Articles > Malagasy language: a first approach

by Alexis Ulrich  LinkedIn

A travel is always an opportunity of discovery, surprises, change of scenery, encounters. Those are way richer when you can exchange a few words, a few greetings that will engage a dialogue. Preparing a trip to Madagascar, I took the opportunity to discover the Malagasy language and to introduce me to its particularities.

Malagasy presentation

Malagasy is the language spoken on the island of Madagascar by about 13 million speakers. There are two dialectal groups in Malagasy: the Eastern group (which includes the Merina dialect), and the Western group. These groups count eleven distinct dialects. The official (Standard) Malagasy is the Merina dialect, spoken natively by about a quarter of the population of Madagascar, originally from the highland.

Even though Madagascar is close to Africa, Malagasy is an Austronesian language, and more precisely a Malayo-Polynesian, the westernmost member of that language branch, hence closely related to the languages of Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines.

Malagasy pronunciation

The ravenala, the traveller’s tree emblematic of Madagascar

Malagasy has only four vowel sounds:
A (/a/), as in father
E (/e/), as in pay
I or Y at the end of a word (/i/), as in keep
O (/u/), as in pool

Some sounds are a bit more difficult, such as:
ng (/eng/), as in hanging
ny (/nye/), as in the Spanish mañana
kh (/kha/), as in the German Bach
sy (/sya/), as in shield
nng (/nng/), as in bingo

The stress is set on the penultimate syllable of the words, unless they end by ka, tra or na, in which case the accent is on the antepenultimate syllable. The final vowel is hardly vocalized, and some vowels between consonants are literally skipped by the speakers. In the end, there is a written Malagasy, and an oral language to be learned at the same time.

Malagasy grammatical peculiarities

The sentences word order is VOS, or Verb-Object-Subject

For example, He likes tea is said Tia dite izy, or literally like tea he. Verb-Object-Subject languages represent only 3% of the languages of the world. This group counts predominantly Austronesian languages (like Dusun, Fijian or Toba Batak) and Mayan languages (including Tojolab’al, Tzotzil and Yucatecan), even though some languages share this feature by accepting VOS order alongside VSO order.

There is no auxiliary verbs like to be and to have

Thus, personal pronouns include that verb: aho either means I or I am.
Mangetaheta aho means I am thirsty.
An adjective in the predicate position followed by the article ny includes the auxiliary too.
Tsara ny andro (literally Good the day) means It is a beautiful day.

Gender and number are (mostly) inexistent

Malagasy train

Malagasy distinguishes neither grammatical gender nor number, with some exceptions.
Ny fiara either means (one) car or (several) cars.
Likewise, ny vadiko either means my husband or my wife, hence my spouse.
Ny is a generic article that gives no indication on number or gender.

Adjectives reduplication

By repeating an adjective, you can create a weaker one:

  • mavo (yellow), mavomavo (kind of yellow)
  • tsara (good), tsaratsara (okay, almost good)

There are two different us

The pronoun we can be expressed in an inclusive form (isika), or in an exclusive form (izahay). The inclusive form includes the person we are talking to (mianatra isika, we learn: you included), while the exclusive form keep her away (mianatra izahay, we learn, not you).

Possessives are marked by suffixes

The possessive suffixes are: -(k)o (my), -(n)ao (your), -ny (his, her), -(n)ay (our (exclusive)), -(n)tsika (our (inclusive)), -(n)areo (your), and -(n)dreo (their).
Trano (a house) can become tranonao (your house) or tranony (his/her house).

The place deixis has seven degrees

Tea plantation

The place (or space) deixis expresses the spatial location. In English, words like here and there, or this and that belong to that category. If in English, there are mostly two degrees of distance, Malagasy differentiates between seven levels of proximity (from the closest to the furthest) and two levels of visibility (visible or not), for adverbs and pronouns. To get an idea of the complexity of the Malagasy deictics system, you can think of the English word yonder, which expresses a distant object within sight.

For the visible things, from the closest to the furthest, the adverbs (like here/there) are: etỳ, èto, èo, ètsy, èny, eròa, erỳ. The same list for the pronouns (like this/that and these/those) is: itỳ, ìto, ìo, ìtsy, ìny, iròa (rarely used), irỳ.
The system of prefixes and suffixes makes it somewhat easier to remember: a- and e- respectively for invisible and visible adverbs, iza-, i- and ire- for visible, invisible and visible (plural) pronouns.


If the Malagasy numbers follow a decimal system, compound numbers are formed by stating the unit before the ten (like in German): valo amby fitopolo (eight the-rest-of seventy) [78], roa amby telopolo amby zato (two the-rest-of thirty the-rest-of one hundred) [132].
The first ten numbers are: iray [1], roa [2], telo [3], efatra [4], dimy [5], enina [6], fito [7], valo [8], sivy [9], and folo [10].

The circumstancial voice

Malagasy has a third voice besides the active and passive ones: the circumstancial voice that emphasizes the place, time or circumstances of the action.
Any Fianarantsoa no ividianako trano (It is in Fianarantsoa, ​where I am buying a house.)

Words borrowings

When learning a new language, the borrowings are often a good way to remember vocabulary from other languages. If Malagasy shares most of its basic vocabulary with the Ma’anyan language of Borneo, it also includes loanwords from Arabic and Bantu languages, and to some extent from English and French.

Zandarimaria / Gendarmerie

Here are some words borrowed from English: bitro (from rabbit), boky (from book), gisa (from geese), sekoly (from school).

The names of the months directly come from English too: janoary, febroary, martsa, aprily, mey, jona, jolay, aogositra, septembra, oktobra, novambra, and desembra.

Here are some words borrowed from French: latabatra (from la table, the table), divay (from du vin, some wine), dibera (from du beurre, some butter), soavaly (from cheval, horse).

Salama (hello) comes from the Arabic salāma but through the Swahili salama.

The days of the week directly come from Arabic:

  • alatsinainy (Monday), from لاثنين (Al-Ithnayn)
  • talata (Tuesday), from الثلاثاء (Al-Thoulatha)
  • alarobia (Wednesday), from الأربعاء (Al-Arbai’a)
  • alakamisy (Thursday), from الخميس (Al-Khamis)
  • zoma (Friday), from الجمعة (Al-Joma’a)
  • sabotsy (Saturday), from السبت (Al-Sabt)
  • alahady (Sunday), from الأحد (Al-Ahad)

Last words

This is only a first approach, a few words to give you the taste of going further and learn this mysterious Malagasy language. I hope your interest has now been kindled with these words, and that you now want to know more about Malagasy.

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