Malaysian versus Indonesian - divided by a common tongue?

by Chee Seng

Languages are more than just a collection of words to help (or hinder) communication between the peoples of the world. There are rich veins of history and culture to be mined there - if you take a closer look at the similarities (and differences) between them. And often the most interesting historical tale is to be told by languages that seem to share the same linguistic space - but which are often found jostling when backs are turned. That's the certainly the case with sometimes fractuous lingual siblings of Indonesian and Malaysian - both Malay, but distinctively different. And all thanks to random throws of the historical dice.

The differences between Indonesian and Malayasian start with the name. Both are called Bahasa, but be careful - Bahasa Malaysia is claimed by Malaysians, and Bahasa Indonesia by Indonesians, which is simple enough. But for Malaysians the two are the same linguistic river, just flowing on different banks; while for Indonesians, the river split many years ago. And Bahasa Melayu is a bone of contention too - the mother tongue for Malaysians, but merely what those people in Malaysia speak to the Indonesians.

And the discord continues through the vocabulary and the pronounciation, to the spelling and even the outlook of these two languages. Most words in Bahasa Malaysia are to be found in Bahasa Indonesia, but that certainly isn't the case the other way round. Bahasa Indonesia seems to have been drawn deeply, on the words of the many peoples to have passed through these crossroads to the East. Even today, many Indonesians seem proud of the way their language continues to be infused by new words, whilst Malaysians take pride in the defence of the purity of 'their' Malay.

But the Malay of both countries comes from the same source - the Sanskrit-influenced Austronesian tongue from Sumatra. And both shared the same infusion of Persian and Arabic words, introduced when the Muslim world came here a-trading 700 years ago. So where to find the reasons for this split linguistic personality? To the vagaries of empire, it would seem.

This part of the world lies on the sea-routes between East and West. And the virulently competitive trading nations of Portugal, Britain and the Netherlands lost no time in making their stamp here. Eventually, the British laid claim to the Peninsular Malay and the nothern half of Bornea - eventually Malaysia. And the Dutch took the rest of Borneo, Java and Sumatra - Indonesia-to-be. It seems that it was how the Malay-speaking peoples reacted to these colonial overlords that sowed the linguistic split to come.

In the diverse islands of Indonesia - already home to the scattered tongues of Javanese, Sundanese, Batak, Minangkabau, and Betawi - throwing more Dutch words into the mix was just another exciting addition, to their adaptable language. But in the more homogenous Malaya Peninsular states, keeping Malay pure was a point of cultural pride. This divergent outlook has led to the odd situation where Bahasa Indonesia (BI) has taken on-board more English words recently than Bahasa Malaysia (BM) - even though Malaysia was for many years ruled by English-speaking administrators.

Over the last half of the 20th century, some efforts were made to pull the two languages closer together. The spelling of words - which strongly reflected on the different ways of pronouncing words between the Dutch and the English - were largely harmonized under the Ejaan Yang Disempurnakan or the 'Perfected Spelling' initiative. Out went many 'Dutch' spellings, and in came the more 'English' spellings.

There are still some differences in spelling and pronunciation between the two languages. But it is in the vocabularies that this historical schism shows up to its fullest. Many words are just simply different for the same thing - basikal (BM) and sepeda (BI) for bicycle, farmasi (BM) and apotek (BI) for pharmacy. But some of the shared words are more dangerous - the 'false friends' that look and sound the same in both tongues, but which mean very different things. Berbual is to chat to a Malaysian, but to lie to an Indonesia, polis is police for BM speakers, policy for the BI speaker - and the word polisi sees those meanings inverted!

Worse, many words that are innocent in one language are an insult in another. It pays to take great care over the use of words like tandas or baja, for example. So while the rich seam of differences between this two-in-one Malay language can be enlightening, for the historian, just remember - it can be the stuff of nightmares for the hapless translator.

About the writer

Chee Seng is a blogger from Indonesia who's interested in everything related to technology. He currently blogs at


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