Indonesian food, they have a lot of semantical considerations as well. For the translator team at Sastra Lingua Indonesia, translation is to retain the original meaning with another medium of communication, and it takes minutes and hours to achieve this valuable quality.


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