An insatiable appetite for ancient and modern tongues

Alternative Names: Malaysian, Indonesian, Bahasa Melayu, Bahasa Indonesia.

Classification: Austronesian, Western Malayo-Polynesian, Malayic. Other members of the Malayic subgroup include Minangkabau in central Sumatra, Kerinci in inland Sumatra, Banjar in Kalimantan and Iban in western Sarawak and western Kalimantan.

Overview. Malay has been employed for centuries as a lingua franca in peninsular and insular Southeast Asia, and in the 20th century it has become the national language of Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei and Singapore playing a unifying role in an area of great linguistic diversity. It is the oldest recorded Austronesian language and has developed an extensive literature.

    The origin of Malay is linked to the south Sumatran kingdom of Jambi and the historical city of Palembang from which it spread to peninsular Malaysia, Borneo, Java and beyond. Some scholars think that Malay roots lie in western Borneo from where migrants would have left for Sumatra two-thousand years ago. Malay has a composite lexicon, having incorporated many foreign words from a variety of sources, and a simple grammar in which affixation, reduplication and compounding are used to convey grammatical information and to create new words.

Distribution. It is spoken in Malaysia and in the neighboring Thai province of Patani, in Indonesia, Brunei and Singapore (see Austronesian map). In Indonesia is used as a lingua franca all over the country but as a mother tongue mainly in Sumatra and coastal areas of Kalimantan.

Speakers. Malay has more than 250 million first and second language speakers. May be 50 million are native speakers. This figure is rapidly increasing, as more and more people in Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei are shifting from their ancestral languages to Malay. In Indonesia it is spoken by 33 million, in Malaysia by 15 million, in Thailand by 1 million, in Singapore by 450,000, and in Brunei by 350,000.

Status. Malay is the national language of four countries: Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei and Singapore.

    In Indonesia, Bahasa Indonesia was declared the national language in 1928, and in 1945 with the independence of the country it became the only official language of the republic.

    In  Malaysia, Bahasa Melayu was proclaimed as the national language when the country became independent in 1957. Besides, it is one of the two official languages of the country; the other is English which is the language of instruction in universities.

  In Brunei, Bahasa Melayu is the only official language but English is preferred for higher education.

    In Singapore, though Malay is spoken by only 15 % of the population, it is considered the national language and is along with Mandarin, English and Tamil an official language.


There are two Malay standard varieties which are also national languages, Malaysian (Bahasa Melayu) and Indonesian (Bahasa Indonesia), used in education, religion and the press. The varieties spoken in Brunei and Singapore are very close to Malaysian. The main difference between Bahasa Melayu and Bahasa Indonesia is lexical. The first one has more Arabic loanwords than the second while the second has been influenced by Javanese and the speech of Jakarta. Besides the standard forms, there are many others of difficult or impossible classification. They include the colloquial languages of the great cities; Bazaar Malay, the lingua franca of markets, and Baba Malay spoken by Chinese people in Malacca, Penang and Singapore.


7th-10th c. Old Malay. A heavily Sanskritized formal language attested by a number of inscriptions, written in a script borrowed from southern India.

14th-19th c. Classical Malay. Represented by many manuscripts containing chronicles, legends, letters, as well as religious and legal documents, written mostly in an Arabic-based script.

19th c.-present. Modern Malay. Modernization and standardization of the language coinciding with the adoption of  a Latin-based alphabet.

Oldest Documents. The earliest record of Malay is a group of seven inscriptions associated with the kingdom of Srivijaya written in Old Malay, between 682 and 686, found in southern Sumatra and on the nearby island of Bangka. They reveal the influence of Buddhism and Tantrism in the kingdom which had just conquered the hinterland of Sumatra and was about to attack Java. Later inscriptions, from the 8th-9th centuries, were discovered in Java and the Philippines revealing the early spread of Malay from its homeland.


Syllable structure. Consonant-initial syllables are preferred, the most common sequences are CV and CVC. Due mainly to the influx of loanwords, consonant clusters of up to three consonants may exist in initial and/or final position.

Vowels (6): Malay has six vowels of which two are articulated in the anterior part of the mouth, two in the middle, and two in the back. It has two diphthongs: ay and aw.


Consonants (19). Malay has stops articulated at five different places, being classified as labial, dental-alveolar, palatal, velar and glottal. The palatal stops are, in fact, affricates. Every series of stops (except glottal) has contrasting voiceless and voiced varieties. The stops b, d and g when at the end of a word are devoiced, being pronounced as p, t and k, respectively.


Stress: falls on the penultimate syllable, except when it contains e, falling then on the last.

Script and Orthography

The Old Malay inscriptions of Srivijaya (7th c.) were engraved in an alphabet derived from the Pallava script of South India.

The oldest Malay manuscript (14th c.) was written in a script similar to Kawi, the traditional Javanese script.

However, the majority of Classical Malay documents were written in Jawi, an Arabic-based script that is still used in southern Thailand.

From the 17th c. Rumi, a Latin-derived script, coexisted with Jawi. It was used, mostly, by Europeans while Jawi was used by the indigenous people. In 1972 the Malaysian and Indonesian varieties of the Rumi script were unified and standardized.

The Standard Malay alphabet contains 26 letters (their pronunciation is shown with the symbols of the International Phonetic Association):

the nasal palatal [ɲ] is written ny.

the nasal velar [ŋ] is written ng.

the glottal stop is not represented in the script.

q, f, v, x, and z are used only in loanwords.


Nouns and verbs have no inflections at all. Their morphology is based on affixing (prefixing, suffixing, circumfixing), reduplication (partial or total) and compounding.

  1. a) Nouns

  2. Malay has several noun classifiers that may be used when nouns are modified by a number though they are not obligatory. They are independent words placed before the noun and after the numeral. Only three are common: orang (‘person’) for humans, ékor (‘tail’) for animals, and buah (‘fruit’) for inanimate objects. Possession is indicated by juxtaposing two nouns, with the possessor following the possessed. Reduplication is used to form collective nouns. By compounding two nouns or a noun and adjective, new, unpredictable, meanings can be created.

  1. b) Adjectives

  2. Some of the affixes attached to adjectives are the same as those attached to verbs although they tend to function in different ways. Adjectives may be modified by adverbs of degree usually placed before them or sometimes after it. Superlatives are formed by adding the prefix ter- to an adjective or by placing the word paling (‘most’) before it. Comparatives are constructed by placing the word lebih (‘more’) before the adjective and daripada (‘than’) after it. Resemblance is expressed by prefixing the adjective with se- (‘as’) or by suffixing the adjective with -nya preceded by sama (‘same’).

  1. c) Pronouns

  2. Malay has a variety of personal pronouns whose use depends on the relative social status of the speakers and on the formality of the context like:

  1. 1st. singular aku (for equals and inferiors but also employed in literary Indonesian).

  2. 1st. plural kami (formal) and kita (informal).

  3. 2nd. singular/plural kamu (informal) and engkau/kau (literary).

  4. 3rd. singular dia (general) and ia (formal).

  5. 3rd. plural meréka (general).

  1. Instead of second and third person pronouns, titles, kinship terms or proper names are often preferred. There are two demonstratives, ini (‘this’) and itu (‘that’), which can be also used to indicate if somebody is present or absent. Interrogative pronouns include siapa (‘who?’), apa (‘what?’), mana (‘which?’), kapan (‘when?’), mengapa (‘why?’), bagaimana (‘how?’), and berapa (‘how much?’).

  1. d) Prepositions

  2. As there are no inflections in Malay, prepositions are essential to indicate syntactical relations. The main ones are: di (‘in, at’), ke (‘to’), dari (‘from’), atas (‘above, over’), bawah (‘below, under’), sebelah (‘next to’), keliling (‘around’), belakang (‘behind’), depan (‘in front of’), untuk (‘for’), dengan (‘with’), tanpa (‘without’).

  1. e) Verbs

  2. Most verbs are preceded by a verbal prefix expressing voice or intransitiveness: meng- for active voice, di- for passive voice, ber- for intransitiveness. In the passive voice the agent is not obligatory but when it is mentioned it may be underlined by the preposition oleh (‘by’).

  3. Ability, possibility and necessity might be expressed by an auxiliary verb preceding the verb. If there is a negative marker, the auxiliary is placed after it. The most common auxiliary verbs are: boleh (‘may, might’), dapat (‘can’), bisa (‘can’), mampu (‘able to’), harus (‘must’), perlu (‘need’), sempat (‘have occasion to’), suka (‘like to’).

  1. Tense is not obligatory expressed and can be inferred from the context, but there are optional temporal markers such as telah, sekarang and akan, which indicate past, present, and future events, respectively. Perfective aspect (a completed action) can be marked by sudah, and imperfective aspect (an uncompleted action) by sedang. The relative time of events is frequently indicated by employing tadi (‘earlier’) and nanti (‘later’). Affirmative imperative sentences are distinguished by intonation but negative imperatives are marked by the negator jangan.

  1. f) Adverbs

  2. Adverbs are placed after the verb. There are various ways of forming one, for instance, an unmodified adjective can function as an adverb. Alternatively, an adverb can be formed by reduplicating an adjective with, often, an intensifying effect. A third option is to place the preposition dengan (‘with’) before the simple or reduplicated adjective. More abstract adverbs are constructed by placing secara (‘in a manner’) before the adjective or by using the suffix nya.


    Basic word order is Subject-Verb-Object (SVO). In noun phrases, modifiers such as adjectives, demonstratives, and attributive nouns generally follow the head but  quantifiers usually precede it. The copulative verb (adalah) is usually omitted. Passive verb forms are frequent because of the preference for focusing on the object.

    The most general negation marker is bukan which can negate words, nominal phrases or entire sentences. To negate verbs tidak is the usual marker, though the imperative is negated by jangan. Yes-no questions are expressed by a change of intonation. For information questions, interrogative pronouns are used.


Malay has been exposed to many languages through its long history and has borrowed many words from different languages, some of them acquired via prestigious literatures, some through direct contact in a multilingual environment. About a third of all Malay content words are of foreign origin. The oldest loanwords come from Sanskrit followed chronologically by Arabic, Chinese, Persian, Portuguese, Dutch and English ones.

Basic Vocabulary

one: satu (clitic form se-)

two: dua

three: tiga

four: empat

five: lima

six: enam

seven: tujuh

eight: delapan 

nine: sembilan

ten: sepuluh

twenty: dua puluh

thirty: tiga puluh

one hundred: seratus

father: bapak, pak, ayah

mother: emak, mak, ibu, bu

brother/sister: saudara

older brother/sister: abang, kakak

younger brother/sister: adik

son/daughter: anak

head: kepala

face: muka

eye: mata

hand: tangan

foot: kaki

heart: jantung, teras, hati

tongue: lidah

Key Literary Works

  1. c. 1612    Sejarah Melayu (Malay Annals). Anonymous

  2. The canonical work of classical Malay literature, is a prose chronicle and panegyric of the Sultanate of Malacca founded around 1400. It traces Malay origins to Palembang and the kingdom of Srivijaya.

  3. Most of it is dedicated to the lives and activities of the Sultans and their relations with foreign powers providing a vivid description of the kingdom. Mythical and legendary figures coexist with historical ones. The original text was composed before 1536 but it was modified in 1612 by the Sultan orders.

  1. c. 1700    Hikayat Hang Tuah (The Epic of Hang Tuah). Anonymous

  2. Composed in the Sultanate of Johor, located in the south of Peninsular Malaysia, it relates the heroic deeds of the legendary Malay warrior Hang Tuah, the mythical origins of the ruling dynasty and "historical" events. Similar in style and content to the "Malay Annals", it also reflects the society of the court (etiquette, pastimes, rituals, beliefs and superstitions) and the inner workings of the government.

  1. 1849    Hikayat Abdullah. Munshi Abdullah

  2. It was the first work in the history of Malay literature wrote for commercial publishing. It is composed of many strands. One of the most prominent is the autobiographic telling about the author's youth and his relations with Europeans and Malays. Another, is made of his reflections about the Malay language. A third one, very important, is constituted by praises of western values and criticisms of Malay rulers and Malay society at large.

1980-88    Buru Quartet. Pramoedya Ananta Toer

  1. A series of four historical novels that the author wrote while imprisoned on Buru island by the Suharto regime between 1965-79. They are Bumi Manusia (This Earth of Mankind, 1980), Anak Semua Bangsa (Child of All Nations, 1980), Jejak Langkah (Footsteps, 1985), and Rumah Kaca (House of Glass, 1988). The story, set at the turn of the 19th century and early 20th century, depicts Javanese society under colonial rule and the rise of anti-colonial nationalism.

  1. © 2013 Alejandro Gutman and Beatriz Avanzati                                                                               

Further Reading

  1. -'Malay-Indonesian'. U. Tadmor. In The World’s Major Languages, 791-818. B. Comrie (ed). Routledge (2009).

  2. -Indonesian Reference Grammar. J. N. Sneddon. Allen & Unwin (2008).

  3. -An Indonesian and Malay Grammar for Students. M. W. Mintz. Indonesian/Malay Texts and Resources, Perth (2002).

  4. -The Indonesian Language: Its History and Role in Modern Society. J. Sneddon. University of New South Wales Press, Sydney (2003).

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