• Spencer Low

Malay words of Portuguese origin

Malay was the lingua franca of Southeast Asia, and after the Portuguese took control of the trading port of Malacca in 1511, many words entered the Malay language.


When I was living in Brazil and learning Portuguese, I came across the word leilão (auction). For some reason, it reminded me of a Malay word, lelong, the meaning of which I'd forgotten. When I next called my mother I remembered to ask, and was told it meant – auction. I thought the words sounded too similar for this to be a pure coincidence, and sure enough, some etymological research revealed that the word lelong did indeed come from the Portuguese. Most people think that the Malay word for school, sekolah, is from the English "school", but in fact it comes from the Portuguese escola.


Here's a selection of common Malay words of Portuguese origin:


Portuguese Malacca by Ferdinand Magellan, ca. 1509-1512

  • almari: cupboard, from armário

  • baldi: bucket, from balde

  • bangku: bench, from banco

  • beranda: veranda, from varanda

  • bendera: flag, from bandeira

  • bomba: fire brigade, from bomba meaning pump, whence the Portuguese bombeiro for fireman

  • boneka: doll, from boneca

  • bola: ball, from the identically spelled bola

  • bolu: sponge cake, from bolo (pronounced 'bolu')

  • garpu: fork, from garfo

  • gereja: church, from igreja

  • jendela: window, from janela

  • kebaya: traditional Malay/Peranakan/Indonesian blouse-dress, from cabaia, itself from the Arabic qabāiâ

  • keju: cheese, from queijo

  • kemeja: (western-style) shirt from camisa

  • kereta: car, carriage, from carreta

  • lelong: auction, from leilão

  • limau: lemon, orange, from limão

  • martil: hammer, from martelo

  • mentega: butter, from manteiga

  • meja: table, from mesa

  • minggu: week or Sunday, from domingo

  • pesta: party, festival, from festa

  • pita: tape, ribbon, from fita

  • roda: wheel, from the identically spelled roda

  • sekolah: school, from escola

  • sepatu: shoe, from sapato

  • tambur: drum, from tambor

  • tangki: tank, from tanque (originally as in receptacle for liquids)

  • tempo: tempo, time, break, interruption, from tempo

  • terigo: wheat, from trigo

  • tuala: towel, from toalha

  • tukar: exchange, from trocar

  • nanas: pineapple, from ananás


Reader "nadiaarazak" kindly alerted me on October 20, 2021 that UNESCO had published a research paper on... Portuguese Words in the Malay Language! This was part of the "International Seminar on Silk Roads: Roads of Dialogue" held in January 1991 in Malacca: https://en.unesco.org/silkroad/sites/default/files/knowledge-bank-article/portuguese_words_in_the_malay_language.pdf


This paper also provided a list of words that the Portuguese absorbed from the Malay. With some corrections and additional details, here they are:

  • gongo: gong, from the Malay gongo (same etymology in English!)

  • jambo: rose apple, from the Malay jambu

  • malaio: Malay, from the Malay melayu

  • rota: rattan, from the Malay rotang

  • sagu: sago, from the Malay sagu


If others have more details on the etymological influences of Malay and Portuguese on each other, please let me know!


2,633 views1 comment

Recent Posts

See All