Wednesday 18 June 2008

A Brief Introduction to the History of the Malay Language

Some information about the history of the Malay language and origins of the Jawi script


”The Jawi letters have been in existence in the Malay archipelago for centuries. It shares a strong bond with the Arabic script, which made its way to the Malay Archipelago together with Islam, disseminated by Muslim traders and missionaries of Arab, Indian and Chinese origins in the 7th century. Prior to the Arabic script, the Malays were using the "rencong (sharp-pointed) script" written on bamboo stems and leaves................”


The History of the Malay language

Imagine the chasm between Bahasa Malaysia today and the earliest written Malay of 1,500 years ago.

In fact, the history of the Malay language is divided into four periods:

Old Malay ( 682 - 1500 C.E. )

Also known as Bahasa Melayu Kuno, was written in scripts of Rencong, Pallava, and Kawi. Even the Jawi script during this period was used extensively together with Sanskrit.

Early Modern Malay (1500-c1850)

The prominence of Malacca which embraced Islamic faith made Malay into a language used in the spread of Islam.

The Malay language underwent radical changes with:

a. Infusion of Arabic, Persian and Hindi Vocabulary.

b. Introduction of Arabic rhetorical style.

c. Changes in grammar based on oral speech.

Portuguese conquest of Malacca in 1511 and subsequent persecution of Muslims contributed to the rise of Bintan and Penyengat as centres of Malay language.

The 17th century also saw the emergence of the great Romances or Hikayat as the Malays recorded their experiences, religious laws and oral literature in Jawi script. Sir Richard O. Winstedt categorized the Hikayat as 'Bahasa Melayu Klasik'.

Late Modern Malay ( c1850 - 1957 )

Late Modern Malay incorporates loan words from Portuguese, Dutch and English. apart from Islam, it has also became a tool to proselytize Christianity as a result of translation of the bible into Malay by Dutch scholars.

On the Riau island of Penyengat, Malay scholar Raja Ali Haji complete the first pro-Arabic Malay Grammar book in Bahasa Malaysia history called Bustanul-Katibin.

It was the dawn of commercialized printing press, the publication of first Malay language newspapers in Arabic and Latin scripts.

Zainal Abidin bin Ahmad, better known as the respected Malay scholar Za'ba, codified Malay grammar into the three-volume "Pelita Bahasa Melayu" in 1941. He also modified the Jawi spelling system. It can be said that pre-independence Malay language was very much influenced by Za'ba's work.

Japanese occupation of the Malay world during World War II hastened independent movements. this led to liberation of Malaya from British colonists!

Sejarah kemerdekaan Malaysia and Malay language elevated to the status of Malaysian language or, the national language of Malaysia.

Contemporary Malay (after 1957 )

Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei set up national language planning agencies in an effort to draw their versions of Malay together.

They tried something called " Ejaan Melindo" but it was too impractical. Indonesia's confrontation against Malaysia held back this project for a while in 1963. As relationship between these two countries normalized in 1966, this enabled further steps towards standardization of a common spelling system implemented in 1972.

Source: HERE


An example of Renong from North Sumatra.

Rencong script is a writing system used to write Malay in Sumatra (Bengkulu and Palembang) and maybe Minangkabau. The script lasted until the 18th century which was before the Dutch colonised Indonesia. It was gradually replaced by the Jawi script, a slightly modified Arabic script.

The Malay used Rencong or Rencang script, Kawi script and Lampung script in the ancient times.

Studies showed that these writing are related to the ancient Cambodian writings. The script is also related to the Batak script.

Rencong script was written on tree bark, bamboo, horns and lontar.

There were many versions of Rencong scripts, each of them originated from different places in Sumatra and Sulawesi

Click HERE for more information.

“.......This was followed by the "kawi" and "palava" writings, both of Indian origin.

With the coming of Islam, the Malays tried to use the palava or kawi characters to write about Islam, but both were unsuitable as they could not properly pronounce the verses of the Quran and Hadis. ......”


An example of the Kawi script

See an example below of the word Javanese in the ‘pallava’ (palava) alphabet

Javanese alphabet Javanese (Huruf Jawa)

The earliest known writing in Javanese dates from the 4th Century AD, at which time Javanese was written with the Palava alphabet. By the 10th Century, the Kawi alphabet, which developed from Pallava, had a distinct Javanese form.

By the 17th Century, the Javanese alphabet, also known as tjarakan or carakan, had developed into its current form. During the Japanese occupation of Indonesia between 1942 and 1945, the alphabet was prohibited.

For a period from the 15th Century onwards, Javanese was also written with a version of the Arabic alphabet, called pégon or gundil.

Since the Dutch introduced the Latin alphabet to Indonesia in the 19th Century, the Javanese alphabet has gradually been supplanted. Today it is used almost exclusively by scholars and for decoration. Those who can read and write it are held in high esteem.

Notable features

  • Javanese is a syllabic alphabet - each letter has an inherent vowel /a/. Other vowels can be indicated using a variety of diacritics which appear above, below, in front of or after the main letter.
  • Each consonants has two forms: the aksara form is used at the beginning of a syllable, while the pasangan form, which usually appears below the aksara form, is used for the second consonant of a consonant cluster and mutes the vowel of the aksara.
  • There are a number of special letters called aksara murda or aksara gedhe (great or important letters) which are used for honorific purposes, such as to write the names of respected people.
  • The order of the consonants makes the following saying, "Hana caraka, data sawala padha jayanya, maga bathanga" which means "There were (two) emissaries, they began to fight, their valor was equal, they both fell dead"

Used to write Javanese, and in the past Balinese and Sundanese:

Javanese (basa Jawa), an austronesian language spoken by about 75 million people in Indonesia and Suriname.

The Javanese alphabet was also used to write Balinese and Sundanese, but has been replaced by the Latin alphabet.

Some examples of the Javanese alphabet

Aksara consonants


Pasangan consonants

Capital consonants

Aksara murda consonants

Capital consonants

Subscript aksara murda consonants

Capital consonants

Vowels, vowel diacritics and final consonant diacritics

Javanese punctuation

Javanese numerals

Click on all images for a larger view

Javanese of course differs somewhat from the Malay language, but the alphabets used were similar to the Pallava script used to write the Malay language.

Sample text in Javanese:

Saben uwong kalairake kanthi mardika lan darbe martabat lan hak-hak kang padha. Kabeh pinaringan akal lan kalbu sarta kaajab pasrawungan anggone memitran siji lan sijine kanthi jiwo sumadulur.


All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

(Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights)

Source HERE

"...........The situation prompted the Malays to experiment with Arabic characters. Hence, the Jawi script is truly the creation of the Malays even though it is based on the Arabic script," said Dr Hashim Musa, former lecturer with Universiti Malaya's Malay Studies Academy who has written a book, "The History of the Development of the Jawi Script". He said the Malays eventually included several letters to conform with the Malay syllables, which are 'che', 'nge', 'pa', 'ge' and 'nye'. The letter 'vi' was later introduced in the 1990's by the Malay language custodian, Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka.
The earliest evidence of the existence of the Jawi script was the discovery of inscriptions on a stone dated 702H (1303 AD) and according to Hashim, Sanskrit words could still be seen on the inscribed stone. But the modern day Jawi script is due to the initiative taken to systematise the Jawi script by none other than Zainal Abidin Ahmad, the leading Malay literary figure or better known as Pendeta Za'ba, who produced the "Daftar Ejaan Melayu Jawi-Rumi" (Jawi-Roman Spelling Register), which he worked on in 1938 and only printed in 1949.”

That is all very educational and most interesting historic information.

The development of any language, and the way it is written, is to me fascinating, and the Malay language appears to have had a more interesting development history than many other languages.

The way various scripts are used in decorative works, scrolls and other works of art is also impressive.

The many and varied forms of Arabic calligraphy, Chinese calligraphy, and others are truly fascinating, as are the illuminated books of old from Europe.

Calligraphers are truly remarkable artists who perfect their skills through many years of training and practice.

Long may such scripts last, but in some countries, such as Malaysia, the Jawi Arabic script previously used to write the Malay language is virtually obsolete in this, the 21st, Century.

It is hoped that Jawi is not demeaned by being forcebly put into use for official letterheads, shop and street signs, etc.; those who wish to learn it should be provided with facilities to do so properly.

Politicians should not use Jawi as a political tool to divide the population, all Malaysians, who want to, should be able to learn Jawi, after all, it has nothing to do with religion or race; it is just another way, albeit archaic, of writing in Bahasa Malaysia.

I myself learned it years ago, and can still read it quite well.

Respice, adspice, prospice

- Examine the past, examine the present, examine the future

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