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19 oktober 2007 01:40

Bahasa Malaysia

Bahasa Malaysia

Bahasa Malaysia or Bahasa Melayu [1] , is the national language of Malaysia. Bahasa means ‘language‘, so essentially Bahasa Malaysia means ‘the language of Malaysia‘. In this Entry, it will be shortened to BM for convenience [2] . It originated from the group of languages called Austronesian which is further broken up into Malayo-Polynesian, Western Malayo-Polynesian, Sundic, Malayic, and finally Malayan groups.

In the South-East Asian region, the generic name for the language is Malay, or Melayu, which is spoken in Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia. It has been spoken in the Malay Archipelago (including Java, Borneo and Sumatra) since the 7th Century. 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. It is widely believed that the word ‘Melayu‘ originated from Mo-Lo-Yu, a place in Eastern Sumatra.

This Entry focuses on Bahasa Malaysia, and the Malay that is used in Malaysia. However, it should be noted that the basics of BM are similar to those of Bahasa Indonesia as well.


Malay was the lingua franca [3] in the Malay Archipelago. During the 7th Century, trade was flourishing right across the region and there was great need for a language that could be spoken by everyone. It so happened that Malay was one of the easiest languages to learn, so it soon became used right across the Malay Archipelago. During the days of the Malacca Sultanate (1400AD - 1511AD), Malay was widely spoken, even by the Indian, Chinese and Arab merchants who indulged in the spice trade. Malay‘s status as the lingua franca has been maintained until today.

In Malaysia, Malay has slowly evolved into BM, which is spoken by all the races in the countries, including Chinese, Indians, Sikhs and indigenous tribes, which make up about 30-40% of the population.

Language Origin

Like English, BM is an assimilation of many different languages. Due to BM‘s origins from Malay and the flourishing trade with India and China, Sanskrit (the language of Hinduism and Buddhism) was incorporated into it. Then when Islam was introduced to South East Asia, Arabic words were incorporated. When the Portuguese, Dutch and English conquered Malacca, Malaya [4] and Indonesia, the Malay vocabulary was enriched once again.

Today, more and more modern English words have been brought into BM and every once in a while the topic of how BM is adopting too many English words pops back into the news. This quickly fizzles out when people begin to realise that the language is evolving and that the current BM does not seem to be able to cope with some of the newer English jargon. Introduced words include signifikan (significant), diskriminasi (discrimination) and impak (impact). Some confusion occurred 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 it up in the dictionary and verified it.

Malay words in English

Being the lingua franca of a vast area, it is not surprising that there are Malay words in English. One of the most famous examples is ‘amok‘. It was derived from the Malay word amuk, which refers to a person acting like a madman. Then there is ‘ketchup‘ (from kicap which means sauce), not forgetting the orangutan, which is ‘jungle man‘ or ‘man of the forest‘ in Malay. ‘Sarong‘ is another Malay word which has gained popularity in English.

Types of Malay in Malaysia

The official and standardised version of BM (the equivalent Received Pronunciation or RP in English) is known as Bahasa Baku. This is essentially a way of pronouncing the language, and was implemented in the 1990s. Officially and for examinations, ‘a‘s are now to be pronounced as ‘ah‘. For example, ‘orang‘ is to be pronounced as ‘o-rhang‘ and not as ‘o-reng‘.

There is also Kelantanese (a state in Malaysia), Javanese, and Peranakan Malay (which resulted from an inter-marriage between Chinese and Malay). Each of these dialects differ slightly from BM in their pronunciation and vocabulary.

Other Facts

  • BM is regulated by the Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (DBP) in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The DBP publishes the Kamus Dewan (which is the official dictionary which lists all accepted words in BM) and updates it from time to time. It also clears up any confusion in grammar and decides which words can be used in BM.
  • BM is a very polite language. There are no real swear or curse words. A harsh statement in BM would consist of the words kurang ajar (badly brought up or uncouth) [5] and derhaka (treacherous or unfilial towards parents, masters, etc).

Some BM Grammar

BM is an agglutinative language - meaning that the definition of the word can be changed by adding the necessary prefixes or suffixes.

Root words are either nouns or verbs. For example, makan (to eat), can become memakan (eating, is eating), dimakan (eaten), as well as makanan (food). Initial consonants also sometimes undergo mutation when prefixes are added. For example, sapu (sweep) becomes penyapu (broom).

Plurals are indicated by repetition: for instance rumah (house) and rumah-rumah (houses). As always there are exceptions to the rule, eg, gunung (mountain) and gunung-ganang (mountains).

There are no gender pronouns: dia means he/she.

There are measure words:

For example:

  • Sebuah rumah (sebuah means one, where ‘se‘ means one and ‘buah‘ is the measure words for house.)
  • Sebatang – this indicates a long object eg sungai (river) or pen (pen).
  • Sebilah – this is for sharp objects, eg, pisau (knife).
  • Sepasang – this is for things in pairs - eg, selipar (slippers) or suami isteri (husband and wife).

A Quick Crash Course

Some Simple Phrases

  • 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
  • Berapa? – How much?
  • Nama saya... – My name is …
  • Ya – Yes
  • Tidak – No
  • Minta maaf – Sorry


  • 1-satu
  • 2-dua
  • 3-tiga
  • 4-empat
  • 5-lima
  • 6-enam
  • 7-tujuh
  • 8-lapan
  • 9-sembilan
  • 10-sepuluh
  • 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. However, saying that, once you get the basics down, it is straightforward and there are no variations to the rule - there are no silent vowels or letters. BM sounds as you would expect it to read.

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.


[1] Owing to a Government directive in the 1990s, it is now officially called Bahasa Malaysia

[2] It is also commonly known as ‘BM‘ in Malaysia. For example, you could ask someone, ‘How did you do in your BM paper?‘.

[3] A common language spoken by speakers of different languages.

[4] The old name for Western (or Peninsular) Malaysia.

[5] Al Gore earned this label when he criticised the Malaysian Government‘s handling of the Anwar Ibrahim (former Malaysian deputy prime minister) case at an APEC summit. He was rebuked for meddling in Malaysia‘s affairs.


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