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[This paper was given at the VIIIth World Tamil Studies Congress, held in the Tamil University in Tanjavur, India, on December-January 1994-95 and was subsequently accepted for publication in the conference proceedings which are yet to appear.]



The Extent of the Influence of Tamil on the Malay Language: A Comparative Study



                                                                   Docteur d’Etat ès lettres et sciences humaines

                                                                                    University of Paris-I-Panthéon-Sorbonne            



[Even if my conclusions reveal only a minimal lexicographical influence of Tamil on Malay, there are other considerations which follow from the historical role of Tamils in the region, especially with regard to the Hindu sanskrit traditions, that would have to be taken into account in such an influence study.]  


     The two languages under examination: Tamil and Malay, span a region which encompasses almost the two extremes of the Bay of Bengal. To the west, we find the Coromandel Coast (in modern terms, mainly Tamil Nadu and the Jaffna peninsula, and to the east, the Malay peninsula, including Singapore. This topographical delineation is necessary simply for the reason that, had it not been for the hectic seafaring movement across the bay, helped by the monsoons, the influence of one language over the other or of one people over another would not have necessarily arisen. For the sake of precise definitions, let us pursue the delineation a little further. Tamil is the earliest written literary language of the Dravidian linguistic family and is spoken by well over sixty million, principally in Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka and by minorities in Malaysia, Singapore, South Africa, Kenya, United Kingdom, France, Germany, Australia, the West Indies, and other states of the Indian federation, not to mention several isolated pockets in the oceans, such as, Mauritius and the Fiji islands. Malay (Bahasa Malaysia) and a form of creolised Malay, called Bazaar Melayu, and their close cousin: Indonesian, is spoken by nearly all the inhabitants of Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia, which gives this/these language(s) a grand total of just under two hundred million. Besides, a Malay pidgin may also be spoken in Madagascar, South Africa, Sri Lanka and in the Thai provinces of the Isthmus of Kra. Tamil as the donor language in our study is to be understood as that, or those - if we are to accept the variations in the language inherent in registers and idiolects belonging to different classes and castes crossing the Bay of Bengal - spoken and used by the literate population of Tamils since before the composition of the Tolkappiyam, say, around a few centuries B.C. For the purposes of our study, however, the Malay under examination has to be limited to about twenty million users of it in Malaysia and Singapore. Just a word now about the origin of the Malay people, this being necessitated by the study of influences to follow [Wignesan 1988: Vol.I, 30-44; 543ff.].

     The Negritos, the original inhabitants of peninsular Malaysia, now to be found either settled or roving in the northern mountainous forests of the country, practised a Middle Stone Age culture; with time, they were driven inland by waves of Proto-Malays of the New Stone Age descending from the Yünnan Plateau in China, between 2.500 and 1.500 B.C. The latter used the peninsula as a stepping stone towards migration into the Malay Archipelago, Melanesia, Micronesia and/or Polynesia. The Dyaks and Bidayu of Sarawak are, it is believed, direct descendants of these migrating Proto-Malays. It is to the Semang and Jakun of the Malay Peninsula, however, that the term Proto-Malay has come to be applied. The Proto-Malay tribes have undergone over the centuries rather severe or profound acculturation from the passing and/or settling of successive waves of  foreign invaders and traders. As such, the presentday Malay whose Proto-Malay ancestors ceased their migrations around 300 B.C. have had their original strains and features largely tempered by a maelstrom of forces, from the Mongoloid Deutero-Malays (new immigrants from Yünnan) and the Dravidian conqueror-traders of yore and their accompanying savant priests and scholars, followed by the Muhammadan Gujeratis and Bengalis of Arabo-Persian descent to the Khmer, Thai and southern Chinese [Ryan 1976:4-10]. The Portuguese (1511-1641), Dutch (1642-1795) and English (1795-1957/63) colonial settlers, too, contributed to the stock that now distinctly takes its ethnic impetus from the days of the conversion of the Hindu founder-father of the Malacca Sultanate, Parameswara, to Islam in 1398, thus commencing the brief heyday of Malaysian-Malay supremacy in Southeast Asia [Gullick 1965:7-9].

     Despite the great many studies made of the Malay past, we may never be certain of the continuity of forces shaping and giving a sense of direction to the inhabitants of the Malay world (Coedès 1964:35-72). The doubt that such a work as George W.Spencer’s (TPE:TCCSLS 1983) casts on the existence of the Sri Vijayan empire must of needs make us want a reassessment of the Malay past. But then most authorities, in particular, Richard Winstedt (AHCML 1969 and TMCH 1961), seem to be agreed upon one premise, and that is, on the one hand, of the predominating influence of things Indian on Malay cultural life and literary forms and thematics, whereas attributing to China, despite its avowed will to Middle Kingdom isolation, the responsibility for having shaped the structure of Malay political apparatuses and institutions. So, now it would seem disputable that the Tamil-inspired Sri Vijayan Empire (1000-1300) was the first political power to give form to the Malaysian ethos, nor would it be of much import to rally in support of our argument of Indian influence in the Malay world the evidence of flourishing trade promoted by the kingdoms of Langkasuka, Fu-nan or Chen-la, all centred in and around the Isthmus of Kra. N.J.Ryan argues that in Kedah in the North-West of the Malaysian peninsula, there

      was no large immigration of Indian settlers; rather there was the influence of

      traders and missionaries. These people, rather like the Europeans in later

      centuries, were responsible for popularizing their way of life and religion. Many

      inhabitants - Malay by race - became Hindu or Buddhists, and they built the

      temples whose remains have been found in Kedah. Thus the population of   

      Kedah for example, did not change, and Chinese reports affirm that the native

      societies had adopted Indian culture but had not become Indian colonies.


     By contrast, we may validly uphold the existence of Takuapa, the trading centre on the western coast of the Isthmus of Kra, which attracted Chinese and Arab traders from the seventh to the eleventh centuries. Besides, the extension of Sri Vijayan power and influence on a peninsula-wide basis, made possible by the rotating capitals of its peripatetic maritime empire, permitted the moulding of a simulated Malayan « nation » under southern Indian suzerainty, if not cultural and linguistic hegemony, and this state of affairs might have probably prevailed from about the eighth century onwards for the Sumatran-based Sri Vijayan kings, allied to the Sailendras of Java, controlled both the Malayan Peninsula and the western coast of Borneo. So much so that when the buddhist Thai Sukhotai and the Javanese Kadiri kingdoms brought about the end of Sri Vijayan control over what was then Malayan territory, we enter again upon an era of influence consonant with that of the former sphere of influence, an influence which has remained intact with the rise of the immediate pre-native powers, that is, the Hinduised Majapahits of Java.  

   For our purposes, it suffices to be able to note that when I Tsing, the famed Chinese traveller, visited Palembang (Sri Vijaya) in the island of Sumatra during the 12th Century, he was able to acknowledge the predominance of Indian cultural traditions and the use of Sanskrit as a common language of intercourse in the life of the people he met [Ryan 1976:8. Cf. also Hill 1961: 11 for references to Marco Polo’s impressions in Sumatra]. In spite of and because of what he has recorded, research into the Malay past has revealed that it was a non-Aryan people, that is, mainly the Dravidian Tamils, who had virtually transported and supplanted Aryan (and Dravidian) intellectual, religious and literary traditions in the Malay world.


       By Hinduisation one must essentially understand the expansion of an organized

       culture, based on the Hindu conception of royalty, characterized by the Hindu

       and Buddhist cults, the mythology of the Puranas, the observance of the

      Dharmasastras, and having for its means of expression: Sanskrit. [Coedès

      1964: 38]

     A mere glance at the Hikayat Raja-Raja Pasai, the first considerable Malay manuscript dating from the fifteenth century, would reveal the abundant Sanskrit terminology and general cultural influence alluded to earlier on. And we have merely to jump a few centuries, inspecting on the way the sixteenth century classic, Sejerah Melayu, to the first modern work, the Hikayat Abdullah of the nineteenth century to note and assure ourselves of the continuity of the Indian influence, the author himself, Munshi Abdullah, being of part Tamil descent. Here’s an appropriate quotation from A.H.Hill’s introduction to his translation of the autobiography.

        When he [Abdullah] could recite the Koran he was circum][cised according

       to Malay custom. During the next two years or more [i.e., between 1805 and

       1808], he made his first attempt to study a spoken language; not Malay but

       Tamil, a Dravidian tongue of Southern India which his father spoke well and

       which was used in commerce by all the rich merchants of the port [i.e.,

       Malacca]. [Hill 1955:13-14]

     Later, when the British Administration began in the latter half of the nineteenth century to cultivate rubber on an industrial basis, it brought over to Malaya and Singapore large numbers of mainly Tamil-speaking Dravidians as indentured labourers for the rubber plantations there, and Jaffna-Tamils from Ceylon as white-collar workers to run its administrative services. The restriction of immigration imposed in 1931, the interregnum of the Second World War when intercourse across the Bay of Bengal was temporarily interrupted, and the postwar embargo on immigration left the Indians and Ceylonese, mainly of Tamil stock, at about 11 per cent of the total population which worked out to about a million.


Influence: Semblance and Divergence


     Professor Emeneau in a paper read before the American Philosophical Society on the « Linguistic Prehistory of India » had this to say about influences between languages:


       Whenever two language communities come in contact and remain in contact

       for any appreciably long period, the languages have some effect upon each

       other’s structure. Borrowing of words in one or the other direction or in both

       is the most obvious effect. But there may also be a shift of sound systems,

       borrowing of derivational or inflectional morphemes, or borrowing of

       syntactical traits. [PFICTS 1966: II, 43; Tamil Culture 1956: V, 35-39]


     As far as Tamil and Malay are concerned, it might be worth our while right at the outset to recognize that nearly all Emeneau’s prescriptions for influences exist, except that they are uni-directional, that is, from Tamil to Malay, and there does not appear any real cause to seek influences flowing the other way. Similarities between the languages may therefore be weighted in favour of the older and richer language, unless of course overwhelming proof is forthcoming of an instance of the recipient or target language reversing the role of the emitting or donor language. I have not in my research found any such considerable unambiguous instance of the influence of Malay on Tamil, and as such shall devote the comparative study of the languages to evidence of semblance and divergence in their structure while reserving for the study of influence the instances of loanwords in Malay. As for the « shift of sound systems, borrowing of derivational or inflectional morphemes » that Emeneau posits as prevalent in such a case as we propose to study, I’d gladly refer you to the excellent work done by Asmah Haji Omar, especially in her article, « The Nature of Tamil Loanwords in Malay » (PFICTS 1966: II:534-558). So, before I proceed any further with the comparison, I’d prefer to assess the « borrowing of words » as the primal proof of unidirectional influence. In order not to go looking for words in everyday usage since I have not been in a position to do the necessary research in the field in Malaysia and Singapore, I have opted for the obvious solution, and that is, to choose to study the vocabulary in a dictionary which attempts to provide the provenance of a good many of its words though it is not, in the strictest sense of the word, an etymological dictionary. The dictionary I have chosen is R.J.Wilkinson’s 1908 An Abridged Malay-English Dictionary which has most fortunately been revised and enlarged by about 800 words, half of which are modern,  by A.E.Coope in 1948.

     Here’s a selection of Malay words of Sanskrit, Hindustani, English, Portuguese, Chinese and Javanese origin from the above-mentioned dictionary with their possible counterparts in Tamil.


Of Sanskrit Origin


Malay  (with their meanings)                                    Tamil


adi (excellent, noble, eminent)                                  aati

aniaya (oppression, injustice)                                   niyaayam

anugerah (favour, grace, gift)                                   anukuulam

atma (spirit)                                                              aattumaa

bakti (meritorious service, devotion)                        pakti

begawan (blessed)                                                    pakavaan

biduan (a musician, a singer)                                   vittuvaan

budi (wisdom, kindness, understanding)                 putti

bumi (the earth, the ground)                                    puumi

cendana (sandal-wood)                                           santana

cerita (story, narrative)                                            sarittiram, saritam

derhaka (traitorous, treason)                                   turookam

derma (alms, gift, charity, favour)                          tarumam

desa (region, country)                                             teesam

duli (dust: under a sovereign’s feet)                       tuusi

erti (meaning, signification)                                   aruttam

guru (a teacher)                                                       kuru

igama/agama/ugama (religion)                              matam

jaya (victorious, successful)                                   jayam

jiwa (life, the spirit of life)                                     jiivam, ciivan

jogi (a religious ascetic)                                         yooki

karna (because, owing to)                                      kaaranam

mahkota /makota (a crown)                                   makutam

mantera (a magical formula)                                  mantiram

manusia (mankind, man)                                        manusan, manitan

maya (unsubstantial, illusory)                                maayam

menteri (minister, vizier)                                        mantiri

mutia (pearl)                                                           muttu

nadi (the arterial pulse)                                          naati

naraka (hell)                                                          narakam

negara (city, town)                                                nakaram

pandita (a sage, a learned man)                              pantitan

puja (prayer, adoration)                                          puujai/puusai

putera (a prince, a child of)                                    puttiran

raja (prince, ruler, governor, king)                        raajaa/ iraasan

ratna ( a jewel, a princess)                                     irattinam

resi ( a rishi, a sage)                                               rishi

sakti (supernatural power)                                     sakti

sastera (sacred books, astrolog.tables)                  saastiram

semudera (the ocean, Sumatra)                             samuttiram

sena (an army, an infantry)                                    seenai

singa (a lion, an ancient title)                                sinkam

suraya (the sun)                                                    suuriyan

tala (harmonious response)                                   taalam

upacara (Modern: ceremony)                               aasaaram

wira (a man, a hero)                                              viiran


Also Proper Names


Arjuna (the hero Arjuna)                                      arjuunan

Berahman ( a Brahmin)                                       piraamanan

Bisnu (Vishnu)                                                     vishnu

Hanoman (the Hindu monkey-god)                     anumaan

Indera (Indra)                                                       intiran

Kama (Cupid)                                                      kaaman

Mesuara (Maheswara, Siva)                               makeeswaran

Seteria (a Kshatriya)                                            kshaktriyar

Waruna (God of the ocean; Varuna)                   varunan


Of Hindustani Origin (Tamil words within quotes are found in colloquial Tamil spoken by Malaysians)


Bai (brother, a term of address to Bengalis)       « pai »

ca (tea)                                                                teeniir

cunam (lime used in betel-cud)                           cunnaampu

dobi (a dhoby, laundryman)                                « toopi »

gi (ghee, clarified butter)                                     « kii »

kanji (rice-gruel)                                                 kanci

kerani (a clerk, a writer)                                     « kiraani »

kuli (a coolie labourer]                                        kooliyaal

roti (bread)                                                          « rotti »

rupiah (a rupee, a guilder)                                   ruupai

sal (a shawl)                                                        saalvai

tambur (a drum)                                                  tamarukam

topi (a sun-hat, a hat)                                           toppi


Of English Origin


bangelo (bungalow)                                            pankalaa

belun (balloon)                                                   « peloon »

besikal (bicycle)                                                 « paisikal »

bitamin (vitamin)                                                vaittamin

butang (a button)                                                pottaan

gelas (a drinking glass)                                      « kilaas »

kemishin (commission, brokerage)                     « kamishen »

kemeti (committee)                                             « kamitti »

loteri (lottery)                                                     « laatteri »

peshin (fashion, style)                                         « paashen »

rasit (receipt)                                                      « resiit »


Of Portuguese Origin


almari (an almeirah)                                            alamaari/alumari

jendela (a window)                                              jannel/ sannel

nanas (pineapple, from Spanish)                         annaasi

peon (an orderly, a messenger)                            « piyoon »

tuala (a serviette; napkin, towel)                         tuvaalai


Of Chinese Origin


cap (« chopping », « chop or seal)                       « caappu »

samsu (Chinese alcoholic spirit)                          « samusu »


Of Javanese Origin


periaï (a minor noble, a local notable)                  periyaar/periyoor/periyatanakkaaran


     The choice of the above list of words has been made with a view to reflecting the dictionary’s proportions where there are equivalents for Tamil words. I have not included  words of Arabic origin which, since the conversion of Malays to Islam, constitute the greatest source of borrowing into Malay, and for which Tamil equivalents are not apparent. One might even venture to say that the Tamil influence definitely declined ever since Islam took root in the Malay Peninsula. A little later in the conclusion, I will analyse the varying strengths, percentage-wise, of the words borrowed to show the predominance of the influence, as far as the dictionary is concerned. It must however be remembered that the resulting influence, from the point of view of the borrowing of words, can or may only reflect the dictionary’s vocabulary and not necessarily the situation as it is with the language at large, though it might be prudent to assume that the corpus of words used in the language, and their proportions, might not vary greatly from those of the dictionary I have selected for analysis. 


     At this stage, a comparative descriptive analysis of both languages under study is particularly necessary in order to make the study of influence more fruitful. Naturally, I shall not be able to enumerate and illustrate all the minute resemblances and/or divergences in the two languages. I shall therefore limit myself to providing a few crucial examples of the chief comparable features of Malay and Tamil.


1. NOUNS are declined in Tamil according to seven cases, whereas they remain invariable in Malay, though the plural is formed by reduplication.

    Example: buku (book); buku-buku or buku2 (books).


2. PRONOUNS both in Tamil and Malay have much in common, the intimate second persons and polite forms and the inclusive and exclusive first person plurals, with one difference however: pronouns in Tamil are declined like nouns into seven cases. Just one example to illustrate the similarity, absent in most other languages.

    Tamil:  naam  and  naankal (also taankal)

    Malay: kita (inclusive « we »)  and  kami (exclusive « we »)

    In Malay, though, there are morphemic pre- or postpositions of pronouns, such as: Apatah kaubuat disini? [What on earth are you doing here? NB. engkau (you) buat (do) = kaubuat), diminumnya (he/she/it drank it), rumahmu (your house).


3. GENDER distinction is not general in both languages. Both distinguish gender in animals: Malay by the use of jantan (male) and betina (female) whereas Tamil by gender attributes.

      Further, while Tamil distinguishes the 3rd person of pronouns: avan, aval, etc., Malay simply does not: dia, ia, beliau. Besides, in Tamil gender distinctions in adjectives are shown by pronominal terminations, whereas inanimate substances and « irrational » beings are signified by the neuter gender.


4. PREPOSITIONS in Tamil are usually expressed as postpositions or suffixes, which is not the case in Malay, which has di, ke, kepada, untuk, etc..


    Example of Tamil usage: amaavaasaikkuppin (after New Moon Day, though « after » (pin) comes at the end of the word as a postposition).


5. CONJUNCTIONS in Tamil are mere « continuative participials ». In Malay: dan, tetapi, untuk, etc., serve the purpose in the same way as in English, for instance.


    Example of Tamil usage with « um »: maattaiyum, aanaiyaiyum, kutiraikalaiyum vaankinaan. (He bought the cow, the elephant and the horses.)


6. PARTICIPIALS and their use - though extremely complex to merit adequate treatment in this paper - are a very special feature of Tamil grammar [Arden 1969: 196-227], having even, according to Emeneau [PFICTS 1966], influenced the development of « absolutives » or gerunds in Sanskrit. The various forms of these participials in both their positive and negative forms (and also, for example, by their use of pronominal suffixes in relative participial nouns) serve a number of purposes normally taken up by the finite verb in their various conjugated forms and the relative pronoun or clause in other grammars. Just a few examples to illustrate my point.


   Example:  Dia pergi menangkap ikan.  avan miin pitikkap pooyvittaan.


   Again, where in Malay the « yang-piece » [Lewis 1969: 21-22] serves to introduce the relative clause, Tamil replaces it with a participial.

   Example: Orang-orang miskin yang belajar bahasa cina baharu datang-lah.                    

                    ciinap paajai patikkum eelaikal ippolutee vantaarkal.


7. In stricto senso VERBS in Tamil and Malay are not formally conjugated. The classical works, Tolkappiyam and Nannul do not, for instance, lay down a schema similar to Graul’s sevenfold classification which Arden has popularised in his modern grammar of spoken Tamil. Arden himself appears guarded in his clarification of Tamil verbs.


        The term ‘Conjugation’ has to be used because there is no other

        grammatical term that would be recognised. It may also be observed

        that only three Tenses of each Tamil Verb are conjugated, and the

        scheme of personal endings is the same for all Verbs.[Arden 1969: 147]


     On the other hand, Asmah bte Haji Omar and Rama Subbiah’s eightfold classification of Malay verbs [AIMG 1968:5,9-10,24-25,51-53,58-59,75,76,101-103] do no more than indicate the proclitics and enclitics used to form reflexive, transitive, causative and passive verbs. Curiously enough, these seem to accord with - at least in the methodology - certain rules of euphony applied in the combination, insertion and changes in Tamil letters.


8. PASSIVE VOICE or MOOD.  Strictly speaking, this mood is not in current use in Tamil; by contrast, Malay makes much of it. In Tamil, the mood is expressed by prefixing an infinitive to any of three verbs: patu (suffer, experience), un, unnu (eat), and uru (feel). In Malay, the jati (true passive form) and semu (I imagine, less true by contrast) are in constant use.


Example: (Active) Saya membacakan ibu cerita itu. [N1 VN3 N2]

                (Jati) Ibu itu  di-bacakan cerita itu oleh saya.         [N3 VN2 N1]

                (Semu) Cerita itu saya bacakan ibu.         [N2 N1V N3]

                                                                    [Asmah Omar-Subbiah 1968: 58-59]


                avan ennai atitttaan

      is certainly preferable to : naan avanaal atikkappatteen.

                                                              [Arden 1969: 235]


9. SENTENCES. The rules pertaining to the formation of sentences in Tamil are so particular that they may stand out as the most distinctive feature of the one language set against the other. Simple sentences are terminated by a finite verb. The same applies to complex sentences with the difference that all subordinate clauses must of necessity precede the main clause and be terminated by participials. Tamil also requires that in all sentences the cause precede the effect. [Arden 1969: 178-182]

   None of the above specifications for the formation of sentences is true of Malay where the structures may more or less be similar to those, say, in English. It is interesting to note that Asmah bte Omar and Rama Subbiah call relative pronouns « dependent sentence markers », such as, kalau, jikalau, apabila, bila, oleh sebab, oleh kerana, untuk, etc. [Asmah Omar-Subbiah 1968: 41-43]

     Having somewhat sketched the comparable elements in both Tamil and Malay, let me offer a few examples of instances in both languages where the donor role of Tamil might be more than probable. In a comparative study of this nature, it would be less than desirable if we chose to enumerate all cases of grammatical similarity in either language. In the above analysis, there are several instances where one may note the probable influence of the older mentor language, Tamil. Herebelow, I merely wish to record certain use of words and their formation which could easily have been inculcated through colloquial speech, rather than in writing, the latter means may not have been accessible to all and sundry in the days gone by.


1. FORMATION of Nouns.


        (a)  vativaanavan/vativaanaval                     (a)  jelitawan/jelitawati

               (vativu + van/val)                                             (jelita + an/ati)


        (b) panakkaaran/panakkaari                                seniman (seni + an)

                                                                                     budiman (budi + an)

2. FORMATION of Compound Nouns.


        (a) aattukkutti  (aatu + kutti)                            (a) rumahsakit (rumah + sakit)


        (b) kaattuppuunai (kaatu + puunai)                 (b) pokokkayu (pokok + kayu)


         c) kanniir (kan + niir)                                      c)  air mata


3. INTENSITY of Adjectives through Reduplication.


      (a) cinnanciru                                                     (a) kecil-kecil


      (b) mella mella                                                   (b) se-cara diam-diam




      (a) meesai kiisai                                 (a) sayur2an (many kinds of vegetables)

              (table and chairs)

                                                                (b) buah2an (many kinds of fruit)

     In Malay, reduplication of nouns with the suffix -an gives the sense of plurality and similarity. In colloquial Tamil, the second word taking « k » for an initial letter gives a sort of comprehensive meaning.


5. EMPHASIS: Interrogative Particles.


     (a) atu unnmaiyaa?   (aa)                       (a) Betul-kah?  


                                                                    (b) Siapatah datang?

                                                                             (Who on earth came? - indicating doubt

                                                                                            and surprise)

     (c) avan taan vantaan.                            (c)   Ia-lah datang.

                                                                                            (It is he who came.)






     A comparative study of this nature must necessarily anchor itself on some tangible form or base in order to be able to make immediate sense or be acceptable as a credibler case of influence study. I have therefore refrained from making larger than the absolutely necessary claims for Tamil insofar as it may have exerted its influence on the younger language with a lesser literary corpus. In these circumstances, it would be highly desirable if some tangible means could be found to show clearly the influence of the one on the other and to make out the donor (émetteur) status of one vis-à-vis the recepient (récepteur) language. It should also follow naturally that if one establishes the influence on the linguistic level, the influences on a larger literary or cultural plane might also be evoked. On this score, one might indeed consult the works and comments of eminent Malay scholars, such as Richard Winstedt, for an unequivocal view of influence.[1] As far as the present comparative study is concerned, the tangible ground on which the study of influence may be based and examined is the analysis of the vocabulary as found in Wilkinson’s dictionary (and the probable instances of similarities in the grammars given earlier on), though, for the sake of fairness, it must be avowed that similarities in grammatical structure and usage between wholly different languages are not  rare phenomena. The onus of proof may be generously waived where the older and richer - on the evidence of literary production - tongue also enjoys a privileged position vis-à-vis the language influenced. The historical survey in the introduction favours the émetteur or donor role of Tamil in relation to Malay.

     As the topic of the examination concerns itself with words, it would be a gross oversight not to recall Asmah binte Haji Omar’s excellent article, « The Nature of Tamil Loanwords in Malay » [PFICTS 1966: II, 534-558], a study which is highly useful in charting the phonological changes undergone in the process of semantic assimilation from Tamil to Malay.  She also remarks in passim on the nature of the loanwords borrowed.

       Unlike the English and the Arabic loanwords, Tamil loanwords are not

       just grammatically integrated, but phonologically, they are readily

       adapted into the Malay structure, so much so that more often than not,

       one tends to take a Tamil loanword for a native word. [...]      

       It should also be noted that the Tamil-speaking people who immigrated

       to Malaya, were not missionaries, and as such we do not meet with any

       religious or philosophical items in the range of the loanwords. All the

       loanwords concern with items [sic] of the everyday life [sic], and the

       constant daily usage of these words serve as an important factor in their

       complete integration within the structure of the Malay language.

       [PFICTS 1966: II, 552]

      Here I must beg to differ from Asmah Haji Omar’s assumption that the Tamil-speaking people who migrated to Malaya were not « missionaries ». They may not have been missionaries by profession, but then if they had not influenced the Malays and other peoples of Southeast Asia, how was it possible that almost all of the Malay Medieval World was either successively Hindu or Buddhist up to about the 13th and 14th centuries A.D.?

     Wilkinson’s dictionary contains a total of about 12,000 words, give or take a few dozen. The vast majority of foreign words stems from Arabic, the reason being obvious for an avowed Mohammadan people. The influence of Arabic, Javanese, Chinese and the colonial languages do not however concern us here in the analysis of the influence of Tamil. Considering the nature of the argument in favour of Tamil as a donor or émetteur language, one is only bound to take into account vocabulary in Malay whose provenance has been etymologically established as having its origin in Sanskrit, Hindustani, and Tamil. On the other hand, given the almost negligible number of words originating in the other Dravidian languages, especially Telegu and Malayalam, since the Malays have also been exposed to speakers of these tongues, I feel they may legitimately be left out in any ultimate consideration of influence emanating from the Indian subcontinent.

     In any case, the results of the analysis of words according to their origin in Wilkinson’s dictionary are as follows, i.e., out of a grand total of around 12,000 Malay words in actual use:

   475 have their origin in Sanskrit,

   144     «      «       «     «  Hindustani, and

   124     «      «       «      «  Tamil.

     Your surprise in hearing these figures can be no greater than mine. Can one talk of influence when the ratio of 124 to 12,000 [cf. List of Malay Words of Tamil Origin in the annexe] gives an approximate percentage of 1? This is perhaps a  moot point, for one might easily assert that whatever the figures of the ratio, the influence is upheld as existing when one is able to trace the origin of even a few words to their source. What is really more crucial is the nature of the loanwords, and, here, Asmah Haji Omar is indeed quite right about the « items of everyday life » with which Malay seems to be in debt to Tamil. She does not however go any further nor any deeper in her analysis of this inter-ethnic phenomenon. Considering the rather not insignificant number of Sanskrit (and Hindustani) loanwords in Malay, one might have been impelled to examine this aspect of the question. This is precisely what I have done. Just as Latin served as a major intellectual language in Europe throughout medieval history, Sanskrit enjoyed the same role in the Indian subcontinent, and their mutual reciprocal influence, as Jean Filliozat had observed, between Sanskrit and Tamil had not been inconsiderable.

     Following on from the above premises, it is not unlikely that Tamilians, or Tamil-speaking Dravidians, presumably versed in Sanskrit and Sanskrit traditions might/must have served as the vehicle of transmission of Aryan culture in the Malay world. It must be remembered that it was during the medieval period that the greatest incidence of commercial and other intercourse operated across the Bay of Bengal, notably from the Coromandel Coast to the monde malais. One thing however may be taken for granted: the Muhammadan Gujeratis and Bengalis of Arabo-Persian descent who brought Islam to the Malay world were obviously not the transmitters of Hindu Sanskrit traditions to the Malays. This role was certainly mutatis mutandis vested in the hands of Dravidian traders, settlers and founders of Indianised kingdoms in Southeast Asia.

     Tamil consequently must have served as the intermediary vehicular language for the not inconsiderable number of Sanskritised words to be found in Malay, and to illustrate my point, I’ll analyse a representative list of words under one letter of the alphabet in Wilkinson’s dictionary to see how this is borne out. On an average what holds true for words under the letter « A » applies to most of the other letters of the alphabet, with certain exceptions.


List of words under the letter « A » in Wilkinson’s Dictionary


Sanskrit:  acara, adi, adikara, adipati, adiraja, adiwarna, agama (also igama, ugama), aksara, alpa, anda, Andoman, aneka, anggota, angka, angkara, angkasa, angsa, angsoka, aniaya, anta (beranta indera, B.loka, etc.), antara, anugerah, arca, Arjuna, asa, asmara, astakona, atau, atma.

Hindustani:  acar, agar (agar-agar), amra, anggerka, ani, ayah.

Tamil: achuan,  amah, andai/handai, apam, asam, ayah, auta.

      So, under the letter « A », we have 29 words stemming from Sanskrit, 6 from Hindustani and 7 from Tamil, out of a total of 528 words. Now, of the 29 Sanskrit words, 5 are already in common use in Tamil: acaram, angsa, aniyayam, Arjuna and atman. Further, five of the Sanskrit words commencing with the proclitic adi have practically the same meaning in the Tamil use of ati. This analysis extended to the rest of the dictionary would more or less give the same results, that is, that a good many Sanskrit words actually do have their Sanskrit counterparts in Tamil and that these are, or have been, in habitual use in Tamil. As the list of Tamil words in the dictionary given in the annexe will reveal, not all the letters of the alphabet have Tamil words, nor is the proportion of Tamil words to Sanskrit, Malayalam and Telegu, etc., generally consistent, but the general idea is that a good many Malay words of Sanskrit and Dravidian (other than Tamil) origin have their counterparts in Tamil words, too, which makes it possible that the influence may have passed through the agency of Tamil language-users who may or may not have also been versed in Sanskrit, Malayalam, Telegu or Kannada. [Cf. List of Malay Words of Sanskrit, Hindustani, English, Portuguese, Chinese and Javanese Origin above, pp.4-6]

      On the basis then of such an analysis, one might legitimately conclude that, despite the very small number of Tamil loanwords in Malay, a higher percentage of words very probably came to Malay through the agency of Tamil, owing to the proximity of Tamilians to Malays throughout the last two millenniums. If what I claim for Tamil is viable, then one further conclusion imposes itself, and that is that Tamil has been the vehicular language for a not inconsiderable part of the Indian literary or cultural influence in the Malay World.

     To all intents and purposes, I should normally be able to rest my case here, but any study of influences over a period of centuries would have to take into account the variations in the language used. Kamil Zvelebil makes certain distinctions in the Tamil spoken which may be useful as a brief sketchy linguistic picture.

        Today, there exists in Tamil a number of local dialects, the major dialect

        regions being the Northern-and-Eastern region, the Western region, the

        Southern region and Ceylon. Apart from regional dialects, a number of

        dialects correlates with social diversity, the chief division being between

        the Brahmin and the non-Brahmin speech; finally, there is a dichotomy

        between the literary language, use [sic] also in formal speech, and the

        ordinary CT [common colloquial]...[Zvelebil 1965: 367-372]                       

      In view of what I have already explored in the foregoing pages, given that the development of Tamil itself over the ages has been an extremely complex subject - from Proto-Dravidian to Pre-Old-and-Middle Tamil down to modern Tamil usage - one has to be circumspect about pronouncing on the émetteur or donor status of Tamil in the Malay World, for the data on the class and caste of Tamil speakers and the variety of Tamil spoken by them over the centuries must indeed be wanting. Despite all these misgivings, taking into consideration Asmah Haji Omar’s study alluded to above [cf. her list of words: PFICTS 1966:553-558], the obvious resemblances in some aspects of the respective grammars and at the same time the Sanskrit and Sanskritised Tamil loanwords in Malay, one might indeed be motivated to talk of influence as having taken place, especially when the Tamil-speaking traders and settlers to Southeast Asia have nearly always in the past enjoyed a mentor status vis-à-vis the indigenous Malays of the Malay(si)an Peninsula and Singapore.








The List of Tamil Loanwords in Malay as given by R.J.Wilkinson in his An Abridged Malay-English Dictionary


Malay                                                                                                     Tamil equivalent

            [Words within inverted commas are or have been in use in Malaysian Tamil and words marked by asterisks have been denoted as Tamil in origin by Asmah bte H.Omar (1966:553-558): Wilkinson ignores their origins.]


achuan  (a mould, matrix)                                                                                  accu*

amah (a Chinese nurse, a mother)                                                                      ammaa

ancham  ( Javanese origin: threat, menace)                                                        accam*

andai/handai  (associate, comrade)                                                                    antai                                                            

apam ( a thin cake)                                                                                             appam

asam  ( acid, sour; acid fruits)                                                                            accam*

ayah  ( father)                                                                                                     ayyah*

auta   ( lying, boasting, exaggeration, humbug)                                                « avuttaa »

badai  ( adhering - of driftwood)                                                                        vaatai*

bagai  ( kind, species, variety)                                                                           vakai

balar  ( albino whiteness, pinkness)                                                                   maalar*

banci  (roll, census, enumeration per capita, adze, hermaphrodite)                   vaaycci

bapa(k)  ( father)                                                                                                appaa*

bedil  (a gun, to shoot with a gun)                                                                     veti

belenggu  ( shackles, fetters)                                                                             vilanku*

bendi  ( Hindustani origin: the okra or beni fruit; ladies fingers)                      venti*

bisi  ( Sanskrit origin: fast, unchaste)                                                                veeci*

candi  ( a memorial pillar or building, incorrigible, a street-corner

                     prostitute)                                                                                      canti                          

capek  ( lame, limping, halt)                                                                              cappai

ceh!   (fie!)                                                                                                          cii!

celakuti  (betel-nut scissors)

cemeti  (a whip)                                                                                                  cavukku, saattai

cengkeram  ( earnest money, an advance)                                                          acaram*

cerpelai  (the imported Indian mongoose)                                                          kiiripillai

cerpu(sandals,clogs)[perhapsofPortugueseorigin]                                              ceruppu

cerutu  (a cheroot)                                                                                               curuttu

ceti  (a chetty, a money-lender)                                                                           cetti

cuku  (dried gambier root)                                                                                   pataccaaru

curi  ( Hindustani origin: theft, stealing, stealthy removal, stealth)                    cuurai*

dandi  ( small Tamil kettledrum)                                                                        patakam

emak  ( mother; also mak)                                                                                   ammaa

gajamina  ( the sea-elephant or leviathan; the whale, the seal, the walrus)         miin*

gerodi  (an auger; also gurdi)                                                                              karuvi

gurindam  (a proverbial verse; a well-known saying appositely quoted)        

guni  (Hindustani origin: a sack; a « gunny-bag »)                                              kooni*

helai  (a numeral coefficient for tenuous objects such as sheets of papers,

               garments, leaves, blades of grass, etc.)                                              ilai*

homam ( a burnt sacrifice)                                                                                oomam

hulam/ulam   ( vegetable condiments)                                                              oolan*

ilaci (?) ( the imported cardamom)                                                                   eelakkaay

jodoh  (match; a pair)                                                                                        cooti/cootu

kacang  ( a generic name for beans)                                                                  kaccaan (ilankai)

-kah  (an interrogative suffix)                                                                           -aa

kakak  (elder sister)                                                                                           akka*

kaldai  (donkey, ass)                                                                                         kalutai

kanji  ( starch)                                                                                                   kanji

kapal  ( a ship)                                                                                                   kappal

kari  (Hindustani origin: curry)                                                                         kari*

katek  ( stunted, dwarf - of a cock or person)                                                    kattai*

katil  (a bedstead)                                                                                              kattil

katlum  ( bastion)           

kawal  ( watching, the work of a sentry or watchman)                                      kaaval

kawar  ( a thief; also gawar)                                                                              kavar*

kedai  (a shop, a selling-booth)                                                                          katai

kemendikai ( a water-melon, also: mendikai)                                    karppuusani//pikkaappalam

kenderi  ( a measure of weight, a « candareen »)                                        

kendi  (Malayalam origin: a water vessel with a spout, a water kettle)             kenti*

kerutu  ( wrinkled, lined, creased, rough to the touch)                                      karatu*

kerki  ( the blinds of a palanquin)                                                               

ketumbar  ( coriander)                                                                                    taniyaa/kottumalli

kodi  ( a score; twenty)                                                                                       kooti

kolam  ( a pond, reservoir, tank)                                                                        kulam

kuda  ( a horse, the knight in chess; an old Javanese title)                                kutirai

kulai  ( hanging down slackly as a broken branch or limb)                               kulai* 

kuli  ( Hindustani origin: a coolie labourer)                                                       kuli*

kutu  ( an association)                                                                                        kuutu

ladam  ( a horse-shoe)                                                                                        kutirai ilaatam

logam  ( mineral; pancalogam: an alloy of five minerals or a stone

                                                of five colours) 

mabok  ( intoxicated)                                                                                          mappu*

mahaligai  ( a palace; usually applied to the house or chamber of

                                   a Royal lady)                                                                  (arasa)maalikai

malar  ( constantly, steadily)                                                                              malar*

mami  ( Sanskrit origin: an aunt)                                                              « maami »/ amaammi*

manikam  ( gem; essence; embryo)                                                                    maanikkam

mekar  ( Javanese origin: to open out of a bud or blossom)                               kaar*

mempelai  ( a bridegroom)                                                                                 maappillai

mempelam  ( the mango)                                                                                    maampalam

menatu  ( a laundryman)                                                                             

meranti ( a name given to a number of trees which yield a good soft wood) 


Merikan  ( an honorific in use among Muhammedan settlers from

                        Southern India)

meterai  ( the royal seal, stamp or impression)                                                   muttirai

misai  ( moustache)                                                                                             miisai

mutia/mutiara  ( Sanskrit origin: a pearl)                                                      mutia/mutiara*

mutu  ( a measure of the purity of gold = 2.4 carats)                                     muttu          

nakal  ( perverse, mischievous, naughty)                                                      nakkal*

nelayan  (a fisherman)                                                                                  valainan

nganga  ( open, agape of the jaws)                                                               anna, anka*

nilam  ( the sapphire)                                                                                    niilakkal

ondeh-ondeh  ( sweetened dumplings of dough rolled in coconut scrapings)   untai

paceli or paceri  ( a brinjal or pineapple condiment)                                    paccati

pala  ( Sanskrit origin: nutmeg)                                                                     palaa*

pantul  ( to rebound)                                                                                      pantu*

patek  ( humble slave, a term of self-deprecation used as a pronoun

                of the first person when addressing a prince)                                 pati*

pekan  ( a market; town)                                                                                 paakkam*

pereli  ( Penang: to tease, deceive)                                  

perisai  ( a shield, a buckler)                                                                          paricai*

peteras  ( to put on side, behave in a conceited way)           

peti  ( a box, a case, a chest)                                                                           petti

podi( also pudi: powder)  (the dust of gems, very small gems mounted

                                            in large numbers to make a glittering show)       poti

puadai ( cloth laid down for a procession to pass over for a great person)     paavaatai

pualam  (marble)                                                                                             palinkkukkal

putu  ( a generic name given to a number of cakes)                                        puttu

ragam  (modes in music; variety in sound, colouring, or disposition)            iraakam

ranggi  (smart in dress, « putting on side »)                                                raanki/utai viiraarnta

sambal  ( a generic name for condiments served with curries)                      sambaar

sami  ( a Hindu idol)                                                                                       saami/svaami

sate  ( pieces of meat or fish cooked on a skewer)                                          satai

sauku  ( a whip)                                                                                              savukku/saattai

sedelinggam  ( minium, red lead)                                                                   istiilinkam

segala  ( all, every; the whole of)                                                                   sakalam

semberani  ( horse: bay)                                                                                 

senteri  ( a wandering student, a wanderer, a stranger generally)                   tiripavar 

silu   ( shy, retiring, modest, subdued)                                                            cilucilu*

talam  ( a metal tray)                                                                                       taampaalam

tali  ( cord, rope, anything of a cord-like appearance)                                     taali*

tambi  ( a messenger, a peon, an orderly)                                                        tampi

tandil  ( the head of a gang of coolies; a petty officer - subordinate to

               a serang on a ship)                                                                            tantal

tangga  ( ladder, staircase)                                                                              « tankaapati »

tarok  ( a shoot, a young sprout)                                                                      taarr*

taulan  ( friend, comrade)                                                                                toolan

tera  ( the royal seal, stamp or impression)                                                     muttirai

terusi  ( vitriol, sulphuric acid)                                                                        tuttanturisu

tirai  ( a curtain)                                                                                               tirai

tumpu  ( having a footing on; resting on)                                                         tumpu*

urai/hurai  ( to undo, to unloose, to explain, loose, dishevelled)                    urai*

Yahudi  ( a Jew, Jewish)                                                                                   yuutar







Arden, A.H.Rev.A.C.Clayton.(1969) A Progressive Grammar of the Tamil


Asmah binte Haji Omar. (1966) « The Nature of Tamil Loanwords in Malay in

       Proceedings of the First International Conference of Tamil Studies » II, 534-


______________ and Rama Subbiah. (1968) An Introduction to Malay Grammar.

       Kuala Lumpur.

Coedès, G. (1964) Les états hindouisés d’Indochine et d’Indonésie. Paris.

Emeneau,    . (1956) « Linguistic Prehistory of India in Tamil Culture ». V, 35-

       39. Cf. PFICTS, p.43.

Emerson, R. (1964) Malaysia: A Study in Direct and Indirect Rule. Kuala


Gullick, J.M. (1965) Indigenous Political Systems of Western Malaya. London-

       New York.

Hikayat Raja-Raja Pasai. (1961) tr. A.H.Hill. Singapore.

Lewis, M.B. (1969) Sentence Analysis in Modern Malay. Cambridge.

Ryan, N.J. (1976) A History of Malaysia and Singapore. Kuala Lumpur-London-

       New York.

Sejarah Melayu. (1970) tr. C.C.Brown. Kuala Lumpur-Oxford-New York.

Spencer, G.W. (1983) The Politics of Expansion: The Chola Conquest of Sri

       Lanka and Srivijaya. Madras.

The Hikayat Abdullah. (1955). tr. A.H.Hill. Singapore.

Wignesan, T. (1988) Etude comparée des littératures nationales et/ou officielles

       de la Malaisie et de Singapour depuis 1941, 3 vols. Lille.

Wilkinson, R.J. (1952) An Abridged Malay-English Dictionary. London.

Winstedt, R.O. (1969) A History of Classical Malay Literature. Kuala Lumpur-


___________ . (1961) The Malays: A Cultural History. London.

Zvelebil, K. (1965) « An Introduction to the Comparative Study of Dravidian in

       Archiv Orientalni  ». 33, 367-372.


See also the following:


Coomaraswamy, A.K. (1965) History of Indian and Indonesian Art. New York.

Nilakanta Sastri, K.A. ( 1949) History of S’rîvijaya. Madras.

_________________. (1949) « Takuapa and its Tamil Inscription in Journal of

       the Malayan Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society ». XXII, 25-30.

_________________. (         ) The Cholas. Madras.

Quaritch Wales, H.G. (1940) « Archaeological Researches on Ancient Indian

       Colonization in Malaya in Journal of the Malayan Branch of the Royal

       Asiatic Society ». XXVIII, 1.

________________. (1935) « A Newly Explored Route of Ancient Indian Cultural

       Expansion in Indian Art and Letters ». IX, 1-31.

Ryan, N.J. (1971) The Cultural Heritage of Malaya. Kuala Lumpur.

Smith, T.E. & John Bastin. (1967) Malaysia. London.

Tweedie, M.W.F. (1957) Prehistoric Malaya. Singapore.

Verguin, J. (1967). Le Malais: Essai d’analyse fonctionnelle et structurale.

       Paris/La Haye.

Winstedt, R.O. (1962) A History of Malaya. Singapore.

___________. ( 1944) « Indian Influence in the Malay World in Journal of the

       Royal Asiatic Society ».


© T.Wignesan 1994





[1]  Sir Richard Winstedt whom I met in London at the premises of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain & Ireland, of which he was then president, in May 1961, made no bones about declaring to me his considered opinion that all that was worthwhile in Malay writing and culture had its provenance in India, with the exception of the pantun and other similar genres. This is however a rather one-sided view.