In Indonesian, the Indonesian language is called bahasa Indonesia. It is essentially the same language as Malay (Bahasa Melayu) or Malaysian (Bahasa Malaysia). Bahasa Indonesia is the national language of Indonesia and Bahasa Malaysia is the national language of Malaysia and Brunei, and one of four national languages of Singapore.
In 1928 Indonesian nationalists declared that the Malay language shall be called Indonesian. However, the Dutch, the colonial masters, continued to call the language Malay and it was only after the Dutch lost their colony in the second world war that Malay officially became known as Indonesian.
Formal Indonesian and formal Malaysian are almost perfectly identical. However, in both countries people speak many different Malay dialects. In Indonesia, Betawi Malay, the language of Jakarta, is becoming increasingly popular. Betawi Malay has strongly influenced colloquial Indonesian, especially on the island of Java, but also in many urban centres outside of Java.
Some Malay dialects are mutually intelligible, but other dialects of Malay can be very different from each other. A Malaysian from the north-eastern state of Terengganu and an Indonesian from Manado will not be able to understand each other – even though both speak Malay dialects. But as soon as they switch to standard Malaysian and standard Indonesian, they will perfectly understand each other.
Indonesian-Malaysian Malay is the largest member of the Austronesian language family. The total number of Austronesian languages is about 400, but many of them are small languages.
The most prominent members of the Austronesian language family are:
- Malay Malay is spoken natively by about 18 million Malaysians and 100 million Indonesians. The total number of speakers of Malay is approximately 290 million. Besides in Indonesian and Malaysia, Malay is also spoken in Brunei-Darussalam, Singapore, and in Patani—the southernmost province of Thailand.
- Javanese Javanese is spoken in central and East Java by approximately 100 million native speakers.
- Sundanese Sundanese is spoken by 42 million speakers in West Java.
- Filipino Filipino or Tagalog is spoken natively by about 30 million Filipinos. The total number of speakers of Filipino is approximately 70 million.
- Cebuano Cebuano is a Philippine language spoken by approximately 30 million speakers in total. Many of them are bilingual speakers of Cebuano and Filipino.
- Malagasy Malagasy is spoken by about 25 million people in Madagascar. It is related to the languages of Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines, and specifically to the East Barito languages spoken in Borneo, with apparent influence from early Old Malay. Madagascar was settled by Indonesians at some time during the first millennium.
Other popular Austronesian languages are Ilokano (8m), Ilonggo (7m), and Bikol (5m)—all spoken in the Philippines. Other large Austronesian languages spoken in Indonesia are Madurese (14m), Minangkabau (7m), Betawi Malay (5m), Batak (4m), Bugis (4m), Banjar Malay (4m), and Balinese (3m).
Austronesian languages are also spoken in Oceania, but all of them are relatively small. Some of the better known languages of Oceania are Hawaiian, Maori, Fijian, Samoan, Tongan and Tahitian.
Tetum, the national language of East Timor is also an Austronesian language. Tetum is spoken by some 800,000 speakers.
In the following table you can see how similar Austronesian languages are. But keep in mind that we deliberately chose words that tend to be very conservative. If you look at the lowest row in the table, you can see that the word for “mouth”, for instance, is much less conservative. Some Austronesian languages are as closely related as English and German, while other languages are as different from each other as English and Russian.