Bahasa Malaysia

Constructing sentences in Bahasa Melayu

Sentence Building

I will admit this probably should have come up earlier… but it is better late than never! Let’s look at word order in Bahasa Melayu and how to form sentences! To do this we need to travel back to grammar in Bahasa Inggris (English). Ready to take that journey with me?

In possession of the Ball

So how are we going to start? We could go with technical language but I feel, to make these user-friendly, lay terms might be ideal instead. So let’s start with a basic sentence and see what we have!

Sally plays with Danny’s ball.

Really basic. We have “Sally” (*cough* subject) performing the action, in this case, the playing (verb), and it’s with a ball that is possessed by Danny (object). Ok I lied, there were a few technical terms for those who desired them. Now in Bahasa Melayu this sentence would be,

Sally bermain dengan bola Danny. 

Ok, normally I would put the rough English equivalent but you have that above! So instead I am going to translate it as if we were using the grammatic structures of Bahasa Melayu. This will be reoccurring through this whole lesson but I encourage you to look at the two sentences previous and try decerning the differences before I explain them. Ok, back to Sally:

Sally plays with ball Danny’s.

The difference is not terribly subtle but important. The modifier (Danny) is at the end. This is really important in Bahasa Melayu. Look at these sentences.

Berapa umur kamu?
What is your age?
What is age your?

Saya mahu kek yang besar dengan hiasan cantik.
I want a big cake with beautiful decorations.
I want cake that is big with decorations beautiful.

Dia mendidik anak-anak kakak dia untuk sepuluh tahun.
She raised her sister’s kids for ten years.
She raised kids sister her for ten years.

Notice that while “cantik” (beautiful) comes after “hiasan” (decorations) and “kakak dia” (her sister) after “anak-anak” (children) each of the descriptions (adverbs) or pronouns (I have no idea how to modify this for common speech – Think he/she/it) come after the person, place or thing (noun).
*For more information about “kek yang besar” (I want a cake that is big) go to this lesson on “yang”

But there is a break in the pattern, notice for the number, “sepuluh” (ten) comes before “tahun” (years) just like in English. Numbers are the exception coming before everything they describe, ten kitchens is “sepuluh dapur”, ten shirts, “sepuluh kemeja”, ten cats, “sepuluh kucing” and so on and so forth. This is the same for both writing and speaking so make sure you use it correctly otherwise you could say “Kakak anak-anak” (Kids’ sister) instead of “Anak-anak kakak” (Sister’s kids).

Word order matters!

Double Trouble

As you may start to notice the more you read in Bahasa Melayu, there are many times where words repeat for example take the sentence we had in the part previous.

Dia mendidik anak-anak kakak dia untuk sepuluh tahun.
She raised her sister’s kids for ten years.
She raised kids sister her for ten years.

Ok, “anak-anak” (kids). If I tell you that “anak” means kid, can you guess the first function of repeating words? Try and then look below for all three of the uses of repetitive words.

  1. Signals that there is more than one (makes a word plural).
  2. It’s for emphasis.
  3. It changes the meaning of the word.

Let’s give some example sentences, one for each function, and break them down after!

Hujan turun dalam semua pokok-pokok .
Rain fell on all of the trees.
Rain fell on all trees.

Kamu hampir-hampir merosak gaun kegemaran saya!
You almost ruined my favorite dress!
You almost ruined dress favorite mine!

Undang-undang baru di Penang menolong penyu dalam laut.
The new laws in Penang help the turtles in the ocean
Laws new in Penang help turtle(s) in ocean.

Ok, the first one is self-explanatory. Though it’s worth noting that even with descriptions like “semua” (all) you still need to use “pokok-pokok” (trees) not “pokok” (tree). It’s like the “s” in English, we say “all the trees” not “all the tree”.

The second one is emphasizing “hampir” (almost), but you could use just “hampir” without the repetition and have it still mean the same thing. This is only common for certain words where as most other words just use one of the other ways to stress their meaning (go to my lesson on emphasizing here for more on that.)

Here in the third, some words use doubles because it changes the meaning of the word. “Undang-undang” is the word for law. “Undang” is not. “Undang”, from what I can gather, is a type of ruling chief important to the political structure of Malaysia. So in this case doubling the word is important for changing it’s meaning. (Not confuse any of this with “udang-udang” which means shrimp.)

Something missing?

Something is different from all these sentences and English. Have you noticed it yet? For example:

Undang-undang baru di Penang menolong penyu dalam laut.
The new laws in Penang help the turtles in the ocean
Laws new in Penang help turtle(s) in ocean.

Notice the two English versions and note what’s missing. Pause. Now again:

Mereka duduk dalam kurusi-kurusi.
They are sitting in chairs.
They sitting in chairs.

Puteri rasa bimbang.
A princess is feeling worried.
Princess feeling worried.

You may have noticed through our example sentences that our all-important “filler words” (demonstratives and articles) have simply vanished. Well actually it’s cheating a little bit because “Mereka duduk” could mean “They are sitting”, “They sit”, or “They sat” kind of interchangeably until you add context to the sentence. Still all your words like “are”, “is”, “that”, and “a” have no direct translations in Malay. In sentences, they are left out. While there is “ialah” (is) it is only used in specific instances such as this sentence:

Dan mereka tahu, Rosa ialah permaisuri mereka. 
And they know, Rosa is their queen.
And they know, Rosa is queen their.

“Ialah” is only used to signal what something is, like Rosa being the missing queen that they all have been searching for.

On your own…

Those are just some of the basics for building sentences in Bahasa Melayu. As you begin to construct your own think in Bahasa Melayu and learn what sounds correct and begin to gage what doesn’t. Jagan risau! Don’t worry! If it doesn’t come immediately that’s perfectly ok! It’s actually normal! Just enjoy the process and watch yourself grow at your own pace!


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Resources for Self-Instructional Learners of Less Commonly Taught Languages by University of Wisconsin-Madison Students in African 671 is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.