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About Malay

by Pisith Phlong
Number of speakers
Malay is an official language of Malaysia. It is also the official language of Brunei Darussalam,
Indonesia (called Bahasa Indonesia) and one of the official languages of Singapore. (Frawly,
Vol. 2, p. 540) An estimated 20 to 30 million people speaks Malay.
Language group
Malay, also known as Bahasa Melayu or Bahasa Malaysia, is one of the Malayic languages. It
belongs to the Western Malayo Polynesian group of the Austronesian language family. (Strazny,
Vol. 2, p. 644)
History of written language and script
The history of the Malay and Indonesian languages are quite closely related to each other, for
both of them shared the same root and background of language development in the past. The
Malay language has long been spoken in the Malay Archipelago area with successive influences
from other languages such as Sanskrit from India at about the 4th century, Arabic around the
14th century and English, Dutch, Portuguese beginning about the 17th century. It was in 1928
that the Malay language separated into Malay language for Malaysia, and the Indonesian
language (Bahasa Indonesia) for Indonesia following the declaration of the All Indonesian Youth
Congress in Jakarta. (Llamzon, p. 282-283). The two languages are slightly different in their
language form as Malay has had more influence from English, while Indonesia received more
influence from Dutch and the Javanese language. (Frawly, Vol. 2, p. 541)
The Malay language has a long history based in the Malay Archipelago going back about 2000
years ago. Through the Indian sea trade, the Indian cultures started to take root inside the Malay
culture and brought rise to many Malay kingdoms on the Sumatra and Java islands from about
the 7th century onward. Some examples of these are the Buddhist temple of Borobudur, the
Hindu Prambanan, the Sri Vijaya kingdom, the glorious culture of Majapahit in east Java, and
the important cultural center of Bali. (Herbert, p. 123) The Malay language origins can be dated
back to about the 7th century in south-central Sumatra, the area called Jambi and Palembang,
associated with the Sri Vijaya kingdom, where the earliest written records on inscriptions were
found with scripts deriving from the Pallava script of India.
The Malay language might have come from the Borneo, where the earliest inscription of Kutai in
Sanskrit language, dated 400 AD was found. These earlier inscriptions used the Sanskrit
language and it is commonly considered to be the Old Malay language. Old Malay spread into
Java and The Philippines, but it didn’t exist there for long. In Sumatra, the Old Malay continued
developing and served as a major literary language among the indigenous people of many
successive kingdoms. By the 14th century, Islam spread into North Sumatra and Java and it
became a dominant religion in North Java by the 15th century. With Islam, the Arabic language
gained status and influence over the Old Malay. Many forms of writing such as legends,
chronicles, religious treatises, legal documents and letters used standardized Malay, called the
Classical Malay which evolved from the Old Malay through time and space. In the early 16th
century, the Portuguese arrived in the Malay Archipelago for the spice trade in the Moluccas
while the Dutch came in later and colonized Indonesia from 1749 to 1942 (Herbert, p. 123-124)
In the mean time, the British Administration started to establish centers in Southeast Asia. The
British created the center in Penang in 1786, in Singapore in 1819, and in Malacca in 1824. In
1824, the British and the Dutch agreed on a new border for their territory. They divided the Riau-
Johore Kingdom into Malaysia and Indonesia - the Malay speaking area fell under British control
and Sumatra fell under Dutch control. (Brown, Vol. 7, p. 451) It was not until the 19th century
that the Modern Standard Malay-Indonesian emerged following efforts from native and Western
scholars such as Raja Ali Haji (about 1809-1870) who wrote a grammar book and dictionary of
Malay and the Dutch scholar C.A. van Ophuysen (1854-1917) who standardized the language for
use in schools in all the Dutch Indies. In 1928, the Indonesian language was pronounced to be
independent from Malay and became the national language of Indonesia. However, Malay and
Indonesian are still closely related to one another, except for the fact that the Malay language
receives more influence from English and retains more Arabic words, while Indonesian receives
more influence from Dutch and retains more Javanese and Jakarta Malay. (Brown, Vol. 7, p.
451; Strazny, Vol. 2, p. 641, 645)
Based on the international trade and religious connections with the rest of the world, the Malay
people adopted three kinds of scripts successively in their writing systems. (Herbert, p. 127) The
earliest writing of Malay dates back to about the 4th century, based on the Kutai Inscription of
East Kalimantan written in Sanskrit with Indian scripts deriving from the Pallava scripts. This
Pallava-based-script is commonly considered to be the oldest form of Malay writing, and it
continued in the Old Malay writing system. In the 14th century, the Arabic script was introduced
into the Malay writing system through the influence of Islam. One of the earliest examples of
Arabic-Malay writing called Jawi was found in Terengganu and in two other manuscripts of the
Sultan of Ternate in 1520 and 1521. (Strazny, Vol. 2, p. 646) From the 17th century, Malay
employed the Roman script for its writing through the influence of the Dutch and British.
Syllables in Malay are formed by 18 consonants and 5 vowels, while words are usually created
by adding a prefix, suffix or reduplication. (Strazny, Vol. 2, p. 645-646)
Other Dialects
Besides the official Malay language spoken throughout East and West Malaysia, there are a
number of Malay dialects spoken in certain regions of the country. They are: 1) Iban, spoken in
northern Borneo in Sarawak, Sabah and across the border into Kalantan of Indonesia; 2)
Minangkabau, which is a native language to western Sumatra, spoken in Negeri Sembilan-
Malaysia, and the Riau province of Indonesia; 3) Riau-Johor Malay, spoken in the southern part
of Peninsular Malaysia and in the Riau archipelago of Indonesia; 4) Kalantan-Patani Malay,
spoken along the Thai-Malaysian border, 5) Banjarese, spoken by people in Banjarmasin and
throughout the southern part of Borneo, 6) Ambosese Malay: spoken in Ambon island of Maluku
(Indonesia). 7) Manado Malay, spoken in Manado of North Sulawesi. (Strazny, Vol. 646-647)
Comparison to other Western languages
Malay is similar to the Western languages in that its sentence structure is arranged in Subject-
Verb-Object order and the syllables are formed by consonants and vowels of the Roman scripts.
Words are commonly made by adding a prefix, suffix, reduplication, and clipping, as well as
borrowing from English and Dutch. Usually, adjectives come after nouns to form a compound
noun, and there is now inflection regarding genders and numbers. (Strazny, Vol. 2, p. 646)

Wednesday, July 30, 2008 3:03:31 AM