Parallelism in Language

A Cross-Linguistic Analysis of English and Indonesian

by Michael Wolfman

deco image: color block and lines
Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

This paper compares aspects of the English language and Indonesian language. After an explanation of some basics of linguistics and theories of syntax, the paper discusses the system under which these languages are analyzed and how this data is organized. Under this framework of the theory of Generative Grammar, this paper analyzes words, phrases, and sentences of each language and develops a grammar for each, ultimately illustrating that English and Indonesian are not as different as they may seem on the surface.

KEY WORDS: linguistics, syntax, cross-linguistic analysis, English, Indonesian

Bahasa menarik! At first glance, this Indonesian sentence seems drastically different from anything you might expect to find in English. However, deeper analysis of these two languages reveals they are far more similar than they appear on the surface.

Indonesian is part of the Austronesian family of languages, which developed in the regions around the Indonesian archipelago.[1] English, on the other hand, is a member of the Indo-European family of languagfes, which developed across Eurasia.[2] The differences in the lineage of these languages manifested many superficial differences in how they look when placed side by side. These more surface level differences cause English and Indonesian to seem disparate, making them excellent comparative examples to illustrate that despite these cosmetic differences, these two languages are very similar.

At its most fundamental level, linguistics strives to explain the phenomenon that is language. Under the umbrella of this unifying goal, subdisciplines have developed to investigate specific aspects of language, such as sociological factors, physical factors, or cognitive factors. One method for investigating these different areas is to compare and analyze different languages in order to find underlying similarities. Linguists can generalize these underlying similarities in order to draw conclusions about the innate qualities of language. One subdiscipline which utilizes this type of cross-linguistic analysis is syntax. Syntax focuses on the structural aspect of linguistic abilities, seeking to explain how a child acquiring language takes what they hear around them and develops that into a computational system that generates an infinite number of structures specific to a language.[3]

Generative grammar is one theory that has been developed to explain this phenomenon. This theory purports that native speakers of a language pull words stored in a finite mental lexicon and apply that language’s finite system of mental rules. In doing so, they create an infinite set of novel utterances. This theory allows for a streamlined and widely applicable system for understanding and describing language. Using this system, I will examine words, phrases, and sentences of English and Indonesian to develop a grammar for each, illustrating that deeper analysis of these two languages reveals that they are not vastly different.

The fact that there are rules that apply to language has been known to most everyone chastised for ending a sentence with a preposition or putting a possessive apostrophe in the wrong place. These rules of usage, or prescriptive rules, are not the focus of syntax. Rather, syntax focuses on the rules that a child internalizes as they learn a language; it focuses on the rules that describe the structure of a language as it is understood by native speakers. These rules that speakers learn are then applied to the words stored in their mental lexicon to generate the utterances that people see and hear every day. The extreme complexity and efficiency of language production reveals that its processes must be carried out in a streamlined and organized manner.


a. Boy
b. The boy.
c. Silly boy
d. The silly boy.
e. *Boy the.
f. *The boy silly

The categories of our mental lexicon are the basic building blocks for language, which can be combined to create phrases. The data in (1) illustrates how multiple words can be combined to create a more complex constituent, in this case, a noun phrase (NP). Example (1a) shows a noun phrase consisting only of a noun, while example (1b) has both the noun and a determiner (D) describing it. Example (1c) and (1d) build on this further by including an adjective, which is part of an adjective phrase (AP), describing boy. These sentences are considered grammatical, meaning they fit into the descriptive rules that model the speech of a language’s native speakers. Examples (1d) and (1e) are ungrammatical (denoted by the *) because they do not occur in an order that native English speakers would utter. These complexities concerning what elements can be included in a larger constituent and how they are ordered can be summarized using formal phrase structure (PS) rules.


Figure 2

The formalization in (2) illustrates that in an NP, an N must always be present, but can optionally co-occur with a determiner and/or an adjective phrase. It also illustrates that, based on current data, APs are made up solely of the adjective.[4] These NPs and APs illustrate the hierarchical organization of language, where lexical items build phrases, and phrases build sentences (S). In English, all sentences are comprised of at least an NP and VP. One important visualization technique that linguists employ to illustrate this hierarchical organization of language is that of syntax trees. These diagrams are used to illustrate how larger constituents break down into more basic units, as illustrated in (3).


a. The boy ran.

b. The boy ran in the house.

c. The boy is fast.

d. The boy bought new shoes.

e. The boy bought new shoes at the store.

The data in (3) illustrates grammatical sentences in English, built from a subject NP and predicate VP. The VP in (3a) consists solely of the V ran, while (3b) has both a V and PP (prepositional phrase). Example (3c) consists of both a V and AP, while (3d) has a V and direct object NP. Example (3e) illustrates how the NPs and PPs can optionally order together within a VP. These sentence and verb phrase complexities are added to our budding English grammar in (4). Additionally, Table 1 describes the abbreviations used throughout this essay and their meanings.

(4) English Phrase Structure Rules

Table 1: Abbreviations and their Meanings

Now that we have established a grammar for English, we can use these same techniques to develop a functional grammar for Indonesian, allowing cross-analysis of the two languages. The lexicon in Table 1 contains all instances of Indonesian that will be used in the following examples.

Table 2: Lexicon for Indonesian

lexicon table

We can explore the phrase structure of Indonesian and compare it to English using sentences comprised of these lexical items. Just as in English, the most basic NP in Indonesian is comprised solely of an N.


a. Orang
  ‘(a) person’

b. Perempuan
  ‘(a) woman’

Again, as in English, this basic NP can be built on by adding adjectives or determiners.


a. orang    ini
   person this
  ‘this person’

b. orang    kaya
   person rich
  ‘(a) rich person’

c. *ini   besar  jalan
     this big   road
    ‘this big road’

Examples (6a) and (6b) reveal that within Indonesian, it is grammatical for the noun to be followed by a D or AP, but it is ungrammatical for them to precede the N (see (6c)). The data in (6) illustrates that elements describing the head of a phrase, i.e. what the phrase is named for, follow the head. This difference in order contrasts English noun phrases, where descriptive elements precede the head. Additionally, the data in (6) fails to provide enough information to determine the co-occurrence order of determiners and adjectives; however, the data in (7) illustrates the complete proper ordering of an Indonesian NP.


a. perempuan senang  itu
   woman    happy the
  ‘the happy woman’

b. *perempuan itu  senang
     woman    the happy
    ‘the happy woman’

Examples (7a) and (7b) reveal that for the NP to be grammatical, it is critical that the determiner follow the adjective, which must follow the noun. This is formalized in (8), which reflects the necessity of a noun, and the optionality of an adjective, determiner, or both. The fact that an AP is comprised solely of an A is also reflected in (8). While the ordering of elements between English and Indonesian differs, the elements of NPs in both languages are the same. This fact illustrates a vast similarity between the two languages that is seemingly nonexistent on the surface.


The similarities between the structures of English and Indonesian run deeper than their NPs. Consider the data in (9), which illustrates basic sentence and VP organization in Indonesian.


a. Perempuan tua  ini  minum
   woman     old this drank
  ‘This old woman drank’

b. *Minum perempuan tua ini
     drank  woman   old this
    ‘This old woman drank’

The grammaticality of example (9a) reveals that the subject NP precedes the VP in Indonesian, just as it does in English. An attempt to place the VP in front of the subject NP results in an ungrammatical S. These rules are formalized in (10).

(10) Indonesian Phrase Structure Rules

The similarities between English and Indonesian VPs do not end here. Consider the data in (11), which illustrates complex Indonesian VPs.


a. Perempuan itu   lihat orang    ini
   woman     the saw  person this
  ‘The woman saw this person’

b. *Perempuan itu  orang    ini   lihat
     woman    the person this saw
    ‘The woman saw this person’

c. Orang    ini  duduk dekat  jalan itu
    person this saw   near road the
  ‘This person sat near the road’

d. Orang   itu  lihat guru       dekat  jalan besar ini
    person the saw teacher near road  big  this
   ‘The person saw a teacher near this big road’

The data in (11) illustrates the complexities of Indonesian VPs, which are remarkably similar to English. Example (11a) reveals that, just as in English, a VP can take a direct object NP (‘orang ini’). Example (11b) reveals that an attempt to place the object before the verb results in sharp ungrammaticality. In example (11c), an optional PP occurs within the VP (cf. (3b)). Example (11d) illustrates the grammatical ordering of NPs and PPs within a VP (cf. (3e)). These rules are formalized in (12).

(12) Indonesian Phrase Structure Rules

The formalization in (12) reveals dramatic similarities between English and Indonesian phrase structure. The elements that make up the phrases of each language are identical, as is the ordering of both the VPs and PPs. These observations begin to reveal the underlying similarities between these two seemingly drastically different languages.

In example (3c) above, there is an English sentence with the linking verb is, which links the subject NP boy to the predicative adjective fast. English uses this construction to connect an NP and another phrase, such as an AP. Indonesian’s way of illustrating this connection is different than English, but not as different as it may first appear.


a. Guru      senang  itu  kaya
    teacher happy the rich
   ‘The happy teacher is rich’

b. Guru      kaya itu  senang
    teacher rich the happy
   ‘The rich teacher is happy’

c. Perempuan ini   guru       itu
   woman     this teacher the
  ‘This woman is the teacher’

d. Orang   ini   di  rumah itu
    person this in house the
   ‘This person is in the house’

e. *Orang itu  dekat restoran duduk
     man  the sat    near    restaurant
    ‘The man sat near a restaurant.’

f. *Perempuan kaya ini   tua minum
    woman     rich old the drank
   ‘This rich old woman drank’

Example (13a) illustrates a sentence structure grammatical to Indonesian, but not to English. English sentences must have an NP and VP at minimum, but here it becomes clear that Indonesian does not require a VP to indicate the connection that English indicates with a linking verb. Example (13a) simply places the adjective phrase after the boundary of the NP. Differentiating between which adjectives are part of the subject and which adjectives are part of the predicate may seem confusing. However, when comparing example (13a) to (13b), it is clear that the boundary of an NP is marked by a determiner, and the following adjective is its own constituent. To account for this new structure, we must amend our PS rules at the S level. Indonesian allows for non-verbal predicates. This construction would not be grammatical in English because a linking verb is necessary to connect the subject to its predicative adjective.

English linking verbs may connect a noun and AP, two NPs or even an NP and PP. In all of these scenarios, English uses a linking verb to illustrate the connection between the subject NP and the predicate. Indonesian, as well, may connect two NPs or an NP and PP; however, just as when connecting an NP to an AP, Indonesian does not utilize linking verbs to illustrate these connections. Examples (13c-d) reveal that Indonesian grammar allows for sentences to be generated with only an NP or PP in predicate position following the subject NP. Again, we see the subject NPs bounded by their determiner and followed by either an NP or PP.

APs, NPs, and PPs act as non-verbal predicates in Indonesian just as they do in English. In English, these would be preceded by a linking verb, but the linking verb is absent in Indonesian. These facts are summarized in (14).


It is important to note that while a VP can have an NP or PP within it, it is ungrammatical to have a sentence that attempts to have both a verbal and a nonverbal predicate. Examples (13e-f) illustrate two ungrammatical sentences that attempt to combine mutually exclusive sentence structures. This ungrammaticality is comparable to attempting to have both a linking verb and main verb in the same sentence in English. For example:


a. *The boy was ran fast.
b. *The boy was ran in the house.

Both ungrammatical sentences (15a-b) attempt to combine a linking verb (not the same as a helping verb) and main verb.

Having thoroughly examined Indonesian grammar and having begun to explore the similarities between Indonesian and English, we can summarize our findings and further delve into the two languages’ overarching similarities. A side-by-side comparison of the grammar developed for each language is given in (16).


When examining these two grammars, there is a prominent difference in sentence variability; however, this difference is not as consequential as it may seem. The linking verb in English acts as an equal sign between a subject and a complementary constituent. Indonesian simply removes the realized equal sign is and essentially uses an invisible equal sign to show the connection between a subject and its nonverbal predicate.

Outside of this insignificant difference, there are vast similarities between English and Indonesian phrase structure. Both languages are S-V-O, a typology designation indicating that the relative ordering of the language goes subject, verb, direct object. In addition to being S-V-O, both languages are left-headed, meaning that the head of the phrase occurs as the leftmost element. These overarching similarities are compounded by the previously discussed similarities in the elements that make up the phrases of each language.

A deeper look into the phrase structure of both English and Indonesian reveals that these two languages are far more similar than a surface level reading of their sentences make them seem. This type of cross-analysis can be applied to compare any set of languages. Analyses like these allow linguists to analyze language on a holistic scale, giving critical insight into how our brains produce something as complex as language so efficiently. These findings bring truth to the idea that bahasa menarik, or in English, ‘language is fascinating.’


  1. Blust, R. The Austronesian Languages. (ANU Asia-Pacific Linguistics, 2013)
  2. Gamkrelidze, T & Ivanov, V. The early history of Indo-European languages. Scientific American 262, 110-117 (1990).
  3. Roberts, I & McGilvray, J. On the history of universal grammar. (2017).


[1] Gamkrelidze and Ivanov (1990)

[2] Blust (2013)

[3] Roberts and McGilvray (2017)

[4] Adjective phrases can have other elements within them; however, example adjective phrases in this essay will consist solely of an adjective.

Acknowledgements: I would like to express my sincere gratitude to Jonathan Crum for his invaluable guidance, suggestions, and encouragement throughout the course of this paper. Additionally, I would like to thank Dr. Vera Lee-Schoenfeld for her extraordinary teaching, as well as her continued support throughout the writing process.

Citation Style: Nature