The Malagasy Language

Malagasy is the language of Madagascar. It belongs to the Malayo-Polynesian branch of the Austronesian language family and shares much of its basic vocabulary with Ma’anyan, a language from the region of the Barito River in southern Borneo. The name of the language is spelled Malgache in French.

The Malagasy people call themselves and their language Malagasy, the same as the word used in English. Those who are unfamiliar with this country incorrectly call the language and people Madagascan.

It is known that, of the more than 22,599,698 inhabitants of Madagascar (2013 census), 83.61% speak Malagasy only while 15.87% speak Malagasy occasionally. These figures exclude native Malagasy people living abroad and other non-Malagasy users of the language.

Malagasy – A Combination of Several Dialects

It has evolved over centuries, losing words that have become outdated and acquiring new ones as time goes by. Madagascar is home to 18 ethnic groups, each with its own dialect, and these are understandable between each other. The dialects have slightly different patterns, words and vocabulary, but they are related and use the same character sets. The slight differences lie in the pronunciation and speech rhythm; for example, the word for “is/are” is dia in one dialect, da in another dialect, and dra in yet another one.

Dialects and Ethnic Groups Share the Same Name

Antaifasy (People of the Sands), Antaimoro (People of the Coast), Antaisaka (Those Descending from the Sakalava), Antankarana (Those of the Rocks), Antambahoaka (Those of the People), Antrandroy (People of the Thorns) , Antanosy (People of the Island) , Bara (The Herders), Betsileo (The Many Invincibles), Betsimisaraka (The Many Inseparables), Bezanozano (Many Small Braids), Mahafaly (Those Who Make Taboos), Merina (People of the Highlands), Sakalava (People of the Long Valleys), Sihanaka (People of the Swamps), Tanala (People of the Forest), Tsimihety (Those Cho Do Not Cut Their Hair), and Vezo (People Who Row Canoes).

Arabic Roots of Malgasy

The people of Madagascar were first introduced to a writing system by Arab merchants. As a result, they used an Arabic alphabet called Sorabe, meaning big Surat (an Arabic word, meaning verse). Since then, the Malagasy equivalent of the word “writing” has been “soratra.” The present-day Malagasy has a written form, and was adopted as Madagascar’s official language and medium of teaching. It was first derived from the dialect of the Merina royalty who ruled over Madagascar when the alphabet was first adopted. Words from the other dialects were subsequently added to the official Malagasy language.

King Radama I decreed the use of the first official alphabet and numerals in 1823, named Abidia 123. The king opted for the Latin alphabet, because of the ease of pronunciation and writing it provides. For phonetics, he preferred the International Phonetic Association’s (API) system, but for the character set, he made a selection based on how each letter is pronounced by his people. Previously, the Malagasy alphabet consisted of 21 letters because of this, without the c, q, u, w and x letters, and with simple “one letter, one sound” phonetics – vowels are pronounced exactly as they are written. The alphabet implemented in 1823 consisted of the following characters: a, b, d, e, f, g, h, i, j, k, l, m, n, o, p, r, s, t, u, v and z.