Malay grammar

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Malay grammar is the body of rules that describe the structure of expressions in the Malay language (known as Indonesian in Indonesia and Malaysian/Malay in Malaysia). This includes the structure of words, phrases, clauses and sentences.

In Malay, there are four basic parts of speech: nouns, verbs, adjectives, and grammatical function words (particles). Nouns and verbs may be basic roots, but frequently they are derived from other words by means of prefixes and suffixes.

Word formation[edit]

Malay is an agglutinative language, and new words are formed by three methods. New words can be created by attaching affixes onto a root word (affixation), formation of a compound word (composition), or repetition of words or portions of words (reduplication).


Root words are either nouns or verbs, which can be affixed to derive new words, e.g., masak (to cook) yields memasak (cooks, as a verb), memasakkan (cooks for), dimasak (cooked) as well as pemasak (a cook), masakan (a meal, cookery). Many initial consonants undergo mutation when prefixes are added: e.g., sapu (sweep) becomes penyapu (broom); panggil (to call) becomes memanggil (calls/calling), tapis (to sift) becomes menapis (sifts).

Other examples of the use of affixes to change the meaning of a word can be seen with the word ajar (teach):

  • ajar = teach
  • ajaran = teachings
  • belajar = to learn
  • mengajar = to teach
  • diajar = being taught (intransitive)
  • diajarkan = being taught (transitive)
  • mempelajari = to study
  • dipelajari = being studied
  • pelajar = student
  • pengajar = teacher
  • pelajaran = subject, education
  • pengajaran = lesson, moral of story
  • pembelajaran = learning
  • terajar = taught (accidentally)
  • terpelajar = well-educated, literally "been taught"
  • berpelajaran = is educated, literally "has education"

There are four types of affixes, namely prefixes (awalan), suffixes (akhiran), circumfixes (apitan) and infixes (sisipan). These affixes are categorised into noun affixes, verb affixes, and adjective affixes.

Noun affixes are affixes that form nouns upon addition to root words. The following are examples of noun affixes:

Type of noun affixes Affix Example of root word Example of derived word
Prefix pə(r)- ~ pəng- duduk (sit) penduduk (population)
kə- hendak (want) kehendak (desire)
juru- wang (money) juruwang (cashier)
Infix ⟨əl⟩ tunjuk (point) telunjuk (index finger, command)
⟨əm⟩ kelut (dishevelled) kemelut (chaos, crisis)
⟨ər⟩ gigi (teeth) gerigi (toothed blade)
Suffix -an bangun (wake up, raise) bangunan (building)
Circumfix kə-...-an raja (king) kerajaan (kingdom)
kerja (work) pekerjaan (occupation)

The prefix per- drops its r before r, l and frequently before p, t, k. In some words it is peng-; though formally distinct, these are treated as variants of the same prefix in Malay grammar books.

Similarly, verb affixes are attached to root words to form verbs. In Malay, there are:

Type of verb affixes Affix Example of root word Example of derived word
Prefix bər- ajar (teach) belajar (to study)[1]
məng- tolong (help) menolong (to help)
di- ambil (take) diambil (be taken)
məmpər- kemas (tidy up, orderly) memperkemas (to arrange further)
dipər- dalam (deep) diperdalam (be deepened)
tər- makan (eat) termakan (to have accidentally eaten)
Suffix -kan letak (place, keep) letakkan (keep)
-i jauh (far) jauhi (avoid)
Circumfix bər-...-an pasang (pair) berpasangan (in pairs)
bər-...-kan dasar (base) berdasarkan (based on)
məng-...-kan pasti (sure) memastikan (to make sure)
məng-...-i teman (company) menemani (to accompany)
məmpər-...-kan guna (use) mempergunakan (to utilise, to exploit)
məmpər-...-i ajar (teach) mempelajari (to study)
kə-...-an hilang (disappear) kehilangan (to lose)
di-...-i sakit (pain) disakiti (to be hurt by)
di-...-kan benar (right) dibenarkan (is allowed to)
dipər-...-kan kenal (know, recognise) diperkenalkan (is being introduced)

Adjective affixes are attached to root words to form adjectives:

Type of adjective affixes Affix Example of root word Example of derived word
Prefix tər- kenal (know) terkenal (famous)
sə- lari (run) selari (parallel)
Infix ⟨əl⟩ serak (disperse) selerak (messy)
⟨əm⟩ cerlang (radiant bright) cemerlang (bright, excellent)
⟨ər⟩ sabut (husk) serabut (dishevelled)
Circumfix kə-...-an barat (west) kebaratan (westernized)

In addition to these affixes, Malay also has a lot of borrowed affixes from other languages such as Sanskrit, Arabic and English. For example, maha-, pasca-, eka-, bi-, anti-, pro- etc.


Reduplication (Kata Ganda or Kata Ulang) in the Malay language is a very productive process. It is mainly used for forming plurals, but sometimes it may alter the meaning of the whole word, or change the usage of the word in sentences.


There are four types of words reduplication in Malay, namely

  • Full reduplication (Kata Ganda Penuh (Malaysian) or Kata Ulang Utuh (Indonesian) or Dwilingga)
  • Partial reduplication (Kata Ganda Separa (Malaysian) or Kata Ulang Sebagian (Indonesian) or Dwipurwa)
  • Rhythmic reduplication (Kata Ganda Berentak (Malaysian) or Kata Ulang Salin Suara (Indonesian))
  • Reduplication of meaning[clarification needed]

Full reduplication is the complete duplication of the word, separated by a dash (-). For example, buku (book) when duplicated form buku-buku (books), while the duplicated form of batu (stone) is batu-batu (stones).

Partial reduplication repeats only the initial consonant of the word, such as dedaun (leaves) from the word daun (leaf), and tetangga (neighbor) from the word tangga (ladder). The words are usually not separated by spaces or punctuation, and is considered a single word.

Rhythmic reduplication repeats the whole word, but one or more of its phonemes are altered. For example, the word gerak (motion) can be reduplicated rhythmically to form gerak-gerik (movements) by altering the vowel. The reduplication can also be formed by altering the consonant, e.g., in sayur-mayur (vegetables [bundled for the market]) from the root word sayur (vegetable/vegetables [what is found on plate]).


Common derivational affixes for nouns are peng-/per-/juru- (actor, instrument, or someone characterized by the root), -an (collectivity, similarity, object, place, instrument), ke-...-an (abstractions and qualities, collectivities), per-/peng-...-an (abstraction, place, goal or result).


Malay does not make use of grammatical gender. There are only a few words that use natural gender; the same word used for he and she is also used for his and her. Most of the words that refer to people (family terms, professions, etc.) have a form that does not distinguish between the sexes. For example, adik can refer to a younger sibling of either sex. To specify the natural gender of a noun, an adjective must be added: adik lelaki corresponds to "brother" but really means "male younger sibling". There are some words that are gendered. For instance, puteri means "princess" and putera means "prince"; words like these are usually borrowed from other languages (in this case, Sanskrit).


There is no grammatical plural in Malay. Thus orang may mean either "person" or "people". Plurality is expressed by the context, or the usage of words such as numerals, beberapa "some", or semua "all" that express plurality. In many cases, it simply isn't relevant to the speaker.

Reduplication is commonly used to emphasize plurality. However, reduplication has many other functions. For example, orang-orang means "(all the) people", but orang-orangan means "scarecrow". Similarly, while hati means "heart" or "liver", hati-hati is a verb meaning "to be careful". Also, not all reduplicated words are inherently plural, such as orang-orangan "scarecrow/scarecrows", biri-biri "a/some sheep" and kupu-kupu "butterfly/butterflies". Some reduplication is rhyming rather than exact, as in sayur-mayur "(all sorts of) vegetables".

Distributive affixes derive mass nouns that are effectively plural: pohon "tree", pepohonan "flora, trees"; rumah "house", perumahan "housing, houses"; gunung "mountain", pe(r)gunungan "mountain range, mountains".

Quantity words come before the noun: səribu orang "a thousand people", beberapa pe(r)gunungan "a series of mountain ranges", beberapa kupu-kupu "some butterflies".


Personal pronouns are not a separate part of speech, but a subset of nouns. They are frequently omitted, and there are numerous ways to say "you". Commonly the person's name, title, title with name, or occupation is used ("does Johnny want to go?", "would Madam like to go?"); kin terms, including fictive kinship, are extremely common. However, there are also dedicated personal pronouns, as well as the demonstrative pronouns ini "this, the" and itu "that, the".

Personal pronouns[edit]

From the perspective of a European language, Malay boasts a wide range of different pronouns, especially to refer to the addressee (the so-called second person pronouns). These are used to differentiate several parameters of the person they are referred to, such as the social rank and the relationship between the addressee and the speaker.

This table shows an overview over the most commonly and widely used pronouns of the Malay language:

Common pronouns
person clusivity respect singular plural
1st person exclusive informal, familiar aku kami
(we: they and I, s/he and I)
standard, polite saya
inclusive kita
(we: you and I, we and you)
2nd person familiar kamu kalian
polite A/anda[i]
A/anda (sekalian/semua)
(you, y'all)
3rd person colloquial dia ~ ia
(s/he ~ it)
dia orang
formal standard mereka
  1. ^ The spelling 'Anda' with an upper case a is used in Indonesia due to the influence of the Dutch Uw, whereas the spelling with the lower case a is used elsewhere.

First person pronouns[edit]

Notable among the personal-pronoun system is a distinction between two forms of "we": kita (you and me, you and us) and kami (us, but not you). The distinction is increasingly confused in colloquial Indonesian.

Saya and aku are the two major forms of "I"; saya (or its literary / archaic form sahaya) is the more formal form, whereas aku is used with close acquittances like family and friends, and between lovers. Sa(ha)ya may also be used for "we", but in such cases it is usually used with sekalian or semua "all"; this form is ambiguous as to whether it corresponds with inclusive kami or exclusive kita. Less common are hamba "slave", hamba tuan, hamba datok (all extremely humble), beta (a royal addressing oneselves), patik (/pateʔ/, a commoner addressing a royal), kami (royal or editorial "we"), kita, teman (/təman/), and kawan (lit. "friend").

Second person pronouns[edit]

There are three common forms of "you", anda (polite), kamu (familiar), and kalian "y'all" (commonly used as a plural form of you, slightly informal). Anda is used in formal contexts like in advertisements and business or to show respect (though terms like tuan "sir" and other titles also work the same way), while kamu is used in informal situations. Anda sekalian or Anda semua are polite plural. Engkau orang —contracted to kau orang or korang—is used to address subjects plural in the most informal context.

Engkau (əŋkau, commonly shortened to kau) and hang (dialectical) are used to social inferiors or equals, awak to equals, and encik (/əntʃeʔ/, contracted to cik before a name) is polite, traditionally used for people without title. The compounds 'makcik and pakcik are used with village elders one is well acquainted with or the guest of.

Tuanku (from tuan aku, "my lord") is used by commoners to address royal members.

Third person pronouns[edit]

The common word for "s/he" is ia, which has the object and emphatic/focused form dia; consequently ia has been recently used to refer to animals. Beliau (/bəliau/, "his/her Honour") is respectful. As with the English "you", names and kin terms are extremely common. Colloquially, dia orang (or its contracted form diorang) is commonly used for the plural "they" whereas mereka "they", mereka itu, or orang itu "those people" are used in writing.

Baginda - corresponding to "his/her Majesty/Highness" - is used for addressing royal figures and religious prophets, especially in Islamic literature.

Regional varieties[edit]

There are a large number of other words for "I" and "you", many regional, dialectical, or borrowed from local languages. Saudara (masc., "you") or saudari (fem., pl. saudara-saudara / saudari-saudari / saudara-saudari) show utmost respect. Daku ("I") and dikau ("you") are poetic or romantic. Indonesian gua ("I") and lu "you" are slang and extremely informal. In the dialect of the northern states of Malaysia - Kedah, Penang, Perlis and Perak (northern) typically "hang" is used as "you" (singular), while "hampa" or "hangpa" are used for the plural "you". In the state of Pahang, two variants for "I" and "you" exist, depending on location: in East Pahang, around Pekan, "kome" is used as "I" while in the west around Temerloh, "koi", "keh" or "kah" is used. "Kome" is also used in Kuala Kangsar, Perak, but instead it means "you". This allegedly originated from the fact that both the royal families of Pahang and Perak (whose seats are in Pekan and Kuala Kangsar respectively) were descendants of the same ancient line.

The informal pronouns aku, kamu, engkau, ia, kami, and kita are indigenous to Malay.

Possessive pronouns[edit]

Aku, kamu, engkau, and ia have short possessive enclitic forms. All others retain their full forms like other nouns, as does emphatic dia: meja saya, meja kita, meja anda, meja dia "my table, our table, your table, his/her table".

Possessed forms of meja "table"
Pronoun Enclitic Possessed form
aku -ku mejaku (my table)
kamu -mu mejamu (your table)
engkau -kau mejakau (your table)
ia -nya mejanya (his, her, their table)

There are also proclitic forms of aku and engkau, ku- and kau-. These are used when there is no emphasis on the pronoun:

Ku-dengar raja itu penyakit sopak. Aku tahu ilmu tabib. Aku-lah mengubati dia.
"It has come to my attention that the Raja has a skin disease. I am skilled in medicine. I will cure him."

Here ku-verb is used for a general report, aku verb is used for a factual statement, and emphatic aku-lah meng-verb (≈ "I am the one who...") for focus on the pronoun.[2]

Demonstrative pronouns[edit]

There are two demonstrative pronouns in Malay. Ini "this, these" is used for a noun generally near to the speaker. Itu "that, those" is used for a noun generally far from the speaker. Either may sometimes be equivalent to English "the". There is no difference between singular and plural. However, plural can be indicated through duplication of a noun followed by a ini or itu. The word yang "which" is often placed before demonstrative pronouns to give emphasis and a sense of certainty, particularly when making references or enquiries about something/someone, like English "this one" or "that one".

Pronoun Malay English
ini buku ini This book, these books, the book(s)
buku-buku ini These books, (all) the books
itu kucing itu That cat, those cats, the cat(s)
kucing-kucing itu Those cats, the (various) cats
Pronoun + yang Example Sentence English Meaning
Yang ini Q: Anda ma(h)u membeli buku yang mana?

A: Saya ma(h)u beli yang ini

Q: Which book do you wish to purchase?

A: I would like this one

Yang itu Q: Kucing mana yang makan tikusmu?

A: Yang itu!

Q: Which cat ate your mouse?

A: That one!

Measure words[edit]

Another distinguishing feature of Malay is its use of measure words, also called classifiers (penjodoh bilangan). In this way, it is similar to many other languages of Asia, including Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Thai, Burmese, and Bengali.

Measure words are found in English two head of cattle, a loaf of bread, or this sheet of paper, where *two cattle, a bread, and this paper (in the sense of this piece of paper) would be ungrammatical. The word satu reduces to se- /sə/, as it does in other compounds:

measure word used for measuring literal translation example
buah[3] things (in general), large things, abstract nouns
houses, cars, ships, mountains; books, rivers, chairs, some fruits, thoughts, etc.
'fruit' dua buah meja (two tables), lima buah rumah (five houses)
ekor /ekor/ animals 'tail' seekor ayam (a chicken), tiga ekor kambing (three goats)
orang human beings 'person' seorang lelaki (a man), enam orang petani (six farmers), seratus orang murid (a hundred students)
biji smaller rounded objects
most fruits, cups, nuts
'grain' sebiji/ sebutir telur (an egg), sebiji epal (an apple), sebutir/ butiran-butiran beras (rice or rices)
batang long stiff things
trees, walking sticks, pencils
'trunk, rod' sebatang sungai (a river), sebatang kayu (a stick)
həlai, lai things in thin layers or sheets
paper, cloth, feathers, hair
'leaf' sepuluh helai pakaian (ten cloths)
kəping flat fragments
slabs of stone, pieces of wood, pieces of bread, land, coins, paper
'chip' sekeping kertas (a piece of paper)
pucuk letters, firearms, needles 'sprout' sepucuk surat (a letter)
bilah blades: knives, spears 'lathe' sebilah pisau (a knife)

Less common are

bəntuk rings, hooks (with ringed 'eyes') 'shape'
bidanɡ mats, widths of cloth 'breadth'
kuntum flowers 'blossom'
tangkai flowers 'stem'
kaki long-stemmed flowers 'leg'
urat threads, sinew 'fiber, vein'
pintu houses in a row 'door'
tangga traditional houses with ladders 'ladder'
patah words, proverbs 'fragment'
butir smallest rounded objects
smaller fruits, seeds, grains, rounds of ammunition, gems, points
'particle' commonly replaced with biji
puntung stumps, stubs, butt ends
of firewood, cigarettes, teeth
potong slices of bread etc. 'cut'
kərat 'fragment'
utas nets, cords, ribbons 'cord'
carik things easily torn, like paper 'shred'
papan bitter bean (petai) 'board'

Measure words are not necessary just to say "a": burung "a bird, birds". Using se- plus a measure word is closer to English "one" or "a certain":

Ada se-ekor burung yang pandai bercakap
"There was a (certain) bird that could talk"


Verbs are not inflected for person or number, and they are not marked for tense; tense is instead denoted by time adverbs (such as "yesterday") or by other tense indicators, such as sudah "already" and belum "not yet". On the other hand, there is a complex system of verb affixes to render nuances of meaning and to denote voice or intentional and accidental moods. Some of these affixes are ignored in colloquial speech.

Examples of these are the prefixes di- (patient focus, frequently but erroneously called "passive voice", for OVA word order), meng- (agent focus, frequently but erroneously called "active voice", for AVO word order), memper- and diper- (causative, agent and patient focus), ber- (stative or habitual; intransitive VS order), and ter- (agentless actions, such as those that are involuntary, sudden, or accidental, for VA = VO order); the suffixes -kan (causative or benefactive) and -i (locative, repetitive, or exhaustive); and the circumfixes ber-...-an (plural subject, diffuse action) and ke-...-an (unintentional or potential action or state).

  • duduk "to sit down"
  • mendudukkan "to sit someone down, give someone a seat, to appoint"
  • menduduki "to sit on, to occupy"
  • didudukkan "to be given a seat, to be appointed"
  • diduduki "to be sat on, to be occupied"
  • terduduk "to sink down, to come to sit"
  • kedudukan "to be situated", "position"
  • bersekedudukan "to cohabit"
  • berkedudukan "to have position"

Often the derivation changes the meaning of the verb rather substantially:

  • tinggal to reside, to live (in a place)
  • meninggal to die, to pass away (short form of meninggal dunia, "to pass on from the world")
  • meninggalkan "to leave (a place)", "to leave behind/abandon" (someone/something)
  • ditinggalkan "to be left behind, to be abandoned"
  • tertinggal "to be left behind"
  • ketinggalan "to miss (a bus, train)" (and thus "to be left behind")

Forms in ter- and ke-...-an are often equivalent to adjectives in English.

Descriptive stative verbs[edit]

There are no grammatical adjectives in Malay. Instead, stative verbs are used to describe various animate and inanimate objects, places and abstract concepts.

Malay Gloss (literal translation) English Remarks
Hutan hijau forest be-green The forest is green as in French la forêt verdoie
Kəreta yang merah car that be-red The red car  
Dia orang yang terkenal sekali he/she person which be-(most)famous He/she is the most famous person  
Orang ini terkenal sekali person this be-famous very This person is very famous  


Four words are used for negation in Malay, namely tidak, bukan, jangan, and belum.

  • Tidak (not), colloquially shortened to tak, is used for the negation of verbs and "adjectives".
  • Bukan (be-not) is used in the negation of a noun.

For example:

Malay Gloss English
Saya tidak tahu I not know I do not know
Ibu saya tidak senang mother I not be-happy My mother is not happy
Itu bukan anjing saya that be-not dog I That is not my dog
  • Jangan (do not!) is used for negating imperatives or advising against certain actions. For example,
Jangan tinggalkan saya di sini!
Don't leave me here!
  • Belum is used with the sense that something has not yet been accomplished or experienced. In this sense, belum can be used as a negative response to a question.
Anda sudah pernah ke Indonesia, or Anda sudah pernah ke Indonesia belum?
Have you ever been to Indonesia before, (or not)?
Belum, saya masih belum pernah pergi ke Indonesia
No, I have not yet been to Indonesia
Orang itu belum terbiasa tinggal di Indonesia
That person is not (yet) used to living in Indonesia.

Function words[edit]

16 types of function words in Malay perform a grammatical function in a sentence.[further explanation needed][4] Amongst these are conjunctions, interjections, prepositions, negations and determiners.

Word order[edit]

Stative verbs, demonstrative determiners, and possessive determiners follow the noun they modify.

Malay does not have a grammatical subject in the sense that English does.[5] In intransitive clauses, the noun comes before the verb. When there is both an agent and an object, these are separated by the verb (OVA or AVO), with the difference encoded in the voice of the verb.[5] OVA, commonly but inaccurately called "passive", is the basic and most common word order.

Either the agent or object or both may be omitted. This is commonly done to accomplish one of two things:

1) Adding a sense of politeness and respect to a statement or question

For example, a polite shop assistant in a store may avoid the use of pronouns altogether and ask:

Ellipses of pronoun (agent & object) Literal English Idiomatic English
Boleh/bisa dibantu? Can + to be helped? Can (I) help (you)?
2) Agent or object is unknown, not important, or understood from context

For example, a friend may enquire as to when you bought your property, to which you may respond:

Ellipses of pronoun (understood agent) Literal English Idiomatic English
Rumah ini dibeli lima tahun yang lalu House this + be purchased five year(s) ago The house 'was purchased' five years ago

Ultimately, the choice of voice and therefore word order is a choice between actor and patient and depends quite heavily on the language style and context.


Word order is frequently modified for focus or emphasis, with the focused word usually placed at the beginning of the clause and followed by a slight pause (a break in intonation):

  • Saya pergi ke pasar ke(l)marin "I went to the market yesterday" – neutral, or with focus on the subject.
  • Ke(l)marin saya pergi ke pasar "Yesterday I went to the market" – emphasis on yesterday.
  • Ke pasar saya pergi, ke(l)marin "To the market I went yesterday" – emphasis on where I went yesterday.
  • Pergi ke pasar, saya, ke(l)marin "To the market went I yesterday" – emphasis on the process of going to the market.

The last two occur more often in speech than writing.


  1. ^ The root ajar retrieves a historic initial l after the suffixes ber- and pe(r)-.
  2. ^ Lewis, M. B. (1947). Teach Yourself Malay. The E.U.P. Teach Yourself Books. London: Hodder and Stoughton for the English Universities Press. p. 178. ASIN B0007JGNQO.
  3. ^ Sneddon et al. 2010
  4. ^ [1][dead link]
  5. ^ a b Evans, Vyvyan (2014). The Language Myth: Why Language is Not an Instinct. Cambridge University Press. p. 76. ISBN 9781107043961.