Malay phonology

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This article explains the phonology of Malay and Indonesian based on the pronunciation of Standard Malay, which is the official language of Brunei, Singapore and Malaysia, and Indonesian, which is the official language of Indonesia and a working language in Timor Leste. There are two main standards for Malay pronunciation, the Johor-Riau standard, used in Brunei and Malaysia, and the Baku (lit. 'standard' in Malay/Indonesian), used in Indonesia and Singapore.[1]


The consonants of Standard Malay[2][3] (Malaysian and Bruneian) and also Indonesian[4] are shown below. Non-native consonants that only occur in borrowed words, principally from Arabic and English, are shown in parentheses. Some analyses list 19 "primary consonants" for Malay as the 18 symbols that are not in parentheses in the table as well as the glottal stop [ʔ].[5][6]

Consonant phonemes of Standard Malay and Indonesian
Labial Dental Denti-alv./
Velar Uvular Glottal
Nasal m n ɲ ŋ
Plosive voiceless p t t͡ʃ k (q) (ʔ)
voiced b d d͡ʒ ɡ
Fricative voiceless (f) (θ) s (ʃ) (x) h
voiced (v) (ð) (z) (ɣ)
Approximant l j w
Trill r

Orthographic note: The sounds are represented orthographically by their symbols as above, except:

  • /ɲ/ is written ⟨ny⟩ before a vowel, ⟨n⟩ before ⟨c⟩ and ⟨j⟩
  • /ŋ/ is written ⟨ng⟩
  • the glottal stop [ʔ] is written as a final ⟨k⟩ or an apostrophe ⟨'⟩
  • // is written ⟨c⟩
  • // is written ⟨j⟩
  • /j/ is written ⟨y⟩
  • /ʃ/ is written ⟨sy⟩
  • /x/ is written ⟨kh⟩
  • /ɣ/ is written ⟨gh⟩ (used in Standard Malay, replaced by ⟨g⟩ in Indonesian)
  • /q/ is written ⟨k⟩ or ⟨q⟩
  • /ð/ is written ⟨z⟩ and transcribed into /z/. Before 1972, this sound was written as ⟨dh⟩ or ⟨dz⟩ in Standard Malay (but not Indonesian)
  • /θ/ is written ⟨s⟩ and transcribed into /s/. Before 1972, this sound was written as ⟨th⟩ in Standard Malay (but not Indonesian).


  • /p/, /t/, /k/ are unaspirated, as in the Romance languages, or as in English spy, sty, sky. In syllable codas, they are usually unreleased, with final /k/ generally being realised as a glottal stop in native words. There is no liaison, that is, no audible release even when followed by a vowel in another word, as in kulit ubi ('tapioca skins') [ˈkulit̚ ˈʔubi], though they are pronounced as a normal medial consonant when followed by a suffix.
  • /t/ is dental [] in many varieties of Malay and in Indonesian.[2][4]
  • The glottal stop /ʔ/ may be represented by an apostrophe in Arabic derived words such as Al Qur'an. In some words like terulang "being repeated" /ˈtərʔulaŋ/ that are derived from vowel-initial words with a prefix, the glottal stop is not reflected in writing.
  • /h/ is pronounced clearly between like vowels, as in Pahang. Elsewhere it is a very light sound, and is frequently silent, as in hutan ~ utan ('forest'), sahut ~ saut ('answer'), indah ~ inda ('beautiful'). The exception to this tendency is initial /h/ from Arabic loans such as hakim ('judge').
  • /r/ varies significantly across dialects. In addition, its position relative to schwa is ambiguous: kertas ('paper') may be pronounced [krəˈtas] or [kərəˈtas]. The trill /r/ is sometimes reduced to a single vibration when single, making it phonetically a flap [ɾ], so that the pronunciation of a single /r/ varies between trill [r], flap [ɾ] and, in some instances, postalveolar approximant [ɹ̠]. The final /r/ is silent in Johor-Riau (Piawai) Pronunciation, while audible as /r/ in Northern Peninsular Pronunciation and Baku Pronunciation.[1]
  • Voiced stops do not occur in final position in native words. In loanwords, /b/ and /d/ are generally devoiced in final position (sebab ('cause') [səˈbap̚], masjid ('mosque') [ˈmäsdʒit̚]) to conform with the native phonological structure. Some pronunciation guides consider this devoicing nonstandard and prescribe to pronounce final b and d as written, i.e. voiced.[7]
  • /f/, /v/, /z/, /ʃ/, /ð/, /θ/ and /q/ only appear in loanwords. Some speakers pronounce /v/ in loanwords as [v], otherwise it is [f]. [z] can also be an allophone of /s/ before voiced consonants. Since /ð/ and /z/ are written identically in Malay, as with /θ/ and /s/ and /q/ and /k/; /ð/, /θ/ and /q/ tend to only occur in speakers who speak the source languages the words are loaned from (e.g. Arabic and English) and are aware of the original pronunciations of the words.
  • According to some analyses, postalveolars // and // are mostly instead palatals [c] and [ɟ] in Indonesian.[8]

Loans from Arabic:

  • Phonemes which occur only in Arabic loans may be pronounced distinctly by speakers who know Arabic, otherwise they tend to be substituted with native sounds.
Table of borrowed Arabic consonants
Distinct Assimilated Example
/x/ /k/, /h/ khabar خَبَرْ [ˈhabar], kabar [ˈkabar] ('news')
/ð/ /d/, /l/ reda, rela ('good will')
/ðˤ/ /l/, /z/ lohor, zohor ('noon prayer')
/θ/ /s/ Selasa ('Tuesday')
/ɣ/ /ɡ/, /r/ ghaib, raib ('hidden')
/q/ /k/ makam ('grave')

Nasal assimilation[edit]

Important in the derivation of Malay verbs and nouns is the assimilation of the nasal consonant at the end of the derivational prefixes meng- /məŋ/, a verbal prefix, and peng- /pəŋ/, a nominal prefix.

The nasal segment is dropped before sonorant consonants (nasals /m, n, ɲ, ŋ/, liquids /l, r/, and approximants /w, j/). It is retained before and assimilates to obstruent consonants: labial /m/ before labial /p, b/, alveolar /n/ before alveolar /t, d/, post-alveolar /ɲ/ before /tʃ, dʒ/ and /s/, velar /ŋ/ before other sounds (velar /k, ɡ/, glottal /h/, all vowels).[9]

In addition, following voiceless obstruents, apart from /tʃ/ (that is /p, t, s, k/), are dropped, except when before causative prefix per- where the first consonant is kept. This phoneme loss rule was mnemonically named kaidah KPST "KPST rule" in Indonesian.[10]

root meaning meng- derivation meaning peng- derivation meaning
masak cook memasak cooking pemasak cook (n)
nanti late menanti waiting
layang kite melayang hovering, drifting
rampas confiscated merampas snatch perampas confiscator
beli buy membeli buying pembeli buyer
dukung support mendukung supporting pendukung supporter
jawab answer menjawab replying penjawab answerer
gulung roll menggulung rolling penggulung roller
hantar send menghantar sending penghantar sender
ajar teach mengajar teaching pengajar teacher
isi volume mengisi filling pengisi filler
pilih choose memilih choosing pemilih chooser
tulis write menulis writing penulis writer
cabut pull out mencabut pulling out pencabut puller
kenal notable mengenal knowing (a person) pengenal identifier
surat letter menyurat correspond penyurat correspondent


It is usually said that there are six vowels in Standard Malay[2][11] (Malaysian and Brunei) and Indonesian.[4] These six vowels are shown in the table below. However, other analyses set up a system with other vowels, particularly the open-mid vowels /ɛ/ and /ɔ/.[12]

Vowel phonemes in Standard Malay and Indonesian
Front Central Back
Close i u
Mid e ə o
Open a


  • One source of variation in Malay is whether final /a/ in open final syllables of root morphemes (for example saya 'I') is pronounced as [a] or as [ə]. So called 'a varieties', such as Indonesian or the varieties of Sarawak, Sabah, Brunei and Kedah pronounce it as [a], while 'schwa varieties' such as some Peninsular Malaysian varieties (e.g.Terengganu Malay and the prevalent Kuala Lumpur/Selangor accent) and the varieties of Singapore and Sumatra pronounce it as [ə].[2][13] In schwa varieties, /a/ of the penultimate syllable is also modified if it is followed by /h/, as in usaha [usəhə]. /a/ does not change to [ə] in singing. There are also some Malay varieties where the open final /a/ is pronounced as neither such as Kelantan-Pattani Malay where it is pronounced as an open back unrounded [ɑ] instead.
  • In closed final syllables of root morphemes, the front vowel /i/ and back vowel /u/ can have mid or even open realisations in Malay so giling and burung can be pronounced [gilɪŋ ~ gileŋ ~ gilɛŋ] and [burʊŋ ~ buroŋ ~ burɒŋ], respectively. /e/ and /o/ on the other hand never have close realisations so geleng 'shake' can be pronounced as [geleŋ ~ gelɛŋ] but never *[gelɪŋ] and similarly, borong 'buy in bulk' is never *[borʊŋ].[2] In Indonesian, closed final syllable /i/ and /u/ often only get realised as [ɪ] and [ʊ].[4]
  • The above allophony notwithstanding, the vowels [e] and [o] must be accorded phonemic status, as they occur in native words in all Malay dialects and in Arabic, Persian, Portuguese, English, Dutch, and Javanese loan words, and in foreign names. /e/ and /o/ may vary between different speakers as they are popularly pronounced as mid in Malaysian and close-mid in Indonesian. /i/ and /u/ are pronounced the same in Brunei and East Malaysia (Sabah and Sarawak).
  • Word-final [e] and [o] are rare in Malay, except for loanwords, like teko (teapot, from Hokkien 茶鈷 tê-kó͘), toko (small shop, from Hokkien 土庫 thó͘-khò͘), semberono (careless, from Javanese sembrono), gede (Javanese of big), konde (from Javanese kondhe, bulbous hairdo or hair extension on the back of the head), kare (Indonesian term for curry, variation of kari, from Tamil kai), mestizo (from Spanish), kredo (creed, from Latin credo), resiko (risk, from Dutch risico), and non-Malay Indonesian names, like Manado and Suharto.
  • Some words borrowed from European languages have the vowels [ɛ] and [ɔ], such as pek [pɛk] ('pack') and kos [kɔs] ('cost'). Words borrowed earlier have a more nativized pronunciation, such as pesta ('fest'), which is pronounced [pestə]. Some systems represent [ɔ] as ⟨ó⟩.
  • [ɑ] is an occasional allophone of /a/ after emphatic consonants, and including /r/, /ɣ/, and /q/ from Arabic words. Example: qari [qɑri].
  • There is also a [ɪ] in Indonesian, but is an allophone of [i] as the second vowel in a hiatus such as air ('water') [a.ɪr], but see below.
  • The vowels of [e], [ɛ], and [ə] are commonly written without diacritics as ⟨e⟩. The diacritics are only used to indicate the correct pronunciation, for example, in dictionaries. In Indonesian, the vowels are marked with diacrtics as [e] ⟨é⟩, [ɛ] ⟨è⟩ and [ə] ⟨ê⟩.[14] A different system represents [e], [ɛ], and [ə] as ⟨e⟩, ⟨é⟩, and ⟨ě⟩ respectively. In Malay, [e] and [ə] are represented by <é> and <e>, otherwise respectively known as e taling and e pepet.[3]
Comparison of several standard pronunciations of Malay[1]
Example Johor-Riau (Piawai)


Northern Peninsular


Baku & Indonesian


⟨a⟩ in final open syllable ⟨kereta /ə/ /a/ /a/
⟨i⟩ in final closed syllable with final ⟨n⟩ and ⟨ng⟩ ⟨salin⟩ /e/ /i/ /i/
⟨i⟩ in final closed syllable with other final consonants ⟨itik⟩ /e/ /e/ /i/
⟨u⟩ in final closed syllable with final ⟨n⟩ and ⟨ng⟩ ⟨agung⟩ /o/ /u/ /u/
⟨u⟩ in final closed syllable with other final consonants ⟨lumpur⟩ /o/ /o/ /u/


Some analyses claim that Malay has three native diphthong phonemes only in open syllables; they are:

  • /ai̯/: kedai ('shop'), pandai ('clever')
  • /au̯/: kerbau ('buffalo')
  • /oi̯/: dodoi, amboi

Others assume that these "diphthongs" are actually a monophthong followed by an approximant, so ⟨ai⟩ represents /aj/, ⟨au⟩ represents /aw/, and ⟨oi⟩ represents /oj/. On this basis, there are no phonological diphthongs in Malay.[15]

Words borrowed from English with /eɪ/, such as Mei ('May') and esei ('essay') are pronounced with /e/ as this feature also happens to English /oʊ/ which becomes /o/. However, Indonesian introduced forth diphthong of /ei̯/ since 2015, such as in ⟨Méi⟩ ('May') /mei̯/.

Diphthongs are differentiated from two vowels in two syllables, such as:

  • /a.i/: e.g. rai ('celebrate') [ra.i], air ('water') [] ~ [a.ɪr]
  • /a.u/: bau ('smell') [ba.u], laut ('sea') [la.ot] ~ [la.ʊt]

Even if it is not differentiated in modern Latin spelling, diphthongs and two vowels are differentiated in the spelling in Jawi, where a vowel hiatus is indicated by the symbol hamzah ⟨ء⟩, for example: لاءوت laut ('sea').


Malay has light stress that falls on either the final or penultimate syllable, depending on regional variations as well as the presence of the schwa (/ə/) in a word. It is generally the penultimate syllable that is stressed, unless its vowel is a schwa /ə/. If the penult has a schwa, then stress moves to the ante-penultimate syllable if there is one, even if that syllable has a schwa as well; if the word is disyllabic, the stress is final. In disyllabic words with a closed penultimate syllable, such as tinggal ('stay') and rantai ('chain'), stress falls on the penult.

However, there is some disagreement among linguists over whether stress is phonemic (unpredictable), with some analyses suggesting that there is no underlying stress in Malay.[2][16][17]


The classification of languages based on rhythm can be problematic.[18] Nevertheless, acoustic measurements suggest that Malay has more syllable-based rhythm than British English,[19] even though doubts remain about whether the syllable is the appropriate unit for the study of Malay prosody.[16]

Syllable structure[edit]

Most of the native lexicon is based on disyllabic root morphemes, with a small percentage of monosyllabic and trisyllabic roots.[20] However, with the widespread occurrence of prefixes and suffixes, many words of five or more syllables are found.[2]

Syllables are basically consonant–vowel–consonant (CVC), where the V is a monophthong and the final C may be an approximant, either /w/ or /j/. (See the discussion of diphthongs above.)

Baku pronunciation in Malaysia and Singapore[edit]

The Baku standard started being implemented in Malaysia in 1988 but this ceased in 2000. The Malaysian Minister of Education had been quoted saying that the Baku standard "is different from the pronunciation commonly used by the people of this country". Singapore started using the Baku standard for official purposes in 1990. Ever since then, there have been various protests from Malay Singaporeans, calling for the return of the Johor-Riau standard as the official standard for Malay pronunciation. One prominent critic of the use of the Baku standard is Berita Harian editor, Guntor Sadali, who noted that "members of the Malay community generally find that Sebutan Baku (Baku Pronunciation) is very awkward".[1]


  1. ^ a b c d Abu Bakar, Mukhlis (2019-12-18). "Sebutan Johor-Riau dan Sebutan Baku dalam Konteks Identiti Masyarakat Melayu Singapura". Issues in Language Studies. 8 (2). doi:10.33736/ils.1521.2019. ISSN 2180-2726.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g Clynes, Adrian; Deterding, David (August 2011). "Standard Malay (Brunei)". Journal of the International Phonetic Association. 41 (2): 259–268. doi:10.1017/S002510031100017X. Archived from the original on 2021-08-16.
  3. ^ a b Karim, Nik Safiah; M. Onn, Farid; Haji Musa, Hashim; Mahmood, Abdul Hamid (2008). Tatabahasa Dewan (in Malay) (3 ed.). Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka. pp. 297–303. ISBN 978-983-62-9484-5.
  4. ^ a b c d Soderberg, Craig D.; Olson, Kenneth S. (2008). "Indonesian". Journal of the International Phonetic Association. 38 (2): 209–213. doi:10.1017/S0025100308003320.
  5. ^ Asmah Haji Omar (2008). Ensiklopedia Bahasa Melayu. Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, page 108.
  6. ^ Yunus Maris, M. (1980). The Malay Sound System. Kuala Lumpur: Penerbit Fajar Bakti Sdn. Bhd, page 52.
  7. ^ S., Effendi (2012). Panduan Berbahasa Indonesia dengan Baik dan Benar (Guidebook for Speaking Indonesian Well and Correct). Dunia Pustaka Jaya. p. 228. ISBN 978-6232212350.
  8. ^ To Tap or Not To Tap: A Preliminary Acoustic Description of American English Alveolar Tap Productions by Indonesian Bilingual Adults
  9. ^ This is the argument for the nasal being underlyingly /ŋ/: when there is no place for it to assimilate to, it surfaces as /ŋ/. Some treatments write it /N/ to indicate that it has no place of articulation of its own, but this fails to explain its pronunciation before vowels.
  10. ^ "KPST dan Kaidah Peluluhan Fonem (KPST and Phoneme Loss Rule)". 28 December 2019. Retrieved 8 October 2021.
  11. ^ Asmah Haji Omar (2008). Ensiklopedia Bahasa Melayu. Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, page 97.
  12. ^ Yunus Maris, M. (1980). The Malay Sound System. Kuala Lumpur: Penerbit Fajar Bakti Sdn. Bhd, page 2.
  13. ^ Asmah Haji Omar. (1977). The phonological diversity of the Malay dialects. Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka.
  14. ^ Pedoman Umum Ejaan Bahasa Indonesia (PDF). Jakarta: Kementerian Pendidikan dan Kebudayaan Republik Indonesia. 2015.
  15. ^ Clynes, Adrian (1997). "On the Proto-Austronesian "Diphthongs"". Oceanic Linguistics. 36 (2): 347–362. doi:10.2307/3622989. JSTOR 3622989.
  16. ^ a b Zuraidah Mohd Don, Knowles, G., & Yong, J. (2008). How words can be misleading: A study of syllable timing and "stress" in Malay. The Linguistics Journal 3(2). See here
  17. ^ Gil, David. "A Typology of Stress, And Where Malay/Indonesian Fits In (abstract only)" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2012-02-25. Retrieved 2012-03-25.
  18. ^ Roach, P. (1982). On the distinction between 'stress-timed' and 'syllable-timed' languages. In D. Crystal (Ed.), Linguistic Controversies (pp.73–79). London: Edward Arnold.
  19. ^ Deterding, D. (2011). Measurements of the rhythm of Malay. In Proceedings of the 17th International Congress of Phonetic Sciences, Hong Kong, 17–21 August 2011, pp. 576–579. On-line Version
  20. ^ Adelaar, K.A. (1992). Proto-Malayic: The reconstruction of its phonology and parts of its lexicon and morphology (PDF). Canberra: Pacific Linguistics, The Australian National University. doi:10.15144/pl-c119.