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Malays are also linguistically related to the Polynesian and Micronesian groups of the mid-Pacific, as members of the wide ranging Austronesian family of languages. Evidence also suggests that Polynesians and Micronesians may be descended, at least in part, from seafaring ancestors that originated in and around the Malay racial stock stronghold. Malay peoples have black hair and are typically of darker skin complexions, usually dark brown.
Origin of the word Malay
The word "Malay" was adopted into English via the Dutch word "Malayo", which ultimately originates from the Malay word "Melayu".
According to one popular theory, the native name Melayu means “migrating” or “fleeing”, which might refer to the high mobility of these people across the region.
The term is used as a form of ethnic self-identification. It is both generic and specific.
Ethnic Group vs. Cultural Sphere
The term Malay can refer to the ethnic group who live in the Malay peninsula and east Sumatra as well as the cultural sphere that encompass a large part of the archipelago. The Malay ethnic group is the majority in Malaysia and Brunei and a sizeable minority in Singapore and Indonesia. This people speak various dialects of Malay language. The peninsular dialect is the standard speech among Malays in Malaysia and Singapore. Meanwhile, the Riau dialect of eastern Sumatra is adopted as a national tongue, Bahasa Indonesia, for the whole Indonesian population. The ethnic Malay are overwhelmingly Muslim.
The Malay cultural sphere has something to do with the historic preeminence of the ethnic Malay in the sea trading route. Malay cultural influences filtered out throughout the archipelago, such as the monarchical state, religion (Hinduism/Buddhism in the first millenium AD, Islam in the second millenium), and the Malay language. Malay is the regional lingua franca, and Malay-based pidgins exist in most trading ports in Indonesia (see Malay-based creoles). On the other hand, the Malay presence in the Philippines might be mainly due to migrations in the late first millenium AD.
In this broad sense, the term Malay also include most ethnic groups in the Philippines and Indonesia west of Papua. It is best understood as a cultural, not racial grouping. For example, people of the Maluku and Nusa Tenggara islands up to Timor have darker skin but are more readily described as Malays than the Dayaks of inner Borneo.
Generally, the name "Malay" is used to describe all the numerous related groups including the Acehnese, Minangs, Bataks and Mandailings who live in Sumatra ; Javanese and Sundanese in Java ; Banjars , Ibans, Kadazans and Melanaus in Borneo ; Bugis and Torajans in Sulawesi ; the various dominant ethnic groups in the Philippines such as the Tagalogs, Ilocanos and Ifugao of Luzon island, the Visayans of the central Philippines, the Maguindanao, Tausug and Bajau of Mindanao and the Sulu Archipaelago ; and the people of East Timor (excluding those of older Papuan stock).
Specifically, this name is also the proper name of the subgroup which is native to the eastern part of Sumatra but migrated to the Malay Peninsula and the Riau Archipelago over the past thousand years or so. Sometimes, but very rarely, this subgroup is called "Riau Malays" to distinguish it as a specific group.
Other groups classified as Malays which live outside what is called the Malay archipelago include the Cham who live in Cambodia and Vietnam and the Utsuls who live on the island of Hainan. Descendants of the Malays could be found today in Sri Lanka, South Africa (the "Cape Malays") and Madagascar. In the latter, they are known as the Merina and one of the dominant ethnic groups in that country.
Surinam, on the north-eastern coast of South America, has a large population of ethnic Javanese descendants of fairly recent immigrant workers.
The languages spoken by Malays are classified as members of the Malayo-Polynesian family of languages, which is now known as Austronesian. This large family of languages includes all the native languages spoken by Malays accross the Malay Archipielago, including Bahasa Indonesia, Bahasa Malaysia, all the native languages of the Philippines, Tetum (East Timorese), and the language of the Merina Malay of Madagascar. Also included as far-flung members of this large family of languages on the Polynesian branch are the languages spoken by Polynesians, such as Samoan, Hawaiian and Maori in New Zealand.
In terms of religion, most Malays are Muslims; they form the dominant religious group in Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei. Their conversion to Islam from Hinduism and Theravada Buddhism began in the 1400s. Most Malays in Singapore, Thailand, South Africa, Sri Lanka and Surinam are also Muslims.
Most Malays in the Philippines were also Muslim, though as a result of Spanish colonization spaning just over three centuries most contemporary Filipinos are Christians, primarily Roman Catholics. A majority of Filipinos in the southern island of Mindanao and the Sulu chain - that had resisted Spanish colonial encroachment, and still continue struggle against modern Filipino government assimilation policies - are to this day mostly Muslim.
Like most Malays of the Philippines, those of East Timor are also Christian, though this time as a result of Portuguese colonial rule. These two latter countries together represent the only Christian-majority nations in Asia (excluding the nations of Georgia and Armenia, both demographic extensions of Europe in Southwest Asia).
Hinduism is the dominant religion in the island of Bali. Smaller groups scattered throughout the entire Malay archipelago, who managed to avoided first the spread of Islam then the rise of Christianity through European colonization, practice animism. Buddhism is also present.
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