The Malay language is fairly easy to learn. It has no conjugations, no plurals, no gender and no verb tenses. It has a simple SVO (subject-verb-object) sentence structure. Prepositions in Malay are very straightforward. The pronunciation is fairly phonetic.
However, the grammar of any language, Malay included, has its peculiarities and features that can present challenges to learners. To master a grammar that is called ‘simple’ well, you still need patience, effort, and regular practice.
This article will give you an overview over the key aspects of Malay grammar to give you the idea of what you should focus on learning.
Malay is an agglutinative language, and one of the most common ways of forming new words is affixation. Root words are either nouns or verbs, which can be affixed to derive new words. Many initial consonants undergo mutation when prefixes are added: e.g., sapu (sweep) becomes penyapu (broom); panggil (to call) becomes memanggil (calls/calling).
There are four types of affixes, namely prefixes (awalan), suffixes (akhiran), circumfixes (apitan) and infixes (sisipan). These affixes are categorised into noun affixes, verb affixes, and adjective affixes.
Malay does not make use of grammatical gender. There are only a few words that use natural gender; the same word used for he and she is also used for his and her.
Most of the words that refer to people (family terms, professions, etc.) have a form that does not distinguish between the sexes. For example, adik can refer to a younger sibling of either sex. To specify the natural gender of a noun, an adjective must be added: adik lelaki corresponds to “brother” but really means “male younger sibling”.
There is no grammatical plural in Malay. Thus orang may mean either “person” or “people”. Plurality is expressed by the context, or the usage of words such as numerals, beberapa “some”, or semua “all” that express plurality. In many cases, it simply isn’t relevant to the speaker.
Reduplication is commonly used to emphasize plurality. However, reduplication has many other functions.
There are no articles in Malay.
There are grammatical adjectives in Malay. Stative verbs are often used for this purpose as well. Adjectives are always placed after the noun that they modify. Hence, “rumah saya” means “my house”, while “saya rumah” means “I am a house”.
While in English adverbs are usually formed by adding (-ly) to adjectives, in Malay many adverbs are formed this way:
pelan (slow) becomes pelan-pelan (slowly)
sempurna (perfect) becomes dengan sempurna (perfectly)
However, that’s not always the case. Some words are adverbs by nature. For example: sekarang (now), benar-benar (really), segera (soon), malam ini (tonight), cantik (pretty), hampir (almost) are all Indonesian adverbs.
Personal pronouns are not a separate part of speech, but a subset of nouns. They are frequently omitted, and there are numerous ways to say “you”. Commonly the person’s name, title, title with name, or occupation is used (“does Johnny want to go?”, “would Madam like to go?”); kin terms, including fictive kinship, are extremely common. However, there are also dedicated personal pronouns, as well as the demonstrative pronouns ini “this, the” and itu “that, the”.
From the perspective of a European language, Malay boasts a wide range of different pronouns, especially to refer to the addressee (the so-called second person pronouns). These are used to differentiate several parameters of the person they are referred to, such as the social rank and the relationship between the addressee and the speaker.
There are three common forms of “you”, Anda (polite), kamu (familiar), and kalian “all” (commonly used as a plural form of you, slightly informal). Anda is used with strangers, recent acquaintances, in advertisements, in business, and when you wish to show respect.
Pronouns aku, kamu, engkau, and ia have short possessive enclitic forms. All others retain their full forms like other nouns, as does emphatic dia: meja saya, meja kita, meja anda, meja dia “my table, our table, your table, his/her table».
There are two demonstrative pronouns in Malay. Ini “this, these” is used for a noun which is generally near to the speaker. Itu “that, those” is used for a noun which is generally far from the speaker. Either may sometimes be equivalent to English “the”. There is no difference between singular and plural. However, plural can be indicated through duplication of a noun followed by a ini or itu.
In Malay, verbs are not inflected for person or number, and they are not marked for tense; tense is instead denoted by time adverbs (such as “yesterday”) or by other tense indicators, such as sudah “already” and belum “not yet”.
On the other hand, there is a complex system of verb affixes to render nuances of meaning and to denote voice or intentional and accidental moods. Some of these affixes are ignored in colloquial speech.
Here are a few examples:
duduk — to sit down
mendudukkan — to sit someone down, give someone a seat, to appoint
menduduki — to sit on, to occupy
didudukkan — to be given a seat, to be appointed
diduduki — to be sat on, to be occupied
terduduk — to sink down, to come to sit
kedudukan — to be situated
Four words are used for negation in Malay, namely tidak, bukan, jangan, and belum. Tidak (not), often shortened to tak, is used for the negation of verbs and “adjectives”. Bukan (be-not) is used in the negation of a noun.
For negating imperatives or advising against certain actions in Malay, the word jangan (do not) is used before the verb. For example,
Jangan tinggalkan saya di sini! — Don’t leave me here!
Stative verbs, demonstrative determiners, and possessive determiners follow the noun they modify.
Malay does not have a grammatical subject in the sense that English does. In intransitive clauses, the noun comes before the verb. When there is both an agent and an object, these are separated by the verb (OVA or AVO), with the difference encoded in the voice of the verb. OVA, commonly but inaccurately called “passive”, is the basic and most common word order.
Some of the common Malay prepositions are: tentang (about), di (as, in), oleh (by), untuk (for, to), dari (from), pada (on), atas (over), dengan (with), and others.
This is a very brief overview of Malay grammar. To truly master it, you will need to study each of the parts of speech in much more detail. However, this overview will hopefully give you a general idea of the Malay grammatical system and of the main points you should consider when learning.