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!

I 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, while cepat-cepat is hastily. So is buru-buru. Kadang-kadang? Sometimes. Kira-kira? Approximately. And tiba-tiba? Suddenly. There is something vaguely uncertain or indefinite about these particular re-duplications, isn’t there?

You don’t want to be rata-rata, because then you’d be average. Kupu-kupu is butterfly. Kelip-kelip is a firefly… so is kunang kunang. Awang-awang are clouds. And awig-awig refers to Balinese traditional laws and regulations.

Pelan pelan means go slow. Laki-laki is a man… pronounced like this: lucky-lucky (!) 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. 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…!

Some words sound like mini-reduplications themselves. Some examples include: susu (milk), pipi (cheek), bibi (aunt) and dada (chest/breast). When I hear these words, I tend to wonder: what is the plural form of aunt? Bibi-bibi? Do I put makeup on my pipi-pipi?! (Of course not, I learned, the plural remains in the same form as the singular; but still, it was comical just to consider the possibilities!)

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