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Malay (Bahasa Melayu; بهاس ملايو) is a major language of the Austronesian family spoken in Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. A language of the Malays, it is spoken by 290 million people[1] 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. It is also used as a trading language in the southern Philippines, including the southern parts of the Zamboanga Peninsula, the Sulu Archipelago and the southern predominantly Muslim-inhabited municipalities of Bataraza and Balabac in Palawan.

As the Bahasa Kebangsaan, or Bahasa Nasional ("National Language"), of several states, Standard Malay has various official names. In Malaysia, it is called Template:Lang ("Malaysian language"). It is also called Template:Lang ("Malay language") . In Singapore and Brunei, it is called Template:Lang ("Malay language"); and in Indonesia, Template:Lang ("Indonesian language") and is designated the Template:Lang ("unifying language/lingua franca"). However, in areas of central to southern Sumatra where the language is indigenous, Indonesians refer to it as Template:Lang 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 Template:Lang varieties of Peninsular Malay, are so closely related to standard Malay that they may prove to be dialects. 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.[2] A form known as Proto-Malay 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.[3]


File:Lawah-Lawah Merah (1875).pdf

Lawah-Lawah Merah (1875), a Malay-language translation of L'araignée rouge by Template:Ill has been identified as the first Malay-language novel.

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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.[4]

Old Malay was influenced by the Sanskrit literary language of Classical India and a scriptural language 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 the Pallava variety of the Grantha alphabet[5] and dates back to 7th century – known as the Kedukan Bukit inscription, it was discovered by the Dutchman M. Batenburg on November 29, 1920 at Kedukan Bukit, South Sumatra, on the banks of the Tatang, a tributary of the Musi River. It is a small stone of Template:Convert.

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

The Malay language came into widespread use as the lingua franca of the Malacca Sultanate (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 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.[6]

One of the oldest surviving letters written in Malay is a letter 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.[7] The letters show sign of non-native usage; the Ternateans used (and still use) the unrelated Ternate language, a West Papuan language, as their first language. Malay was used solely as a lingua franca for inter-ethnic communications.[7]

Classification and related languages[]

Template:See also 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 ancestor, Proto-Austronesian language. 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 Malayan 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 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.[8]

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

Writing system[]

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File:Kerinci MSS detail.jpg

Rencong alphabet, native writing systems found in Malay Peninsula, central and South Sumatra. The text reads (Voorhoeve's spelling): "haku manangis ma / njaru ka'u ka'u di / saru tijada da / tang [hitu hadik sa]", which is translated by Voorhoeve as: "I am weeping, calling you; though called, you do not come" (hitu adik sa- is the rest of 4th line.


Kedukan Bukit Inscription, using Pallava alphabet, is the oldest surviving specimen of the Old Malay language in South Sumatra, Indonesia.

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

Rumi and Jawi are co-official in Brunei only. Names of institutions and organisations have to use Jawi and Rumi (Latin) scripts. Jawi is used fully in schools, especially the Religious School, Sekolah Agama, which is compulsory during the afternoon for Muslim students aged from around 6–7 up to 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 the Pallava, Kawi and Rencong scripts; these are still in use today, such as the Cham alphabet used by the Chams of 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 Malacca Sultanate, 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.[9]

Extent of use[]

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File:Malaysia Traffic-signs Warning-and-regulatory-signs-02.jpg

A Malay traffic sign in Malaysia.

File:Sukarno hatta airport - Terminal - Jakarta - Indonesia.jpg

Malay road signs in Jakarta, Indonesia.

Malay is spoken in Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, parts of Thailand[10] and southern Philippines. Indonesia and Brunei have their own standards, Malaysia and Singapore use the same standard.[11] 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 Peninsular 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.


Template:Main article Malay, like most Austronesian languages, is not a tonal language.


The consonants of Malaysian[12] and also Indonesian[13] 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 Dental Alveolar Palatal Velar Glottal
Nasal Template:IPAlink Template:IPAlink Template:IPAlink Template:IPAlink
Plosive/Affricate voiceless Template:IPAlink Template:IPAlink Template:IPAlink Template:IPAlink (Template:IPAlink)
voiced Template:IPAlink Template:IPAlink Template:IPAlink Template:IPAlink
Fricative voiceless (Template:IPAlink) (Template:IPAlink) Template:IPAlink (Template:IPAlink) (Template:IPAlink) Template:IPAlink
voiced (Template:IPAlink) (Template:IPAlink) (Template:IPAlink) (Template:IPAlink)
Approximant central Template:IPAlink Template:IPAlink
lateral Template:IPAlink
Trill Template:IPAlink

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

  • Template:IPAslink is 'z', the same as the Template:IPAslink sound (only occurs in Arabic loanwords originally containing the Template:IPAslink sound, but the writing is not distinguished from Arabic loanwords with Template:IPAslink sound, and this sound must be learned separately by the speakers).
  • Template:IPAslink is 'ny'
  • Template:IPAslink is 'ng'
  • Template:IPAslink is represented as 's', the same as the Template:IPAslink sound (only occurs in Arabic loanwords originally containing the Template:IPAslink sound, but the writing is not distinguished from Arabic loanwords with Template:IPAslink sound, and this sound must be learned separately by the speakers). Previously (before 1972), this sound was written 'th' in Standard Malay (not Indonesian)
  • the glottal stop Template:IPAslink is final 'k' or an apostrophe ' (although some words have this glottal stop in the middle, such as rakyat)
  • Template:IPAslink is 'c'
  • Template:IPAslink is 'j'
  • Template:IPAslink is 'sy'
  • Template:IPAslink is 'kh'
  • Template:IPAslink 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
Template:IPAslink Template:IPAslink, Template:IPAslink khabar, kabar "news"
Template:IPAslink Template:IPAslink, Template:IPAslink redha, rela "good will"
Template:IPA Template:IPAslink, Template:IPAslink lohor, zuhur "noon (prayer)"
Template:IPAslink Template:IPAslink, Template:IPAslink ghaib, raib "hidden"
Template:IPAslinkTemplate:Citation needed Template:IPAslink saat, sa'at "second (time)"


Malay originally had four vowels, but in many dialects today, including Standard Malay, it has six.[12] The vowels /e, o/ are much less common than the other four.

Table of vowel phonemes of Standard Malay
Front Central Back
Close Template:IPA Template:IPA
Mid Template:IPA Template:IPA Template:IPA
Open Template:IPA

Orthographic note: both Template:IPA and Template:IPA are written as 'e'. This means that there are some homographs, so perang can be either /pəraŋ/ ("war") or /peraŋ/ ("blond") (but in Indonesia perang with /e/ sound is also written as pirang).

Some analyses regard Template:IPA as diphthongs.[14][15] However, Template:IPA and Template:IPA 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 Template:IPA, Template:IPA and Template:IPA as a sequence of a monophthong plus an approximant: Template:IPA, Template:IPA and Template:IPA respectively.[16]

There is a rule of vowel harmony: the non-open vowels Template:IPA in bisyllabic words must agree in height, so hidung ("nose") is allowed but *hedung is not.[17]


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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.Template:Citation needed

Borrowed words[]

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


Despite the different vocabulary used by the two standard versions of the language, Malay speakers should be able to understand the translated passages below.

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 Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei, rarely use 'Selamat pagi' (Good morning), 'Selamat tengah hari (Good "early" afternoon), 'Selamat petang' (Good "late" afternoon/evening),

'Selamat malam' (Good night) or 'Selamat tinggal / Selamat jalan' (Good bye) when talking to one another.

Malay Phrase IPA English Translation
Selamat datang Template:IPA Welcome (used as a greeting)
Selamat jalan Template:IPA Have a safe journey (equivalent to "goodbye", used by the party staying)
Selamat tinggal Template:IPA Have a safe stay (equivalent to "goodbye", used by the party leaving)
Terima kasih Template:IPA Thank you
Sama-sama Template:IPA You are welcome
Selamat pagi Template:IPA Good morning
Selamat petang Template:IPA Good afternoon/evening (note that 'Selamat petang' must not be used at night as in English. Usually Indonesian say selamat sore or good afternoon from 3 PM to 5 PM and selamat petang is for 6 PM.
Selamat sejahtera Template:IPA For a general greeting, use 'Selamat sejahtera') 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 Template:IPA 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? How are you? / What's up? (literally, "What news?")
Khabar baik Fine, (lit.good news)
Saya sakit I'm sick
Ya Template:IPA Yes
Tidak ("tak" colloquially) No
Aku (Saya) cinta pada mu (awak) I love you (romantic love. In romantic situations, 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 suka... I like...
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) 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)
Tolong Help
Apa What
Siapa Who
Bila / Kapan When
Bagaimana How
makan Eat
minum Drink
Tiada/tidak ada Nothing, none, don't have

See also[]

  • Varieties of Malay
  • Jawi, an Arabic alphabet for Malay
  • Differences between the Malaysian and Indonesian languages
  • Indonesian language
  • Languages of Indonesia
  • List of English words of Malay origin
  • Malajoe Batawi
  • Malaysian English, the English used formally in Malaysia.
  • Malaysian language



  1. 10 million in Malaysia, 5 million in Indonesia as "Malay" plus 250 million as "Indonesian", etc.
  2. 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
  3. Template:Citation
  4. Template:Cite book
  5. Template:Cite web
  6. Template:Cite book
  7. 7.0 7.1 Template:Cite book
  8. 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".
  9. Malay (Bahasa Melayu). Retrieved 30 August 2008.
  10. Template:Cite web
  11. Template:Cite book
  12. 12.0 12.1 Template:Cite journal. Template:Webarchive
  13. Template:Cite journal
  14. Template:Cite book
  15. Template:Cite book
  16. Template:Cite journal
  17. Template:Cite book

Further reading[]

External links[]

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