Malay And Indonesian — 4 Big Differences

Original blog post:

Are Malay and Indonesian different? It is common to see Malaysians and Indonesians converse with each other using their languages: Bahasa Malaysia (used to be known as Bahasa Melayu) and Bahasa Indonesia. They understood each other pretty well! Non-natives might assume they were just speaking the same language but maybe with a different accent, but it is more complicated than that. Native speakers can immediately pinpoint the speaker’s nationality through their accent and word choices- the two languages are mutually intelligible. But why is it considered as two languages? Let’s explore!

Background: Is Malay And Indonesian Language The Same?

The Malay language, or Bahasa Melayu, was widely known as the Lingua Franca during the Malacca Sultanate in the 14th century. It was spoken by modern-day Malaysians, Indonesians, Bruneians, and Singaporeans. Therefore, you can conclude that the origin of the two languages is the same. However, after years of colonization and independence, the language has evolved into two major categories, which are Bahasa Melayu (standard Malay language) and Bahasa Indonesia (standard Indonesian language)- two different languages.

The Indonesian and Malay languages can be found on TV channels of both countries. In addition, Malaysia and Indonesia also enjoy music, shows, drama, and movies from each other.

Bahasa Melayu/ Bahasa Malaysia / Malay Language

Presently, Malay is the national language of Malaysia, Brunei, and Singapore. You can even find Malay speakers in Thailand and other parts of Southeast Asia. The standard Malay nowadays is heavily influenced by the British due to its’ colonization before its independence. Sometime after the Malaysian Independence, in 2007, the term Bahasa Malaysia was used instead of Bahasa Melayu; this is due to the country’s effort to be inclusive of all races in Malaysia instead of just Malays since the language is the national language.

Bahasa Indonesia/ Indonesian Language

However, the Indonesian language is not the national language of Indonesia, but it is considered a regional language of the country. This means the Indonesian language has the same position as other languages like Javanese, Sundanese, etc. The Indonesians were colonized by the Dutch in the past, hence why the Dutch have a heavy impact on Bahasa Indonesia. It is important to note that the sentence structure of bother languages are similar.

The Difference Between Malay And Indonesian

Let’s explore some of the differences between Malay and Indonesian languages.


Bahasa Melayu used to use the Arabic alphabet, also known as Jawi, before the 20th century. However, during colonization, the Jawi writing system was replaced with Roman letters, which the native speakers identify as Rumi. However, since The two languages are influenced by the British and Dutch, the romanization of the same words has different spelling in standard Malay and Indonesian languages. For example, the word ‘grandchild’ in Bahasa Indonesia and Bahasa Malaysia is written as ‘cucu’; however, it used to be spelled differently in both languages. The Malay language used to be written as ‘chuchu’ due to the consonant ‘c’ from the English Language. While in Bahasa Indonesia, following the Dutch, it was spelled as ‘tjoetjoe’.


There is not much difference in the punctuation department between the two languages, except that one language uses decimal marks (Malay language influenced by British). In contrast, the decimal comma is used instead in Bahasa Indonesia.


The pronunciation of words between one language and the other is very different. There is something called Bahasa Baku which refers to pronouncing the words strictly based on how it is spelled. The people from Indonesia, Brunei, and East Malaysia tend to use Bahasa Baku, making their utterances more straight and fast; meanwhile, people in Peninsular Malaysia tend to drag out their pronunciation and spoken differently compared to the spelling. Something interesting to note, the utterance that east Malaysians are closer to Indonesians due to their geographical influence.

For example, in the word nama’ (name), the second vowel is pronounced as spelled, which is the /ʌ/ sound for the Indonesians. However, it uses the schwas /ə/ in the Malay Language.

There are many other words that native Malay speakers pronounced differently as it is written, for example,


Vocabulary-wise, the differences between the two languages are heavily based on loanwords from English or Dutch. The Indonesian language absorbs Dutch loanwords, whereas the Malay language absorbs English loanwords.\

For instance, the Malay word ‘televisyen’ (from English word Television), compared to the Indonesian word ‘televisi’ (from Dutch word Televisie).

Other Vocabulary Differences:

There are also words recognized in both languages, but each country preferred one over the other. For example, people from Indonesia use ‘mau’, which refers to ‘want’ while the Malays prefer ‘nak’; but both are recognized in Standard Malay and Indonesian. Another example is the word ‘bisa’ which can be translated to ‘can.’ Indonesian users prefer it; Malaysian people also recognize it in standard Malay but only apply it in songs and poems instead of everyday use because native speakers prefer ‘boleh’ instead.

Furthermore, some vocabularies can only be found in one language. one common case is ‘no’ in Indonesian is ‘nggak’, which is not available in the Malay language. In Malay ‘no’ is ‘tak or ‘tidak’.

There are also cases when both languages use the same vocabulary, but it has different meanings. For instance, the word ‘baja’ in Indonesian means ‘steel,’ whereas in Malay, it means ‘fertilizer.’ Another example is the word ‘pusing.’ It means ‘circling something’ in Malay. In contrast, in Indonesian, it means ‘dizzy.’

Want To Learn More Malay?

Learning the differences between Malay and Indonesian languages can give you more benefits than you expect. Imagine learning one language and being able to use it in different countries, like Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, and Singapore.

Learn more about Malay on our app! The Ling App allows you to master the Malay language (and other languages too) at your own pace. Who knows, maybe sometime in the future, you get to call yourself a polyglot!




Ling is a game-like language learning app with a pack of 60+ languages. You will learn languages in fun ways!

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