The Malagasy language is spoken on the island of Madagascar. Although the island is situated quite close to Africa, off its east coast, the Malagasy language does not belong to any of African language families. It belongs to the Austronesian language family and represents the westernmost extension of the Malayo-Polynesian branch. The closest relative language to Malagasy is Ma’anyan – the language spoken in the southeast of the Borneo island. It is interesting to know that people who speak Malagasy are also known as Malagasy. These are 36 tribes made up of Indonesian and African immigrants.
Immigrants from African and Indonesia reached the island of Madagascar in the 5th century. The representatives of Indonesian people came from the southeast Borneo and spoke Ma’anyan, the language that is still used on the island of Borneo. Settlers of Madagascar who came from Africa spoke Bantu languages. So as the result of their contact and communication, Ma’anyan language was influenced by Bantu and Malagasy appeared. The language borrowed from Bantu its sound system and a part of the vocabulary.
At the end of the 18th century, Madagascar with a number of Malagasy kingdoms was conquered by the Merina people. So in the 19th century, when European missioners reached the island, the main Merina dialect was codified and recorded. That is why today we can say that the present standard dialect of Malagasy is based exactly on the Merina dialect.
The Malagasy language gained the status of the official language of Malagasy Republic in 1960. It is worth to mention that the Malagasy language is not the only official language spoken on the island. The other one is the French language. It appeared on the island during the French colonization of Madagascar. In a short period of time, the French language became dominant and the Malagasy language was relegated to an inferior position.
Today, French remains important because of its international status. Nevertheless, the Malagasy language is spoken by most of the island’s 22 million inhabitants. Furthermore, the language is also used on the island situated east of Madagascar – the Comoros and Réunion islands.
Both Malagasy and French are used on the island in everyday communication, official government publications, in the media, and in education. Most of the residents of the island are bilingual and speak both languages.
There are various dialects of Malagasy. Nevertheless, the main two are eastern and western dialects, characterized by a high degree of lexical similarity.
The writing system of Malagasy is based on the Latin alphabet and consists of 21 letters. It was developed by members of the London Missionary Society in 1824 and continues to be used today.