Malay vs. Tagalog

Malay and Tagalog are two prominent languages in Southeast Asia, with Malay primarily spoken in Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, and Singapore, and Tagalog being the main language in the Philippines. Both languages belong to the Austronesian language family and share a Malayo-Polynesian origin, which results in some similarities between the two languages. However, there are distinct differences in grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation that set them apart.

Malay boasts a significant number of speakers, with estimates around 250 million speakers worldwide, including native speakers and those who speak it as a second language. In contrast, Tagalog is spoken by a smaller community, with approximately 21.5 million native speakers and 24.2 million speakers in total, primarily residing in the Philippines and its neighboring countries such as Canada, Guam, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

As neighboring languages with a shared linguistic heritage, the study of Malay and Tagalog highlights the rich linguistic diversity and historical connections in the Southeast Asian region. Understanding the similarities and differences between these two languages can provide valuable insights into their development, the cultural exchange that has occurred between their respective regions, and the influence of other languages and global powers on their evolution.

Historical Background

Malay Language

The Malay language is an Austronesian language that originated from the Proto-Malayo-Polynesian language, which itself is derived from the Proto-Austronesian language. The subdivision started around 2000 BCE due to the southward expansion of Austronesian peoples into regions such as the Philippines, Borneo, Maluku, and Sulawesi from the island of Taiwan (Wikipedia). By 1000 BCE, the Proto-Malay language was spoken in Borneo (Wikipedia).

As Malay speakers migrated and traded throughout Southeast Asia, various dialects and forms of the language developed. One such pidgin is Bazaar Malay, which served as a lingua franca in the East Indian archipelago (Britannica). Another notable variation is Baba Malay, spoken in Chinese merchant communities in Malaysia (Britannica).

Tagalog Language

Tagalog is spoken primarily in the northern island of Luzon in the Philippines (TheWordPoint). It shares common roots with Malay, as many words in the Tagalog and various Visayan languages are derived from Old Malay (Wikipedia).

The national language of the Philippines, Filipino, originated from Tagalog and became the official language in the 1970s (TheWordPoint). The Filipino language is most commonly used in major urban areas, including Manila. Meanwhile, the Merina dialect of Malagasy in Madagascar is also based on the Austronesian language family and shares historical roots with Tagalog and Malay (Britannica).

Phonetics and Phonology

Both Malay and Tagalog languages have their distinct phonetics and phonological properties. This section will discuss the differences and similarities in consonants, vowels, and stress patterns of Malay and Tagalog languages.


In the Malay language, there are several consonants, with some being borrowed from other languages. The pronunciation of Malay consonants is relatively similar to English, except for a few such as /r/, /ng/, and /ñ/ (Wikipedia). Tagalog phonology, on the other hand, contains its own set of consonants, some of which are also borrowed from other languages. Tagalog has allophones, which are phonemes and corresponding allophones represented differently in writing (Wikipedia).


The Malay language has six vowel phonemes, which are /a, e, i, o, u/ and the central vowel /ə/ (Wikipedia). In contrast, Tagalog has five vowel phonemes, which are /a, e, i, o, u/. The Tagalog vowels /e/ and /o/ are allophones that mainly contrast with their corresponding tense counterpart (Wikipedia).


Malay stress patterns are not fixed, which means some syllables in a word can be stressed more than others. Stress is not usually marked in writing, making it essential for learners to memorize the stress patterns of words in context (Cambridge). On the other hand, Tagalog stress patterns are phonemic, meaning stress is significant in differentiating words with the same arrangement of consonants and vowels. The stress patterns in Tagalog usually have primary stress on either the final or penultimate syllable (Wikipedia).

Grammar and Syntax

Nouns and Pronouns

In the Malay language, there are four basic parts of speech: nouns, verbs, adjectives, and grammatical function words. In the Tagalog language, there are nine basic parts of speech: nouns (pangngalan), pronouns (panghalip), verbs (pandiwa), adverbs (pang-abay), adjectives (pang-uri), prepositions (pang-ukol), conjunctions (pangatnig), ligature (pang-angkop), and particles (pang-angkop).

Malay and Tagalog both have a system of demonstrative pronouns and personal pronouns. However, the specific pronouns used in each language differ.


Both Malay and Tagalog verbs do not require conjugation for tense. Instead, they rely on time-specific adverbs or context to denote tense. However, Malay verbs may use prefixes or suffixes to indicate causation or reciprocity, while Tagalog verbs prominently use affixes to show aspect, voice, and focus.

Adjectives and Adverbs

Adjectives and adverbs in Malay and Tagalog languages may be placed before or after the noun they modify, depending on the context and emphasis. In Tagalog, however, adjectives may also take the form of a verb and usually don’t require a linking verb.


Prepositions in both Malay and Tagalog are used to indicate the relationship between a noun (or pronoun) and other words in a sentence. Some prepositions are similar in both languages, while others differ in usage and form.

Sentence Structure

The word order in Malay sentences generally follows the Subject-Verb-Object (SVO) pattern. On the other hand, Tagalog sentences typically use a Verb-Subject-Object (VSO) pattern, although the word order can vary depending on the focus of the sentence. However, it is important to note that despite these differences, both Malay and Tagalog are flexible in their word order and can often accommodate variations for emphasis.


When comparing Malay and Tagalog languages, it is important to consider their vocabulary similarities and differences.

Shared Vocabulary

Malay and Tagalog have several shared vocabulary words due to their common Austronesian roots, which makes them appear similar at first glance. Both languages have borrowed words from Sanskrit, Arabic, Chinese, Spanish, and English, leading to more similarities between them.

Some common words in both Malay and Tagalog include:

  • “mahal” (expensive)
  • “murah” (cheap)
  • “anak” (child)

These shared vocabularies can sometimes make it easier for speakers of one language to understand some basic phrases in the other language, although the languages have distinct differences as well.

Unique Words

Despite the similarities in vocabulary, there are many unique words in both Malay and Tagalog that define the individuality of each language. The primary reason for the differences in vocabulary is due to the separate historical and cultural influences on each language.

For example, Malay has been more influenced by the English language. Tagalog, on the other hand, has been more influenced by Spanish due to the Philippines’ colonial history. As a result, Tagalog contains many Spanish loanwords that are not found in Malay.

In conclusion, although there are shared vocabulary words between Malay and Tagalog, the unique words found in each language contribute to the distinct differences that separate them.

Writing Systems

Malay Script

The Malay language is written using the Latin alphabet, which is also known as the Rumi script. However, there is another script called the Jawi script, which utilizes a version of the Arabic alphabet to write Malay and Indonesian languages. The Jawi script is used as one of the official scripts in Brunei and for religious and cultural administration in Malaysia. In certain Malaysian states, like Kelantan, Terengganu, and Pahang, Jawi has co-official status and businesses are required to use it on signs (Omniglot).

Tagalog Script

Tagalog, like other Philippines languages today, is written using the Latin alphabet. (Wikipedia). Prior to the colonization of the Philippines, there were multiple scripts used for writing in the region. One of the ancient Filipino writing systems is Baybayin, which was used primarily for the Tagalog language.

Baybayin is a syllabic alphabet consisting of 17 characters: three vowels and 14 consonants. Each consonant character represents a syllable with an inherent “a” sound, and the sound can be altered to “i” or “u” by adding a diacritic called kudlit above or below the character. In some cases, a virama called pamudpod is used to cancel the inherent vowel sound of a consonant (CNN Philippines).

It is important to note that there were other writing systems in the Philippines apart from Baybayin. It is believed that there were at least 16 different types of writing systems present in the region before colonization (CNN Philippines).

Dialects and Variations

The Malay and Tagalog languages both exhibit significant dialectal variations within their respective language families. Understanding these dialects and variations is essential to gaining a comprehensive perspective on the linguistic landscape of these languages.

Malay Dialects

Malay, as a language, has numerous dialects spoken across different regions within Southeast Asia. Some of the most commonly known dialects include Brunei Malay, Kedah Malay, Kelantan-Pattani Malay, Indonesian Malay, and Terengganu Malay, among others. These dialects may exhibit differences in pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar, resulting in varying degrees of mutual intelligibility.

It is important to note that the Malay language serves as the basis for the national languages of several countries, including Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei. In these instances, the standard forms of the language diverge significantly from their regional dialects, often incorporating elements of other local languages or reflecting the influence of historical and cultural factors.

Tagalog Dialects

Tagalog, like Malay, displays a range of dialectal variations within the language. Two primary branches of Tagalog are widely recognized: Tagalog Tayabas and Tagalog Manila. These dialects differ in terms of tonation and intonation, but remain largely mutually intelligible to speakers of the overarching Tagalog language. (LingApp)

As Tagalog is spoken predominantly in Metro Manila and its surrounding regions, dialectal differences become more pronounced in geographically distant areas. Nonetheless, the core grammatical structures and vocabulary remain consistent across the various dialects, allowing for efficient communication between speakers of different Tagalog dialects.


In comparing the Malay and Tagalog languages, it is important to consider their shared origins, similarities, and differences. Both languages belong to the Austronesian language family, which also includes other languages such as Malagasy, Javanese, Indonesian, and Tetum (Wikipedia). As members of the Austronesian family, Malay and Tagalog share a common ancestry, but have evolved differently over time.

Many words in Tagalog and various Visayan languages are derived from Old Malay, and while the languages are related, there is a significant difference in their structure and morphology (Wikipedia, Reddit). While Malay has undergone drastic changes, Tagalog and other Philippine languages have retained more of their old morphology. This structural difference is visible in aspects such as word order.

Malay speakers can be found in countries like Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Brunei, East Timor, and parts of Thailand, with an estimated 77 million native speakers and 300 million fluent speakers (Justlearn). Meanwhile, Tagalog is mostly spoken in the Philippines, where it serves as the basis for the Filipino language. Both languages have a significant influence in their respective regions and maintain cultural importance.

Understanding the relationship between these two languages not only provides insight into their respective linguistic characteristics but also offers a window into the shared history and cultural connections between the Malay and Filipino people. In conclusion, Malay and Tagalog, while related and sharing some similarities, are distinct languages with unique features and histories.

Malay Vocabulary

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FAQs about Malay

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