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SOAS Language Centre

Malay at SOAS Language Centre

Malay is a member of the Austronesian language family and thus shares a common origin with languages belonging to territories as far-flung as Hawaii, New Zealand and Madagascar. Malay and Indonesian are particularly close to each other, having evolved from the lingua franca of the East Indies that was used in trade by indigenous as well as non-indigenous populations from before the 15th Century.  

Malay contains a huge number of loanwords, reflecting centuries of contact with speakers of other languages. The oldest evidence of borrowing comes from the archaeological record of Sumatra: this is the Kedukan Bukit inscription, dated to around the 7th Century, carved in an alphabet of Indian origin and containing a substantial number of words clearly identifiable from Sanskrit.   

It is from Arabic that Malay has borrowed most extensively, reflecting both trade with Muslim peoples and the process of Islamisation from early times. Malay can still be written in jawi, the writing system derived from Arabic, with the addition of letters not represented in the Arabic alphabet, although the use of rumi, a Roman-based writing system, has become prevalent since independence from Britain in 1957.   

It is difficult to estimate the total number of speakers of Malay, since the language has many non-native speakers – many, many more if Indonesian, with which it is intelligible, is included. One may estimate the number of speakers of Malay to be in the region of 25 million, predominantly in Malaysia and Brunei. With Indonesian, this figure rises dramatically to around 140 million, making it a major world language.

SOAS Language Centre offers the following Malay language courses: