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  • Spencer Low

More Portuguese traces in Indonesia

Updated: Oct 29, 2023

I'm on a family vacation this week in Java, Indonesia, and have been looking for more signs of Portuguese influence to build on my earlier posts on Bali and Celebes. Sure enough, new traces weren't hard to find...

During a drive along a major intercity road, I noticed that the roadside stalls selling pineapples advertised their wares with the word nanas. This is the Indonesian, and also Malay, word for the fruit that is native to South America. No surprise that it was introduced by the Portuguese to India and Java in the 16th century, along with the name of the fruit in Tupi, the language of an indigenous people in Brazil. Interestingly, pineapple in French is also the same word as in European Portuguese, namely ananás (but without the accent), while confusingly Brazilian Portuguese today uses another Tupi word: abacaxi.

Another common fruit in Indonesia is the mangga, no translation required. In an earlier post of the 'king of fruits', I'd shared information from my research that the Portuguese word manga was borrowed from the Tamil மாங்காய் (māṅkāy), potentially via the Malay mangga. However, the Malay Wikipedia page for the fruit records that the word mangga was introduced via the Portuguese with the older Austronesian word being pauh, still used in literary language in Malay while in Javanese the fruit is also called poh. Not possible to be conclusive about the how the word mangga was transmitted, but it shows that the Portuguese influence is so old it's almost lost in time.

An Indonesian "bolu" and a slice of "mangga" pudding.

What is highly conclusive is the Indonesian word bolu for a wide variety of cupcakes and sponge cakes. This is a phonetically accurate borrowing from the Portuguese bolo, meaning cake, but most Indonesians will tell you that what the word refers to is very much local!

Modern Indonesian shares essentially the same basic vocabulary as Malay, and there are many more words introduced from the Portuguese language as a result of Portugal's control of Malacca for 130 years from 1511 to 1641. Here's a list of them: Malay words of Portuguese origin

I did get excited by another word that seemed to me all too clearly to have come from the Portuguese: coco de nata. A type of jelly used in desserts that's made from fermented coconut water, the name literally means "coconut cream" in Portuguese. However, the etymological distinction goes to the Spanish language, in which the same words are identical. Nata de coco turns out to have been a Filipino innovation and was given its name based on the other Iberian language...

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