Malay language

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Bahasa Melayu, بهاس ملايو
Spoken in: Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, Singapore, southern Thailand, southern Philippines, Australia, Netherlands
Total speakers: 20–30 million 
Ranking: 54
Language family:
 Malayo-Polynesian (MP)
  Nuclear MP
      Local Malay
Writing system: Rumi (Latin alphabet) (official) and Jawi (Arabic script); historically written in Pallava, Kawi and Rencong 
Official status
Official language of: Flag of Malaysia Malaysia,
Flag of Singapore Singapore
Regulated by: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (Institute of Language and Literature)
Language codes
ISO 639-1: ms
ISO 639-2: may (B)  msa (T)
ISO 639-3: variously:

The Malay language (Malay: Bahasa Melayu; Jawi script: بهاس ملايو), is an Austronesian language spoken by the Malay people who reside in the Malay Peninsula, southern Thailand, the Philippines, Singapore, central eastern Sumatra, the Riau islands, parts of the coast of Borneo, Cocos and Christmas Islands in Australia, and even in the Netherlands<ref>[1]</ref>. It is an official language of Malaysia, Brunei and Singapore. It is very similar to Indonesian, known locally as Bahasa Indonesia, the official language of Indonesia.

In Malaysia, the language is officially known as Bahasa Malaysia, which translates as the "Malaysian language". The term, which was introduced by the National Language Act 1967, was predominant until the 1990s, when most academics and government officials reverted to "Bahasa Melayu," which is used in the Malay version of the Federal Constitution. According to Article 152 of the Federal Constitution, Bahasa Melayu is the official language of Malaysia. "Bahasa kebangsaan" (National language) was also used at one point during the 1970s.

Indonesia adopted a form of Malay as its official language upon independence, naming it Bahasa Indonesia and although a large degree of mutual intelligibility exists, Indonesian is distinct in many ways from Malay as spoken in Malaysia. In Singapore and Brunei it is known simply as Malay or Bahasa Melayu. 'Bahasa Melayu' is specified as the Brunei's official language by the country's 1959 Constitution.

However, many Malay dialects are not as mutually intelligible: for example, Kelantanese pronunciation is difficult even for some Malaysians to understand, while Indonesian tends to have a lot of words unique to it which will be unfamiliar to other speakers of Malay.

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 dialect of Hokkien (Min Nan), which is mostly spoken in the former Straits Settlements of Penang and Malacca.


Classification and related languages

See also: Austronesian languages#Cross-linguistic Comparison Chart

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 on the island of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean, is also a member of this linguistic family.

Malay belongs to the Malayo-Polynesian branch of the family (including 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 Palau (Belau), Gilbertese, Nauruan, Hawaiian, Maori, Samoan, Tahitian, Tongan and Tuvaluan.

Although each language of the family is mutually unintelligible, their similarities are rather striking. Many roots have come virtually unchanged from their common Autronesian ancestor. Many cognates are kinship terms, health, body parts and common animals. Numbers, especially, show remarkable similarities. For example, lima is practically the universal term for "five".

Writing system

Malay is normally written using Latin alphabet called Rumi, although a modified Arabic script called Jawi also exists. 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. Latin alphabet, however, is still the most commonly used script in Malaysia, both for official and informal purposes.

Historically, Malay language has been written using various types of script. Before the introduction of Arabic script in the Malay region, Malay was written using Pallava, Kawi and Rencong script. 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 Sultanate of Malacca, Jawi has gradually replaced these scripts as the most commonly used script in the Malay region.

During the period of Western colonization, the Portuguese, Dutch and British introduced Latin script and its use has since spread throughout the Malay region until today.

Extent of use

The extent to which Malay is used in these countries varies depending on historical and cultural circumstances. Bahasa Melayu 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 Singapore, Malay was historically the lingua franca among people of different races and nationalities. Although this has largely given way to English, Malay still retains the status of national language and the national anthem, Majulah Singapura, is entirely in Malay.

Most residents of the five southernmost provinces of Thailand — a region that, for the most part, used to be part of an ancient Malay kingdom called Pattani — speak a dialect of Malay called Yawi (not to be confused with Jawi), which is similar to Kelantanese Malay, but the language has no official status or recognition.

Due to earlier contact with the Philippines, Malay words — such as dalam hati (sympathy), luwalhati (glory), tengah hari (midday), sedap (delicious) — have evolved and been integrated into Tagalog and other Philippine languages.

By contrast, Indonesian has successfully become the lingua franca for its disparate islands and ethnic groups, in part because the colonial language, Dutch, is no longer commonly spoken. (In East Timor, which was governed as a province of Indonesia from 1976 to 1999, Indonesian is widely spoken and recognized under its Constitution as a 'working language'.)


Table of consonant phonemes of Malay
Bilabial Labio-
Dental Alveolar Post-
Palatal Velar Uvular Glottal
Plosives p [p] b [b] t [t] d [d] k [k] g [g] q [q] '/k [ʔ]
Nasals m [m] n [n] ny [ɲ] ng [ŋ]
Fricatives f [f] v [v, ʋ] ts [θ] dz [ð] s [s] z [z] sy [ʃ, ʂ, sj] kh [x] h [h]
Affricates c [] j []
Approximants w [w] y [j]
Trills r [r]
Taps r [ɾ]
Laterals l [l]

Orthographic Notes:

  • The k at the end of a word in native Malay words is pronounced as a glottal stop.
  • The combination of [ŋg] is represented as ngg.
  • The letter x is variously pronounced as [ks], [s] or [z].
Table of vowel phonemes of Malay
Height Front Central Back
Close i [i] u [u]
Mid e [e, ɛ] e [ə] o [o, ɔ]
Open a [a] a [ɑ]
Table diphthongs of Malay
Orthography IPA
ai [aɪ̯, ai]
au [aʊ̯, au]
ua [ua]

There are two vowels represented by the letter "e", i.e. [e, ɛ] and [ə]. Learners of Malay are expected to distinguish between the two sounds while learning each new word. (Before the joint spelling reform of 1972 between Malaysia and Indonesia, the two nations marked the difference in vowels. For unknown reasons, it was decided to drop the marking when the spellings were united.)

In some parts of Peninsular Malaysia, especially in the central and southern region, most words which end with the letter a tends to be pronounced as [ə].


Word Formation

Malay is an agglutinative language, and new words are formed via 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).


Root words are either nouns or verbs, which can be affixed to derive new words, e.g. masak (to cook) yields memasak (cooks, is cooking, etc.), memasakkan (cooks, is cooking for etc.), dimasak (cooked - passive) as well as pemasak (cook - person), masakan (cooking, cookery). Many initial consonants undergo mutation when prefixes are added: e.g. sapu (sweep) becomes penyapu (broom); panggil (to call) becomes memanggil (calls, is calling, etc.), tapis (sieve) becomes menapis (sieves, is sieving, etc.)

Other examples of the use of affixes to change the meaning of a word can be seen with the word ajar (teach):

  • ajar = teach
  • ajaran = teachings
  • belajar = is studying
  • mengajar = to teach
  • diajar = (something) is being taught
  • diajarkan = (someone) is being taught (something)
  • mempelajari = to study (something)
  • dipelajari = is being studied
  • pelajar = student
  • pengajar = teacher
  • pelajaran = subject
  • pengajaran = lesson, moral of story
  • pembelajaran = learning
  • terajar = taught
  • terpelajar = well-educated
  • berpelajaran = is educated

There are four types of affixes, namely prefixes (awalan), suffixes (akhiran), circumfixes (apitan) and infixes (sisipan). These affixes are categorised into noun affixes, verb affixes, and adjective affixes.

Noun affixes are affixes that form nouns upon addition to root words. The following are examples of noun affixes:

Type of noun affixes Affix Example of root word Example of derived word
Prefix pe(N)- duduk (sit) penduduk (population)
ke- hendak (want) kehendak (desire)
juru- acara (event) juruacara (event host)
Infix -el- tunjuk (point) telunjuk (index finger, command)
-em- kelut (dishevelled) kemelut (chaos, crisis)
-er- gigi (teeth) gerigi (toothed blade)
Suffix -an bangun (wake up, raise) bangunan (building)
Circumfix ke-...-an raja (king) kerajaan (government, kingdom)
pe(N)-...-an kerja (work) pekerjaan (occupation)

(N) and (R) indicate that if a word begins with certain letters (most often vowels or consonants k, p, s, t), the letter will either be omitted or other letters will replace it, most commonly with the letters in the bracket or m, ng, ny and l.

Similarly, verb affixes are attached to root words to form verbs. In Malay, there are:

Type of verb affixes Affix Example of root word Example of derived word
Prefix be(R)- ajar (teach) belajar (to study) - Intransitive
me(N)- tolong (help) menolong (to help) - Active transitive
di- ambil (take) diambil (is being taken) - Passive transitive
mempe(R)- kemas (tidy up, orderly) memperkemas (to arrange further)
dipe(R)- dalam (deep) diperdalam (is being further deepen)
te(R)- makan (eat) termakan (to have accidentally eaten)
Suffix -kan letak (place, keep) letakkan (keep) - Imperative transitive
-i jauh (far) jauhi (avoid) - Imperative transitive
Circumfix be(R)-...-an pasang (pair) berpasangan (to be paired)
be(R)-...-kan tajuk (title) bertajukkan (to be titled, to entitle)
me(N)-...-kan pasti (certain) memastikan (to ensure)
me(N)-...-i teman (companion) menemani (to accompany)
mempe(R)-...-kan guna (use) mempergunakan (to misuse, to utilise)
mempe(R)-...-i ajar (teach) mempelajari (to study)
ke-...-an hilang (disappear) kehilangan (to lose)
di-...-i sakit (pain) disakiti (is being hurt)
di-...-kan benar (right) dibenarkan (is allowed to)
dipe(R)-...-kan kenal (know, recognise) diperkenalkan (is being introduced)

Adjective affixes are attached to root words to form adjectives:

Type of adjective affixes Affix Example of root word Example of derived word
Prefix te(R)- kenal (know) terkenal (famous)
se- bijak (clever) sebijak (as clever as)
Infix -el- serak (disperse) selerak (messy)
-em- cerlang (radiant bright) cemerlang (bright, excellent)
-er- sabut (husk) serabut (dishevelled)
Circumfix ke-...-an barat (west) kebaratan (westernized)

In addition to these affixes, Malay language also has a lot of borrowed affixes from other languages such as Sanskrit, Arabic and English. For example maha-, pasca-, eka-, bi-, anti-, pro- etc.

Compound word

In Malay, new words can be formed by joining two or more root words. Compound words, when exist freely in a sentence, are often written separately. Compound words are only attached to each other when they are bound by circumfix or when they are already considered as stable words.

For example, the word kereta which means car and api which means fire, are compounded to form a new word kereta api (train). Similarly, ambil alih (take over) is formed using the root words ambil (take) and alih (move), but will link together when a circumfix is attached to it, i.e. pengambilalihan (takeover). Certain stable words, such as kakitangan (personel), and kerjasama (cooperation), are spelled as one word even when they exist freely in sentences.


There are four types of words reduplication in Malay, namely

  • Full reduplication
  • Partial reduplication
  • Rhythmic reduplication
  • Reduplication of meaning

Measure words

Another distinguishing feature of Malay is its use of measure words (penjodoh bilangan). In this way, it is similar to many other languages of Asia, including Chinese, Vietnamese, Burmese, and Bengali.

Part of Speech

In Malay, there are 4 parts of speech:

  • Nouns
  • Verbs
  • Adjectives
  • Function words

Function words

There are 16 types of function words in Malay which performs a grammatical function in a sentence. <ref>[2]</ref> Amongst these are conjunctions, interjections, prepositions, negations and determiners.


There are two negation words in Malay, that is bukan and tidak. Bukan is used to negate noun phrases and preposition in a predicate, whereas tidak is used to negate verbs and adjective phrases in a predicate.

Subject Negation Predicate
Lelaki yang berjalan dengan Fazila itu
(That boy who is walking with Fazila)
(is not)
teman lelakinya
(her boyfriend)
Surat itu
(The letter)
(is not)
daripada teman penanya di Perancis
(from his penpal in France)
Pelajar-pelajar itu
(Those students)
(do not)
mengikuti peraturan sekolah
(obey school regulations)
Penguasaan Bahasa Melayunya
(His command of Malay language)
(is not)

The negative word bukan however, can be used before verb phrases and adjective phrases if the sentence shows contradictions.

Subject Negation Predicate Contradiction
(His composition)
(is not)
baik sangat,
(very good,)
tetapi dia mendapat markah yang baik
(but he received good marks)

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 gender. In order to specify the natural gender of a noun, an adjective has to be added: adik lelaki 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).


Plurals are often expressed by means of reduplication, but only when the plural is not implied in the context. For example, "cup", which is 'cawan', would be 'cawan-cawan'. This can be shortened to 'cecawan', but this only applies to a list of words.

There are exceptions to this rule. Although "person" is orang, "people" is not orang-orang, but normally 'banyak orang' (literal translation: many persons). "One thousand people" is seribu orang, as the numeral makes it unnecessary to mark the plural form. Besides expressing plurals, reduplication can also be used to create new words that differ in meaning before reduplication takes place, for instance hati means "heart" or "liver" (depending on context) whereas hati-hati means "to be careful" and it is often used as a verb. For foreigners who are learning Malay, reduplication is not as easy as it seems to be because one can say orang ("person") or orang-orang ("scarecrow"). Some write duplicates with a "2", e.g. orang2 for orang-orang.


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. 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 describe.

Adopted words

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

Some Malay words have been borrowed into English. See the list of words of Malay origin at Wiktionary, the free dictionary and Wikipedia's sister project.

Malay language has also heavily influenced the forms of colloquial English spoken in Malaysia (Manglish).

Some simple phrases in Malay

In Malaysia, to greet somebody with "Selamat pagi" or "Selamat sejahtera" would be considered very formal, and the borrowed word "Hi" would be more usually among friends; similarly "Bye-bye" is often used when taking one's leave.

Malay Phrase IPA English Translation
Selamat datang /səlamat dataŋ/ Welcome
Selamat jalan /səlamat dʒalan/ Have a safe journey (equivalent to "goodbye", used by the party staying)
Selamat tinggal /səlamat tiŋgal/ Goodbye (Somewhat equivalent to "stay safe", used by the party leaving)
Terima kasih /tərima kaseh/ Thank you
Sama-sama /sama sama/ You are welcome (as in a response to Thank You)
Selamat pagi /səlamat pagi/ 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 sədʒahtəra/ Greetings (formal)
Selamat malam /səlamat malam/ Good night (Use when ending a meet during the night. To greet someone at night, use 'Selamat Sejahtera')
Jumpa lagi See you again
Apakah nama anda?/Nama awak apa? What is your name?
Nama saya ... My name is ... (The relevant name is placed in front. For example, if your name was Jessha, then you would introduce yourself by saying "Nama saya Jessha", which translates to "My name is Jessha")
Apa khabar? How are you? / What's up? (literally, "What news?")
Khabar baik Fine, good
Saya sakit I am ill
Ya /ja/ Yes
Tidak ("tak" colloquially) No
Saya sayang padamu I love you (In a more of a family or affectionate sort of love, e.g.: mother to daughter)
Saya cinta awak (/padamu) I love you (romantic love)
Saya tidak faham (or simply "tak faham" colloquially) I do not understand
Saya tidak tahu (or "tak tau" colloquially. Some say "sik tau") I do not know
(Minta) maaf Sorry or Excuse Me ('minta' is to request. Begin with 'Minta Maaf' when trying to talk to strangers)
Tumpang 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 "Nothing"

Usage among the younger generation

While sending SMS messages on their mobile phones, or being logged into Internet chat rooms, Malay-speaking youths tend to abbreviate their words to save message space or simply be quick in sending their messages, e.g. x - tak, tidak (no; not); bkn - bukan (not); bleh - boleh (can, i.e. able to). They even alter the spellings of certain full words, e.g. ko - (eng)kau (you); ye - ya (yes). They even merge two words into a new one in place of a word of the same meaning in formal Malay, e.g. diorang (dia and orang).

There is a new set of slang spoken by the urban youth, which may not be familiar to the older generation, e.g. awek (girl); balak (guy); usha (survey); skodeng (peep); cun (pretty); poyo/slenge (horrible, low-quality) etc. The youth also tend to mix Malay with English words, forming Bahasa Rojak. Example of this pidgin is: Bestlah tempat ni (This place is cool);kau ni terror lah (How daring you are; you're fabulous). This issue has raised the displeasure of language purists in Malaysia, in their effort to uphold the proper use of the national language.


There are many different Malay dictionaries. In Malaysia, the Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (DBP) dictionary is the chief arbiter for the language, and is considered the authority in defining Malay usage. Some other dictionaries are:

See also



External links

Malay language edition of Wikipiniana, the free encyclopedia

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