The Malay language is historically one of the most politically powerful languages of the enormous Austronesian language family. For centuries, Malay has served as a common language throughout Indonesia, Malaysia, Sumatra, Borneo, and the Malay Peninsula, promoting a free exchange of commerce and culture among these areas.
Classification of the Malay Language
The Malay language is a member of the Austronesian, or Malayo-Polynesian, language family. The Austronesian language family is one of the world’s largest, with more than 1,200 distinct languages found from Madagascar to Hawaii.
The Austronesian family can be further split into two primary groups, Central-Eastern and Western. Malay is a member of this Western branch, along with Indonesian, Javanese and Filipino. Most linguists agree that Malay has had the most significant political impact throughout the history of all Austronesian languages.
The Old Malay Language
The Old Malay language is a direct ancestor of modern Malay, which is native to the Malay Peninsula and nearby areas of southern and central Sumatra. The earliest known written samples of the Old Malay language date to the 7th century.
They consist of three stone inscriptions, dating from approximately 683, 684 and 686, and are believed to have been associated with the Indian-influenced Srivijaya state of southern Sumatra. Known as the Kedukan Bukit inscriptions, the first of these stones was found by the River Tatang in the early 1900s.
Influence of Islam: Growing Power of the Malay Language
The introduction of Islam to the Malay Peninsula in the late 13th century allowed for the consolidation and growth of power of the Malay language. Numerous Malay-language sultanates were established on the Malay Peninsula, as well as along the northwestern coasts of Borneo.
In addition, a significant number of Islamic sultanates were established throughout areas of northern Sumatra and the Philippines. While these sultanates utilized local languages rather than Malay, they also adopted a large number of loanwords from the Malay language, and many historians believe that Malay-speaking missionaries played a significant role in the establishment of these sultanates.
The Written Malay Language
Throughout history, a number of varying scripts have been used to convey the Malay language in written form. Old Malay utilized the Pallava and Kawi scripts. With the introduction of Islam, the Malay language began to make use of an Arabic-based script known as Jawi.
Today, Jawi serves as the official script of the Malay language in Brunei, along with a Latin-based Malay script known as Rumi. The Rumi script was developed in the 17th century, as Malay-speaking regions came into increased contact with European traders. Rumi now serves as the official script in Malaysia. In recent years efforts have been undertaken to revive and preserve the Jawi script in Malaysia, but the Latin-based Rumi script remains most common in both informal and formal use.
Geographic Considerations: Longstanding Power of the Malay Language
The significance of geography to the growth of the Malay language cannot be underestimated. Malay-speaking regions were located in areas favored by international trade and commerce, and in many cases Malay came to be the chosen language of business in these parts.
For example, when the Dutch East India Company came to Indonesia in the 17th century, European traders discovered that Malay served as a dominant lingua franca in many major ports of the area. Consequently, Malay became the language of commerce throughout the archipelago.
Malay as a Unifying Force
Today Malay has maintained its prominent status throughout the region. It became the basis for the national language of Malaysia, and a dialect of Malay known as the Indonesian language (or Bahasa Indonesian) serves as the national language in Indonesia.
Although the number of native Javanese speakers in Indonesia outnumbers that of Malay speakers, Malay continues to serve as a neutral alternative in Indonesia, where it is spoken at least as a second language by the majority of the population. This common language also allows for a free exchange of commerce and culture between Malaysia and Indonesia today.
Relationship Between the Indonesian and Malay Language
The Malay and Indonesian languages are closely related. In fact, Indonesian is technically a dialect of the Malay language. The primary differences between standard Indonesian and Malay exist in pronunciation, vocabulary, and accent. Differences between the two languages are believed to have developed due to influences, as the Dutch and Javanese languages came to influence the Indonesian language and the English to influence Malay.
Nevertheless, Malay and Indonesian have maintained close ties. In 1972, the countries of Indonesia and Malaysia, where Malay (also known as Malaysian) serves as the primary language, agreed on a revised standardized spelling in order to facilitate communication and commerce between Indonesia and Malaysia. This allowed for the free exchange of Malaysian and Indonesian literature and improved communication between the countries.
Modern Malay Language and Dialects
Today the Malay language is widely spoken throughout Malaysia and Indonesia. It serves as the national language in Malaysia, where it is officially known as Bahasa Malaysia. Malay is also spoken by an estimated 33 million people throughout Sumatra, Borneo, the Malay Peninsula, and a number of small islands in the same region.
There are many dialects in the Malay language. The most prominent is the southern dialect of the Malay Peninsula, which serves as the foundation for the standard Malay language. Other significant dialects of the Malay language include Bahasa Indonesian, a Malay pidgin known as Bazaar Malay that was adopted by colonial powers in Indonesia, and a version of Bazaar Malay known as Baba Malay that is spoken in some Chinese communities in present-day Malaysia.
Malay Quick Facts
Alternate Names & Spellings: Bahasa Malaysia, Bahasa Malayu, Malayu, Melaju, Melayu, Standard Malay
Language Family: Austronesian, Malayo-Polynesian, Malayic, Malayan, Local Malay
Spoken by Approximately 33,000,000 people
Also Spoken In: United States
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