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About Malay Language

Malay is a group of languages closely related to each other to the point of mutual intelligibility but that linguists consider to be separate languages. They are grouped into a group called "Local Malay", part of a larger group called "Malayan" within the Malayo-Polynesian branch of the Austronesian language family. The various forms of Malay are spoken in Brunei, Indonesia (where the national language, Indonesian, is a variety of it), Malaysia, Singapore, Philippines, and southern Thailand.

Malay is the official language of Brunei and Malaysia. In Malaysia, the language is also called Bahasa Malaysia. Singapore, Brunei and southern Thailand refer to the language as Bahasa Melayu ("Malay language"). Malay is one of the national languages of Singapore. The national language of Indonesia, which was derived from Bahasa Malayu, is Indonesian, formally referred to as Bahasa Indonesia which literally translates as "Indonesian language". It is also called Bahasa Nasional (National Language) and Bahasa Persatuan/Pemersatu (Unifying Language) in Indonesia. In some regions of Sumatera, Indonesians refer to the Indonesian language as Bahasa Melayu. Indonesian is also used in East Timor, a consequence of more than 20 years of Indonesian administration and is now a "working language" of that country.


There are many hypotheses as to where the Malay language originated. One of these is that it came from Sumatra island. The oldest written documents in Malay, dated from the end of the 7th century AD, were found on Bangka Island, off the southeastern coast of Sumatra and in Palembang in southern Sumatra. "Malayu" was the name of an old kingdom located in Jambi province in eastern Sumatra. It was known in ancient Chinese texts as "Mo-lo-yo" and mentioned in the Nagarakertagama, an old Javanese epic written in 1365, as one of the "tributary states" of the Majapahit kingdom in eastern Java.

The use of Malay throughout insular and peninsular Southeast Asia is linked to the rise of Muslim kingdoms and the spread of Islam, itself a consequence of growing regional trade.

Indonesia pronounced a variety of Malay its official language when it gained independence, calling it Bahasa Indonesia. However, the language had already been used as the lingua franca throughout the archipelago since the 15th century. Since 1928, nationalists and young people throughout the Indonesian archipelago declared it to be Indonesia's only official language, as proclaimed in the Sumpah Pemuda "Youth Vow." Thus Indonesia was the first country to designate it as an official language. In several parts of Indonesia, in Sumatra and Borneo Islands, Malay is spoken as local dialect of ethnic Malays.

In Malaysia, the term Bahasa Malaysia was in use until the 1990s, when most academics and government officials reverted to "Bahasa Melayu," used in the Malay version of the Federal Constitution. According to Article 152 of the Federal Constitution, Malay is the official language of Malaysia. "Bahasa Kebangsaan" (National Language) was also used at one point during the 1970s. At present day, the government is referring to the language as Bahasa Malaysia again.[citation needed] Similar to Malaysia in the mid 1990's, "Bahasa Melayu" was defined as Brunei's official language in the country's 1959 Constitution.

Indonesian and Malay are separated by some centuries of different vocabulary development, partly due to the influence of different colonial languages; Dutch in the case of Indonesia, formerly the Dutch East Indies and English in the case of Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei, which were formerly under British rule.

Some Malay dialects, however, show only limited mutual intelligibility with the standard language; for example, Kelantanese pronunciation is difficult even for some fellow Malay speakers to understand, while Indonesian contains many words unique to it that are unfamiliar to speakers of Malay (some because of Javanese (bahasa Jawa), Sundanese (bahasa Sunda) or other local language influence, and some because the language has been modified by youngsters).

The language spoken by the Peranakan (Straits Chinese, a hybrid of Chinese settlers from the Ming Dynasty and local Malays) is a unique patois of Malay and the Chinese Hokkien dialect, which is mostly spoken in the former Straits Settlements of Penang and Malacca in Malaysia, and the Indonesian Archipelago.


The history of the Malay language can be divided into five periods: Old Malay, the Transitional Period, the Malacca Period, Late Modern Malay, and modern Malay.

Old Malay is unintelligible to a speaker of modern Malay. It was heavily influenced by Sanskrit, the lingua franca of Hinduism and Buddhism. The earliest known inscription in the Old Malay language was found in Sumatra, written in Pallava variant of Grantha script [9] 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 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, Persian and Hindi or Sanskrit vocabularies. Under the Sultanate of Malacca the language evolved into a form recognizable to speakers of modern Malay.

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 linguistic family.

Malay belongs to the Malayo-Polynesian branch of the family, which includes the Languages of the Philippines and Malagasy, which is further subdivided into Outer Hesperonesian languages and Nuclear Malayo-Polynesian of which Malay is a member. Malay's closest relatives therefore include Javanese, Acehnese, Chamorro and Palauan.

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.

Writing system

Malay is normally written using Latin alphabet called Rumi, although a modified Arabic script called Jawi also exists. Rumi is official in Malaysia and Singapore, and Indonesian has a different official orthography also using the Latin script. Rumi and Jawi are co-official in Brunei. Efforts are currently being undertaken to preserve Jawi script and to revive its use amongst Malays in Malaysia, and students taking Malay language examination in Malaysia have the option of answering questions using Jawi script. The Latin alphabet, however, is still the most commonly used script in 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 Malay 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.

Extent of use and dialects

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.

Word Formation

Malay is an agglutinative language, and new words are formed by three methods. New words can be created by attaching affixes onto a root word (affixation), formation of a compound word (composition), or repetition of words or portions of words (reduplication).

Grammatical gender

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. Most of the words that refer to people (family terms, professions, etc.) have a form that does not distinguish between the sexes. For example, adik can both refer to a younger sibling of either sex. In order to specify the natural gender of a noun, an adjective has to be added: adik laki-laki corresponds to "brother" but really means "male younger sibling". There are some words that are gendered, for instance puteri means "princess", and putera means "prince"; words like these are usually absorbed from other languages (in these cases, from Sanskrit).


There is no grammatical plural in Malay. Plurality is expressed by the context, or the usage of words expressing plurality, and by reduplication when needed. However, reduplication has most of the time many other functions and meanings.


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". On the other hand, there is a complex system of verb affixes to render nuances of meaning and denote active and passive voices or intentional and accidental moods. Some of these affixes are ignored in daily conversations.

Word order

The basic word order is Subject Verb Object. Adjectives, demonstrative pronouns and possessive pronouns follow the noun they modify.

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).

Colloquial and contemporary usage

Contemporary usage of Malay includes a set of slang words, formed by innovations of standard Malay words or incorporated from other languages, spoken by the urban speech community, which may not be familiar to the older generation, e.g. awek/cewek (girl); balak/cowok (guy); gak/nggak(tidak); no usha (survey); skodeng (peep); cun (pretty); poyo/slenge (horrible, low-quality) etc. New plural pronouns have also been formed out of the original pronouns and the word orang ("people"), i.e. kitorang (kita + orang, the exclusive "we", in place of kami); korang (kau + orang, "you"); diorang or derang (dia + orang, "they").

The Malay-speaking community, especially in Kuala Lumpur, also code-switch between English and Malay in their speech, forming Bahasa Rojak. Examples of the borrowings are: Bestlah tempat ni (This place is cool);kau ni terror lah (How daring you are; you're fabulous). Consequently, this phenomenon has raised the displeasure of language purists in Malaysia, in their effort to uphold the proper use of the national language.


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