Malay Language

Richness of the Malay Language: 7 Captivating Facts Revealed about Bahasa Melayu


Behold the 7 fascinating facts about the Malay language (Bahasa Melayu) that you may not know. Investigate its varied dialects and complex cultural narrative!

Malay language: a glimpse into one of the most widely used ‘language’ in Southeast Asia

The Malay language, also known as “Bahasa Melayu”, is a significant and widely spoken medium of communication across the Southeast Asian region. Before the age of colonialism, the Malay language (here I mean the broad concept of the language) has been one of the most dominant languages (if not the most) that are used by the natives in the East of the Bay of Bengal.

“The interest of Englishmen in the Malay language began with the early ventures of the East India Company in the Far East, in the first years of the seventeenth century. It was the language of commerce everywhere east of the Bay of Bengal, and our earliest adventurers found it spoken at the trading ports which they visited.”

Maxwell, W.E. (1907): A Manual of the Malay Language (8th Edition)

No doubt, with the spread of English since the colonial days, English has become more pervasive within this region. Despite that, the strong connection with the native language of the region has remained. For any professional seeking to ride the economic wave of ASEAN, a good grasp of the Malay language can be extremely useful for navigating everyday life, immersing oneself in local cultures, or skilfully handling professional interactions in this region.

It will be a long shot for me to teach any language within an article, and so I will not do that. This article is really more about sparking your curiosity about a captivating language from Southeast Asia. My aim is not only about deepening our appreciation of language in general, but also to cultivate an appreciation for diverse languages and their potential influence on the future trajectories of our students. With that, let’s set sail to Southeast Asia and enjoy the beauty of Bahasa Melayu!

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1. Malay is an Austronesian language and is theorised to have originated from Taiwan.

A Group Of Taiwanese Indigenous People
Image generated by Air Brush / Oil painting of the indigenous people from China

The roots of the Malay language trace back to its membership in the Austronesian language family, which encompasses a wide range of languages spoken across Southeast Asia and the Pacific. To put things in perspective, the Austronesian language family is one of the largest in the world and has approximately 1,256 languages identified as its members. Most people might not know, but most linguists attribute the source of the family to Taiwan, or also known fondly as its previous name of “Formosa” (Adelaar, 2000, 2004; Andaya, 2001; Klamer, 2019; Tryon, 1995).

Of course, the evolution of language (or languages to be precise) is never that straightforward. The source is established through very careful reconstruction of the language change, especially within the lexicon and grammar, across time and space. Taiwan surfaced as the most plausible starting point where all the proto-Austronesian vocabulary of flora and fauna converge. 

However, as people move (and bring their language along with them), language starts to change and evolve. Over time, the ‘original’ Austronesian language(s) branch out into the Malayo-Polynesian languages which is a super large sub-group consisting of the majority of the languages within this family today.

2. Malay shares genealogical roots with certain languages in Taiwan, Madagascar, Hawaii and New Zealand.

A Malay Village In The Old Days
Image generated by Bing Image Creator / A traditional Malay village in the 19th century

It remains a wonder how the dispersal of people led to the evolution of languages. It is a perennial topic of inquiry within research into historical linguistics. There has been one major breakthrough though, that characterises the Austronesian language family as the languages spoken by the “seafaring people” (Chen, 2022).

“There they assimilated with existing populations and eventually reached as far as Easter Island to the east, Madagascar to the west, Hawaii to the north and New Zealand to the south.”

Chen, 2022: Linguistics locates the beginnings of the Austronesian expansion – with Indigenous seafaring people in eastern Taiwan

Riding on this part on language genealogy, I must highlight that the Austronesian language has spread across oceans to reach different shores of various continents, as highlighted within the quote. As such, it has branched out into various languages (and varieties) that include the Malay language, the Malagasy (Madagascar), Hawaiian (Hawaii), and Maori (New Zealand).

Of course, these are languages that seem distant from many laypersons’ stereotypical representation of where the Malay language may have ‘lived and evolved’ (i.e. not within Southeast Asia). The more ‘predictable’ languages that are also in this family are Tagalog (Philippines), Sudanese (Indonesia), and Javanese (Indonesia).

If you have had any interest in any of these languages, maybe Malay language might be good place to start getting accustomed with the representation of the Austronesian languages.

3. The notion of a “Malay language” or “Melayu” could have originated in Borneo (as “Old Malay language”). 

Lush Rainforest In Borneo
Image generated by Ideogram / The rainforest of Borneo

For those among us who have just heard of this for the first time, we probably would want to know: then when did the notion of a “Malay language” came? As the Austronesian languages started evolving into the Malayo-Polynesian languages, how did “Malay language” found its place?

The more prominent hypothesis that answers these questions as adopted by linguists generally point to Borneo as the most possible “homeland” (Adelaar, 2004; Andaya, 2001; Teeuw, 1959). Scholars converged to this view mainly based on both linguistic and extra-linguistic data tracing across time and space, aligning with historical records and artefacts of migrations and back-migrations of the sea-faring people.

“Proto-Malayo-Polynesian, derived from Proto-Austronesian, began to break up by at least 2000 BCE as a result probably of the expansion southward into the southern Philippines, Borneo, Sulawesi and Maluku.”

Andaya, 2001: The Search for the ‘Origins’ of Melayu

After the “founding” of the Old Malay, language change continues to take place alongside migrations, leading to the many Malayic languages (a larger group of languages that branch out from Old Malay) we know today. With Borneo as the starting point, it is no wonder that the Malay language (in the broad sense) plays such an important role in Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei.

4. Malay is nowhere just a monolithic language – just like many others.

Here, I need to emphasise the presence of the many Malayic languages and varieties in Southeast Asia, particularly in Indonesia and Malaysia, which continues to branch out from “Old Malay”. Although it is difficult to scientifically qualify the process as a simply linear with branches, but current available evidence does suggest the relationship as discussed in the earlier section.

Based on the listing or classification within different sources, the number of documented Malayic languages can fall between 37 to 58. Below are some of the notable languages that are classified as Malayic languages:

  • Bahasa Melayu (one of the major pluricentric standard Malay languages)
  • Bahasa Indonesian (the other major pluricentric standard Malay language)
  • Brunei Malay
  • Baba Malay
  • Balinese Malay
  • Bacan Malay
  • Bukit Malay
  • Central Malay
  • Sabah Malay
  • Malayic Dayak
  • Orang Seletar
  • Kubu
  • Iban
  • Musi
  • Minangkabau
  • Negeri Sembilan

Perhaps it is worth mentioning that certain languages, while sharing commonalities with the Malayic family, are not classified as Malayic languages. Examples of such languages include Sudanese, Javanese, and Madurese, all of which have strong connections to the Malayic languages within the extensive Malayo-Polynesian branch of the Austronesian family. I can only say that this observation highlights the complexities of languages and their classifications.

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5. Malay is one of the most important languages in the region and is an official language of Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and Brunei.

Malay People
Photo by Envato Elements / Young Malay people

If we consider the larger notion of language (a superordinate group as opposed to varieties), then the ‘Malay language’ (or the Malayic languages) can be regarded as the most important language of the Malayo-Polynesian region within Southeast Asia (Adelaar, 2000; Blust, 2013; Maxwell, 1907; Nothofer, 2006; Tryon, 1995).

Based on the accounts from maritime expeditions into these regions, Malay (and its enormous range of varieties) was the dominant language used for communication with people from around the world, from the Maritime Silk Road established by China to the early ventures of the East India Company in the Far East.

“Not only was Malay the lingua franca of trade in maritime Southeast Asia, but the language also found its way into Javanese literature.”

UNESCO (Publishing date unknown): Did you know?: The Use of the Malay Language in Coastal Javanese Literature

Today, the standard varieties of the Malay language remain the national language of Indonesia (as the language/variety of Bahasa Indonesia), Malaysia (as Bahasa Melayu or Bahasa Malaysia), Singapore and Brunei. The estimated number of speakers is in the range of 220 million to 290 million people. From its status as presented, I’m pretty sure we can understand its importance in this part of the world.

6. Bahasa Indonesian and Bahasa Melayu are two of the most widely used standard dialects / varieties. 

I believe it is quite common for individuals who are studying Malay language as a second language to focus on the standard varieties rather than the numerous regional dialects – partly also due to practical reasons of accessing formal curriculum and using the language functionally for transactional purposes. That being said, a pertinent query often arises: should one learn Indonesian Malay (Bahasa Indonesia) or Malaysian Malay (Bahasa Malaysia)?

When I wrote about the difficulty in distinguishing between language and dialect, I discussed about how the interference from sociopolitical forces made it challenging to identify the boundaries between languages or varieties/dialects. The languages we come to know as “Bahasa Indonesian” and “Bahasa Melayu” are also such languages (or varieties of the ‘Malay language’).

“Bahasa Indonesian”, as the name suggests, is the standard variety of Malay as used in Indonesia. On the other hand, “Bahasa Melayu” is the standard variety of Malay as used in Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei. Particularly for Malaysia, Bahasa Melayu also took on an alter ego identity as “Bahasa Malaysia”, mostly as a political assertion by the Malaysian government over different periods rather than the identification linguistically different entity revealed through some novel findings.

“The existence of two standard varieties of Malay, namely Malaysian (called ‘Bahasa Melayu’ in Malaysia) and Indonesian (‘Bahasa Indonesia’), is mainly the result of an agreement reached between the British and the Dutch, who in 1824 drew new boundaries of their colonial territories.”

Nothofer, 2006: Malay (Encyclopedia of Language & Linguistics 2nd edition)

And so, while Bahasa Indonesian and Bahasa Melayu are closely related and mutually intelligible, they do exhibit differences in spelling, grammar, pronunciation, and most significantly in vocabulary (Nothofer, 2006; Phillips, 1973).

In the lexicon, Bahasa Melayu has borrowed more from English and Arabic, while Bahasa Indonesian has borrowed more from Dutch and has influence from Javanese and Jakarta Malay. Other variations may occur when one of the two variants borrowed a European word, while the other one is a retention of an old Malay word or an innovation of a completely new term.

In terms of pronunciation, the differences between the two dialects are becoming apparent, with the most noticeable differences being in the vowel and consonant sounds. However, these differences do not hinder mutual intelligibility between speakers of both varieties.

Over time, though, just as the case for the Scandinavian languages, more and more linguists are working on coding the distinctions between both Bahasa Indonesian and Bahasa Melayu to establish both as linguistically different languages, which certifies the salience of socio-political power in any identification of language vs dialects/varieties once again.

Back to the question I raised earlier: Should we learn Bahasa Indonesian or Bahasa Melayu? Well, it depends on the area in which we want to spend more of our time. Also, noting the characteristics of the lexicon, we may also want to leverage our previous competence in either English or Dutch to expedite the learning. The key is, at least in the short term, learning either to a good proficiency should allow us to access the other with ease.

7. There are two writing systems for the Malay language.

Arabic Traditional Calligraphy, Jawi Script
Photo by Envato Elements / Traditional Arabic calligraphy

In general, the Malay language uses two distinct scripts: “Jawi” and “Rumi”. “Jawi” is the Arabic form of writing (Arabic script), which was introduced to the Malay Archipelago by Muslim missionaries in the 15th century (Sulaiman, 2000). To a certain degree, it became the code in which much of classical Malay literature and content was recorded in writing.

During the 20th century, with the arrival of British and Dutch colonial powers into the region, “Rumi” was introduced as a writing system to the language. “Rumi” is the Latin/Roman alphabet. With the use of Rumi, Malay language was made much more accessible to Europeans who used similar scripts. Nevertheless, Bahasa Indonesian and Bahasa Melayu had different representations of the speech sounds through their scripts, particularly because each adopted a different norm based on either English or Dutch.

For the purpose of studying the language, it is quite sufficient to know only one of the scripts, and since Rumi is considered to be the easier of the two and also the official script, it is the script used in most Malay language textbooks (Sulaiman, 2000).

Despite that, the knowledge of Jawi scripts is an advantage to the study of advanced Bahasa Melayu and classical Malay literature. In a sense, Jawi is a window into the heritage of the Malay people. However, the Jawi alphabet is not well-known among young Malays, who also struggle to read or write in Jawi literature (Rahman et al., 2017). That is one challenge that even the Malay communities need to grapple with.

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Conclusion: Learn modern Malay (an agglutinative language) and make friends with Indonesians and Malaysians, and more!

And so, we have journeyed together across the many interesting facts about Malay. Are you somewhat interested to learn more to connect with the people in this region? For those among us who are familiar with agglutinative languages, it might be encouraging to also note that Malay language is also one of such. Perhaps that may be helpful in getting you started in expecting the types of grammatical features within the language?

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Adelaar, K.A. (2000). Malay: A short history. Oriente Moderno, 19(80)(2), 225-242.

Adelaar, K.A. (2004). Where does Malay come from? Twenty years of discussions about homeland, migrations and classifications. Bijdragen Tot de Taal-, Land- En Volkenkunde, 160(1), 1-30.

Andaya, L.Y. (2001). The search for the ‘origins’ of Melayu. Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, 32(3), 315-330.

Blust, R.A. (2013). The Austronesian languages (Revised Edition). Canberra Australia: Australian National University.

Chen, V. (2022). Linguistics locates the beginnings of the Austronesian expansion – with Indigenous seafaring people in eastern Taiwan. The Conversation.

Klamer, M. (2019). The dispersal of Austronesian languages in Island South East Asia: Current findings and debates. Language and Linguistics Compass, 13, e12325.

Maxwell, W.E. (1907). A Manual of the Malay Language (8th Edition). [Unknown]: Dodo Press.

Nothofer, B. (2006). Malay. In Brown, K. (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Language & Linguistics (2nd edition) (pp. 450-453). Elsevier.

Phillips, N. (1973). Differences between Bahasa Indonesia and Bahasa Malaysia. Indonesia Circle. School of Oriental & African Studies. Newsletter, 1(2), 7-9.

Rahman, A.H.J., Ali, A.M., Abdullah, F.B.T., Abdul Kadir, F.K., Adam, F., & Ismail, D. (2017). Methods of Learning and Writing Jawi Scripts within the Malay Community: Past and Present Experiences. Proceedings of ISER 70th International Conference, Athens, Greece, August 7-8, 2017.

Sulaiman, O. (2000). Malay for Everyone. Selangor: Pelanduk Publications.

Teeuw, A. (1959). The History of The Malay Language. Bijdragen Tot de Taal-, Land- En Volkenkunde, 115(2), 138-156.

Tryon, D.T. (1995). The Austronesian languages. In Tryon, D.T. (Ed.), Comparative Austronesian Dictionary: An Introduction to Austronesian Studies (pp. 5-44). Berlin Germany: De Gruyter Mouton.

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