Malay language

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Bahasa Melayu
بهاس ملايو
Native to
Native speakers
77 million (2007)[2]
Total: 200–250 million (2009)[3]
Early forms
Standard forms
Latin (Malay alphabet)
Arabic script (Jawi alphabet)[4]

Thai alphabet (in Thailand)

Historically Pallava alphabet, Kawi alphabet, Rencong alphabet
Manually Coded Malay
Sistem Isyarat Bahasa Indonesia
Official status
Official language in
Cocos (Keeling) Islands (de jure)
Recognised minority
language in
(Local Malay enjoys the status of a regional language in Sumatra apart from the national standard of Indonesian)
Regulated by Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (Institute of Language and Literature);
Majlis Bahasa Brunei-Indonesia-Malaysia (Brunei–Indonesia–Malaysia Language Council – MABBIM) (a trilateral joint-venture)
Language codes
ISO 639-1 ms
ISO 639-2 may (B)
msa (T)
ISO 639-3 msainclusive code
Individual codes:
zlm – Malaysian Malay
zsm – Standard Malaysian
ind – Indonesian
lrt – Larantuka Malay ?
kxd – Brunei ?
meo – Kedah Malay ?
zmi – Minangkabau language
dup – Duano’ ?
jak – Jakun ?
orn – Orang Kanaq ?
ors – Orang Seletar ?
tmw – Temuan ?
Glottolog indo1326  (partial match)[5]
  Singapore and Brunei, where Standard Malay is an official language
  East Timor, where Indonesian is a working language
  Southern Thailand and the Cocos Isl., where other varieties of Malay are spoken
This article contains IPA phonetic symbols. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Unicode characters.

Malay (/məˈl/;[6] Malay: Bahasa Melayu; Jawi alphabet: بهاس ملايو) is a major language of the Austronesian family. It has an official status in Brunei, Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore. It is spoken by 270 million people[7] across the Strait of Malacca, including the coasts of the Malay Peninsula of Malaysia and the eastern coast of Sumatra in Indonesia, and has been established as a native language of part of western coastal Sarawak and West Kalimantan in Borneo.

As the Bahasa Kebangsaan or Bahasa Nasional (National Language) of several states, Standard Malay has various official names. In Singapore and Brunei it is called Bahasa Melayu (Malay language); in Malaysia, Bahasa Malaysia (Malaysian language); and in Indonesia, Bahasa Indonesia (Indonesian language) and is designated the Bahasa Persatuan/Pemersatu ("unifying language/lingua franca"). However, in areas of central to southern Sumatra where the language is indigenous, Indonesians refer to it as Bahasa Melayu and consider it one of their regional languages.

Standard Malay, also called Court Malay, was the literary standard of the pre-colonial Malacca and Johor Sultanates, and so the language is sometimes called Malacca, Johor, or Riau Malay (or various combinations of those names) to distinguish it from the various other Malayan languages. According to Ethnologue 16, several of the Malayan varieties they currently list as separate languages, including the Orang Asli varieties of Peninsular Malay, are so closely related to standard Malay that they may prove to be dialects. (These are listed with question marks in the infobox at right or on top (depending on device).) There are also several Malay trade and creole languages which are based on a lingua franca derived from Classical Malay, as well as Macassar Malay, which appears to be a mixed language.


Malay historical linguists agree on the likelihood of the Malay homeland being in western Borneo stretching to the Bruneian coast.[8] A form known as Proto-Malay language was spoken in Borneo at least by 1000 BCE and was, it has been argued, the ancestral language of all subsequent Malayan languages. Its ancestor, Proto-Malayo-Polynesian, a descendant of the Proto-Austronesian language, began to break up by at least 2000 BCE, possibly as a result of the southward expansion of Austronesian peoples into Maritime Southeast Asia from the island of Taiwan.[9]


The history of the Malay language can be divided into five periods: Old Malay, the Transitional Period, the Malacca Period (Classical Malay), Late Modern Malay, and modern Malay. It is not clear that Old Malay was actually the ancestor of Classical Malay, but this is thought to be quite possible.[10]

Old Malay was influenced by Sanskrit, the lingua franca of Hinduism and Buddhism. Sanskrit loanwords can be found in Old Malay vocabulary. The earliest known stone inscription in the Old Malay language was found in Sumatra, written in Pallava variant of Grantha script[11] and dates back to 7th century – known as Kedukan Bukit Inscription, it was discovered by the Dutchman M. Batenburg on 29 November 1920, at Kedukan Bukit, South Sumatra, on the banks of the River Tatang, a tributary of the River Musi. It is a small stone of 45 by 80 cm.

The earliest surviving manuscript in Malay is the Tanjong Tanah Law in post-Pallava characters. This 14th-century pre-Islamic legal text produced in the Adityavarman era (1345–1377) of the Dharmasraya Kingdom, a Hindu-Buddhist kingdom that arose after the end of Srivijayan rule in Sumatra. The laws were for the Kerinci people who today still live in the highlands of Sumatra.

From the island of Sumatra, the Malay language spread to the Malay Peninsula. The Malay language came into widespread use as the trade language of the Sultanate of Malacca (1402–1511). During this period, the Malay language developed rapidly under the influence of Islamic literature. The development changed the nature of the language with massive infusion of Arabic, Tamil, Hindi and Sanskrit vocabularies, called Classical Malay. Under the Sultanate of Malacca the language evolved into a form recognisable to speakers of modern Malay. When the court moved to establish the Johor Sultanate, it continued using the classical language; it has become so associated with Dutch Riau and British Johor that it is often assumed that the Malay of Riau is close to the classical language. However, there is no connection between Malaccan Malay as used on Riau and the Riau vernacular.[12]

One of the oldest surviving letters written in Malay is letters from Sultan Abu Hayat of Ternate, Maluku Islands in present-day Indonesia, dated around 1521–1522. The letter is addressed to the king of Portugal, following contact with Portuguese explorer Francisco Serrão.[13] The letters show sign of non-native usage. This is because the Ternateans were, and still are, using a completely different language as native language: the Ternate language, a West Papuan language. They use Malay only as lingua franca for inter-ethnic communications.[13]

Classification and related languages

Malay is a member of the Austronesian family of languages, which includes languages from Southeast Asia and the Pacific Ocean, with a smaller number in continental Asia. Malagasy, a geographic outlier spoken in Madagascar in the Indian Ocean, is also a member of this language family. Although each language of the family is mutually unintelligible, their similarities are rather striking. Many roots have come virtually unchanged from their common Austronesian ancestor. There are many cognates found in the languages' words for kinship, health, body parts and common animals. Numbers, especially, show remarkable similarities.

Within Austronesian, Malay is part of a cluster of numerous closely related forms of speech known as the Malay languages, which were spread across Malaya and the Indonesian archipelago by Malay traders from Sumatra. There is disagreement as to which varieties of speech popularly called "Malay" should be considered dialects of this language, and which should be classified as distinct Malay languages. The vernacular language of Brunei, Brunei Malay, for example, is not readily intelligible with the standard language, and the same is true with some varieties on the Malay Peninsula such as Kedah Malay. However, both Brunei and Kedah are quite close.[14]

The closest relatives of the Malay languages are those left behind on Sumatra, such as Minangkabau with 5.5 million speakers on the west coast.

Writing system

Malay is now written using the Latin script (Rumi), although an Arabic alphabet called Arab-Melayu or Jawi also exists. Rumi is official in Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia.

Rumi and Jawi are co-official in Brunei only. Names of institutions and organisations have to use Jawi and Rumi (Latin) scripts. Jawi being use fully in school especially the Religious School, Sekolah Ugama, which is compulsory during the afternoon for Muslim students age from 6 - 7 until age 12 - 14.

Efforts are currently being undertaken to preserve Jawi in rural areas of Malaysia, and students taking Malay language examinations in Malaysia have the option of answering questions using Jawi.

The Latin script, however, is the most commonly used in Brunei and Malaysia, both for official and informal purposes.

Historically, Malay has been written using various scripts. Before the introduction of Arabic script in the Malay region, Malay was written using Pallava, Kawi and Rencong script and these are still in use today by the Champa in Vietnam and Cambodia. Old Malay was written using Pallava and Kawi script, as evident from several inscription stones in the Malay region. Starting from the era of kingdom of Pasai and throughout the golden age of the Sultanate of Malacca, Jawi gradually replaced these scripts as the most commonly used script in the Malay region. Starting from the 17th century, under Dutch and British influence, Jawi was gradually replaced by the Rumi script.[15]

Extent of use

File:Koc Wanita.jpg
Koc Wanita street sign in Malay.

Malay is spoken in Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore, Indonesia, parts of Thailand[16] and southern Philippines. Indonesia and Brunei have their own standards, Malaysia and Singapore use the same standard.[17] The extent to which Malay is used in these countries varies depending on historical and cultural circumstances. Malay is the national language in Malaysia by Article 152 of the Constitution of Malaysia, and became the sole official language in West Malaysia in 1968, and in East Malaysia gradually from 1974. English continues, however, to be widely used in professional and commercial fields and in the superior courts. Other minority languages are also commonly used by the country's large ethnic minorities. The situation in Brunei is similar to that of Malaysia. In the Philippines, Malay is spoken by a minority of the Muslim population residing in Mindanao (specifically the Zamboanga Peninsula) and the Sulu Archipelago. However, they mostly speak it in a form of creole resembling Sabah Malay. Historically, it was the language of the archipelago prior to Spanish occupation. Indonesian is spoken by the overseas Indonesian community in Davao City, and functional phrases are taught to members of the Philippine Armed Forces and to students.


Malay, like most Austronesian languages, is not a tonal language.


The consonants of Malaysian[18] and also Indonesian[19] are shown below. Non-native consonants that only occur in borrowed words, principally from Arabic and English, are shown in brackets.

Malay consonant phonemes
Labial Alveolar Palatal Velar Glottal
Nasal m n ɲ ŋ
Plosive/Affricate voiceless p t t͡ʃ k (ʔ)
voiced b d d͡ʒ ɡ
Fricative voiceless (f) s (ʃ) (x) h
voiced (v) (z)
Approximant central j w
lateral l
Trill r

Orthographic note: The sounds are represented orthographically by their symbols as above, except:

  • /ɲ/ is 'ny'
  • /ŋ/ is 'ng'
  • the glottal stop /ʔ/ is final 'k' or an apostrophe '
  • // is 'c'
  • // is 'j'
  • /ʃ/ is 'sy'
  • /x/ is 'kh'
  • /j/ is 'y'

Loans from Arabic:

  • Phonemes which occur only in Arabic loans may be pronounced distinctly by speakers who know Arabic. Otherwise they tend to be replaced with native sounds.
Table of borrowed Arabic consonants
Distinct Assimilated Example
/x/ /k/, /h/ khabar, kabar "news"
/ð/ /d/, /l/ redha, rela "good will"
/zˁ/ /l/, /z/ lohor, zuhur "noon (prayer)"
/ɣ/ /ɡ/, /r/ ghaib, raib "hidden"
/ʕ/[citation needed] /ʔ/ saat, sa'at "second (time)"


Malay originally had four vowels, but in many dialects today, including Standard Malay, it has six.[18] The vowels /e, o/ are much less common than the other four.

Table of vowel phonemes of Standard Malay
Front Central Back
Close i u
Mid e ə o
Open a

Orthographic note: both /e/ and /ə/ are written as 'e'. This means that there are some homographs, so perang can be either /peraŋ/ ("blond") or /pəraŋ/ ("war").

Some analyses regard /ai, au, oi/ as diphthongs.[20][21] However, [ai] and [au] can only occur in open syllables, such as cukai ("tax") and pulau ("island"). Words with a phonetic diphthong in a closed syllable, such as baik ("good") and laut ("sea"), are actually two syllables. An alternative analysis therefore treats the phonetic diphthongs [ai], [au] and [oi] as a sequence of a monophthong plus an approximant: /aj/, /aw/ and /oj/ respectively.[22]

There is a rule of vowel harmony: the non-open vowels /i, e, u, o/ in bisyllabic words must agree in height, so hidung ("nose") is allowed but *hedung is not.[23]


Malay is an agglutinative language, and new words are formed by three methods: attaching affixes onto a root word (affixation), formation of a compound word (composition), or repetition of words or portions of words (reduplication). Nouns and verbs may be basic roots, but frequently they are derived from other words by means of prefixes, suffixes and circumfixes.

Malay does not make use of grammatical gender, and there are only a few words that use natural gender; the same word is used for he and she or for his and her. There is no grammatical plural in Malay either; thus orang may mean either "person" or "people". Verbs are not inflected for person or number, and they are not marked for tense; tense is instead denoted by time adverbs (such as "yesterday") or by other tense indicators, such as sudah "already" and belum "not yet". On the other hand, there is a complex system of verb affixes to render nuances of meaning and to denote voice or intentional and accidental moods.

Malay does not have a grammatical subject in the sense that English does. In intransitive clauses, the noun comes before the verb. When there is both an agent and an object, these are separated by the verb (OVA or AVO), with the difference encoded in the voice of the verb. OVA, commonly but inaccurately called "passive", is the basic and most common word order.[citation needed]

Borrowed words

The Malay language has many words borrowed from Arabic (mainly religious terms), Sanskrit, Tamil, Persian, Portuguese, Dutch, certain Chinese dialects and more recently, English (in particular many scientific and technological terms).


Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

English Indonesian Language Malaysian Language
Universal Declaration of Human Rights Pernyataan Umum tentang Hak Asasi Manusia Perisytiharan Hak Asasi Manusia sejagat
Article 1 Pasal 1 Perkara 1
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood. Semua orang dilahirkan merdeka dan mempunyai martabat dan hak-hak yang sama. Mereka dikaruniai akal dan hati nurani dan hendaknya bergaul satu sama lain dalam semangat persaudaraan. Semua manusia dilahirkan bebas dan sama rata dari segi maruah dan hak-hak. Mereka mempunyai pemikiran dan perasaan hati dan hendaklah bergaul dengan semangat persaudaraan.

Basic phrases in Malay

In Malaysia and Indonesia, to greet somebody with "Selamat pagi" or "Selamat sejahtera" would be considered very formal, and the borrowed word "Hi" would be more usual among friends; similarly "Bye-bye" is often used when taking one's leave. However, if you're a Muslim and the Malay person you're talking to is also a Muslim, it would be more appropriate to use the Islamic greeting of ' Assalamualaikum '. Muslim Malays, especially in Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei, rarely use ' Selamat Pagi ' (Good Morning), 'Selamat Siang' (Good "Early" Afternoon), ' Selamat Petang ' or ' Selamat Sore ' as widely used in Indonesia (Good "Late" Afternoon), ' Selamat Malam ' (Good Evening / Night) or 'Selamat Tinggal / Jalan ' (Good Bye) when talking to one another.

Malay Phrase IPA English Translation
Selamat datang /səlamat dataŋ/ Welcome (Used as a greeting)
Selamat jalan /səlamat dʒalan/ Have a safe journey (equivalent to "goodbye", used by the party staying)
Selamat tinggal /səlamat tiŋɡal/ Have a safe stay (equivalent to "goodbye", used by the party leaving)
Terima kasih /tərima kasih/ Thank you
Sama-sama /samə samə/ You are welcome (in Malaysian is spelled "samə-samə", as in a response to Thank You, etc.)
Selamat pagi /səlamat paɡi/ Good morning
Selamat petang /səlamat pətaŋ/ Good afternoon/evening (note that 'Selamat petang' must not be used at night as in English. For a general greeting, use 'Selamat sejahtera')
Selamat sejahtera /səlamat sədʒahtərə/ Greetings (formal). This greeting is rarely used however, and would be unheard of, especially in Singapore. Its usage might be awkward for the receiver. But it is still used in schools, as a greeting between students and teachers.
Selamat malam /səlamat malam/ Good night
Jumpa lagi See you again
Siapakah nama awak/kamu?/Nama kamu siapa? What is your name?
Nama saya ... My name is ... (Followed immediately by the name: for example, if one's name was Munirah, then one would introduce oneself by saying "Nama saya Munirah", which translates to "My name is Munirah".)
Apa khabar/kabar? How are you? / What's up? (literally, "What news?")
Khabar/kabar baik Fine, good news
Saya sakit I'm sick
Ya /jə/ Yes
Tidak ("tak" colloquially) No
Ibu (Saya) sayang engkau/kamu (awak) I love you (In a more of a family or affectionate sort of love, e.g.: mother to daughter, the Mother addresses herself as "Ibu" (mother) or "Emak" (mother) instead of "Saya" (I). The mother also uses the informal "engkau" instead of "awak" for "you".) Generally amongst ethnic Malays "engkau" is considered a coarse way of referring to someone and would never be used to refer to one's mother whereas it is appropriate for a mother to refer to her child as "engkau".
Aku (Saya) cinta pada mu (awak) I love you (romantic love. In romantic situation, use informal "Aku" instead of "Saya" for "I". And "Kamu" or just "Mu" for "You". In romance, in immediate family communication and in songs, informal pronouns are used). In Malay language, appropriate personal pronouns must be used depending on (1) whether the situation is formal or informal, (2) the social status of the people around the speaker and (3) the relationship of the speaker with the person spoken to and/or with people around the speaker. For learners of Malay language, it is advised that they stick to formal personal pronouns when speaking Malay to Malays and Indonesians. The speaker risks being considered as rude if they use informal personal pronouns in inappropriate situations.
Saya benci awak/kamu I hate you
Saya tidak faham/paham (or simply "tak faham" colloquially) I do not understand (or simply "don't understand" colloquially)
Saya tidak tahu (or "tak tau" colloquially or "sik tau" in Sarawak) I do not know (or "don't know" colloquially)
(Minta) maaf I apologise ('minta' is to request i.e. "do forgive")
Tumpang/numpang tanya "May I ask...?" (used when trying to ask something)
(Minta) tolong Please help (me) ('Tolong!' on its own just means "help")
Apa What
Tiada/tidak ada Nothing, none

See also


  1. Influences come mostly from Indonesian
  2. Mikael Parkvall, "Världens 100 största språk 2007" (The World's 100 Largest Languages in 2007), in Nationalencyklopedin
  3. Uli, Kozok (10 March 2012). "How many people speak Indonesian". University of Hawaii at Manoa. Retrieved 20 October 2012. James T. Collins (Bahasa Sanskerta dan Bahasa Melayu, Jakarta: KPG 2009) gives a conservative estimate of approximately 200 million, and a maximum estimate of 250 million speakers of Malay (Collins 2009, p. 17).<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. "Kedah MB defends use of Jawi on signboards". The Star. 26 August 2008.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. Nordhoff, Sebastian; Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin, eds. (2013). "Indonesian Archipelago Malay". Glottolog. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. Laurie Bauer, 2007, The Linguistics Student’s Handbook, Edinburgh
  7. 10 million in Malaysia, 5 million in Indonesia as "Malay" plus 230 million as "Indonesian", etc.
  8. K. Alexander Adelaar, "Where does Malay come from? Twenty years of discussions about homeland, migrations and classifications", Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde, 160 (2004), No. 1, Leiden, pp. 1-30
  9. Andaya, Leonard Y (2001), "The Search for the 'Origins' of Melayu" (PDF), Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, 32 (3), University of Singapore<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. Wurm, Mühlhäusler, & Tryon, Atlas of languages of intercultural communication in the Pacific, Asia and the Americas, 1996:677
  11. "Bahasa Melayu Kuno". 15 September 2007. Retrieved 22 December 2010.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  12. Sneddon 2003, "The Indonesian Language: Its History and Role in Modern Society", p. 70
  13. 13.0 13.1 Sneddon, James N. (2003). The Indonesian language: its history and role in modern society. UNSW Press. p. 62. ISBN 9780868405988.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  14. Ethnologue 16 classifies them as distinct languages, iso3 kxd and meo, but states that they "are so closely related that they may one day be included as dialects of Malay".
  15. Malay (Bahasa Melayu). Retrieved 30 August 2008.
  16. "Malay Can Be 'Language Of Asean' | Local News". 24 October 2010. Retrieved 22 December 2010.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  17. Salleh, Haji (2008). An introduction to modern Malaysian literature. Kuala Lumpur: Institut Terjemahan Negara Malaysia Berhad. pp. xvi. ISBN 978-983-068-307-2.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  18. 18.0 18.1 Clynes, A., & Deterding, D. (2011). Standard Malay (Brunei). Journal of the International Phonetic Association, 41, 259–268. On-line Version
  19. Soderberg, C. D., & K. S. Olson. 2008. Indonesian. Journal of the International Phonetic Association, 38, 209–213.
  20. Asmah Hj Omar (1985). Susur galur bahasa Melayu. Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka.
  21. Zaharani Ahmad (1993). Fonologi generatif: Teori dan penerapan. Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka.
  22. Clynes, A. (1997). On the Proto-Austronesian ‘diphthongs’. Oceanic Linguistics, 36, 347–362.
  23. Adelaar, K. A. (1992). Proto Malayic: The reconstruction of its phonology and parts of its lexicon and morphology. Canberra: Pacific Linguistics.

Further reading

  • Adelaar, K., "Where does Malay come from? Twenty years of discussions about homeland, migrations and classifications", Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde 160 (2004), no: 1, Leiden, 1-30
  • Edwards, E. D., and C. O. Blagden. 1931. “A Chinese Vocabulary of Malacca Malay Words and Phrases Collected Between A. D. 1403 and 1511 (?)”. Bulletin of the School of Oriental Studies, University of London 6 (3). [Cambridge University Press, School of Oriental and African Studies]: 715–49.
  • C. O. B.. 1939. “Corrigenda and Addenda: A Chinese Vocabulary of Malacca Malay Words and Phrases Collected Between A. D. 1403 and 1511 (?)”. Bulletin of the School of Oriental Studies, University of London 10 (1). Cambridge University Press.
  • Vladimir Braginsky (18 March 2014). Classical Civilizations of South-East Asia. Routledge. pp. 366–. ISBN 978-1-136-84879-7.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links

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