Historians suggest Bahasa Malay is a member of the Austronesian language family. The section is part of a phylum of the Austronesian languages which, together with the Tibet-China language family, originated from Yunnan.
Historically, the first family of the Austronesian people was the “Proto-Malays” or Ancient Malays who moved to the Archipelago of Malayasia in a long series of migrations around the year 2500 to 1500 BC. The Proto-Malays lived by the sea and confluences of rivers. They are the ancestors of the Malays in modern Malaysia and Indonesia.
The second family of the Austronesian group was the “Deutero-Malays”. The Deutero-Malays pushed the native Proto-Malay groups inland in a second wave of migration during the Iron Age around 300 BC. Since the Strait of Malacca was the sea route, the Malay language spread via seafarers throughout the Indonesian islands and other regions. The language of the Austronesians eventually developed into the form referred to as Old Malay.
Scholars have divided the origin of the Malay language and its development into three phases, namely Old Malay, Classical Malay and Modern Bahasa Malay. Old Malay was influenced by Indian cultures and religions as well as Sanskrit and the Tamil language system. The Malay language became the lingua franca of the Malacca Sultanate under the Srivijaya regime between 1402 and 1511 BC and it was spoken in West Malaysia, Riau Archipelago and Sumatera.
The language continued to develop into Classical Malay, which was a diverse group of dialects, reflecting the varied origins of the Malay kingdoms.
As Islamic literature and culture gradually took a foothold in the region, the Malay language was greatly developed with Arabic and Persian vocabulary which influenced and developed the Malay language. As a result, the nature of the language changed in terms of vocabulary and sentence structures, with significant linguistic influences from Arabic, Sanskrit and Tamil which subsequently led to the development of Classical Malay.
Then, the era of Modern Malay started in the 19th century with the development of commerce and Malay international diplomacy. As Malacca emerged as a bustling international trading port, it became a Centre for Islamic learning and encouragement of the further development of the Malay language and through literature and arts formed the modern Malay language we are using. This religious expansion, colonization and international trade, has influenced the Malay language over the past millennia and continues to do so today.