Malay phonology

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This article explains the phonology of the Malay language based on the pronunciation of Standard Malay, which is the official language of Brunei, Singapore, Malaysia (as Malaysian) and Indonesia (as Indonesian).


The consonants of Standard Malay[1] and also Indonesian[2] 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].[3][4]

Consonant phonemes of Standard Malay
Labial Dental Alveolar Post-alv./
Velar Glottal
Nasal m n ɲ ŋ
Stop voiceless p t t͡ʃ k (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⟩
  • /ð/ is written ⟨z⟩ and transcribed into /z/
  • /θ/ is written ⟨s⟩ and transcribed into /s/. Before 1972, this sound was written ⟨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 often 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'), though they are pronounced as a normal medial consonant when followed by a suffix.
  • /t/ is a dental [] in many varieties of Malay[1] and in Indonesian.[2]
  • 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'). 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].
  • Stops /b/ and /d/ are devoiced in final positions (sebab ('cause') [səˈbap̚], masjid ('mosque') [ˈmäsdʒit̚]), arise from Malays' tendencies to devoice such phonemes. It is sometimes said this devoicing is nonstandard and such words must be pronounced as if written.[5]
  • /f/, /v/, /z/, /ʃ/, /ð/ and /θ/ 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/, /ð/ and /θ/ tend to only occur in speakers who speak the source language the words are loaned from (Arabic or English) and are aware whether the sound was originally dental or alveolar.

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/ redha, rela ('good will')
/ðˤ/ /l/, /z/ lohor, zohor ('noon prayer')
/ɣ/ /ɡ/, /r/ ghaib, raib ('hidden')
/ʕ/[citation needed] /ʔ/ saat, sa'at ('time')

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).[6]

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.[7]

That is, meng- produces the following derivations:

root meng- derivation
masak memasak
nanti menanti
layang melayang
rampas merampas
beli membeli
dukung mendukung
jawab menjawab (/məɲ/-)
gulung menggulung
hantar menghantar
root meng- derivation
ajar mengajar
isi mengisi
pilih memilih
tulis menulis
cabut mencabut (/məɲ/-)
kenal mengenal
surat menyurat


It is usually said that there are six vowels in Standard Malay[1][8] and Indonesian.[2] 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/.[9]

Table of vowel phonemes of Standard Malay
Front Central Back
Close i u
Mid e ə o
Open a
Table of vowel phonemes of Indonesian
Front Central Back
Close [i]
Close-Mid [e]
Open-Mid [ɛ]
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 northern West Malaysia pronounce it as [a], while 'schwa varieties' such as some West Malaysian varieties (e.g.Terengganu Malay) and the varieties of Singapore and Sumatra pronounce it as [ə].[1][10] 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/ are usually pronounced as [ɪ], [e̞] or [e] and [ʊ], [o̞] or [o], respectively, in the Malay of West Malaysia, Singapore and Sumatra (where the language is native),[1] and [ɪ] and [ʊ] in Indonesian.
  • 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 Min Nan 茶壺 tekoh), toko (small shop, from Min Nan 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 of 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]. In Indonesian, [ɛ] and [ɔ] are allophones of /e/ and /o/ in closed final syllables.
  • Some district dialects differentiate close-mid and open-mid (front and back) vowels. Examples are in the Kedahan dialect:
  1. [modɛ] (modal) ('modal')
  2. [bɔrak] (**borak, synonym of bohong) ('lie')
  • [ɑ] is an occasional allophone of /a/ after emphatic consonants, and including /r/, /ɣ/, and /q/ from Arabic words. Example: qari [qɑri].
  • Some district dialects differentiate vowel length. Example: [ɡulaː] (**gulaa, from gulai, the Perak River dialect).
  • 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 [e] ⟨é⟩, [ɛ] ⟨è⟩ and [ə] ⟨ê⟩/⟨ē⟩ are commonly written without diacritics in both Malay and Indonesian as ⟨e⟩.[11] The diacritics are only used to indicate the correct pronunciation, as e.g. in dictionaries.


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.[12]

Words borrowed from English with /eɪ/, such as Mei ('May') and esei ('essay') are pronounced with /e/. This feature also happens to English /oʊ/ which becomes /o/.

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 Rumi 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').

The vowel hiatuses below are two different vowels but pronounced as diphthongs.[clarification needed]

  • /ia/: meriah ('lively')
  • /iu/: liur ('saliva')
  • /ua/: luar ('outside')
  • /ui/: kelui ('paging')


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.[1][13][14]


The classification of languages based on rhythm can be problematic.[15] Nevertheless, acoustic measurements suggest that Malay has more syllable-based rhythm than British English,[16] even though doubts remain about whether the syllable is the appropriate unit for the study of Malay prosody.[13]

Syllable structure[edit]

Most of the native lexicon is based on disyllabic root morphemes, with a small percentage of monosyllabic and trisyllabic roots.[17] However, with the widespread occurrence of prefixes and suffixes, many words of five or more syllables are found.[1]

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.)


  1. ^ 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.
  2. ^ a b c Soderberg, Craig D.; Olson, Kenneth S. (2008). "Indonesian". Journal of the International Phonetic Association. 38 (2): 209–213. doi:10.1017/S0025100308003320.
  3. ^ Asmah Haji Omar (2008). Ensiklopedia Bahasa Melayu. Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, page 108.
  4. ^ Yunus Maris, M. (1980). The Malay Sound System. Kuala Lumpur: Penerbit Fajar Bakti Sdn. Bhd, page 52.
  5. ^ 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.
  6. ^ 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.
  7. ^ "KPST dan Kaidah Peluluhan Fonem (KPST and Phoneme Loss Rule)". 28 December 2019. Retrieved 8 October 2021.
  8. ^ Asmah Haji Omar (2008). Ensiklopedia Bahasa Melayu. Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, page 97.
  9. ^ Yunus Maris, M. (1980). The Malay Sound System. Kuala Lumpur: Penerbit Fajar Bakti Sdn. Bhd, page 2.
  10. ^ Asmah Haji Omar. (1977). The phonological diversity of the Malay dialects. Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka.
  11. ^ Pedoman Umum Ejaan Bahasa Indonesia (PDF). Jakarta: Kementerian Pendidikan dan Kebudayaan Republik Indonesia. 2015.
  12. ^ Clynes, Adrian (1997). "On the Proto-Austronesian "Diphthongs"". Oceanic Linguistics. 36 (2): 347–362. doi:10.2307/3622989. JSTOR 3622989.
  13. ^ 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
  14. ^ 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.
  15. ^ 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.
  16. ^ 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
  17. ^ 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.