Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Semantics Case: Ambiguity Occurs in Indonesian Used in the Daily Conversation

Azys Syaiful Anwar

A. Introduction

Semantics is the study of meaning in language (Hurford and Heasley, 1983:1). Meanwhile, the meaning of ‘meaning’ is a word of the ordinary everyday vocabulary (Lyon, 1977: 4). Moreover, Andrew Moore in said that Semantics knowledge is essential to the study of language acquisition. The way language users acquire a sense of meaning regarding users’ status (as speakers and writers, listeners and readers). Besides, it is also significant to the study language change. It is important for understanding language in social contexts, as these are likely to affect meaning, and for understanding varieties of English and effects of style. It is thus one of the most fundamental concepts in linguistics. The study of semantics includes the study of how meaning is constructed, interpreted, clarified, obscured, illustrated, simplified negotiated, contradicted and paraphrased (Moore, 2000).

Semantics is needed to avoid the misunderstanding or mislead in acquiring a word. Besides, semantics also support the skill of encoding and decoding meaning. Meaning is not only derived from words or sentences but also from symbol, gesture or some action. Each person has different interpretation in defining meaning. Hurford and Heasley in their book, Semantics: A Course Book distinct the term of what speakers mean and what words (or sentence) mean. Speaker meaning is what aspeaker means (i.e. intends to convey) when he uses piece of language. Meanwhile, Sentence (or word meaning) is what a sentence (or word) means, i.e. what it counts as the equivalent of in the language concerned. The distinction is useful in analyzing the various kinds of communication between people made possible by language (Hurford and Heasley , 1983: 3).

Semantics which is a part of the study of linguistics are important for the language user. Everyone willing to study or use language, for example: Indonesian, English or Javanese need to consider their ability in semantics. By obtaining the knowledge of Semantics, language user must be able to apply the target language in their daily conversation. For example in learning Indonesian, people need to study not only the literal meaning of a sentence but also need to analyze the aspect of this sentence to obtain a better understanding. Besides, language user has to consider the external factor influencing languages, for example: culture, situation and technology. In simple words, language user needs to think about the context of language.

In Indonesia, there are many people with different tribes. Although there is an official language of Indonesia, each people will apply Indonesian in different ways. For example: a person from Jakarta and Central Java will be different in using Indonesian. The differences may include the way sentences pronounced, the diction used in the sentences and the dialect of the speaker. It means that Indonesian is influenced by cultural factor.

Since the ‘Sumpah Pemuda’ event in October 28th, 1928, Indonesian was confessed as the unitary language that can be used as a connector in the communication between many tribes in Indonesia. During the Dutch colonialism, Indonesian was influenced some Dutch including the formal spelling and vocabulary. Only the educated people who are able to write or read some sentence and master Indonesian well even they also master Dutch. In the progress, Indonesian becomes a tool to chase the freedom. Indonesian music composer, W.R. Supratman for the first time creates a song which can be a motivation for Indonesian. Nowadays, this song becomes Indonesian nationality song.

Regarding to its historical background, Indonesian is spoken even before the Indonesian Independence Day. Recently, Indonesian is considered to experience changes than it is first time established. There is not only Dutch influenced Indonesian but also other foreign languages, such as English, French and some traditional language existing in Indonesia. This factor has big effect to the form of Indonesian used in the daily conversation.

In the everyday communication, people use two kinds of Indonesian; they are formal and informal languages. Formal languages refer to polite and grammatically constructed languages. It may be used in an institution or it is used when people need to talk to the older person. This is intended to express their respect to the others. Meanwhile, informal language is the language used in informal situation. Using informal language, people will feel more comfortable to communicate with his friends. They do not need to consider about grammatical construction of a sentence. They just freely express their mind.

B. Discussion

1. Language Ambiguity

Human is a perfect creature having a complex communication system. In addition, people have more organs of speech which support their communication skill, for example: ear, mouth, brain and tongue. One of communication tools which are used by human to communicate is language. Moreover, language helps people to convey what they want to tell to the other people. People can express their mind using verbal or nonverbal language. In the process of language recognition, people need to encode what they mean to do to be an action, including using spoken or written media and gesture. Considering the usage frequency, spoken language may often be used in the daily live. However, it is also important to reveal the daily language and its components.

People must be involved in their own business every day. Each person has different activities. However, people must make time to get along with their friends. Besides, people are also a part of society because people are also a social creature which cannot live independently. As a result, they need to keep communicate with their society. In the other word, they have daily conversation using daily languages. Daily languages in this term refer to verbal or nonverbal languages, spoken or written languages, etc. Language is a complex system of human communication skill. In the spoken language, people produce some words through a complex language production process. It is involving the process of encoding and decoding meaning. Moreover, people are able to produce words to express what they mean.

People have ability to distinct the proper language used in certain occasion. In a formal situation, people have to use a polite and formal language. Meanwhile, people may use colloquial or informal language in the relax situation. Therefore, people feel comfort in communicating to the other people. However, the sense of polite of a language depends on some factor, such as culture, religion, and situation. People need to consider this matter before they start to produce a language. In Indonesia, there are some unwritten laws ruled in society. One of them is regulate the norm of speaking. People are not allowed to speak a rude or a negative statement related to the other religions and tribes.

Recently, there are some changes in language which are often used in the community. There are many factors which influenced this, for example: the progress in technology, culture, and lifestyle. In some cases, these factors may improve the value of a language or decrease its value. It means that language consists of some values which can be classified as a rude or impolite and polite. In Indonesian, The word ‘anjing’, for example, will be considered has an impolite value, if it is applied to mock someone. It has different meaning or in simple explanation it cannot be understood as its literal meaning. It will be clearer if the word ‘anjing’ is applied in these following sentences:

1. “Anjing, bego lu ya!”

2. “Anjing itu berbulu hitam.”

‘Anjing’ has two different meanings which lead to the sense of ambiguity. The literal meaning of ‘anjing’ is an animal (dog) and the contextual meaning of ‘anjing’ in the first sentence refers to a rude word, such as ‘bastard’ or ‘son of a bitch’.

According to Merriam Webster online dictionary ambiguity means the quality or state of being ambiguous especially in meaning, an ambiguous word or expression and uncertainty ( According to Hurford and Heasley, A word or sentence is ambiguous when it has more than one sense. A sentence is ambiguous if it has two (or more) paraphrases which are not themselves paraphrases of each other (Hurford and Heasley, 1983: 121). Considering this definition, ambiguity causes confusion in understanding the meaning of sentences. Beside, an ambiguous sentence must not a good sentence and not well-constructed. In addition, only the reader or listener will suffer an ambiguity. Most of speaker or writer may not aware if they have told or wrote ambiguous sentences. For example: ‘’Sopir membiarkan para penumpang naik dan turun di tengah jalan raya karena ketidakdisiplinnya.’’ (The driver lets the passenger to get down in inappropriate places because of his indiscipline attitude). This is classified as an ambiguous sentence because it does not have a clear meaning. Who has indiscipline attitude? Is it the driver or the passenger?

2. Various Kinds of Ambiguity

Andrew Moore in said that ambiguity occurs when a language element has more than one meaning. If the ambiguity is in a single word it is lexical ambiguity. If in a sentence or clause, it is grammatical or structural ambiguity (Moore: 2000). Moreover, A sentence which is ambiguous because its words relate to each other in different ways, even though none of the individual ambiguous, is structurally (or grammatically) ambiguous. Meanwhile, any ambiguity resulting from the ambiguity of a word is a lexical ambiguity (Hurford and Heasley, 1983:128).

Grammatical ambiguity often occurs in spoken or written languages and it appears in the process of encoding one of language units whether in the term of morphology, word, sentence, phrase, and paragraph or discourse. In addition, Morphological process may result in Ambiguity (Wijana and Rohmadi, 2008). Related to the morphological condition, for example, the changing of the word ‘bunuh’ to be ‘pembunuh’ may result in an ambiguity case. There are double meanings of the word ‘pembunuh’. The first one refers to someone who kills someone else and the second meaning is related to a tool which can be use to kill (for example: gun). The ambiguous word which is caused by morphologically process will automatically disappears when it is used in the right sentences, for example: (1) “Harjo adalah pembunuh berdarah dingin; (2) “Pestisida merupakan pembunuh serangga yang ampuh.”

The other kind of ambiguity is lexical ambiguity. This an ambiguity which is caused by a word of a sentences, for example: (1) “Keadaan kian ramai ketika para demonstran mulai bertindak anarkis”; (2) “Solo Grand Mall ramai dikunjungi pada hari libur.”. The word ‘ramai’ in both sentences has different meaning depending to its contextual meaning. Besides, there is also Phonetic Ambiguity which mostly happens in the spoken language. It may occur when someone speak too fast then resulted in the misunderstanding the sentences. Besides, it can be caused by homophone, synonymy or homonym.


Hurford, James R and Heasley, Breendan. 1983. Semantics: A Course Book. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Lyon, John.1977. Semantics. New York: Cambridge University Press

Wijana, I Dewa Putu and Rohmadi, Muhamad. 2008. Semantik Teori dan Analisa. Surakarta: Yama Pustaka browsed on December, 30th 2008 at 11: 57 p.m. browsed on January, 5th 2008 at 07: 57 a.m.


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