The term Bahasa, which literally means “language,” refers to a group of languages spoken in and around the Indonesian and Malaysian regions of the world. All of them are related to the greater Austronesian language family, which is one of the oldest and best-established of the human language families. These tongues were first spoken by explorers who departed from the Asian mainland in ancient times and spread across the many islands of the South Pacific.
The two major branches spoken today are Bahasa Malaysia/Bahasa Melayu and Bahasa Indonesia, with many dozen sublanguages contained within these (and some even fall outside these two groups). The Old Malay language is historically seen as the basis of most of these languages, but each branch has been influenced by a myriad of sources over the centuries, and in some cases are no longer mutually intelligible. The dense populations of Malaysia and Indonesia make the Bahasa languages among the top ten most widely spoken languages in the world.
Roots of the language:
One of the oldest versions of these languages, Old Malay, was heavily influenced by Sanskrit before spreading across the South Pacific islands many centuries ago. It happened to be the language of one of the major trading kingdoms and spread across the islands, over the years becoming a lingua franca for the many tribes and monarchies that lived in modern-day Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, as Islam became the dominant religion in the region, Persian and Arabic also had a profound influence on the local languages in terms of vocabulary and literature. European words, especially from Portuguese, English, and Dutch, entered the lexicon during the age of Western colonialism.
Each type of Bahasa language has its own set of local and circumstantial influences that sets it apart from the others. Generally speaking, due to colonial patterns, Bahasa Malaysia shows a greater English influence and Bahasa Indonesia shows a greater Dutch influence. The latter is also largely influenced by the Indonesian language of Javanese (Bahasa Jawa), which is a widely spoken variant that has more native speakers than any other language in the region (and one of the highest numbers in the world).
Despite their great diversity, most of the languages and dialects that are descended from Old Malay still have certain things in common. Unlike their relatives, the Thai and Vietnamese languages, the Bahasa languages do not rely on tonality to convey important information. Like other Asian languages, however, they are generally agglutinative, meaning that concepts such as tense, number and gender are expressed through adding separate words or affixes instead of modifying the stems of basic words. Aspects such as vocabulary, slang, and pronunciation vary greatly between the islands and even different parts of the same larger islands.
There is no universal written form of the Bahasa languages, as both historically and in the present there have been as many variations as there are unique cultures in the South Pacific. The first scripts used in regional languages were likely based on writing systems used on the Asian mainland, giving rise to the ancient Javanese and Sundanese alphabets. A religiously important script based on written Arabic, called Jawi, was the official writing system during the heyday of Islam in the islands (and is still used for religious purposes and in conservative areas even today). Since colonial times, however, the most popular writing system for the Indonesian and Malaysian languages has been a form of the Latin alphabet.