Last year I had a post about the complex system of Malay pronouns; now Jordan F. MacVay of MacVaysia has posted an extensive if not exhaustive list sent him by Nizar Ismail. Here’s the (comparatively short) list of 1st person plural pronouns, just to whet your appetite:

Kami – “we”, plural of “I”, listener excluded.
Kita – “we”, “you + I”, “you all + I”, listener(s) included.
Kema – “kami/kita”, in Perak.
Sēpa – “kami”, in Kedah/Penang.
Iboq – “kami” in Semang (an aborigine tribe in Pahang/Terengganu).
Manira – classical “kami/kita”, probably from Sanskrit.
Kita orang or simply kitorang – informal, broken, very common, daily speech. Not used in Indonesia/Brunei.

The list of 2nd person pronouns is truly mind-boggling; the most common in Malaysia is awak, but Nizar says:

Jordan was right about “awak” being a nasty choice when talking to someone older. It’s most suitable for someone in the same level, husband and wife, friends that are not so close. To the children, you can use “kamu” instead. You won’t have much problem like this in Indonesia, but in Malaysia, I suppose you can try using “pakcik” (uncle) and “makcik” (aunty) when talking to someone old enough to be your parents, or just “abang” or “akak” to someone who is old but not old enough to be your parents. Confused? Heck, me too!

The comments are full of additional information, unfortunately much of it in Malay. But the post is quite enough to try to assimilate. Thanks for posting it and letting me know, Jordan!


  1. Nizar’s list is absolutely fascinating! I’ve added MacVaysia to my bookmarks.
    Hatters might be interested in an article by Mark Alves, called “Problems in the European Linguistic Analyses of Southeast Asian Languages”, in which he claims that ‘current Western linguistic frameworks are ill-equipped to analyze many aspects of syntax in Southeast Asian languages due to pre-established European notions of grammar in human language.’
    One of the areas he explores is pronouns, starting with the statement that ‘the functions and distributions of “pronouns” in Southeast Asian languages are quite different from those in European languages.’ He goes on to cite examples from languages like Vietnamese (his specialisation), Khmer, and Malay in support of his statement.
    Quite interesting reading.

  2. Sorry for yet another posting. The following Wikipedia article on Vietnamese pronouns may also be of interest:
    (We can’t get Wikipedia itself in China)

  3. I know little about Malay, but I wonder if those are actually pronouns.
    People sometimes compile long lists of Japanese “pronouns”, but that part of speech doesn’t exist in the language. They are simply nouns, with no special characteristics that differentiate them from other nouns.

  4. michael farris says

    Paul, Vietnamese at least does have personal pronouns that would fit most or all traditional definitions.
    It _also_ has a lot of other ways of referring to the speaker and addressee which reference not their role in the conversation but rather which person is senior and which is junior.
    And there is a class of words than can act as either.
    And they switch back and forth between the classes of words in a single conversation.
    I wouldn’t be surprised if the Malay system works similarly.

  5. Is there anything grammatically special about English “The court would like the air conditioning turned on.” or “Would the gentleman like to see the wine list?” What about Portuguese o senhor? Is it like “sheets of paper”, where there is just a hint of something more fully developed elsewhere?

  6. michael farris says

    MMcM, roughly,
    I’d say yes, the same kind of phenomenon (as I described) exists in English and most/all European languages. But while this kind of phenomenon tends to be very restricted/marginal in western languages it’s of vital importance in SEAsian languages.

Speak Your Mind