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  • Print publication year: 2009
  • Online publication date: April 2010

4 - Malay (Melayu) and its descendants: multiple meanings of a porous category


Melayu is an ancient term, which has served multiple roles in its long career. It entered European languages in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries as Malay (or French Malais; Portuguese Malayo), and the different European and Malay meanings of the term affected each other markedly thereafter. As the trade language of Srivijaya and later Melaka, the language eventually called Malay was used as a lingua franca in commercial centres over a wide area of maritime Southeast Asia and even beyond. It was therefore adopted by English speakers in particular as a broader racial or regional term. When researchers discovered the vast family of languages today known as Austronesian, and stretching halfway around the world from Madagascar to Easter Island, this too was first labelled ‘Malay’ from its best-known language. This broadening eventually played back into indigenous nationalist usage. The language was harnessed as the basis of the ‘core culture’ of Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei, though differentially in the three countries, while a racial use of the term served to build Filipino nationalism. The term played other roles in the definition of minority ethnies in Singapore, Thailand, Cambodia, Sri Lanka and South Africa.

Together with the ‘China’ discussed in the previous chapter, this term is the most widespread, ambiguous and portentous of Southeast Asian labels.

Melayu origins

The term Melayu goes back at least as far as Ptolemy, the second-century (CE) Egyptian geographer.

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