Malay Pronunciation

The Malay language, spoken in countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, and Brunei, features a rich phonological system with its unique characteristics. As one delves into the subject of Malay pronunciation, it is essential to note that there are two main standards: the Johor-Riau standard, used in Brunei and Malaysia, and the Baku, used in Indonesia and Singapore (Wikipedia).

While learning Malay pronunciation, learners will encounter a variety of consonants, vowels, and diphthongs, which contribute to the distinct sounds and oral patterns in the language. It is also noteworthy that certain sounds, such as “v”, “x”, and “q”, are mainly used in loanwords and Arabic loanwords (Omniglot).

Another intriguing aspect of Malay pronunciation is the Jawi alphabet used in writing, which has its roots in the Arabic script. By understanding the nuances of Malay phonology, language enthusiasts can gain a deeper appreciation for the linguistic diversity and richness of this widely spoken language in Southeast Asia.

Malay Alphabet and Phonemes

Malay uses the Latin script (Tulisan Rumi) and has a phonemic orthography wherein words are spelled the way they are pronounced. In this section, we will discuss the Malay alphabet and its phonemes, focusing on vowels and consonants.


The Malay language has six vowel sounds:

  1. A: Like the [a] sound in ‘father’
  2. AI: Like the [aɪ] sound in ‘bait’
  3. AU: Like the [aʊ] sound in ‘cow’
  4. E: Like the [ə] sound at the end of words and [e] elsewhere
  5. I: Like the [i] sound in ‘seen’
  6. O: Like the [o] sound in ‘more’

For example:



The Malay language has 21 consonants:

B, C, D, F, G, H, J, K, L, M, N, P, Q, R, S, T, V, W, X, Y, and Z.

Some key points about Malay consonants:

  • G is always pronounced as the [g] sound like in ‘good’, ‘get’, and ‘gas’
  • There is no silent H, unlike in English
  • Q is used mainly in Arabic loanwords
  • V and X are used mostly in loanwords as well

Each consonant is enunciated based on the rules stated above, making the language straightforward in terms of pronunciation.

Malay Syllable Structure

Malay language syllable structure plays a crucial role in pronunciation. It is essential to understand the types of syllables that exist in the Malay language to better grasp its pronunciation.

Open Syllables

Open syllables in Malay are syllables that end with a vowel. This type of syllables is common in Malay words and contributes to the fluidity of the language. Examples of open syllables include:

  • ka- in kata (word)
  • -ma- in makan (eat)
  • -pu- in putus (break)

When pronouncing open syllables, the focus should be on maintaining the vowel sound at the end of the syllable.

Closed Syllables

Closed syllables in Malay are syllables that end with a consonant. While less common than open syllables, they still play a significant role in Malay pronunciation. Examples of closed syllables include:

  • mat- in mati (die)
  • -bung- in bunga (flower)
  • -sik- in sikap (attitude)

When pronouncing closed syllables, it is essential to be mindful of the final consonant sound and practice pronouncing it accurately.

Understanding the distinction between open and closed syllables in the Malay language can aid in improving pronunciation and mastering the language.

Pronunciation Rules

In Malay pronunciation, there are several rules that determine the way words are pronounced. This section will delve into stress patterns, final consonants, and diphthongs. Understanding these rules can significantly improve one’s pronunciation in the Malay language.

Stress Patterns

In Malay, the stress usually falls on the penultimate (second to last) syllable of a word. However, there are exceptions to this rule, such as when a final syllable contains a long vowel or when the word comes from another language.

Final Consonants

Final consonants in Malay play an essential role in pronunciation. Some examples of unique final consonant pronunciation patterns include:

  • The letter “c” is pronounced like the “ch” in “champion.”
  • The letter “d” is pronounced as the “d” in “dog.” For example, “dalam” means “inside” and is pronounced with the “d” sound (LingApp).
  • The letter “g” is generally pronounced as a voiced velar stop, similar to the “g” in “go.”


A diphthong is a combination of two vowel sounds within the same syllable. In Malay, there are a few common diphthongs, such as:

ailaisimilar to the “i” in “ride”
aupulausimilar to the “ou” in “house”
oigulasimilar to the “oy” in “toy”

By mastering these pronunciation rules, learners of the Malay language can develop a more accurate and natural-sounding accent.

Regional Variations

The Malay language, like any other language, displays regional variations in pronunciation, which add depth and complexity to its phonetics. These variations are especially prominent in the Peninsular Malay and East Malaysian Malay dialects.

Peninsular Malay

Peninsular Malay encompasses several regional dialects spoken in Malaysia and Singapore. One major standard for pronunciation is the Johor-Riau standard, used in Malaysia and Brunei, which includes unique features such as the distinct pronunciation of certain consonants and vowels compared to other dialects (Wikipedia).

Some dialects in the peninsula, such as those found in Kelantan and Terengganu, showcase different stress patterns and vowel sounds. These dialects often exhibit a variety of accents depending on geographical location and social factors (LingApp).

East Malaysian Malay

East Malaysian Malay is spoken primarily in the Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak on the island of Borneo. These dialects may differ significantly from those in Peninsular Malaysia due to geographical isolation, historical influences, and socio-cultural factors (Academia).

For example, the Sarawak Malay dialect tends to simplify pronunciation by using fewer diphthongs and displaying a more relaxed intonation pattern. Additionally, speakers often employ different vocabulary and idiomatic expressions unique to their regions, further contributing to the diversity of Malay pronunciation (Academia).

Common Pronunciation Challenges

For English Speakers

English speakers learning Malay may face several pronunciation challenges due to differences in phonetic systems. One common issue is the pronunciation of the letter A at the end of words, which is generally pronounced as a short ‘ə’ sound, similar to the schwa in English.

Another area of difficulty can be the distinction between the short ‘e’ and the long ‘é’ sounds; native English speakers may struggle to produce and perceive these differences accurately. Additionally, some consonant sounds, such as the glottal stop (‘k’ sound), can be challenging for English speakers to grasp and produce.

It is also essential to be aware of the stress patterns in Malay words. Unlike English, where stress patterns may not follow a set rule, Malay typically places stress on the penultimate (second to last) syllable.

For non-English Speakers

Non-English speakers studying Malay may encounter different pronunciation challenges based on their native language phonetic system. For example, speakers of languages that do not have diphthongs (combinations of two vowel sounds in a single syllable) may struggle with the pronunciation of certain Malay words that contain diphthongs.

Additionally, some Malay consonant sounds may be unfamiliar to speakers of other languages, such as the ‘ng’ sound, which is represented by the letter combination “ng” and pronounced as a single nasal sound without an accompanying hard ‘g’ sound. This unique sound can pose a challenge for non-English speakers from various linguistic backgrounds.

A study on the mispronunciation of English monophthong and diphthong among Malay native speakers implies that learning any foreign language can expose pronunciation gaps to speakers regardless of their linguistic background. Therefore, non-English speakers should focus on specific phonetic similarities and differences between Malay and their native languages to overcome these challenges.

Malay Vocabulary

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FAQs about Malay

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