Malay - interesting facts


Malay is the native language of some 80 million people worldwide (more than 1% of the world's population) and is ranked 14th on the list of the world's most popular languages by number of native speakers.

Malay is the official language in Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore and Indonesia. In the latter country, the standardized Malay language, Indonesian (Bahasa Indonesia), serves as a supra-regional language (status lingua franca), enabling communication between ethnic groups. In addition, the Malay language is spoken by some residents of Thailand, the Philippines and the Cocos Islands. It is estimated that more than 200 million people have Malay.

Bahasa Melayu belongs to the family of Austronesian languages, specifically the Malay-Polynesian group. At a very early stage, the language was influenced by Sanskrit and Tamil. Intensive development of Malay took place during the Sultanate of Malacca (15th century) – then a lot of Arabic borrowings penetrated this language (in other periods Malay borrowed Dutch, Portuguese, Chinese and English words, etc.). The Malay language was written using a modified Arabic alphabet, which has survived to modern times under the name of Java. Currently, the common form of writing is the Latin alphabet.

In a broad sense, Malay can be treated as a macro language, i.e. a language consisting of several related varieties spoken by the inhabitants of Southeast Asia. The fundamental differences between the two main Malay variants used in Malaysia and Indonesia are lexical. Indonesian has a higher number of borrowings from the Dutch and Javanese.

The Malay language standards are regulated by the Institute of Language and Literature (in Malaysia itself) and the Language Council of Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia (an international institution operating in countries where Malay is the official language).

Malay has no variation by time, person, number, type, or coincidence. The correct meaning of sentences is determined by the context of the statement or additional words specifying, for example, the time of the event (future or past).

The plural can sometimes be expressed by reduplication, i.e. the repetition of a word, e.g. orang (human), orang-orang (human).

As mentioned, the development of the Malay vocabulary was influenced by borrowings from many languages (in addition to those mentioned above, also from other Austronesian languages). Therefore, for many concepts, there are numerous synonyms; for example, a book in Malay is a hollow, kitab and beech (borrowed from Sanskrit, Arabic and English).


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A Language with a Wide Geographic Range

The Malay language, also known as Bahasa Melayu, belongs to the Austronesian language family and is one of the most significant languages in Southeast Asia. As the official language of Malaysia, Singapore, and Brunei, as well as the national language of Indonesia (in the form of Bahasa Indonesia), the Malay language is used by over 200 million people. Its role as the lingua franca of the region stems from historical trade, political, and cultural influences that have led to its expansion across various geographic areas.

Simple Grammar

One of the features that distinguishes the Malay language from other languages is its relatively simple grammar, especially when compared to Polish. There are no cases in Malay, and time is expressed through particles. Furthermore, Malay does not have grammatical genders, making learning easier for Polish speakers. The sentence structure is also simplified, typically relying on the subject-predicate-object scheme.

Spelling Rules

The Malay language is written using the Rumi alphabet, which is a variant of the Latin alphabet. This gives Polish speakers easier access to learning the Malay language, as the spelling rules are familiar. It's worth mentioning that in the past, the Malay language also used the Jawi alphabet, based on Arabic script. Nowadays, its use is primarily limited to religious and cultural contexts.

Vocabulary from Various Sources

The vocabulary of the Malay language is very diverse, drawing from many sources. Languages such as Sanskrit, Tamil, Chinese, Arabic, English, and Portuguese have influenced it. For Polish speakers, this can be interesting, as many words may sound familiar. Additionally, the presence of loanwords from other languages can facilitate the learning of Malay vocabulary, especially if the learner knows one of these languages.

Variety of Dialects

The Malay language is characterized by a variety of dialects that can be found in Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, and Indonesia. These dialectal differences can seem fascinating to Polish speakers, as they can observe how the Malay language has evolved and adapted to various cultural and geographic environments. Some of these dialects, such as the Kelantan-Pattani dialect, can be difficult to understand even for native speakers of Malay.

Official Language of ASEAN

The Malay language serves as one of the six official languages of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), alongside English, Chinese, Arabic, Russian, and Spanish. ASEAN plays a crucial role in promoting economic, political, and cultural cooperation in the Southeast Asian region, making knowledge of the Malay language valuable for those interested in working with this region.

Malay vs. Indonesian

Although the Malay and Indonesian languages are mutually intelligible, there are many subtle differences between them. These differences include both vocabulary and grammar, as well as different usage of certain expressions and phrases. It's worth noting that learning one of these languages makes learning the other easier, which is an added advantage for those learning the Malay language.

The Presence of Malay in Media

The Malay language is present in various forms of media, such as press, television, radio, and the internet. This provides those learning the language with broad access to different sources, allowing immersion in the region's culture and expanding their knowledge of societies that use the Malay language. It's worth noting that Malay is also used as an international language in Southeast Asia, which means knowing this language can be helpful in travels and business contacts.

Influence of Malay on Other Languages

The Malay language has influenced the development of other languages in the Southeast Asian region, both in terms of grammar and vocabulary. An example of such influence is the Chavacano creole language used in the Philippines, which has numerous borrowings from Malay. Moreover, the influence of Malay can be observed in some Oceanic languages, such as Tetum, used in East Timor. For Polish speakers, exploring the influence of Malay on other languages can be an interesting aspect of studying the history and culture of the region.

Malay as a Language of Learning

In recent years, the Malay language has been gaining popularity as a language of learning, both in an academic context and among those learning foreign languages. More and more universities and language schools offer Malay language courses, and the number of available learning materials for this language, such as textbooks, online courses, or applications, is constantly growing. For Polish speakers, learning the Malay language can be an interesting choice, offering an understanding of the rich culture of the Southeast Asian region and broadening professional and personal horizons.


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Your Essential Malay




yes ya (ja)
no tidak (tiˈdak)
please tolong (təˈloŋ)
thank you terima kasih (təˈrima ˈkasih)
I'm sorry maaf (maʔaf)
good morning selamat pagi (səˈlamat ˈpagi)
good evening selamat petang (səˈlamat pəˈtaŋ)
goodbye selamat malam (səˈlamat ˈmalam)
good night selamat tinggal (səˈlamat ˈtiŋgal)
hi hai (hai)
how are you?  Apa khabar? (ʔapa ˈkhabar)
well Terima kasih, baik. (təˈrima ˈkasih, baik)
My name is... Nama saya... (ˈnama saˈja...)
I don't understand Saya tidak faham (saˈja tiˈdak ˈfaham)



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The influence of Malay on English

English, a linguistically absorptive language, has been significantly influenced by numerous languages globally, and Malay is no exception. This influence has been most profound in areas where the British Empire had colonised regions where Malay was spoken, such as Malaysia and Singapore.

One of the most iconic contributions of Malay to English is the word "amok," originating from the Malay term "amuk," meaning to attack fiercely. "To run amok" is now a standard part of English vocabulary, often used to describe uncontrollable behaviour.

The rich biodiversity of the Malay-speaking world has also led to numerous words related to flora and fauna entering English. "Orangutan," meaning "man of the forest," and "cassowary," from "kasuari," are examples of this, as are "bamboo" and "mangrove," which describe significant plant species native to these regions.

Culinary terms form a significant part of the Malay-English lexicon. "Satay," a popular skewered and grilled meat dish, and "sambal," a spicy chilli paste, have become favourites on global menus.

In terms of clothing, the Malay word "sarong," a large tube or length of fabric, often wrapped around the waist, has been universally adopted in English. Similarly, "batik," a technique of wax-resist dyeing applied to cloth, has also been borrowed.

Maritime terms like "junk," referring to a type of ancient sailing ship, and "cockatoo" for the bird species, were also borrowed due to the extensive maritime tradition in the region.

These examples enrich the English language and reflect the cultural and historical exchanges between the English-speaking world and the Malay archipelago.


Malay proverbs

Malaysia's rich and vibrant culture is beautifully encapsulated in its traditional proverbs or 'peribahasa.' These pearls of wisdom, forged in the crucible of time and deeply steeped in Malay customs and worldview, offer a fascinating insight into the ethos of the Malay society. From the vivid imagery they paint to the profound life lessons they impart, these proverbs are a testament to the intricate tapestry of Malay life and its connection to nature, relationships, and self-awareness. They underline the importance of humility, respect for one's roots, the value of reciprocity, and a measured approach to life's challenges. For an English speaker in London, these sayings can provide a captivating peek into the world of Malay wisdom, revealing surprising similarities to English idioms yet maintaining their own exotic charm. The exploration of Malay proverbs is akin to a colourful journey into the heart of Malaysia's cultural heritage, where age-old wisdom meets the vibrancy of language in a unique blend.

"Harimau mati meninggalkan belang, manusia mati meninggalkan nama." This translates to "A tiger dies leaving its stripes, a man dies leaving his name." This Malay proverb emphasizes the importance of leaving a lasting legacy, a lesson that resonates universally.

"Seperti kacang lupakan kulit." This translates as "Like a bean forgetting its shell," which describes someone who forgets their roots or origins. It speaks to the value of remembering one's cultural identity and heritage.

"Bagai aur dengan tebing." Translated, this means "Like bamboo with the riverbank." It describes a relationship of mutual dependence, akin to the English saying "You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours."

"Bagaikan menyamak tikus." This translates to "Like trying to skin a mouse." It refers to taking a lot of effort for a small gain, similar to "making a mountain out of a molehill."

"Gajah sama gajah berjuang, pelanduk mati di tengah-tengah." This translates to "When elephants fight, it's the muntjac that dies in the middle." This proverb echoes the English saying "When two elephants fight, it's the grass that suffers," highlighting the harm that power struggles can cause to innocent bystanders.

"Bagai telur di hujung tanduk." This translates to "Like an egg at the tip of a horn," referring to a precarious situation, much like "walking on thin ice" in English.

"Pisang tidak akan berbuah dua kali." This translates to "A banana tree will not fruit twice," illustrating the idea of lost opportunities and that certain things only happen once.

"Diam-diam ubi berisi." This means "The silent yam is full (of substance)," emphasizing that quiet people often have much to contribute – similar to "Still waters run deep."

"Tak kenal maka tak cinta." This translates to "To not know is to not love," emphasizing the importance of understanding to appreciate something or someone truly.

"Bagaikan langit dengan bumi." This translates to "Like the sky and the earth," referring to two people or things that are vastly different, much like "apples and oranges" in English. This proverb showcases the natural metaphorical language inherent in Malay sayings.


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