…and the Indonesian plural
In textbooks for the Indonesian language you can sometimes read that the plural in Indonesian is simply formed by reduplicating the noun. In “Indonesian for Beginners” by Restiany Achmad, we can read on page 6:
The plural form of countable nouns in Indonesian is very simple: double the noun when it has no number or a quantity word in it.
The example he gives is anak (child), anak-anak (children), dua anak (two children), and banyak anak (many children).
This is a gross oversimplification and also misleading.
In fact, anak-anak (and also ibu-ibu and bapak-bapak) can be both singular and plural.
Reduplication in Indonesian is quite complex, and definitely not “simple”.
Every noun in Indonesian is by default singular and plural, and it is only the context through which we know whether the word is singular or plural.
Mobil Jepang sangat populer di Indonesia.
Japanese cars are very popular in Indonesia.
Saya suka kue Indonesia.
I love Indonesian cakes.
Instead of reduplication, one can also use group words. For example, “more than one student” could be phrased as beberapa mahasiswa (some students), banyak mahasiswa (many students) or para mahasiswa (students as a group).
Reduplication is typically only used when it is not clear from the context whether the noun is singular or plural. Reduplications also often expresses variety.
Saya suka kue-kue Indonesia.
I love all kinds of Indonesian cakes.
Reduplication of Indonesian nouns does not occur when group words are used. So you cannot say *
However, when you travel through Indonesia, you will see many traffic signs that read “Hati-hati. Banyak anak-anak!”.
This is because anak and anak-anak differ slightly in meaning. Anak is not only ‘child’ but also ‘offspring’ or ‘person’.
Ini teman saya. Dia anak Medan.
This is my friend. He’s from Medan.
Anak is not necessarily singular:
Mereka anak Medan.
They are from Medan.
And anak-anak is not necessarily plural either:
Waktu saya masih anak-anak belum ada komputer.
When I was a child, there were no computers.
It is hence evident that anak as well as anak-anak can be both singular and plural, and the same is true for bapak-bapak and ibu-ibu. Just like anak can mean either ‘person/persons’ or ‘child/children’ whereas anak-anak is ‘small child/children’, bapak-bapak can also mean either ‘male person/persons’ or ‘mature male person/persons’. The same is true for ibu-ibu:
Ternyata dia seorang ibu-ibu mungkin umurnya 30 tahun.
Apparently, she is a mature woman, approximately 30 years old.
The following is a quote from the novel “Shanum” by Tesa Yuli Dhenis (p. 32):
Dia sudah ibu-ibu beranak dua, tapi asik saja kalau berbincang dengannya.
She is a mature woman who has two children, but talking to her is captivating.
For more on the Indonesian plural consult J. N. Sneddon’s “Indonesian Reference Grammar”. Allen & Unwin 1996. The US edition was published by Routledge (2010) under the title “Indonesian: A Comprehensive Grammar”.
You may also want to read the article Expressing plural and singular forms in bahasa Indonesia.