Bahasa Malaysia / Bahasa Melayu

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Bahasa Malaysia or Bahasa Melayu, generally called Malay is the national language of Malaysia. It has been in existence in the Malay Archipelago (inclusive of Java, Borneo and Sumatra) since the 7th century AD. From the linguistic point of view, it belongs to the group of languages called Austronesian which is further broken up into Malayo-Polynesian, Western Malayo-Polynesian, Sundic, Malayic, and finally Malayan groups. It is widely believed that the word 'Melayu' originated from Mo-Lo-Yu, a place in Eastern Sumatra. 'Bahasa' means language in Bahasa Malaysia. In this entry, it will be shortened to BM for convenience.


BM was the lingua franca in the Malay Archipelago. Lingua franca refers to a common language spoken by speakers of different languages. During the 7th century, trade was flourishing in the Malay Archipelago and there was great need for a language that can be spoken by everyone. It so happened that BM was one of the easiest language to learn back then and it was chosen as the lingua franca. During the days of the Malacca Sultanate (1400 AD-1511 AD), BM was widely spoken, even by the Indian, Chinese and Arab merchants who indulged in the spice trade. BM’s status as the lingua franca has been maintained until today. In Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei and Indonesia (the modern countries that make up Malay Archipelago), BM is spoken by all the races in the countries, including Chinese, Indians, Sikhs and indigenous tribes, which makes up about 30-40 % of the population.

Language Origin

Like English, BM is an assimilation of many different languages. BM was a language generally spoken by the people of the Malay Archipelago. Due to the flourishing trade with India and China, Sanskrit, the language of the Hindu-Buddha religion, was conglomerated into BM. Then, when Islam was introduced to South East Asia, Arab words were incorporated into BM. When the Portuguese, Dutch and English conquered Malacca, Malaya (the old name for Malaysia) and Indonesia, the BM vocabulary was enriched once again. Today, more and more modern English words have been brought into BM. Such words include signifikan (significant), diskriminasi (discrimination) and impak (impact). Some confusion occured when the word dessert (English) was translated into desert(BM) when a local McDonald’s put up a sign with the word 'desert'. Everyone thought it was a mistake by McDonald’s until someone looked up the dictionary and verified it.

BM words in English

Being the lingua franca in a vast area, it is not surprising that there are BM words in English. One of the most famous example is 'amok'. It was derived from the BM word 'amuk', which refers to a person acting like a madman. Then there is 'ketchup', from 'kicap' which means sauce and not forgetting the ape, orangutan which is 'jungle man' or 'man of the forest' in BM. Lastly, there is the word 'godown' from 'gudang', which is a warehouse.

Other Important Facts…

• It is the official language of Singapore, Malaysia and Brunei
• It is spoken in Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore, southern Thailand, southern part of the Philippines and Indonesia.
• The total number of speakers is about 200-300 million
• It is regulated by the Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (DBP) in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The DBP publishes the Kamus Dewan and updates it from time to time. It also clears up any confusion in grammar, decides which words can be used in BM, publishes books in BM and sells books.
• The official dictionary is the Kamus Dewan. It lists all the accepted BM words in Malaysia.

Types of BM

The official and standardised version of BM is known as Bahasa Baku.
It is worth noting that Bahasa Malaysia is the term used for this language in Malaysia.
Brunei, Singapore and other countries (except Indonesia) simply call it Bahasa Melayu.
Bahasa Indonesia is the Indonesian version of the language
Each of the languages are slightly different from each other because of the different pronunciation and terms.
There are also Kelantanese (a state in Malaysia), Javanese, Peranakan Malay (which is an inter-marriage between Chinese and Malay). Each of these languages are slightly different than BM in pronunciation and vocabulary.

Some BM Grammar
BM is an agglutinative language, meaning that the meaning of the word can be changed by adding the necessary prefixes or suffixes. Root words are either nouns or verbs, e.g. masak (to cook) yields memasak (cooks, is cooking, etc.), memasakkan (cooks, is cooking, etc. [something]), dimasak (cooked - passive) as well as pemasak (cook - person), masakan (cooking, cookery). Many initial consonants undergo mutation when prefixes are added: e.g. sapu (sweep) becomes penyapu (broom); panggil (to call) becomes memanggil (calls, is calling, etc.), tapis (sieve) becomes menapis (sieves, is sieving, etc.)

Plurals are indicated by repetition: for instance Rumah and Rumah-rumah which are house and houses respectively.

There are no gender pronouns: dia means he/she

There are numeral coefficients: Sebuah rumah (sebuah means one house, se means one and buah is the numeral coefficients)

Other examples:Sebatang(indicating a long object)sungai(river)/pen etc.

Sebilah(for sharp things)

Sepasang (pairs)

Some simple phrases in Malay
• Selamat datang - Welcome
• Terima kasih - Thank you
• Selamat pagi - Good morning
• Selamat tengah hari - Good afternoon
• Selamat petang - Good evening (note that 'Selamat petang' must not be used at night as in English. For a general greeting, use 'Salam sejahtera')
• Selamat malam - Good night
• Jumpa lagi - See you again
• Apa khabar? - How are you?
• Baik - Fine, good


20-dua puluh
100-satu ratus/seratus
1000-seribu/ satu ribu
10000-sepuluh ribu
100000-seratus ribu
1000000-sejuta/ satu juta


The consonant sounds are all the same with English but it is the vowel sounds that create much confusion

The BM vowel sounds are rather limited compared to the variety of pronunciation for a single vowel in English

The "a" is the aa sound in ah and calm.

There are two "E" sounds which is the low and high "e". The low "e" sound sounds like the a in about, which sounds something like eer. The high "E" is the e in met and lend.

The "I" is the i in "fit" and "win"

The "o" is the o in "spot" and "lot"

THe "u" is the u in "could" and not the u in "university"

Orangutan is the most famous mispronounced word from BM. Commonly pronouced "orenguten" it is actually orangootan in BM.

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