Adjectives as Modifiers in Bahasa Indonesia

A grammar point that makes Indonesian different with English is on how adjectives as modifiers are placed to describe noun as head. In this post, you will learn about how to form modifiers + head in a phrase, clause, and sentence.

Indonesian as Head-Initial Language

If English applies head-final language, bahasa Indonesia is a kind of head-initial language which means that the head, in this case the noun, is placed at the beginning. You should mention the head first then followed by its modifiers. Let’s have some examples.

English Indonesian
Red car Mobil merah
Red and white car Mobil merah putih
Beautiful red car Mobil merah yang indah
Beautiful brown wooden chair Kursi kayu berwarna cokelat yang indah

Be Clear in Using Multiple Adjectives

On the table above, you can implicitly understand that English and Indonesian set different rules in forming phrase. The first rule is that in bahasa Indonesia, head is placed in the initial while the modifiers come in the end. The second rule, when some it consists of more than two modifiers, sometimes you need conjunction “yang” to explain the second and/or the third modifiers. If not, the phrase will remain understandable but sounds little bit weird. Especially for the fourth example on the table above, it can also be written as the following.
  • Kursi kayu berwarna cokelat yang indah
  • Kursi kayu cokelat yang indah
  • Kursi yang terbuat dari kayu, yang berwarna cokleat, yang indah
As the second and the third points above may lead to different meaning or interpretation, therefore it is better to apply the translation as written on the table. The possibilities of interpretation might be:

People my think that cokelat (brown) modifies kayu (wooden) which literally means a chair made of brown wood - the natural color of wood. THis is not the emphasis here as what you literally intend to say is the color of the material which can be painted red, white, or black. It may not be so confusing but let’s have different color. Let’s take “kursi kayu putih yang indah”. If you don’t put word “berwarna” between kayu and putih, people may think that adjective putih (white) modifies kayu (wood). “Kayu putih” actually means ‘eucalyptus’. People may think that “kursi kayu putih yang indah” refers to “a beautiful chair made of eucalyptus”. To emphasize the color, it is better to add word “berwarna” instead of directly saying the color. If you say “kursi kayu berwarna putih yang indah”, it literally means “beautiful white wooden chair”. Another example is “kayu hitam” that literally means ‘ebony’. Instead of saying “kursi kayu hitam yang indah”, you should say “Kursi kayu berwarna hitam yang indah”. I hope you get the point.