Malay Dialects

The Malay language is an Austronesian language predominantly spoken in Malaysia, with a significant number of speakers also found in other countries like Indonesia and the Philippines. It has numerous dialects spoken across the region, with Bahasa serving as its official standardized dialect in Malaysia after gaining prominence following the race riots of 1969 (WorldAtlas).

Phonologically, the original Malay language had four vowels, but many dialects, including Standard Malay, now have six. This change resulted from the splitting of /i/ into /i, e/ and /u/ into /u, o/ (Wikipedia). Some dialects closely related to Malay but spoken on Borneo are Iban (Sea Dayak), Brunei Malay, Sambas Malay, Kutai Malay, and Banjarese (Britannica).

These dialects exhibit distinct structural features in phonology, morphophonemics, and morphology, which play a crucial role in classifying and differentiating them from one another (ResearchGate). As such, understanding these nuances can provide valuable insights into the linguistic diversity and evolution of the Malay language.

History of Malay Dialects

The Malay language has a rich history and its dialects have evolved over time as a result of various influences and factors. In this section, we will explore the origin and development of Malay dialects, as well as the influence of external languages on them.

Origin and Development

The Malay language has its roots in the Proto-Malayo-Polynesian language spoken by the earliest Austronesian settlers in Southeast Asia. This form later evolved into Old Malay when Indian cultures and religions began penetrating the region, most probably using the Kawi and Rencong scripts (Wikipedia). The earliest written records in Malay are Sumatran inscriptions dating from the late 7th century, written in a Pallava (southern Indian) alphabet (Britannica).

With the spread of Islam in the late 15th century, the Malay language underwent further developments. Malay literature from this period shows a strong Islamic influence, and this period also gave rise to the Jawi script.

Influence of External Languages

Throughout its history, the Malay language has been influenced by various external languages, including those from neighboring regions as well as languages brought by traders, colonizers, and immigrants. The Indian influence on Old Malay is evident in the adoption of the Kawi and Rencong scripts, as well as the use of the Pallava alphabet. When Islam spread in the region, Arabic and Persian languages also left their mark on Malay dialects, particularly in religious vocabulary.

Colonization by European powers also had a significant impact on the Malay language, with the Dutch and later the British introducing words from their own languages into Malay dialects. As a result, the Malay language has evolved to incorporate loanwords and influences from various languages, making it a diverse and unique linguistic entity.

Geographical Distribution

The Malay language, an Austronesian language, has various dialects spoken across several regions. This section details the geographical distribution of Malay dialects in Peninsular Malaysia, East Malaysia, Indonesia, Southern Thailand, Singapore, and Brunei.

Peninsular Malaysia

In Peninsular Malaysia, the Malay dialects are diverse, with distinct variations in vocabulary and pronunciation. The dialects can be categorized into several major groups, such as the Northern, Central, Southern, and East Coast dialects. These dialects are influenced by the region’s history, social factors, and neighboring languages.

East Malaysia

East Malaysia, comprising Sabah and Sarawak, also hosts various Malay dialects. While the standard Malay language is widely studied and spoken, the local dialects, such as Bruneian Malay and Sarawak Malay, remain essential in the daily lives of the population. The indigenous languages, such as Iban and Kadazan-Dusun, also impact the dialectal variations in East Malaysia.


As the largest community of Malay speakers, Indonesia has numerous regional dialects across its many islands. The Indonesian variant of the Malay language, known as Bahasa Indonesia, functions as the official language. Dialects such as Javanese, Sundanese, and Balinese are also widely-spoken, displaying strong influences on the Malay dialects spoken in Indonesia.

Southern Thailand

In Southern Thailand, the Malay dialect spoken is known as Pattani Malay or Yawi. This dialect, used primarily in the provinces of Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat, is closely related to the Kelantan-Pattani Malay dialect, which is spoken just across the border in Malaysia. The southern Thai Malay dialects have been influenced by the Thai language due to the regional proximity.


Singapore, a multilingual country, has a sizeable population of Malay speakers. Bahasa Melayu, the standard Malay language, is one of the official languages of Singapore. However, local Singaporean Malays also have their distinct dialect, which is mainly influenced by the surrounding languages such as English, Mandarin, and Tamil.


Brunei exhibits its unique dialect of Malay, known as Brunei Malay. This dialect is the most commonly spoken language and is the country’s official language. Brunei Malay is characterized by its distinct pronunciation and vocabulary, differing significantly from the standard Malay language.

Major Malay Dialects

The Malay language is rich in variety, with numerous dialects arising from different areas within Malaysia and its neighboring countries. In this section, we will delve into the key regional dialects of Malay: Standard Malay, Jakarta Indonesian, Kelantan-Pattani, Kedah, Perak, Terengganu, and Sarawak Malay

Standard Malay

Also referred to as Bahasa Malaysia, Standard Malay is the official language in Malaysia and serves as a common lingua franca. It is derived from the classical Malay of the Malacca Sultanate era and has evolved over time, incorporating vocabulary from English, Arabic, Sanskrit, and other regional languages. Government offices, schools, and the media widely use this dialect.

Jakarta Indonesian

Jakarta Indonesian is a variation of Malay that is predominantly spoken in Indonesia. This dialect originates from the Riau Islands and has gained prominence as the de facto standard of the Indonesian language. Its vocabulary is heavily influenced by Javanese, Dutch, English, Chinese, and Arabic. Due to similarities with Standard Malay, both languages are mutually intelligible to an extent.


Kelantan-Pattani Malay is a dialect spoken in the northeastern states of Kelantan and Terengganu in Malaysia, as well as in the southern provinces of Thailand. Distinct lexical, phonological, and grammatical features characterize this dialect from other variations of Malay. The Kelantan-Pattani dialect is also known for its unique intonation and slang expressions.


The northern state of Kedah has its distinct Malay dialect. Kedah Malay has a sing-song intonation and includes vocabulary differences from Standard Malay. This dialect shares similarities with Penang, Perlis, and northern Perak dialects. Kedah Malay speakers often substitute “e” for “a” in certain words, resulting in a distinct pronunciation.


The Perak Malay dialect, spoken in the state of Perak, exhibits a unique accent and lexical differences from Standard Malay. The vowel “a” in Standard Malay tends to be pronounced as “o” by Perak Malay speakers. Moreover, certain words in Perak dialect can vary in meaning or divert significantly from those in Standard Malay.


Spoken in the eastern coast state of Terengganu, Terengganu Malay is a distinctive dialect that differs in pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar from its counterparts. Terengganu Malay often shortens words and swaps vowels interchangeably, making it challenging for non-speakers to comprehend.

Sarawak Malay

Sarawak Malay is the dialect used in Sarawak, located on the island of Borneo. This particular variation is marked by its distinct phonology and sentence structure. Sarawak Malay often omits certain words, leading to a simplified structure compared to Standard Malay. Additionally, it has incorporated Iban and Chinese loanwords due to the region’s diverse ethnic influences.

Preservation and Revitalization Efforts

Efforts have been made to preserve and revitalize the Malay dialects, particularly the local dialects of certain states. Researchers have conducted empirical studies to collect systematic data and have worked towards the preservation of vocabulary and linguistic traditions.

Language revitalization programs often need to adopt different approaches depending on the current status and usage of the language. It is important to consider factors such as how many speakers remain and the community’s attitudes towards the dialect. Some programs may focus on reversing language shift, while others prioritize documentation and maintenance of linguistic resources.

Indigenous communities, linguists, and organizations collaborate to develop strategies for preserving and revitalizing local dialects. Some initiatives include:

  • Documentation of vocabulary, grammar, and traditional stories in written and audio formats.
  • Developing educational materials and programs to teach the dialect to younger generations.
  • Promoting the use of the dialect in daily communication and cultural festivities.
  • Advocating for policy changes that support the preservation and revitalization of local dialects.

Taking such measures can contribute significantly to the preservation of the rich cultural heritage associated with Malay dialects and help maintain the linguistic diversity within the Malay-speaking world.

Malay Vocabulary

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FAQs about Malay

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