Malay vs. Malayalam

Malay and Malayalam are two distinct languages spoken in different geographical regions, with unique features and rich cultural backgrounds. Malay is the national language of Malaysia and is widely spoken by the majority Malay ethnic group. It is an Austronesian language with roots in the Malay Peninsula, Sumatra, and coastal Borneo, spoken not only in Malaysia but also in Brunei, Singapore, and parts of Indonesia and Thailand (Wikipedia).

On the other hand, Malayalam is a Dravidian language primarily spoken in the Indian state of Kerala and the Union territories of Lakshadweep and Puducherry by the Malayali people. It is one of the 22 scheduled languages of India and boasts its own unique script, literature, and linguistic features (Wikipedia).

Though these two languages share some similarities in their names, but they stem from different language families and hold distinct cultural significance to their respective regions.


In this section, we will compare the phonology of Malay and Malayalam languages, focusing on their vowel and consonant systems.


Malay has a simpler vowel system compared to Malayalam. The Malay language has six vowels, three short vowels and three long vowels, which are distinguished by their duration. These vowels are /a/, /i/, /u/ and their long counterparts /aː/, /iː/, /uː/. Vowel length plays a significant role in distinguishing the meaning of words in Malay (Wikipedia).

In contrast, Malayalam has a more complex vowel system. There are 12 vowels in Malayalam, which include short vowels /a/, /i/, /u/, /ṟ/, /e/, /o/ and long vowels /aː/, /iː/, /uː/, /ṟː/, /eː/, /oː/. It is important to note that the short vowel /ṟ/ and its long counterpart /ṟː/ do not have equivalents in Malay language (Wikipedia).


In the Malay language, there are 18 consonants which include stops, nasals, fricatives, and approximants. The six stops are /b/, /d/, /g/, /p/, /t/, and /k/ with /p/, /t/, and /k/ being voiceless, while /b/, /d/, and /g/ are voiced. The nasals include /m/, /n/, /ɲ/, and /ŋ/. Fricatives are limited to /f/, /s/, and /h/, while approximants include /l/, /r/, /j/, and /w/ (Wikipedia).

Malayalam, on the other hand, has a more extensive consonant system, with 42 consonants. The consonants in Malayalam include stops, nasals, fricatives, approximants, and laterals. Some distinctive Malayalam consonants are the retroflex consonants /ʈ/, /ɖ/, /ɳ/, /ɭ/, and /ɻ/ which are not present in the Malay language (Wikipedia).


Both Malay and Malayalam languages have distinct grammar systems that contribute to their unique linguistic characteristics. In this section, we will explore the essential aspects of grammar in both languages, focusing on morphology and syntax.


In the Malay language, words are formed using a combination of roots, affixes, and functional words. The structure of expressions in Malay encompasses the formation of words, phrases, clauses, and sentences. Some key features of Malay morphology include the use of prefixes, suffixes, infixes, and circumfixes to modify the meaning of root words.

On the other hand, the Malayalam language exhibits a rich morphological system, with a higher degree of inflection compared to Malay. Malayalam nouns, pronouns, and verbs undergo various inflections to indicate case, number, gender, tense, mood, and voice. This complexity in morphology leads to the formation of numerous word forms and a relatively more extensive vocabulary than Malay.


Malay follows a Subject-Verb-Object (SVO) word order, which is similar to the English language. The language is primarily an isolating or analytic language, meaning that grammatical relationships are often indicated through word order and particles, rather than by inflection. However, it also exhibits some agglutinative features, particularly in the formation of compound words and the use of affixes.

In contrast, Malayalam demonstrates a Subject-Object-Verb (SOV) word order, which is typical of many other Dravidian languages. It also follows a rich system of agreement between the subject and verb in person, number, and gender. Additionally, Malayalam employs postpositions, which are equivalent to prepositions in English, to convey relationships between words. This differs from Malay, which predominantly uses prepositions.

Overall, the grammar systems of Malay and Malayalam languages exhibit differences in their morphological complexity and syntactic structure, contributing to the distinct linguistic characteristics of these two languages.


The vocabulary of Malay and Malayalam languages are distinct due to their historical and cultural differences. A closer examination of loanwords and shared words provides insights into the linguistic influences on each language.


Both Malay and Malayalam languages have borrowed words from various languages due to geographical, historical, and cultural influences. However, the source of these loanwords is different for each language.

Malay, being an Austronesian language spoken in Southeast Asia and the Pacific Ocean regions, has loanwords from regional languages, such as Javanese and Sanskrit, as well as international languages like Arabic, Chinese, and English. For example, the Malay word “bahasa” (language) derives from the Sanskrit word “bhasha” (Wikipedia).

Malayalam, on the other hand, is a Dravidian language spoken in Kerala and Lakshadweep in India. It has borrowed words mainly from Sanskrit, Tamil, and English, but also from Portuguese, Arabic, and Syriac languages due to historical interactions and trade in the region. An example of a loanword in Malayalam is “ജോലി” (joli), meaning “job” or “work,” which has its origins in the English word “job” (Wikipedia).

Shared Words

While the majority of vocabulary in Malay and Malayalam languages are unique to each language, there are a few shared words due to common regional influences, particularly from Sanskrit. Here are some examples:

guruഗുരു (guru)teacher
agniഅഗ്നി (agni)fire

However, these shared words are relatively rare, and it is important to note that both Malay and Malayalam languages have developed their own unique vocabulary over time.

Writing Systems


The Malay language primarily uses the Latin script, also known as Rumi, which was introduced during the colonial rule of the British and the Dutch. Rumi has since become the standard script for writing Malay, replacing the traditional Arabic script known as Jawi. Jawi, however, is still taught in some religious schools and is used in a limited scope by certain communities.

Both Rumi and Jawi are based on alphabetic systems, with Rumi using 26 basic Latin letters and Jawi using 29 Arabic letters. While Rumi has become the more dominant script, efforts have been made to preserve the use of Jawi, especially in states like Kelantan and Terengganu in Malaysia.


The writing system used in Malayalam is derived from the ancient Brahmi script and has evolved through various stages, such as the Vatteluttu, Grantha, and modern Malayalam scripts since the ninth century CE.

Presently, the Malayalam script consists of 54 characters, including 13 vowels and 41 consonants. The script is written from left to right and exhibits a unique combination of round and straight strokes. It is often regarded as one of the most elegant and visually pleasing writing systems in the Dravidian language family.

Traditionally, the Malayalam language has two basic styles, a formal one and an informal one. The formal style is used in most writing, radio and TV programs, and public speaking engagements. The informal style is more commonly used in daily conversations and informal interactions. The Malayalam language is characterized by a variety of regional dialects, which adds to its richness and diversity.

Malay Vocabulary

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FAQs about Malay

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