Suvarna Garge (Editor)

Malagasy language

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Native speakers  18 million (2007)
ISO 639-1  mg
Official language in  Madagascar
Malagasy language
Native to  Madagascar, Comoros, Mayotte
Language family  Austronesian Malayo-Polynesian East Barito Malagasy
Writing system  Latin script (Malagasy alphabet) Malagasy Braille

Malagasy (/mæləˈɡæsi/; [ˌmalaˈɡasʲ]) is an Austronesian language and the national language of Madagascar. Most people in Madagascar speak it as a first language as do some people of Malagasy descent elsewhere.


Map of Madagascar


The Malagasy language is the westernmost member of the Malayo-Polynesian branch of the Austronesian language family. Its distinctiveness from nearby African languages was noted in 1708 by the Dutch scholar Adriaan Reland. It is related to the Malayo-Polynesian languages of Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines, and more closely to the East Barito languages spoken in Borneo except for its Polynesian morphophonemics. According to Roger Blench (2010), the earliest form of language spoken on Madagascar could have had some non-Austronesian substrata.


Madagascar was first settled by Austronesian peoples from Maritime Southeast Asia who had passed through Borneo. The migrations continued along the first millennium, as confirmed by linguistic researchers who showed the close relationship between the Malagasy language and Old Malay and Old Javanese languages of this period. Far later, c. 1000, the original Austronesian settlers mixed with Bantus and Arabs, amongst others. There is evidence that the predecessor(s) of the Malagasy dialects first arrived in the southern stretch of the east coast of Madagascar.

Malagasy has a tradition of oratory arts and poetic histories and legends. The most well-known is the national epic, Ibonia, about a Malagasy folk hero of the same name.

Geographic distribution

The Malagasy language is the principal language spoken on the island of Madagascar. It is also spoken by Malagasy communities on neighboring Indian Ocean islands such as Réunion and Comoros. Large expatriate Malagasy communities speaking the language also exist in France, Québec, and to a lesser extent Belgium and Washington DC.

Legal status

The Merina dialect of Malagasy is considered the national language of Madagascar. It is one of two official languages alongside French in the 2010 constitution putting in place the Fourth Republic. Previously, under the 2007 constitution, Malagasy was one of three official languages alongside French and English. It is the language of instruction in all public schools through grade five for all subjects, and remains the language of instruction through high school for the subjects of history and Malagasy language.


There are two principal dialects of Malagasy, eastern, including Merina, and western, including Sakalava, with the isogloss running down the spine of the island, the south being western, and the central plateau and much of the north (apart from the very tip) being eastern. Ethnologue encodes a dozen varieties of Malagasy as distinct languages. They have about a 70% similarity in lexicon with Merina dialect.

Region specific variations

The two main dialects of Malagasy are easily distinguished by several phonological features.

Sakalava lost final nasal consonants, whereas Merina added a voiceless [ə̥]:

  • *taŋan 'hand' → Sakalava [ˈtaŋa], Merina [ˈtananə̥]
  • Final *t became -[tse] in the one but -[ʈʂə̥] in the other:

  • *kulit 'skin' → Sakalava [ˈhulitse], Merina [ˈhudiʈʂə̥]
  • Sakalava retains ancestral *li and *ti, whereas in Merina these become [di] (as in huditra 'skin' above) and [tsi]:

  • *putiq 'white' → Sakalava [ˈfuti], Merina [ˈfutsi]
  • However, these last changes started in Borneo before the Malagasy arrived in Madagascar.

    Writing system

    The language has a written literature going back presumably to the 15th century. When the French established Fort-Dauphin in the 17th century, they found an Arabico-Malagasy script in use, known as Sorabe ("large writings"). This Arabic Ajami script was mainly used for astrological and magical texts. The oldest known manuscript in that script is a short Malagasy-Dutch vocabulary from the early 17th century, which was first published in 1908 by Gabriel Ferrand though the script must have been introduced into the southeast area of Madagascar in the 15th century.

    The first bilingual renderings of religious texts are those by Étienne de Flacourt, who also published the first dictionary of the language. Radama I, the first literate representative of the Merina monarchy, though extensively versed in the Arabico-Malagasy tradition, opted in 1823 for a Latin system derived by David Jones and invited the Protestant London Missionary Society to establish schools and churches. The first book to be printed in Malagasy using Latin characters was the Bible, which was translated into Malagasy in 1835 by British Protestant missionaries working in the highlands area of Madagascar.

    The Malagasy alphabet consists of 21 letters: a, b, d, e, f, g, h, i, j, k, l, m, n, o, p, r, s, t, v, y, z. The orthography maps rather straightforwardly to the phonemic inventory. The letters i and y both represent the /i/ sound (y is used word-finally, and i elsewhere), while o is pronounced /u/. The affricates /ʈʂ/ and /ɖʐ/ are written tr and dr, respectively, while /ts/ and /dz/ are written ts and j. The letter h is often silent. All other letters have essentially their IPA values.

    Mp and occasionally nt may begin a word, but they are pronounced /p, t/.

    @ is used informally as a short form for amin'ny, which is a preposition followed by the definite form, meaning for instance with the.


    Diacritics are not obligatory in standard Malagasy, except in the case where its absence leads to an ambiguity: tanàna ("city") must have the diacritic to discriminate itself from tanana ("hand"). They may however be used in the following ways:

  • ` (grave accent) shows the stressed syllable in a word. It is frequently used for disambiguation. For instance in "tanàna" (town) and "tanana" (hand), where the word that is an exception to the usual pronunciation rules (tanàna) gets an accent. Using accent on the word that follows the pronunciation rules ("tànana") is less common, mainly in dictionaries. (This is very similar to the usage of the grave accent in Italian.)
  • ´ (acute accent) may be used in
  • very old dictionaries, along with grave accent
  • dialects such as Bara
  • French (Tuléar) and French-spelled (Antsirabé) names. Malagasy versions are Toliara/Toliary and Antsirabe.
  • ^ (circumflex) is used as follows:
  • ô shows that the letter is pronounced /o/ and not /u/, in malagasified foreign words (hôpitaly) and dialects (Tôlan̈aro). In standard Malagasy, "ao" or "oa" (as in "mivoaka") is used instead.
  • sometimes the single-letter words "a" and "e" are written "â" and "ê" but it does not change the pronunciation
  • ¨ (diaeresis) is used with in dialects for a velar nasal /ŋ/. Examples are place names such as Tôlan̈aro, Antsiran̈ana, Iharan̈a, Anantson̈o. This can be seen in maps from FTM, the national institute of geodesy and cartography.
  • ~ (tilde) is used in ñ sometimes, perhaps when the writer cannot produce an (although ng is also used in such cases). In Ellis' Bara dialect dictionary, it is used for velar nasal /ŋ/ as well as palatal nasal /ɲ/.
  • Vowels

    After a stressed syllable, as at the end of most words and in the final two syllables of some, /a, u, i/ are reduced to [ə, ʷ, ʲ]. (/i/ is spelled ⟨y⟩ in such cases, though in monosyllabic words like ny and vy, ⟨y⟩ is pronounced as a full [i].) Final /a/, and sometimes final syllables, are devoiced at the end of an utterance. /e/ and /o/ are never reduced or devoiced.

    /o/ is marginal in Merina dialect, found in interjections and loan words, though it is also found in place names from other dialectical areas. /ai, au/ are diphthongs [ai̯, au̯] in careful speech, [e, o] or [ɛ, ɔ] in more casual speech. /ai/, whichever way it is pronounced, affects following /k, ɡ/ as /i/ does.


    The alveolars /s ts z dz l/ are slightly palatalized. /ts, dz, s, z/ vary between [ts, dz, s, z] and [tʃ, dʒ, ʃ, ʒ], and are especially likely to be the latter when followed by unstressed /i/: Thus French malgache [malɡaʃ] 'Malagasy'. The velars /k ɡ ŋk ŋɡ h/ are palatalized after /i/ (e.g. alika /alikʲa/ 'dog'). /h/ is frequently elided in casual speech.

    The reported postalveolar trilled affricates /ʈʳ ɳʈʳ ɖʳ ɳɖʳ/ are sometimes simple stops, [ʈ ɳʈ ɖ ɳɖ], but they often have a rhotic release, [ʈɽ̊˔ ɳʈɽ̊˔ ɖɽ˔ ɳɖɽ˔]. It is not clear if they are actually trilled, or are simply non-sibilant affricates [ʈɻ̊˔ ɳʈɻ̊˔ ɖɻ˔ ɳɖɻ˔]. However, in another Austronesian language with a claimed trilled affricate, Fijian, trilling occurs but is rare, and the primary distinguishing feature is that it is postalveolar. The Malagasy sounds are frequently transcribed [ʈʂ ɳʈʂ ɖʐ ɳɖʐ], and that is the convention used in this article.

    In reduplication, compounding, possessive and verbal constructions, and after nasals, fricatives and liquids ('spirants') become stops, as follows:


    Words are generally accented on the penultimate syllable, unless the word ends in ka, tra and often na, in which case they are stressed on the antepenultimate syllable. In many dialects, unstressed vowels (except /e/) are devoiced, and in some cases almost completely elided; thus fanorona is pronounced [fə̥ˈnurnə̥].

    Word order

    Malagasy has a verb–object–subject (VOS) word order:

    Mamaky boky ny mpianatra
    (reads book the student)
    "The student reads the book"

    Nividy ronono ho an'ny zaza ny vehivavy
    (bought milk for the child the woman)
    "The woman bought milk for the child"

    Within phrases, Malagasy order is typical of head-initial languages: Malagasy has prepositions rather than postpositions (ho an'ny zaza "for the child"). Determiners precede the noun, while quantifiers, modifying adjective phrases, and relative clauses follow the noun (ny boky "the book(s)", ny boky mena "the red book(s)", ny boky rehetra "all the books", ny boky novakin'ny mpianatra "the book(s) read by the student(s)").

    Somewhat unusually, demonstrative determiners are repeated both before and after the noun ity boky ity "this book" (lit. "this book this").


    Verbs have syntactically three productive "voice" forms according to the thematic role they play in the sentence: the basic "agent focus" forms of the majority of Malagasy verbs, the derived "patient focus" forms used in "passive" constructions, and the derived "goal focus" forms used in constructions with focus on instrumentality. Thus

  • (1) Manasa ny tanako amin'ny savony aho. ("I am washing my hands with soap".)
  • (2) Sasako amin'ny savony ny tanako. ("My hands are washed with soap by me".)
  • (3) Anasako ny tanako ny savony. ("It is with soap that my hands are washed by me".)
  • all mean "I wash my hands with soap" though focus is determined in each case by the sentence initial verb form and the sentence final (noun) argument: manasa "wash" and aho "I" in (1), sasako "wash" and ny tanako "my hands" in (2), anasako "wash" and ny savony "soap" in (3). It should be noted that there is no equivalent to the English preposition with in (3).

    Verbs inflect for past, present, and future tense, where tense is marked by prefixes (e.g. mividy "buy", nividy "bought", hividy "will buy").

    Nouns and pronouns

    Malagasy has no grammatical gender, and nouns do not inflect for number. However, pronouns and demonstratives have distinct singular and plural forms (cf. io boky io "that book", ireto boky ireto "these books").

    There is a complex series of personal and demonstrative pronouns, depending on the speaker's familiarity and closeness to the referent.


    Malagasy has a complex system of deixis (these, those, here, there, etc.), with seven degrees of distance as well as evidentiality across all seven. The evidential dimension is prototypically visible vs. non-visible referents; however, the non-visible forms may be used for visible referents which are only vaguely identified or have unclear boundaries, whereas the visible forms are used for non-visible referents when these are topical to the conversation.

    Notes :

  • Diacritics in deixis are not mandatory in Malagasy.
  • Deixis marked by a * are rarely used.
  • Vocabulary

    Malagasy shares much of its basic vocabulary with the Ma'anyan language, a language from the region of the Barito River in southern Borneo. The Malagasy language also includes some borrowings from Arabic and Bantu languages (especially the Sabaki branch, from which most notably Swahili derives), and more recently from French and English.

    The following samples are of the Merina dialect or Standard Malagasy, which is spoken in the capital of Madagascar and in the central highlands or "plateau", home of the Merina people. It is generally understood throughout the island.


    The first dictionary of the language is Étienne de Flacourt's Dictionnaire de la langue de Madagascar published in 1658 though earlier glossaries written in Arabico-Malagasy script exist. A later Vocabulaire Anglais-Malagasy was published in 1729. An 892-page Malagasy–English dictionary was published by James Richardson of the London Missionary Society in 1885, available as a reprint; however, this dictionary includes archaic terminology and definitions. Whereas later works have been of lesser size, several have been updated to reflect the evolution and progress of the language, including a more modern, bilingual frequency dictionary based on a corpus of over 5 million Malagasy words.

  • Winterton, M. et al.: Malagasy–English, English–Malagasy Dictionary / Diksionera Malagasy–Anglisy, Anglisy–Malagasy. Raleigh, North Carolina. USA: Lulu Press 2011, 548 p.
  • Richardson: A New Malagasy–English Dictionary. Farnborough, England: Gregg Press 1967, 892 p. ISBN 0-576-11607-6 (Original edition, Antananarivo: The London Missionary Society, 1885).
  • Diksionera Malagasy–Englisy. Antananarivo: Trano Printy Loterana 1973, 103 p.
  • An Elementary English–Malagasy Dictionary. Antananarivo: Trano Printy Loterana 1969, 118 p.
  • English–Malagasy Phrase Book. Antananarivo: Editions Madprint 1973, 199 p. (Les Guides de Poche de Madagasikara.)
  • Paginton, K: English–Malagasy Vocabulary. Antananarivo: Trano Printy Loterana 1970, 192 p.
  • Bergenholtz, H. et al.: Rakibolana Malagasy–Alemana. Antananarivo: Leximal/Moers: aragon. 1991.
  • Bergenholtz, H. et al.: Rakibolana Alemana–Malagasy. Antananarivo: Tsipika/Moers: aragon. 1994.
  • Rakibolana Malagasy. Fianarantsoa: Régis RAJEMISOA – RAOLISON 1995, 1061 p.
  • References

    Malagasy language Wikipedia

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