Malay is a major language of the Austronesian family. Standardized varieties of Malay are the official language of Malaysia (Malaysian), Indonesia (Indonesian) and Brunei. Malay is one of four official languages of Singapore, and is a working language of East Timor, a consequence of over twenty years of Indonesian administration. It is spoken natively by 40 million people across the Malacca Strait, including the coasts of the Malay Peninsula of Malaysia and southern Thailand, Riau province, the eastern coast of Sumatra, and the Riau Islands in Indonesia, as has been established as a native language of Jakarta and of part of western coastal Sarawak and Kalimantan in Borneo. As a second language, Indonesian is spoken by an estimated 140 million.
In Malaysia, the standard language is called Bahasa Malaysia “Malaysian language“. In Singapore, Brunei, southern Thailand, and the southern Philippines it is called Bahasa Melayu “Malay language”, and in Indonesia it is generally called Bahasa Indonesia, “Indonesian language“, though Bahasa Nasional “National Language” and Bahasa Persatuan/Pemersatu “Unifying Language” are also heard. However, in areas of Sumatra and Riau where the language is indigenous, Indonesians refer to it as Bahasa Melayu.
There are many hypotheses as to where the Malay language originated. One of these is that it came from Sumatra island. The oldest written documents in Malay, dated from the end of the 7th century AD, were found on Bangka Island, off the southeastern coast of Sumatra (the Kedukan Bukit Inscription) and in Palembang in southern Sumatra. “Malayu” was the name of an old kingdom located in Jambi province in eastern Sumatra. It was known in ancient Chinese texts as “Mo-lo-yo” and mentioned in the Nagarakertagama, an old Javanese epic written in 1365, as one of the “tributary states” of the Majapahit kingdom in eastern Java.
The use of Malay throughout insular and peninsular Southeast Asia is linked to the rise of Muslim kingdoms and the spread of Islam, itself a consequence of growing regional trade. At the time of European colonization, the Johor-Riau Sultanate had ascendancy. Since the 15th century, the Johor-Riau dialect of Malay had been used as a lingua franca throughout the Malay Archipelago, as the similar dialect of Malacca had been used before it. When Johor-Riau was divided between British Malaya (Johor) and the Dutch East Indies (Riau), its language was accorded official status in both territories.
Indonesia pronounced Riau (Johor) Malay its official language (Bahasa Indonesia) when it gained independence. Since 1928, nationalists and young people throughout the Indonesian archipelago had declared Malay to be Indonesia’s only official language, as proclaimed in the Sumpah Pemuda “Youth Vow.” Thus Indonesia was the first country to designate Malay as an official language.
In Malaysia, the 1957 Article 152 of the Federation adopted Johor (Malacca) Malay as the official language (Bahasa Malaysia). The name “Malaysia”, in both language and country, emphasized that the nation consisted of more than just ethnic Malays. In 1986 the official name was changed to Bahasa Melayu, but in 2007 it was changed back.
“Bahasa Melayu” was defined as Brunei’s official language in the country’s 1959 Constitution.
The Indonesian and Malaysian dialects of Malay are separated by some centuries of different vocabulary development, partly due to the influence of different colonial languages; Dutch in the case of Indonesia, formerly the Dutch East Indies, and English in the case of Malaysia, Singapore, and Brunei, which were formerly under British rule. However, Indonesia and Malaysia largely unified their previously divergent orthographies in 1972, and they along with Brunei have set up a joint commission to develop common scientific and technical vocabulary and otherwise cooperate to keep their standards convergent.
Some Malay dialects, however, show only limited mutual intelligibility with the standard language; for example, Kelantanese or Sarawakian pronunciation is difficult for many fellow Malaysians to understand, while Indonesian contains many words unfamiliar to speakers of Malaysian, some because of Javanese, Sundanese, or other local language influence, and some because of slang.
The language spoken by the Peranakan (Straits Chinese, a hybrid of Chinese settlers from the Ming Dynasty and local Malays) is a unique patois of Malay and the Hokkien Chinese, which is mostly spoken in the former Straits Settlements of Penang and Malacca in Malaysia, and the Indonesian Archipelago.