Malagasy language

Malagasy language
Spoken in  Madagascar
Native speakers 15 million  (2006)[1]
Language family
Language codes
ISO 639-1 mg
ISO 639-2 mlg (B)
mlg (T)
ISO 639-3 mlg – Macrolanguage
individual codes:
xmv – Antankarana
bhr – Bara
msh – Masikoro
bmm – Northern Betsimisaraka
plt – Plateau Malagasy
skg – Sakalava
bzc – Southern Betsimisaraka
tdx – Tandroy-Mafahaly
txy – Tanosy
tkg – Tesaka
xmw – Tsimihety
vez – Vezo

Malagasy [ˌmalaˈɡasʲ] is the national language of Madagascar, a member of the Austronesian family of languages. Most people in Madagascar speak it as a first language as do some people of Malagasy descent elsewhere.



The Malagasy language is not related to nearby African languages, instead being the westernmost member of the Malayo-Polynesian branch of the Austronesian language family,[2] a fact noted as long ago as 1708 by the Dutch scholar Adriaan van Reeland.[3] It is related to the Malayo-Polynesian languages of Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines, and more closely to the Southeast Barito languages spoken in Borneo except for its Polynesian morphophonemics.[4] Malagasy shares much of its basic vocabulary with the Ma'anyan language, a language from the region of the Barito River in southern Borneo. This indicates that Madagascar was first settled by Austronesian people from the Malay Archipelago who had passed through Borneo. According to recent research on genetics, the first Austronesian settlement may have taken place in the beginning of our era (or perhaps before).[5] Then the migrations continued along the first millenium, as confirmed by linguistics researchers who showed the close relashionship between the Malagasy language and Old Malay and Old Javanese languages of this period.[6][7] Far later, ca. 1000 A.D., the original Austronesian settlers must have mixed with East Africans and Arabs, amongst others.[8] Thus, the Malagasy language also includes some borrowings from Arabic and Bantu languages (especially the Sabaki branch, from whom most notably Swahili derives).

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. The oldest known manuscript in that script is a short Malagasy-Dutch vocabulary from the early 17th century first published in 1908 by Gabriel Ferrand[9] though the script must have been introduced into the southeast area of Madagascar in the 15th century.[8] Radama I, the first literate representative of the Merina monarchy, though extensively versed in the Arabico-Malagasy tradition,[10] opted for alphabetization in Latin characters and invited the Protestant London Missionary Society to establish schools and churches.

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

The first book to be printed in Malagasy was the Bible, which was translated into Malagasy in 1835 by British Protestant missionaries[11] working in the highlands area of Madagascar. The first bilingual renderings of religious texts are those by Étienne de Flacourt,[12] who also published the first dictionary of the language.[13]


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. These 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.

Ethnologue encodes a dozen varieties of Malagasy as distinct languages. They have about a 70% similarity in lexicon with Merina dialect.



Front Central Back
Close i, y
Mid e
Open a

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] in more casual speech. /ai/, whichever way it is pronounced, affects following /k, ɡ/ as /i/ does.


Bilabial Labiodental Dental Alveolar Retroflex Velar Glottal
Nasal m ⟨m⟩ n ⟨n⟩ ŋ ⟨n̈⟩
Voiceless p ⟨p⟩ t ⟨t⟩ ts ⟨ts⟩ ʈʳ ⟨tr⟩ k ⟨k⟩
Voiceless prenasalized mp ⟨mp⟩ nt ⟨nt⟩ nts ⟨nts⟩ ɳʈʳ ⟨ntr⟩ ŋk ⟨nk⟩
Voiced b ⟨b⟩ d ⟨d⟩ dz ⟨j⟩ ɖʳ ⟨dr⟩ ɡ ⟨g⟩
Voiced prenasalized mb ⟨mb⟩ nd ⟨nd⟩ ndz ⟨nj⟩ ɳɖʳ ⟨ndr⟩ ŋɡ ⟨ng⟩
Fricative Voiceless f ⟨f⟩ s ⟨s⟩ h ⟨h⟩
Voiced v ⟨v⟩ z ⟨z⟩
Lateral l ⟨l⟩
Trill r ⟨r⟩

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 postalveolar consonants /ʈʳ ɳʈʳ ɖʳ ɳɖʳ/ are sometimes simple stops, [ʈ ɳʈ ɖ ɳɖ], but they often have a rhotic release, [ʈɽ̝̊ ɳʈɽ̝̊ ɖɽ̝ ɳɖɽ̝]. It is not clear if they are actually trilled, or are simply non-sibilant affricates. 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.[14] The Malagasy sounds are frequently trascribed [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:

Malagasy sandhi
voiced voiceless
spirant stop spirant stop
v b f p
l d
z dz s ts
r ɖʳ (ɖʐ)
h k


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].


Malagasy has been written using the Latin alphabet since 1823, before which the Arabic Ajami script, or Sorabe ("large writings") as it is known in Madagascar, was used for astrological and magical texts.

The 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 phonetics. 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. 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.
  • ´ (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
  • ¨ (trema) 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 . In Ellis' Bara dialect dictionary, it is used for velar nasal /ŋ/ as well as palatal nasal /ɲ/.


Word order

Malagasy has a verb–object–subject word order:

Mamaky boky ny mpianatra
(reads book the student)
"The student is reading 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.[15]

Malagasy deixis
prox med dist
(here, there)
nvis atỳ àto ào àtsy àny aròa* arỳ
vis etỳ èto èo ètsy èny eròa erỳ
(this, that)
(these, those)
nvis izatỳ* izàto* izào izàtsy* izàny izaròa* izarỳ*
vis itỳ ìto ìo ìtsy ìny iròa* irỳ irèto irèo irètsy irèny ireròa* irerỳ*

Notes :

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


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.[16]

  • 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.


The following samples are of the Merina dialect (standard Malagasy), spoken in the capital of Madagascar and in the central highlands or "plateau," home of the Merina tribe.[16][17] It is generally understood throughout the island.

English Malagasy IPA
English Anglisy ãŋɡliʂ
Yes Eny ˈʲenj
No Tsia, Tsy [18] tsi, tsʲ
Hello! and How are You? Manao ahoana! manaˈʷonə̥, manaˈonə̥
Hello! (rural areas) Salama! saˈlamə̥
I'm fine, thank you. Tsara fa misaotra. ˈtsarə̥ fa mʲˈsoːtʂə̥
Goodbye! Veloma! veˈlumə̥
Please Azafady azaˈfadʲ
Thank you Misaotra mʲˈsoːtʂa
You're welcome Tsisy fisaorana. tsʲ ˈmisʲ fʲˈsoːranə̥
Excuse me Azafady (with arm and hand pointing to the ground) azaˈfadʲ
Sorry Miala tsiny mjala ˈtsinʲ
Who? Iza? ˈiːza, ˈiza
What? Inona? inːa
When? Rahoviana? or Oviana past tense roᶷˈvinə̥, rawˈvinə̥
Where? Aiza? ajzə̥
Why? Fa maninona? fa maninːə̥
How? Ahoana? aˈʷonə̥
How many? Firy? ˈfirʲ
How much? Ohatrinona? ʷoˈtʂinːə̥
What's your name? Iza ny anaranao? iza njanaraˈnaw
For Ho an'ny, or ho an'i wanːi
Because Satria saˈtʂi
I don't understand. Tsy mazava, or tsy azoko. tsʲ mazavə̥
Yes, I understand. Eny, mazava (or azoko). ʲenʲ mazavə̥
Help! Vonjeo! vunˈdzew
Can you help me please? Afaka manampy ahy ve ianao azafady? afaka manapʲ a ve enaw azafadʲ
Where are the toilets? Aiza ny efitrano fivoahana? (Aiza ny V.C.?, Aiza ny toliet?) ajza njefitʂanʷ fiˈvwaːnə̥
Do you speak English? Mahay teny anglisy ve ianao? miˈtenʲ ãŋˈɡliʂ ve eˈnaw
I do not speak Malagasy. Tsy mahay teny malagasy aho. tsʲ maaj tenʲ malaˈɡasʲ a
I do not speak French. Tsy mahay teny frantsay aho. tsʲ maaj tenʲ frantsaj a
I am thirsty. Mangetaheta aho. maŋɡetaˈeta
I am hungry. Noana aho. noːna
I am tired. Vizaka aho. or Reraka aho. ˈvizaka rerakau
I need to pee. Poritra aho. or Ny olombelona tsy akoho. purtʂa
I would like to go to Antsirabe. Tiako hankany Antsirabe. tiku ande anjantsirabe
That's expensive! Lafo be izany! lafʷˈbe zanʲ
I'm hungry for some rice. Noana vary aho. noːna varja
What can I do for you? Inona no azoko atao ho anao? inːa ɲazʷkwataʷ wanaw
I like... Tiako... tikʷ
I love you. Tiako ianao. tikwenaʷ
one isa/iray isə̥
two roa ru
three telo telʷ
four efatra ˈefatʂə̥
five dimy ˈdimʲ
six enina enː
seven fito fitʷ
eight valo valʷ
nine sivy sivʲ
ten folo fulʷ
eleven iraika ambin'ny folo rajkʲambefulʷ
twelve roa ambin'ny folo rumbefulʷ
twenty roapolo ropulʷ
thirty telopolo telopulʷ
forty efapolo efapulʷ
fifty dimampolo dimapulʷ
sixty enim-polo empulʷ
seventy fitopolo fitupulʷ
eighty valopolo valupulʷ
ninety sivifolo sivfulʷ
one hundred zato zatʷ
two hundred roan-jato rondzatʷ
one thousand arivo arivʷ
ten thousand iray alina rajal
one hundred thousand iray hetsy rajetsʲ
one million iray tapitrisa rajtaptʂisə̥
one billion iray lavitrisa rajlavtʂisə̥
3,568,942 roa amby efapolo sy sivin-jato sy valo
arivo sy enina alina sy dimy hetsy sy telo tapitrisa
rumbefapulʷ sʲsivdzatʷ sʲvalorivʷ sʲenːal sʲdimjetsʲ sʲtelutapitʂisə̥

See also


  1. ^ Malagasy at Ethnologue
  2. ^ Malagasy's family tree on Ethnologue
  3. ^ New palaeozoogeographical evidence for the settlement of Madagascar
  4. ^ Wittmann, Henri (1972). "Le caractère génétiquement composite des changements phonétiques du malgache." Proceedings of the International Congress of Phonetic Sciences 7.807-10. La Haye: Mouton.[1]
  5. ^ [2] Ricaut et alii (2009) "A new deep branch of eurasian mtDNA macrohaplogroup M reveals additional complexity regarding the settlement of Madagascar", BMC Genomics
  6. ^ [3] Adelaar K.A. & Himmelmann N. (2004), The Austronesian Language of Asia and Madagascar, Routledge
  7. ^ [4] Simon P. (2006) La langue des ancêtres. Ny Fitenin-drazana. Une périodisation du malgache des origines au XVe siècle, L'Harmattan
  8. ^ a b Ferrand, Gabriel (1905). Les migrations musulmanes et juives à Madagascar. Paris: Revue de l'histoire des religions
  9. ^ Ferrand, Gabriel (1908). "Un vocabulaire malgache-hollandais." Bijdragen tot de taal-, land- en volkenkunde van Nederlandsch Indië 61.673-677. The manuscript is now in the Arabico-Malagasy collection of the Bibliothèque nationale de France.
  10. ^ Berthier, H.J. (1934). De l'usage de l'arabico=malgache en Imérina au début du XIXe siècle: Le cahier d'écriture de Radama Ier. Tananarive.
  11. ^ The translation is due to David Griffith of the London Missionary Society, with corrections in 1865–1866.[5]
  12. ^ Flacourt, Étienne de (1657). Le Petit Catéchisme madécasse-français.Paris;(1661). Histoire de la grande isle Madagascar.Paris, pp.197–202.
  13. ^ Flacourt, Étienne de (1658). Dictionnaire de la langue de Madagascar. Paris.
  14. ^ Ladefoged, Peter; Maddieson, Ian (1996). The Sounds of the World's Languages. Oxford: Blackwell. ISBN 0-631-19814-8.  p. 131
  15. ^ Janie Rasoloson and Carl Rubino, 2005, "Malagasy", in Adelaar & Himmelmann, eds, The Austronesian languages of Asia and Madagascar
  16. ^ a b [6] Winterton, M. et al. (2011). Malagasy–English, English–Malagasy Dictionary / Diksionera Malagasy–Anglisy, Anglisy–Malagasy. Lulu Press.
  17. ^ Rasoloson, Janie (2001). Malagasy–English / English–Malagasy: Dictionary and Phrasebook. Hippocrene Books.
  18. ^ before a verb

Additional references

  • Biddulph, Joseph (1997). An Introduction to Malagasy. Pontypridd, Cymru. ISBN 978 1 897999 15 8.
  • Hurles, Matthew E., et al. (2005). The Dual Origin of the Malagasy in Island Southeast Asia and East Africa: Evidence from Maternal and Paternal Lineages. American Journal of Human Genetics 76:894–901.
  • Ricaut et al. (2009) "A new deep branch of eurasian mtDNA macrohaplogroup M reveals additional complexity regarding the settlement of Madagascar", BMC Genomics.

External links

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