Malay vs. Indonesian

Malay and Indonesian languages, both belonging to the Austronesian language family, share substantial similarities due to their historical and cultural connections. However, despite their common origins, these languages diverge in several aspects, including pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar. Such differences can be attributed to the distinct influences of British and Dutch colonization, respectively, in Malaysia and Indonesia.

In the realm of pronunciation, the Malay-speaking community exhibits a more languorous pace compared to their Indonesian counterparts who generally pronounce words as they are spelled (Bilingua). Additionally, vocabulary distinctions predominantly stem from the languages’ incorporation of loanwords – English for Malay and Dutch for Indonesian (Ling App).

Despite these differences, it is important to note that both Malay and Indonesian languages maintain a high degree of mutual intelligibility. As such, speakers from both Malay-speaking and Indonesian-speaking communities can still generally communicate effectively with one another. This mutual understanding contributes to the ongoing cultural exchange between Malaysia and Indonesia, fostering a sense of regional unity within Southeast Asia.

History and Origins

Malay Language

The Malay language is a member of the Western, or Indonesian, branch of the Austronesian (Malayo-Polynesian) language family. It is spoken as a native language by more than 33 million people distributed over the Malay Peninsula, Sumatra, Borneo, and numerous smaller islands of the area. Malay is also widely used in Malaysia and Indonesia as a second language.

Historically, Malay has played a significant role as a trading and political language in the region. With the influence of the Malaccan Sultanate and later the Portuguese, Malay became a widely used means of communication for trade and diplomacy in the 1600s.

Indonesian Language

Indonesian is a standardized version of Malay and was chosen as the national language by the Indonesian nationalist movement in 1928. It was then named Bahasa Indonesia, which translates to “the language of Indonesia.”

When the Dutch East India Company (VOC) arrived in the Indonesian archipelago at the start of the 1600s, the Malay language, which bears many similarities to Indonesian, was already a significant trading and political language in the region. This historical connection is one of the reasons why the Indonesian nationalist movement chose it as the country’s national language.

In Singapore, Malay was designated as a national language after independence from Britain in the 1960s. This decision was made to avoid friction with Singapore’s Malay-speaking neighbors of Malaysia and Indonesia, and it serves a symbolic, rather than functional purpose.


The phonology of Malay and Indonesian involves the study of the sounds and pronunciation patterns of these two languages. Although there are similarities between the phonology of Malay and Indonesian, there are also differences, which can be further understood by examining their vowels and consonants.


Both Malay and Indonesian, share the same six basic vowels: /a/, /i/, /u/, /e/, /ə/, and /o/. However, the pronunciation of these vowels can vary depending on regional accents and dialects. In general, the vowels in Indonesian are pronounced more consistently, whereas in Malay, there may be regional variations.


Malay and Indonesian both have a similar set of consonant sounds, with a few differences due to historical and regional factors. The consonant inventory includes the following:

p, b, mt, d, n, s, r, lc, j, ñk, g, ŋʔ, h

These consonant sounds are largely shared by both languages, with a few unique phonemes found in regional dialects. Some differences exist in pronunciation, such as the /r/ sound, which is generally pronounced as a trill in Malay but as a flap in Indonesian. Additionally, due to the influence of loanwords, some consonant clusters are more common in Indonesian compared to Malay.


While Malay and Indonesian languages share many grammatical features, there are differences in their grammatical structures that affect nouns, verbs, adjectives, and prepositions.

Nouns and Pronouns

In both languages, nouns do not have a grammatical gender, and there is no distinction between singular and plural forms. However, there are differences in the pronoun systems. For instance, Indonesian uses “Anda” or “Kamu” for singular “you,” and “Kalian” for plural “you,” whereas Malay uses “Awak” or “Kau” for singular “you,” and “Korang” for plural “you” (ThinkBahasa).


The verb system in Malay and Indonesian is relatively simple compared to other languages since they do not conjugate for tense, aspect or mood. Instead, both languages use auxiliary words or particles to indicate tense and mood. However, there are differences in their usage of certain verb forms, as well as variations in the choice of auxiliary words or particles (Wikipedia).


Adjectives in both languages follow the nouns they modify and agree in number with the nouns. Nevertheless, there are differences in adjective vocabularies and the strategies used to express comparative and superlative forms (Wikipedia).


There are also some distinctions in the prepositions used in Malay and Indonesian. For example, Indonesian uses “di” for “in” or “at” while Malay uses “di” or “pada,” and Indonesian uses “ke” for “to” or “toward,” while Malay uses “kepada” (IndoSlang).

Vocabulary and Lexicon

When examining the Malay and Indonesian languages, it’s essential to explore their vocabulary and lexicon.


As both languages share the same origin, Indonesian and Malay demonstrate remarkable similarities in their vocabulary and lexicon. This is mainly because they are derived from the Austronesian language family and have evolved together in the Malay Archipelago region. Various common words and phrases can be found in both languages due to shared linguistic roots.


Despite the similarities, there are significant differences between the lexicon of the Indonesian and Malay languages. These differences can be attributed to their respective historical and cultural influences.

First, the Indonesian language has absorbed Dutch loanwords, while the Malay language has adopted English loanwords, as a result of their colonial histories. For instance, the Malay word “televisyen” is derived from the English word “television”, while the Indonesian word “televisi” comes from the Dutch word “televisie” (Ling App).

Secondly, pronunciation between the two languages varies. Standard Malay pronounces words at a more languorous pace, while Indonesian pronunciation adheres to Dutch influences (Bilingua). Words ending with the letter “r” are pronounced with an explicit, resonant trill in Indonesian but with a silent “r” in Malay, like in the English language (IndoSlang).

Lastly, other vocabulary differences can be found between Indonesian and Malay. For example:

bangsatbangsalward (hospital)
membacamembacoto read

Language Usage

Both Malay and Indonesian languages are widely spoken in Southeast Asia, particularly in Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, and Singapore. Although these languages share many similarities, there are differences in their usage, particularly in formal and informal communication.

Formal Communication

In formal communication settings, the Indonesian language borrows Dutch loanwords, while the Malay language incorporates English loanwords. For example, the Malay word ‘televisyen’ comes from the English word ‘television,’ whereas the Indonesian word ‘televisi’ originates from the Dutch word ‘televisie’ (LingApp). These vocabulary differences can result in distinct linguistic experiences when engaging in formal conversations.

Informal Communication

When it comes to informal communication, both languages exhibit remarkable similarities due to their shared Austronesian roots. However, some pronunciation and vocabulary differences still persist. Indonesian language speakers tend to pronounce words at a faster pace compared to Standard Malay speakers (Bilingua).

In addition, colloquial Indonesian often includes slang and regional dialects, which may differ considerably from Standard Malay. Similarly, Malay spoken in various parts of Malaysia may include local dialects and slang, resulting in differences in informal communication between both languages.


In summary, the Malay and Indonesian languages share a common origin in the Malay language, which was widely known as the Lingua Franca during the Malacca Sultanate in the 14th century (Ling App). Despite their similarities, the two languages have noticeable differences in terms of spelling, grammar, pronunciation and vocabulary, as well as the predominant source of loanwords (Wikipedia).

Pronunciation can be quite distinct between the two languages; for example, Standard Malay tends to have a more languorous pace, while Indonesian words are pronounced as they are spelled (Bilingua). Additionally, the use of the decimal point in Standard Malay is influenced by the British, while the decimal comma in Indonesian is influenced by the Dutch system.

Overall, the Malay and Indonesian languages still generally remain mutually intelligible in their standard forms. However, learners should be aware of the differences and nuances between the two languages to avoid any confusion or awkwardness in communication (IndoSlang).

Malay Vocabulary

Coming soon!

FAQs about Malay

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