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Number of Speakers: About 13,000,000

Key Dialects: Merina

Geographical Center: Madagascar

Malagasy is a language spoken in Madagascar. The Ethnologue lists 11 languages under the general subgroup of Malagasy, but these registers are lexically and grammatically very similar (70-90%). The ‘standard’ form spoken in the capital Antananarivo and surrounding areas is based on the Merina dialect while other major dialects are Antankarana, Sakalava and Tanosy. There are about 13,000,000 first language speakers of Malagasy, in Madagascar. Outside Madagascar, the language is spoken in The Comoros and Réunion.

Malagasy belongs to the Austronesian language family, one of the largest linguistic families of the world. Malagasy is a member of the East Barito group of the Malayo-Polynesian branch of Austronesian. It is related closely to the languages of the Southeast Barito subgroup of southern Borneo and its closest relative is Ma'anyan of south Borneo (Kalimantan, Indonesia).

There are a number of dialects of Malagasy, differing in various degrees. ‘Standard’ Malagasy (termed Malagasy Plateau in Ethnologue), used as the official language in government, is heavily based on Merina, the dialect spoken in the capital and surrounding areas. Other regional dialects include Antankarana, spoken on the northern part of the island, Southern Betsimisaraka on the East Coast, and Tandroy-Mahafaly in the Southern part. All of these dialects have a 70-90% lexical similarity with the ‘Standard’ dialect

The Malagasy writing system was developed by members of the London Missionary Society and was adopted by the Malagasy king Radama I, in 1820. It is based on the Latin alphabet and consists of 21 letters: a, b, d, e, f, g, h, i, j, k, l, m, n, o, p, r, s, t, v, y, z.

The phonemic inventory of Malagasy consists of 20 consonants and 5 vowels. The consonant list includes four affricates, ts and dz, and tr and dr. Most consonants have prenasalized counterparts, the distinction being phonemic. The vowel /i/ is written as [y] word-finally. Orthographic [o] is pronounced /u/. Stress is phonemic and is placed on penultimate syllables except in cases of tri-syllabic words ending in one of the weak syllables –tra, -ka, and –na. In these cases the stress is antepenultimate.

Most morphological processes involve affixation, reduplication and incorporation. Malagasy is typologically a head-initial language and therefore it is heavily prefixed with only a handful of suffixes. The verbal system is characterized by rich morphology with verbal functional projections such as voice, causativity, reciprocity, and tense realized as prefixes attached to the verbal root. Some voice affixes are suffixes. Tense encodes past, present and future distinctions realized as n-, zero and h- prefixes, respectively. Malagasy has no agreement and features such as gender, person, number and case are not morphologically realized in the language, with the exception of the pronominal system and the existence of a plural morpheme ‘re’ that appears on demonstratives and some pronouns. Most verbs are formed by a categorically neutral base (a root) with the addition of verbalizing morphology. However, there are certain verbs that appear in root form.

In the nominal domain the genitive is formed by the possessed noun followed by the possessor with the insertion of a linker morpheme, realized usually as [n], inserted between possessor and possessee. Definiteness is expressed with the definite determiner ‘ny’ which precedes the noun. Demonstratives frame the noun phrase they modify. Adjectives, numerals, quantifiers, and relative clauses follow the noun they modify. Thus word order in the noun phrase follows the pattern demonstrative/determiner > noun > possessor > adjective > numeral > quantifier > relative clause > demonstrative, with a few exceptions. In contrast to most Indo-European languages, Malagasy has an elaborate system of about six demonstratives that encode different degrees of distance between the speaker and the modified noun. The pronominal system distinguishes three structural cases: nominative, accusative and genitive. The first person plural pronouns have exclusive and inclusive forms the first excluding and the later including the addressee in a discourse.

The most common word order in Malagasy is VOS, but SVO occurs sometimes in marked contexts. Like many other Western Austronesian languages, it has a complex voicing system that promotes verbal arguments (agent, theme, instrument, etc.) to the subject position. The promotion of arguments affects word order and is also reflected in distinctive verb morphology. For example, somewhat simplifying, when the actor is promoted to the subject position the verb is marked with one of the prefixes ‘an-’, ‘i-’ , or ‘a-’ (example (a), the voice morphology enclosed in brackets); when the theme argument (the entity affected by the action described by the verb) is promoted to subject the verb is marked with the suffix ‘–in’ (example (b)); and finally, when an oblique argument denoting a benefactor, an instrument, a location, or time, is promoted to subject, the verb is marked with one of the prefixes of actor-promotion and the suffix ‘-an’.

a. n(i)vidy akanjo hoan’ny zaza i Vao.
buy clothes for the child the Vao
‘Vao bought clothes for the child.’

b. novid(ín)’i Vao hoan’ny zaza ny akanjo.
buy the Vao for the child the clothes
‘The clothes were bought by Vao for the child.’

c. n(i)vidián(an)’i Vao akanjo ny zaza.
buy the Vao clothes the child
‘The child was bought clothes for by Vao.’

Negation is expressed with the element ‘tsy’ that appears in preverbal position. Other items that appear preverbally include adverbs and some quantifiers. The subject is separated by the rest of the clause with a number of functional elements such as the question particle ‘ve’ that forms yes/no questions, and negative polarity items. Wh-questions are formed with the wh-word in the first position of the clause, as in English, or appearing in its base position as in Chinese. Focus and topicalized structures are also formed with the insertion of some particle after the fronted focused or topicalized word.

Malagasy is the official language of Madagascar. The standard dialect of Malagasy is that of the capital, Antananarivo. French as a remnant of the colonial past is also widespread in official government publications, the media, education, and in everyday life and a large percentage of residents of bigger cities and surrounding areas are bilingual in Malagasy and French.

Little is known about the earliest history of Madagascar. Based on linguistic evidence, it is assumed that the first Malagasy tribes moved into the island of Madagascar from South-East Borneo, where the closest relatives of Malagasy (like Ma'anyan) are still spoken today. These first tribes came in contact with people living on the East coast of Africa which resulted in a number of Bantu loanwords in the language. From the Northern part of the island the Malagasy people spread to the rest of the island and eventually stopped contact with their Indonesian origin.

European missionary work from Britain and France started in Madagascar in the 19th century. These first missionaries codified and recorded the main Merina dialect which eventually became the Standard dialect of the language. Colonization by France from 1896 to 1958 resulted in promotion of French and marginalization of Malagasy in institutional and cultural domains. This dominance of French carried on into the first republic (1958-1972). Since 1972 there has been a strong effort to promote Malagasy in administration as well as media, communication and education. Standard Malagasy was designated the national language in the constitution of 1992. Currently there is a plethora of Malagasy-using mediums in the country, including newspapers and other publications and major radio stations.

Campbell, G. L. 2000. “Compendium of the World's Languages”. Vol. 2. Ladakhi to Zuni. Second edition. First published 1991. Routledge, London and New York.

Keenan, Edward L. & Maria Polinsky. 1998. “Malagasy (Austronesian)”. In A. Spencer & A. Zwicky (eds.) The Handbook of Morphology, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 563-623.

Paul, Ileana. 2000. “Malagasy Clause Structure”. Ph.D. Dissertation, Department of Linguistics, McGill University.

Pearson, Matthew. 2001. “The Clause Structure of Malagasy: A Minimalist Approach”. UCLA Dissertations in Linguistics 21, Department of Linguistics, UCLA.

Phillips, N. G. 1994. “Austronesian Languages”. In: Asher, R. E. (Editor-in-Chief). 1994. “The Encyclopedia of Languages and Linguistics”. Vol. 1. Pergamon Press, Oxford – New York – Seoul – Tokyo. 274 – 6.

Rasoloson, Janie and Carl Rubino. 2005. “Malagasy”. In A. Adelar and N. P. Himmelmann (eds.) The Austronesian Languages of Asia and Madagascar, London & New York: Routledge, 456-488.

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