Monday, February 18, 2013

Language Profile: Malay

This week's language profile is on Malay, an Austronesian macrolanguage with 39.1 million native speakers. As we've mentioned before in reference to Chinese, Arabic, and the Lahnda languages of India, a macrolanguage is a group of languages that share enough similarities to be considered varieties of one language. However, the member languages are often considered to be separate languages, usually due to political and cultural differences. 

The Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque, Brunei.
The two standard varieties of Malay are called Malay (to make things simpler, we'll refer to it by its other name, Malaysian) and Indonesian. We'll get to Indonesian in the weeks to come. Malaysian is used in Malaysia, Singapore, and Brunei as an official language. It has 10.3 million native speakers, which is the most of any of the Malay languages. 

Malay's origins can be found on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, where it has been used for centuries. Increased trade throughout the Malay Archipelago (you might know the area by its colonial name, the "East Indies"), led to the spread of Islam throughout the islands and the rise of Muslim kingdoms, which often used Malay as their lingua franca. Its importance in the region hasn't faded away since then.

Despite some estimates stating that up to 80% of Indonesian and Malaysian words are cognates, the differences between the two varieties are mainly lexical. This is mostly due to the the fact that Indonesia and Malaysia were under different rule during the colonial period. At the time, Indonesia was known as the Dutch East Indies, and its vocabulary was therefore more influenced by the Dutch language. Malaysia, on the other hand, was under British rule, and therefore was more influenced by the English language. 

The Ke Lok Si Buddhist temple in Penang, Malaysia.
Before the 20th century, Malay was generally written using Jawi, an Arabic-based alphabet. Nowadays, it's most commonly written using a Latin-based alphabet called Rumi, which is also the official script used in Malaysia. Interestingly, the romanization of the script was done in distinct ways in Malaysia and Indonesia. This was again due to the influence of colonizers. For example, the letter w was called we in Indonesia, similar to Dutch. In Malaysia, it was known as dabel yu, which is clearly reminiscent of the English equivalent. 

As usual, there are linguistic disputes as to how the various varieties of Malay should be classified. In general, Malaysians are said to support the idea that Malaysian and Indonesian are two varieties of the one Malay language, while Indonesians prefer to say that they're separate but related languages. However, everyone involved, including those in Brunei, seems to agree that mutual intelligibility is a good thing, and have worked to impose standard rules of language that apply to all the varieties of Malay, however you may classify them. Sounds like a reasonable way to do things!