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Malay Citations   Malay Links   Select a New Language

Number of Speakers: 18,000,000

Key Dialects: See below

Geographical Center: Malaysia

There are about 7,181,000 speakers of Malay in Malaysia comprising about 47% of the population (1986), including 248,757 in Sarawak (1980 census), 2,000,000 in Kelantan and Trengganu, and 1,000,000 in other parts of Malaysia. The speakers increase to 10,000,000 in Malaysia if we include second language speakers (1977 SIL). The total population of speakers in all countries is 18,000,000 or more.

The language is spoken in all districts of Peninsular Malaysia, Sabah, and Sarawak. Malay is also spoken in Brunei (only in formal domains like religion and government and is taught in schools up to third grade); Indonesia (Sumatra) (10,000,000 including 2,000,000 in Riau, 40,000 in Bangka, and 170,000 in Belitung); Myanmar, Singapore (396,000 or 15.5% of the population); Thailand, UAE, USA.

Malay is one of 38 languages of the Local Malay group that ultimately belongs to the western part of the Malayo-Polynesian group of the Austronesian family of languages, which contains about 1,262 languages in total.

Ethnologue (Grimes, 1992) lists the following dialects for Malay: Trengganu, Kelantan, Kedah, Perak (Southern Malay), Sarawak Malay, Bazaar Malay (Low Malay, Pasar Malay, Pasir Malay, Trade Malay). Gil and Tadmor (1997) show the existence of a few language varieties that have not been described in the broader area of Malaysia and Indonesia. There are varieties with a diminished range of functions and no native speakers, including Bazaar Malay, and varieties associated with a wide range of functions and populations of native speakers comprising most other Malay/Indonesian dialects.

The dialects can be typologically classified into ethnically homogeneous Malay dialects that are generally spoken locally by indigenous populations like Nonthaburi Malay, Siak Malay and so on; ethnically homogeneous non-Malay dialects like Baba Malay, and Orang Asli Malay; ethnically heterogeneous Malay dialects spoken in urban centers or other regions which have been targets of recent migrations, like Singaporean Malay or Kuala Lumpur Malay and ethnically heterogeneous non-Malay dialects instantiated by some of the modern Indonesian common varieties, specifically those spoken in regions to which few or no Malays have migrated, like Sulsel (Sulawesi Selatan) Indonesian and Irian Indonesian.

Malay uses either an Arabic script called Jawi or a Romanized script, called Rumi. The Arabic script has 15 vowels from which eight are basic and seven are compound forms created by the combination of two vowels. There are 36 consonants, 25 of which are divided into groups of 5 consonants with closely related sounds. Each of these consonants has, in turn, about 14 other variants when each of the vowel 'sounds' is added to it. These variants are obtained by writing the consonant along with a symbol that represents the corresponding vowel equivalents. These symbols are called 'maatras', and can be used with any of the 36 consonants. There are 14 ‘maatras’, nine of which are placed to the right of the consonant, three are found on the left and two are placed on both sides.

Malay is not morphologically rich. Nouns are not marked for number or gender, plurality is expressed either by the introduction of quantifiers or numerals or the use of collective nouns or even by the use of reduplication. The only exception is borrowings from Arabic in plural form, used for both plural and singular in Malay. Gender is sometimes also indicated with the use of auxiliary words that denote the properties of ‘male/female’ and also ‘animate/inanimate’, and ‘human/non-human’.

Adjectives are also not inflected for number, gender, or case. They follow the nouns they modify and when more than one adjective modifies the same noun their meaning must be related, otherwise the relative pronoun ‘jang’ must be inserted. Comparative forms are formed with the use of specific degree adverbials.

Personal pronouns are inflected for person but are used rarely and only in extremely informal situations.

Finally, the language uses an extensive list of classifiers before nominal expressions while there are no definite or indefinite articles and those concepts are expressed with the use of quantifiers. A number of affixes indicate voice and transitivity in verbal morphology. As with nouns, gender, number, and even tense are not indicated by affixes. They are all defined by the context or the use of auxiliary words in the verbal clause. For example, the present is usually implied but may be emphasized by an adverb of time. The same is true for the past, which is either not expressed at all and is identified by the context, or is expressed with the use of time adverbs or auxiliaries. The same holds for the future tense.

Auxiliary words such as conjunctions or adverbs are also used to express the imperative, conditional, and vetative moods, while negation is formed with the use of the word tiada ‘not existing’ and interrogatives with the suffix -kah attached to the word that is emphasized in the question.

The word order in Malay is Subject-Verb-Object. However, this order is not strict. Focus and topic designated words appear usually sentence initially in the language, breaking the SVO order. Furthermore, elliptical structures are quite common in the language allowing for specific words to be omitted when their meaning can be deduced from the remaining words of the structure.

In contemporary Malay society, Malay is considered to be the standard language for speech and conversation by all the inhabitants of the Malay archipelago - encompassing within its boundaries a plethora of different cultures and sub-ethnic groups that are divided not only by geographic but also religious and other boundaries as well. A large number of minorities from neighboring countries also live in the area, speaking Chinese, Khmer and Malayo-Polynesian languages. As a result of colonization, English is still considered a prestige language among the educated classes. It is still used in a large part of higher education institutions. However, Malay is officially the medium of scientific, administrative, legal and other matters.

The oldest Malay manuscript that exists today was written in the 1600s. Prior to this, Malay was believed to have been written in Jawi - a rough combination of Javanese and Arabic script.

Rare authentic examples of early Malay script and literature indicate that Malay (by the end of the 13th century) had had a rich past which evolved under the influence of Sanskrit, Arabic and Polynesian cultures. One of the earliest Malay inscriptions is a verse found on a tombstone from Minye Tujoh in Acheh dated 1380 A.D.

Through the following three centuries, the output of Malay literature grew extensively and the literary production ranged from Hindu influenced texts to Islamic stories. Early in the 19th century, ancient Malay texts began to be studied.

With the influence of colonial administration gaining a bigger impact in the area, in the early 20th century the trend for texts to be printed in the original Jawi script became less and less attractive. Handwritten manuscripts were a rarity by the 1920s and although Jawi was maintained as the main script for printing text right up till the late 1950s, it was phased out in favor of the Romanized or "Rumi" alphabets.

Jawi is still used in the teaching of religious texts and can be found widely used in the northern and east coast states of Malaysia, notably Kelantan and Trengganu as well as in Brunei. But the teaching of Jawi is certainly less appreciated and rarely used in the urban areas of Malaysia.

In 1957 Malay was established as the national language of Malaysia and this change affected further territories that joined Malaysia later.

Adam, Tassilo and James P. Butler. 1948. Grammar of the Malay Language. New York.

Campbell, G. L. 1991. Compendium of the World's Languages, Vol. 1 -2. London and New York: Routledge.

Gil, David & Uri Tadmor. 1997. Towards a Typology of Malay/Indonesian Dialects. Paper presented at the Symposium on Malay and Indonesian Linguistics, 14 and 15 January 1997, Penang, Malaysia.

Grimes, B. F., ed. 1992. Ethnologue, Languages of the World. Dallas, TX: Summer Institute of Linguistics.

Linguistic Society of America. 1992. Directory of Programs in Linguistics in the United States and Canada. Washington, DC.

Omar, Asmah. 1975. Essays on Malaysian Linguistics. Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa Dan Pustaka.

Ruhlen, M. 1987. A Guide to the World's Languages, Vol. 1: Classification. London: Edward Arnold.

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