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I am starting to study indonesian, and every manual/grammar that I consulted so far (and even the teacher of our course and some youtubers who teach the language) insist that indonesian has five vowels, a,e,i,o,u. However, I know that it has at least six (maybe more?), it only so happens that /e/ and the schwa are written the same.

  1. Are these sounds allophones in indonesian?
  2. Is there any way to predict which "e"'s are gonna be read as /e/ and which ones are schwas? (for instance, kecil has a schwa, but leher has /e/'s, and in general I didn´t identify any pattern).
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    Even Wikipedia says there are six vowels (plus some marginal phonemes like /ε/, /ɔ/ and /ɘ ~ i̵/). Are you sure you’re not reading descriptions of the writing system, which has five vowel letters? Apr 10 at 12:01

2 Answers 2

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The Indonesian language has six vowel phonemes, /i/, /u/, /e/, /ə/, /o/, /a/, but only five vowel letters, <a>, <e>, <i>, <o>, <u>, the letter <e> stands for both /e/ and /ə/.

The phoneme /ə/ has its own name, pepet /pəpət/ “blocked”, derived from the name of the Javanese script diacritical mark used to write this sound. The majority of the letters <e> in a typical Indonesian text are read as /ə/, the sound /e/ is very rare and normally it is found in the words borrowed from other languages, mostly from Javanese and European languages, but mind, there are lots of /ə/ in borrowings, too. If marked explicitly, pepet is usually marked with a circumflex as <ê>, /e/ with an acute as <é>, but as a rule in the dictionaries, grammars, and textbooks of Indonesian the pepets remain unmarked and only /e/ is marked as <é> since it is rather rare, as I've already said.

As for the distribution and learning, it's not that difficult as it may seem, you only need to watch for /e/ and note well the words where it is found, by default an <e> is /ə/. In European borrowings the distribution of /e/ and /ə/ is not fully predictable, except for <e> in the penultimate (second from the end) syllable which is considered “stressed” and thus its <e> is usually /e/, but not always, e.g. meja (from Portuguese/Spanish ‘mesa’) /medʒa/ “table”, but selai (from Portuguese “geleia”) /səˈlai̯/ “jam” — as you can see, neither the distribution of /e/ and /ə/ is really consistent nor European borrowings into Indonesian are easily recognizable, not to speak about those from Javanese and other Asian languages. Alas, there's no pattern!..

Also note that no Indonesian affix contains /e/. The Indonesian affixes can contain only /ə/, /a/, and /i/. From among the 11 Indonesian prefixes 9 contain e-pepet:

ber-, bersi-, ke-, meN-, pe-, peN-, per-, se-, ter-

Of the 4 Indonesian infixes 3 contain e-pepet:

-el-, -em-, -er-

And one borrowed suffix, -isme, also has e-pepet: terorisme /terorismə/.

While studying Indonesian, be sure to use a dictionary and look up every word with the letter <e> in the root so as to see if it's a pepet or /e/. A good dictionary of Indonesian distinguishes between /ə/ and /e/, either by giving an explicit transcription and/or an audio recording as Wiktionary does or by marking /e/ with an acute diacritic, the following image is from A Comprehensive Indonesian-English Dictionary, 2nd ed., 2010, Ohio University Press, by Alan M. Stevens and A. Ed. Schmidgall-Tellings. Note the etymological marks after the words, D is for Dutch, E for English, J for Jakartan Malay a.k.a. Betawi, Jv for Javanese, Skr for Sanskrit:

enter image description here

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The sources I'm reading all say there are six vowels including schwa. For example:

https://www.jstor.org/stable/27863619

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