Formal vs. Informal (my latest language dilemma)

Lately I’ve become obsessed with formal and informal language in Indonesian. It’s gotten to the point that instead of complaining about weird verb constructions in language class, now I ask about why certain pronouns are used in example sentences and what those pronouns mean in terms of the relationship between the speaker and the listener.

So far, I have few answers. I’ve created a complicated social hierarchy in my head that pretty effectively dictates what level of formal pronouns I should use in any given situation. The problem is that this social hierarchy comes completely from me and has no basis in Indonesian culture whatsoever.

Example: I use formal pronouns with my language teacher in the classroom and informal pronouns outside of it. This was an arbitrary decision.

Another example: My first instinct is to use formal pronouns with my dance teacher, not because that’s what the other girls in my dance class do, but because I use formal language with my ballet teacher at home.

In language class they start by teaching you formal language, and with good reason. That way, you’re not going to wander out the door and inadvertently offend someone. And it’s much easier to transition from formal to informal than the other way around.

Because of this, though, it took me a while to realize that informal language is so prevalent. I always used formal pronouns, and the few times I tried informal pronouns it sounded forced and awkward. Not that it mattered, because at that point I had bigger language problems to worry about, like trying to understand the basic idea of what people were saying to me.

Now, though, I have a somewhat better grip on the language so I’ve started paying attention to how people around me treat formal and informal language constructions. What I’ve gathered thus far just confuses me further. Sometimes people use formal pronouns; sometimes they use informal. There appear to be no differences in when they decide to use which.

This just leaves me feeling like I’m missing out on something. What do they mean when they use formal or informal? Are they signaling respect? Distance in a relationship? And what sort of messages am I sending? Do I sound horribly rude when I use informal pronouns? Do I sound horribly strange and uptight when I use formal pronouns?

I have absolutely no idea. I just know that there’s more going on than I’m aware of.

And then Friday my language teacher threw another wrench into the works. As it turns out, it’s not as simple as whether you decide to use formal or informal pronouns. According to her, Anda, the formal form of you, is extremely formal and in a lot of situations can sound weird if you use it. It can signal that you don’t feel at all familiar with the person to whom you’re speaking. But at the same time, aku, the informal form of I, can signal a very high degree of closeness.

So what do you do?

Apparently, as in the sentence in the book that prompted this line of questioning, you use a mix of formal and informal pronouns. Of course, there are nuances in the way you mix them. One way, you could mean that you’re angry. Another way, maybe not.

And then, as an off-shoot of all that, you can use someone’s name in an effort to bypass the whole pronoun thing altogether. That, my teacher told me, shows respect but also shows a certain amount of closeness. Which just makes everything more complicated.

So, for now, I’m just going to keep listening when people talk in the hopes of one day figuring things out. And until then I’ll continue awkwardly self-correcting to informal pronouns around my peers and awkwardly self-correcting to formal pronouns when whoever I’m talking to uses formal pronouns first.

2 thoughts on “Formal vs. Informal (my latest language dilemma)

  1. Good Luck! It is helpful to laugh and then perhaps people will know that you are not meaning to offend them.
    Christmas list? Time is really running out.

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