The Meaning of Bahasa

Recently, we've had a few discussion with our clients on the meaning of Bahasa when translating for Indonesia, Malaysia and neighboring countries in Southeast Asia. We decided to take a closer look.

Did you know that the word “Bahasa” means language in many Asian languages?

This is important to note when translating your content for Indonesia and Malaysia. The word comes from Sanskrit, the liturgical language of Hinduism. Malay language is known as “Bahasa Melayu.”Malay is a member of the Austronesian language family. This language has official status in the the countries of Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore. In Brunei and Singapore, the language is referred to as Bahasa Meyalu. However, in Indonesia, it is known as Bahasa Indonesia. In Malaysia, it is known as Bahasa Malaysia. Bahasa Indonesia translates into “Indonesian language.”

Indonesia is the fourth in the world for total population with 263 million people. This means that Indonesian language is one of the most widely spoken in the world. Indonesian is known as a “standard register” of Malay.  A standard language is used by a population to establish a language of commerce and government. A majority of Indonesians speak Bahasa Indonesia (along with one or more local languages).

Bahasa Malaysia translates into “Malaysian language.” Malaysian language is the first language of people living in Malaysia and is taught in schools. English is used quite frequently in Malaysia for business and in courts. Bahasa Malaysia was also known officially as Bahasa Melayu so both terms are used interchangeably in Malaysia to refer to the national language of Malaysia. In the island nation of Brunei, it is known as Bahasa Melayu or Malay (in English).

The two languages may be very similar when spoken (mutually intelligible), however, they differ in how they are written and also based on their loanword influence. Bahasa Indonesia or Indonesian is the national language of this large archipelago. Therefore, they distinguish Indonesian (Bahasa Indonesia) and Malay (Bahasa Melayu). Malay is considered a language of the Malay people and they often refer to it as the national language of Malaysia.

Indonesia also has many regional languages. Malay is one of those along with Javanese and Sudanese. If you’re unsure of which to use, ask! A language translation partner will want to know who your target audience is. From there, we will help you choose the proper language combination. If you are marketing to native speakers in these regions, it is important to be as specific as possible.

A good language translation partner will use in-country native speakers who live in your target market. They will know the correct terms and cultural nuances to use for appropriate translation.


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