Malay And Indonesian – 4 Big Differences

Malay And Indonesian

Are Malay and Indonesian different? It is common to see Malaysians and Indonesians converse with each other using their languages: Bahasa Malaysia (used to be known as Bahasa Melayu) and Bahasa Indonesia. They understood each other pretty well! Non-natives might assume they were just speaking the same language but maybe with a different accent, but it is more complicated than that. Native speakers can immediately pinpoint the speaker’s nationality through their accent and word choices- the two languages are mutually intelligible. But why is it considered as two languages? Let’s explore!

Background: Are Malay And Indonesian Language The Same?

While Bahasa Malaysia and Bahasa Indonesia are mutually intelligible, some differences have emerged over time. Vocabulary variations exist due to the influence of local and foreign languages, including English, Dutch, and Javanese. Malaysian and Indonesian pronunciation differences also occur, with variations in certain phonetic sounds. However, the grammatical structure and overall linguistic features remain highly similar, facilitating easy communication between speakers of both languages.

The Malay language, or Bahasa Melayu, was widely known as the Lingua Franca during the Malacca Sultanate in the 14th century. It was spoken by modern-day Malaysians, Indonesians, Bruneians, and Singaporeans. Therefore, you can conclude that the origin of the two languages is the same. However, after years of colonization and independence, the language has evolved into two major categories, which are Bahasa Melayu (standard Malay language) and Bahasa Indonesia (standard Indonesian language)- two different languages.

The Indonesian and Malay languages can be found on TV channels of both countries. In addition, Malaysia and Indonesia also enjoy music, shows, drama, and movies from each other.

Bahasa Melayu/ Bahasa Malaysia / Malay Language

Presently, Malay is the national language of Malaysia, Brunei, and Singapore. You can even find Malay speakers in Thailand and other parts of Southeast Asia. The standard Malay nowadays is heavily influenced by the British due to its colonization before its independence. Sometime after Malaysian Independence, in 2007, the term Bahasa Malaysia was used instead of Bahasa Melayu; this is due to the country’s effort to be inclusive of all races in Malaysia instead of just Malays since the language is the national language.

Bahasa Indonesia/ Indonesian Language

However, the Indonesian language is not the national language of Indonesia, but it is considered a regional language of the country. This means the Indonesian language has the same position as other languages like Javanese, Sundanese, etc. The Indonesians were colonized by the Dutch in the past, hence why the Dutch have a heavy impact on Bahasa Indonesia. It is important to note that the sentence structure of both languages is similar.

The Difference Between Malay And Indonesian

Many people say that Malay and Indonesian are mutually intelligible. But is it true? Let’s explore some of the differences between Malay and Indonesian languages.

Difference In Spelling For Malay And Indonesian

Bahasa Melayu used to use the Arabic alphabet, also known as Jawi, before the 20th century. However, during colonization, the Jawi writing system was replaced with Roman letters, which the native speakers identify as Rumi. However, since The two languages are influenced by the British and Dutch, the romanization of the same words has different spelling in standard Malay and Indonesian languages. For example, the word ‘grandchild’ in Bahasa Indonesia and Bahasa Malaysia is written as ‘cucu‘; however, it used to be spelled differently in both languages. The Malay language used to be written as ‘chuchu’ due to the consonant ‘c’ from the English Language. While in Bahasa Indonesia, following the Dutch, it was spelled as ‘tjoetjoe’.

Punctuation For Malay And Indonesian

There is not much difference in the punctuation department between the two languages, except that one language uses decimal marks (Malay language influenced by British). In contrast, the decimal comma is used instead in Bahasa Indonesia.

Malay And Indonesian Pronunciation

What Are Malay And Indonesian Pronunciation?

The pronunciation of words between one language and the other is very different. There is something called Bahasa Baku which refers to pronouncing the words strictly based on how it is spelled. The people from Indonesia, Brunei, and East Malaysia tend to use Bahasa Baku, making their utterances more straight and fast; meanwhile, people in Peninsular Malaysia tend to drag out their pronunciation and spoken differently compared to the spelling. Something interesting to note, the utterance that east Malaysians are closer to Indonesians due to their geographical influence.

For example, in the word nama’ (name), the second vowel is pronounced as spelled, which is the /ʌ/ sound for the Indonesians. However, it uses the schwas /ə/ in the Malay Language.

There are many other words that native Malay speakers pronounced differently as it is written, for example,

Malay SpellingPronunciation
Tujuh (seven)Tujoh
Pilih (choose)Pileh
Nanas (pineapple)Nenas
Bilik (room)Bilek
Kuih (Traditional delicacy)Kueh
Cukup (enough)Cukop

Similar Vocabulary For Malay And Indonesian

Vocabulary-wise, the differences between the two languages are heavily based on loanwords from English or Dutch. The Indonesian language absorbs Dutch loanwords, whereas the Malay language absorbs English loanwords.

For instance, the Malay word ‘televisyen’ (from English word Television), compared to the Indonesian word ‘televisi’ (from Dutch word Televisie).

Other Vocabulary For Malay And Indonesian

False Friends

Although many of the words in the Malay languages are the same, or similar, some meanings can be very different. These are known as “false friends,” and here are some examples to learn so you don’t make an embarrassing mistake when speaking Malaysian Malay and Indonesian:

WordMeaning in MalayMeaning in Indonesian
BanciCensusEffeminate, transvestite homosexual (neg.)
BerbualTo chatTo tell a lie
bercintaIn loveTo make love, sexual intercourse
BijiSeedTesticles (“balls”, offensive)
ComelCute, prettySomeone who can’t keep a secret
PercumaFree of chargeNot needed
TandasTo explainTo finish

Other Vocabulary Differences Between Malay And Indonesian:

There are also words recognized in both languages, but each country prefers one over the other. For example, people from Indonesia use ‘mau’, which refers to ‘want’, while the Malays prefer ‘nak’; but both are recognized in Standard Malay and Indonesian. Another example is the word ‘bisa’, which can be translated to ‘can.’ Indonesian users prefer it; Malaysian people also recognize it in standard Malay but only apply it in songs and poems instead of everyday use because native speakers prefer ‘boleh’ instead.

Malay/IndonesianMeaning in MalayMeaning in Indonesian
KacakHandsomeThe act of placing hands on one’s waist
PokokTreePrincipal/ main
TambangTransportation feeRope

Furthermore, some vocabularies can only be found in one language. One common case is ‘no’ in Indonesian is ‘nggak’, which is not available in the Malay language. In Malay ‘no’ is ‘tak or ‘tidak’.

AfternoonTengah hariSore
NeedPerluButuh (means female genital in Malay)

There are also cases when both languages use the same vocabulary, but it has different meanings. For instance, the word ‘baja’ in Indonesian means ‘steel,’ whereas in Malay, it means ‘fertilizer.’ Another example is the word ‘pusing.’ It means ‘circling something’ in Malay. In contrast, in Indonesian, it means ‘dizzy.’

Modern-Day Significance

Today, Bahasa Melayu and Bahasa Indonesia serve as important cultural and national symbols for Malaysia and Indonesia, respectively. They are the mediums of instruction in schools, the languages used in government affairs, and the languages of media and literature. The influence of technology and globalization has also led to the emergence of “Bahasa Baku,” a standardized version of both languages, which seeks to maintain linguistic unity and clarity. But that’s for another time, as it is still a work in progress.

Want To Learn More Malay? Learn With The Ling App!

Learning the differences between Malay and Indonesian languages can give you more benefits than you expect. Imagine learning one language and being able to use it in different countries, like Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, and Singapore.

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2 Responses

  1. You forgot to mention the “Portuguese” people and their influence on Malaysian and Indonesian Language, Culture and Traditions. (yes, including the surmanes they gave to their children)
    Do not ever forget that Portuguese were the first Europeas to arrive and settle in Malaysia, Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, China, Taiwan, Japan, etc. before the smart and ruthless Dutch and English found out and stole their glory.
    Many words in Japanese, Malaysian and Indonesia come from Portuguese language, “literarlly” hundreds.
    You mention a few. They are NOT from English or Dutch they are from Portuguese:
    Nanas … From Ananas Introduced to Asia by the Portuguese
    Tuala … From Toalha
    Kereta … From Carreta
    … and the list goes on. If you want a list of Portuguese words including: Bendera, Bola, Jendela. Bangku, Meja, Menteiga, Keiju, Kemeja, Sepatu, etc. feel free to contact me.

  2. I am sorry, but you forgot to mention the Portuguese influence in Malay and Indonesian Language.
    Do not forget Portuguese were the first Europeans to come to Asia.
    Some of these words you mention are actually from Portuguese language.

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