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Past Tense in Indonesian

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Unlike English and some other languages, Indonesian does not use any verb conjugations to convey the past tense.

Past Tense in Indonesian
Featured article photo: Bali, Indonesia by Harry Kessell

One of the few things that pull people into learning Indonesian is that it is supposedly a simple language with no verb conjugations. This is true to some extent—there is no need to conjugate verbs into past or future tenses. So how would one talk about the past?

Here are three ways to do it!

1. Use Sudah

The simplest way to describe an action that has been completed is by adding the word sudah in front of a verb. In English, the word sudah is somewhat equivalent to the phrase "has already." For example:

  • Dia sudah tidur.
    = He has already slept.
  • Saya sudah minum teh.
    = I have already drunk the tea.

Notice how the word tidur (slept) and minum (drunk) are not conjugated at all. The word sudah makes all the difference here.

In the present tense, these are how the sentences will look like:

  • Dia tidur.
    = He sleeps.
  • Saya minum teh.
    = I drink tea.

2. Use the Time Words

The second way to talk about the past in Indonesian is by using time words to specify the time when something happened.

Take English for example—if someone were to say, "I sleep yesterday," instead of "I slept yesterday," you would still be able to understand that it is something that happened in the past even though the sentence is grammatically incorrect because the word "yesterday" is there, specifying that it happened yesterday.

In Indonesian, you would do the same thing. But you do not have to conjugate the verb, all you have to do is to specify the time when something happens to be grammatically correct. For example:

  • Dia tidur kemarin.
    = He/She slept yesterday.
  • Saya minum teh tadi pagi.
    = I drank tea this morning.
  • Kamu pergi ke mana minggu lalu?
    = Where did you go last week?

Again, the word tidur (slept), minum (drink), and pergi (go) are not conjugated and you would use them in the same way when you are talking about the present or the future.

So, other than the word sudah, to talk about the past in Indonesian, you only have to learn words that specify time like "yesterday, this morning, last week."

Convenient, right? No conjugation involved.

Let's go through some of these time words now.

  • Yesterday = Kemarin
  • This morning = Pagi ini / Tadi pagi
  • This afternoon = Siang ini / Tadi siang
  • This evening / Tonight = Malam ini / Tadi malam
  • Yesterday morning = Kemarin pagi
  • Yesterday afternoon = Kemarin siang
  • Yesterday evening / Last night = Kemarin malam
  • Last week = Minggu lalu
  • Last month = Bulan lalu
  • Last year = Tahun lalu
  • ... seconds ago = ... detik yang lalu
  • ... minutes ago = ... menit yang lalu
  • ... hours ago = ... jam yang lalu
  • ... days ago = ... hari yang lalu
    e.g. Two days ago = Dua hari yang lalu
  • ... nights ago = ... malam yang lalu
    e.g. Three nights ago = Tiga malam yang lalu
  • ... weeks ago = ... minggu yang lalu
  • ... months ago = ... bulan yang lalu
  • ... years ago = ... tahun yang lalu

3. Use Both Sudah and the Time Words

In the third method, you can essentially combine sudah and the use of time words in the same sentence! For example:

  • Dia sudah tidur kemarin.
    = He/She has already slept yesterday.
  • Saya sudah minum teh tadi pagi.
    = I have already drunk tea this morning.

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