When considering languages spoken in Malaysia, two major ones stand out: Malay and Chinese. Malay, also known as Bahasa Malaysia or Bahasa Melayu, is the national language and is spoken by the Malay ethnic group as well as being widely used in Malaysia and Indonesia as a second language by many others (Britannica). The Chinese language, on the other hand, is spoken by the ethnic Chinese in Malaysia, with Malaysian Mandarin being the lingua franca of the Malaysian Chinese community (Wikipedia).
Malay is considered one of the easiest Asian languages to learn for several reasons. It has no conjugations, no plurals, no gender, and no verb tenses. Additionally, the modern Malay alphabet uses the Latin alphabet, making it more accessible to Western learners (ESL Languages). In contrast, the Chinese language is often considered more difficult to learn due to its tonal nature and character-based writing system. However, many Malaysian Chinese youths are multilingual and can speak Mandarin, English, and Malay with at least moderate fluency, as well as their Chinese dialect and/or dominant Chinese dialect in their area (Wikipedia).
This comparison between Malay and Chinese languages highlights the linguistic diversity in Malaysia and the efforts undertaken by the different communities to maintain and strengthen their cultural heritage through their respective languages. As Malaysia continues to grow and develop, the role of these languages in the broader social fabric of the country will undoubtedly be an important factor to consider.
Origins of Malay
The Malay language is descended from 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 to influence the region, most likely using the Kawi and Rencong scripts. Malay is closely related to other languages in Sumatra like Minangkabau, Kerintji, and Rejang and is also related to other Austronesian languages in Sumatra, Borneo, Java, and the Cham languages of Vietnam (Britannica).
Origins of Chinese
Early Chinese settlements in Malacca and several areas along the archipelago’s coasts can be traced back to the early 19th century, following the founding of British settlements in Malaya and Borneo (Wikipedia). While Chinese is a single language, its spoken form consists of many regional varieties known as dialects. Generally, Malaysian Chinese are more well-versed in their dialects than Singaporeans, with the main dialect used differing from state to state (Goody Feed).
The main languages spoken in Malaysia, the Malay and Chinese languages, belong to two distinct language families. In order to better understand their differences, it’s essential to explore their individual linguistic roots and characteristics.
The Malay language is a member of the Austronesian language family, which is a vast and diverse group of languages spoken in regions from Madagascar to the Pacific Islands. The Western or Indonesian branch of this family includes languages such as Malay, Indonesian, and other regional languages in Malaysia, Indonesia, and surrounding areas (Britannica). The Malay language itself is spoken by over 33 million people as their native language and is used widely as a second language in Malaysia and Indonesia (Britannica).
On the other hand, the Chinese language belongs to the Sino-Tibetan language family, which encompasses languages spoken predominantly in China, Southeast Asia, and some parts of East Asia. Within the Chinese language, there are several dialects or “regiolects” that are spoken by the Chinese community in Malaysia (Wikipedia). Chinese Malaysians are usually multilingual and can speak at least three languages, such as Mandarin, English, and Malay, along with their regional Chinese dialect (Wikipedia).
In conclusion, the Malay and Chinese languages are part of two separate and distinct language families. They have different linguistic roots, leading to their unique characteristics, grammatical structures, and vocabulary. This can make it challenging for speakers of one language to learn the other, but it also provides a valuable insight into the rich linguistic diversity of Malaysia.
Both Malay and Chinese languages have distinct writing systems that reflect their historical and cultural backgrounds.
The Malay language has undergone several changes in its writing system throughout history. The earliest known script used for Malay was the Pallava script, which later evolved into the Kawi script. However, the script that is widely used today for Malay is the Rumi script, which is based on the Latin alphabet. This was adopted during the colonial era, mainly due to the influence of the British and Dutch in the region.
The Malay language also has its own traditional script called Jawi. Jawi is an Arabic-based script, which was used in Southeast Asia for writing both religious and secular texts. Although not as widely used as the Rumi script today, Jawi is still taught and used in certain contexts and regions within Malaysia and Indonesia.
Chinese writing is known for its logographic writing system, in which characters represent meaningful units such as morphemes or words. Unlike alphabetic systems, Chinese characters are more visually complex, and the writing system is considered to be one of the world’s great writing systems (Britannica). Over time, Chinese writing has evolved, leading to the development of two different scripts: traditional and simplified.
Traditional Chinese characters have a longer history and are more widely used in regions such as Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau. Simplified Chinese characters, on the other hand, were introduced in the 1950s in Mainland China to promote literacy and ease the learning process. Despite being different in appearance, both scripts remain consistent in terms of meaning and pronunciation.
In terms of linguistic variety, Chinese languages have many regional dialects, each with its own distinct grammar and vocabulary. However, written Chinese remains relatively uniform across different dialects, with most dialects using the same character system, ensuring that the written language is universally understood among speakers of different dialects.
Pronunciation and Phonology
The phonology of Malay, which includes Standard Malay, is based on the pronunciation of the official language of Brunei, Singapore, and Malaysia, and also Indonesian, the official language of Indonesia and a working language in Timor Leste (Wikipedia).
Standard Malay has a relatively simple phoneme inventory, consisting of 20 consonants and 6 vowels. The language also features nasalization, which affects the quality of adjacent vowels. Additionally, Malay is considered to be a non-tonal language with generally predictable stress patterns.
Chinese phonology, on the other hand, is characterized by a complex system of tones and a larger inventory of phonemes, as it encompasses several regional varieties and dialects. Mandarin Chinese, for example, is the most widely spoken variety and has its own unique set of phonetic characteristics.
In Mandarin Chinese, there are 21 consonant phonemes and 4 vowels, with each vowel having several allophones. However, the most distinctive aspect of Chinese phonology is its use of tones, which are pitch patterns used to distinguish meanings of words. Mandarin has 4 primary tones and a neutral tone. The influence of other dialects such as Cantonese and Hokkien can also be observed in the phonological features of regional varieties like Malaysian Mandarin.
The Malay language is an agglutinative language, which means new words can be formed by combining existing words, called root words, using various methods. These methods include affixation (attaching affixes onto a root word), composition (formation of a compound word), and reduplication (repetition of words or portions of words) (Wikipedia). Malay vocabulary is heavily influenced by other languages, such as Javanese, Arabic, Sanskrit, and Portuguese, due to historical interactions and cultural influences.
Chinese, unlike Malay, is a tonal language, meaning that the meaning of a word can change depending on the tone used when pronouncing it. Chinese vocabulary is mainly divided into two categories: monosyllabic, meaning each word consists of one syllable, and polysyllabic, meaning a word is composed of two or more syllables (Britannica).
In Chinese, compound words or phrases are quite common, and they are formed by combining two or more characters to create a new word with a different meaning. The structure of the Chinese written language allows for the formation of new words more easily than most alphabetic languages, as each character carries its own meaning, and they can be combined in numerous ways to convey various ideas.
Chinese dialects, such as Mandarin and Cantonese, have some unique vocabulary and linguistic features. For example, Mandarin tends to use more four-character idiomatic expressions called chengyu, while Cantonese often uses double-reduplicated expressions.
Comparison of Word Formation in Malay and Chinese
While both Malay and Chinese languages use compound words and phrases, their methods of forming these words differ. In the Malay language, compound words can be classified into two main categories: words formed by combining two or more words irrespective of the parts (UITM), and those formed through affixation, composition, and reduplication (Wikipedia). In Chinese, compound words and phrases are created by combining characters, with each character representing its own meaning (Britannica).
Overall, although both Malay and Chinese languages form new words by combining existing ones, the word structure and linguistic characteristics of each language differ significantly, leading to unique vocabulary and word formation processes in each language.
Language in Malay Society
In Malaysia, the Malay language is widely spoken by the significant ethnic group, making up around 50.4% of the population (Commisceo). Malay is an official language and holds great importance in the society, with its usage in education, government, and daily communication.
Religion plays a crucial role in the Malay society, with the majority being Muslims. Therefore, the Malay language has a close relationship with Arabic, borrowing many words and influencing the script. The use of this language in religious and cultural contexts reflects the identity of the Malay people and their traditions.
Language in Chinese Society
Chinese communities in Malaysia make up about 23.7% of the population (Commisceo). The Chinese language, consisting of numerous dialects, serves as a unifying and distinctive factor among these communities.
In Malaysia, the Mandarin dialect has gained prominence due to the increasing importance of the People’s Republic of China in global politics and trade. However, other dialects such as Hokkien, Cantonese, Hakka, and Teochew are still widely spoken and contribute to the cultural diversity of the Malaysian Chinese community.
Chinese in Malaysia maintain a strong connection to their roots through language, celebrating traditional festivals and practicing unique customs that can be traced back to various regions in China. In Malaysian Chinese communities, a Malay pidgin called Baba Malay is used as a means of communication, particularly within the context of trade and commerce (Britannica).