Dahl (1951, 1977) showed that Malagasy, the Austronesian language spoken as a number of dialects by almost all inhabitants of Madagascar, belongs to the Southeast Barito subgroup, the other members of which (Maanyan, Samihim, Dusun Malang, Dusun Witu, Dusun Deyah and Paku) are spoken in the southeastern part of Borneo. Dahl observed that Malagasy has a relatively small number of Sanskrit loanwords in comparison to the large numbers in some Indonesian languages. According to him this indicated that the East Barito migrants to Madagascar must have left their homeland only just after Indian influence had begun to affect the Indonesian languages and cultures. Considering the fact that Indian linguistic influence in Indonesia can be traced to a date as far back as the fifth century AD, Dahl concluded that the migration must have taken place at this time or slightly after. He does not explicitly consider the possibility of influence from other Austronesian languages.
The first extensive studies of such influence (Adelaar 1989, 1991a and in press) show that there are many Malay loanwords in Malagasy, and that there are also a number of loanwords from Javanese. Malay and Javanese were also the vehicular languages for the Sanskrit vocabulary in Malagasy. Thus, none of the Sanskrit loanwords support the assumption of direct Indian influence on the Malagasy language. This has an important consequence for Dahl’s date of the migration to Madagascar: as all Sanskrit influence in Malagasy was channelled through Malay and Javanese, we should postdate the migration to the first Malay and Javanese influence on Malagasy, rather than to the first Indian influence in Indonesia. It is as yet not possible to date the first Malay and Javanese influence on Malagasy, although it is likely that it happened at least two centuries later than the fifth century AD. The borrowed material also gives us information on the nature of the influence of Malays and Javanese on the migrating East Barito speakers, influence that must have begun some time before the migration, and that must have lasted until a considerable time afterwards.
Generally speaking, the Malay and Javanese loanwords belong to all sorts of semantic domains. But Malay loanwords are particularly well represented in the domain of maritime life and navigation, as can be seen in the following examples:
trozona ‘whale’ < Malay duyu ŋ ‘sea cow’
horita ‘octopus’ < Malay gurita ‘id.’
fano ‘turtle’ < Malay pəɲu ‘id.’
hara ‘mother-of-pearl’ < Malay karah ‘patchy in colouring (of tortoise-shell)’
fanohara (dialectal) ‘turtle with a particular kind of shell’ < Malay pəɲu karah ‘tortoise-shell turtle, Chelonia imbricata’
vontana (dialectal) ‘kind of fish’ < Malay ikan buntal ‘box-fish, globe-fish or sea-porcupine’
tona ‘k.o. large nocturnal snake; enormous eel’ < Malay tuna ‘name of a mud-snake or eel with yellowish body’
lamboara ‘a species of fish’ < Malay ləmbuara, Old Javanese ləmbwara, ləmbora ‘a giant fish (possibly a whale)’
vidy (dialectal) ‘k.o. small fish’ < Malay ikan bilis ‘anchovy, Makassar redfish; small fish, esp. Stolephorus spp.’
hoala (dialectal) ‘bay, inlet’ < Malay kuala ‘river mouth’
rivotra ‘wind, storm’ < Malay (aŋ in) ribut ‘stormwind’
tanjona ‘cape, promontory’ < Malay taəjuŋ ‘id.’
an/drefana ‘West’ < Malay dəpan ‘(in) front’
valaha (dialectal) ‘East’ < Malay bəlakaŋ ‘back; space behind’
a/varatra ‘North’ < Malay barat ‘West’
sagary ‘a northeast wind’ < Malay or Javanese səgara ‘sea’ (< Sanskrit)
varatraza (dialectal) ‘south wind’ < Malay barat daya ‘Southwest’
tsimilotru (dialectal) ‘north wind’ < Malay timur laut ‘Northeast’
harana ‘coral-reef, coral-rock’ < Malay kara ŋ ‘id.’
sambo ‘boat, vessel’ < Old Malay sāmvaw ‘vessel’ (originally from Khmer)
nosy ‘island’ < Javanese nusa (with variant forms nusya, nuswa, nu ŋsa) ‘id.’
Terms like varatraza and tsimilotru must have been borrowed from a form of Sumatran Malay, since the Malay directional terms barat daya and timur laut were originally South Sumatran developments.
Loanwords are also often found in the domain of plant names, animal names and in metallurgic terminology. Compare the following terms which are related to metallurgy:
harafesina ‘rust’ < Malay karat bəsi ‘id.’
firaka ‘tin, lead’ < Malay perak ‘silver’
landaizana ‘anvil’ < Malay landasan ‘id.’
Higher numerals and calendrical terms are originally Malay and/or Javanese adaptations of Sanskrit terms. Sanskrit loanwords came into Malagasy via Malay or Javanese, as their shape or meaning often betray. Compare the following instances:
sisa ‘remainder, rest’ < Malay sisa ‘id.’ < Sanskrit çe ṣa ‘id.’
asotry (dialectal) ‘Winter’ < (Old) Javanese asuji ‘September-October’ < Sanskrit a çvayuja ‘id.’
tantara ‘story, legend’ < Malay tantra (obsolete), Old Javanese tantra ‘id.’ < Sanskrit tantra- ‘chapter of a scientific book, doctrine, theory’
hetsy ‘100,000’ < Malay kəti, Javanese sa-kəṭi ‘id.’ (both obsolete) < Sanskrit koṭi ‘ten million’
That these terms were borrowed via Malay and Javanese is supported by the fact that, of all Sanskrit loanwords in Malagasy (at least 35 in total), there is only one word that is not also found in Malay or Javanese.
A large part of the vocabulary for body-parts in Malagasy was originally Malay or Javanese:
hihy ‘gums’, (dialectically) ‘teeth’ < Malay gigi ‘id.’
voto ‘penis’ < Malay butuh ‘id.’
fify ‘cheek’ < Malay pipi ‘id.’
molotra ‘lip’ < Malay mulut ‘mouth’
voavitsy ‘calf of leg’ < Malay buah bətis ‘id.’
sofina ‘outer ear’ < Malay cupi ŋ ‘lobe (usually earlobe)’
tratra ‘chest’ < Malay dada ‘id.’
haranka (dialectal) ‘chest’ < Malay kəraŋka ‘skeleton’
valahana ‘loins’ < Malay bəlakaŋ ‘back; space behind’
lamosina, (dialectically) lambosy ‘back’ < Old Javanese lamu ŋsir ‘back; piece (of meat) from the back’ (cf. also Minangkabau Malay lambosi ə ‘shoulder of a cow’)
The Malagasy have a pre-colonial writing system which is an adapted form of the Arabic script. The writing system is called Sorabe, which derives from soratra ‘writing’ and be ‘big’. The name Sorabe and some of the adaptations in its system indicate that the concept of writing, and possibly also the actual writing system of the Malagasy, were introduced by Southeast Asians, and probably Javanese. One rather idiosyncratic adaptation is also found in Pegon, the Javanese version of the Arabic script. Sorabe uses Arabic dāl and ta respectively, both with a subscript dot, for d and t: these are the same symbols as used in Pegon for the Javanese retroflex ḍ and ṭ respectively. Javanese speakers make a contrast between a dental series d and t and a retroflex series ḍ and ṭ, and they perceive the alveolar consonants from other languages as retroflex consonants. Their perception of alveolars in foreign languages as retroflexes may have induced them to interpret Malagasy d and t as retroflexes, and to write these retroflexes as dal and ta but with a subscript dot, as in the Pegon script. This practice was taken over by the Malagasy, if it can be assumed that they learnt the Arabic script from the Javanese.
If they did, this probably happened during continued contacts after the period of migration. There is some lexical evidence that the Malagasy were still in contact with Malays or Javanese after the latter came under the influence of Islam. Compare the Antaimoro Malagasy sombidy ‘to slaughter’. This term derives from Malay səmbəleh or səmbəlih ‘slaughter according to Muslim ritual’, which in turn derives from Arabic b’ismi’llahi [bεsmεlæh] ‘in the Name of God’, an utterance made at slaughtering an animal according to Muslim law.
An important question now is how to interpret the linguistic data, and how to integrate them in a theory which also takes into account archaeological, historical and anthropological findings. The problem is that the linguistic data do not seem to correlate with data from these other disciplines, and as a consequence some non-linguists are reluctant to accept the linguistic evidence. Quite apart from the fact that there is considerable regional diversity in the cultures of Madagascar themselves, many manifestations of Malagasy spiritual and material culture cannot unequivocally be linked up with the spiritual and material culture of the Dayaks of the Southeast Barito area. Some of the Malagasy are wet rice cultivators, while Dayaks are as a rule dry rice cultivators. Some Malagasy use outrigger canoes, whereas Southeast Barito Dayaks never do. The Malagasy migration to East Africa presupposes navigational skills which are found with some Indonesian peoples but which can hardly be attributed to Dayaks, who, as we know them today, are as a rule forest dwellers. Some of the Malagasy musical instruments are allegedly very similar to musical instruments found in Sulawesi, and Malagasy funeral cults are reminiscent of the Toraja funeral cults. Certain aspects of administration and statecraft of the Merina are in striking agreement with those of the Indianized Malays and Javanese, and rather unlike what has been described for the Maanyans in the Southeast Barito area. Some see a resemblance between the metallurgic practices of the Malagasy and those of the inhabitants of Nias.
The confusion caused by these data is partly due to the fact that some scholars fail to put the mass of evidence into its right perspective, which can only be done by keeping a rigorous distinction between (a) what is general Austronesian, (b) what is due to Indian influence in Southeast Asia, and (c) what is exclusively found in Madagascar and in one of the other Austronesian societies. Similarities which turn out to be general Austronesian are neither critical for a subgrouping argument nor for a cultural contact argument. In the Malagasy context (and in the context of most other regional Indonesian cultures), similarities which are the result of Indian influence only show us, in an indirect way, the extent of influence which the Indianized Malays and Javanese exerted on the Malagasy. What is relevant for a search into the Southeast Asian origins of the Malagasy people is a large concentration of similarities found in Madagascar and in one other Austronesian society in particular. Then again, these similarities are only relevant insofar as they do not turn out to be Proto-Austronesian retentions which were lost everywhere else in the Austronesian world. These similarities may point to a common inheritance or to cultural contact. Apart from (a), (b) and (c), other similarities due to chance, or due to interethnic contacts in Indonesia before the Malagasy migration, may also have to be distinguished.
But even with a rigorous distinction between (a), (b) and (c), we are still left with a number of seemingly contradictory factors. For instance, what brought some forest dwelling Dayaks to make one of the most spectacular migrations in history, and why do the Malagasy cultural data not support the linguistic evidence? These factors can be accounted for if we adopt the hypothesis that the Southeast Barito migrants did not undertake the crossing of the Indian Ocean themselves in order to colonize Madagascar, but that they were brought there as subordinates (slaves, ship crew, labourers) by Malays. Malays were seafarers, and they sailed the maritime routes all over Southeast Asia and along the Indian Ocean coast. They also took slaves from other parts of Southeast Asia with them, and it is quite likely that they took subordinates along on their trips to the Indian Ocean. Some of these subordinates may have been South Barito speakers.
If some of these subordinates were left behind in Madagascar, and if the Southeast Barito speakers among them formed a majority or a nuclear group (the first group to be left behind and to form a society), their language would have constituted the core element of what later became Malagasy. In this way their language may also have absorbed elements of languages of other subordinated Southeast Asians. A certain amount of cultural mixture may have taken place through contact with subordinates from elsewhere in Indonesia, although the language of the resulting mixed community remained predominantly Southeast Barito. The members of this community would initially have lived in a state of diglossia with their leaders, who spoke Malay (and Javanese?). At some point in time, Malay was superseded by Malagasy, but its earlier prestigious position is still witnessed by the great impact it had on the Malagasy lexicon. Compare, for instance, the Malay and Javanese influence on terms for body-parts, a semantic domain which is susceptible to reflexification with prestige vocabulary. In some cases these two languages also affected the morphology of Malagasy.
A development as outlined above is not unlike the history of English after the Norman invasion, where French became the language of prestige for some time and heavily affected the English lexicon, and in some cases even morphology, before it fell into disuse. In the case of English, however, this development coincided with a far-reaching simplification of the original Anglo-Saxon grammar, whereas Malagasy morphology is very conservative. It probably has the same measure of complexity as Proto-Southeast Barito had originally, a complexity which was lost in the other Southeast Barito languages.