Malagasy: Mangina!

Part of me wonders if I should have skipped Malagasy. I had made a note in my first post that I would bypass countries that were geographically isolated; Madagascar also uses French as an official language, which breaks another rule.

So why did I choose to look at Madagascar? Beats me. But I have always been intrigued by this mysterious African island and maybe I just wanted to learn more about its existence.

Madagascar is one of the few African countries that had a language that I wanted to review. The irony is that Malagasy is actually more related to the Austronesian languages in Polynesia and the Pacific. Malagasy vocabulary is basically 90 percent of the Ma’anyan language, which is spoken in Borneo. Because of this, Austroneasians were more than likely the first visitors to the island in the early first century.

Throughout the millennium, Madagascar would be ruled be chiefdoms or really powerful tribes. Along with that, Bantu (East African) settlers would arrive to the nation with Arabs, who introduced Islam to the island. The influence of Islam could be credited as the starting point for Madagascar’s written history, which began in the 600s. Much later, the Portuguese arrived there (or got lost, as they were searching for India), followed by the French, who established trading posts and would later leave their mark on the island. Madagascar was also frequented by pirates during the time.

The 1800s saw the rise of the powerful Merina kingdom, as rulers were able to form a treaty with the British (who were at this point a world power), who assisted them militarily and financially. Merina culture (which is Polynesian in roots) spread all over the island and wiped out any lingering Arab influence, along with the Arab slave trade. The British slave trade had also ended.

A pivotal point in the Malagasy language came in 1835, when the Bible was printed in Malagasy by Welsh missionaries. Malagasy had went from using a script based on Arabic to a Romanized alphabet like English. Credit should also go to Etienne de Flacourt, a local governor who put together a dictionary 200 years before.

About 50 years later, Madagascar entered the Franco-Hova war, which pitted the Merina monarchy against the French. France won, eventually annexing Madagascar (and obtaining it from the British). The royal family was banished to Algeria and the country was in the hands of French rule. After a bitter uprising in 1947 (in which 90,000 died), France eventually loosened its reigns on the island and later Madagascar gained full independence in 1960 like nearby African nations.

Malagasy is spoken by roughly 20 million people. It uses a VOS (verb, subject, object) word order that makes it unique among most languages in the world, which use an SVO or SOV order.


Malagasy has 21 of English’s 26 letters. C, Q, U, W and X don’t exist. There are exceptions, of course:

A a – a as in father when stressed, and “ugh” sound when unstressed
E e – a mix of e as in bet and a as in gate
I i – i as in machine (never used in final syllables or in one syllable words)
O o – oo as in moo

H h – muted most of the time; very rarely aspirated
R r – trilled (rolled)
S s – sounds s in sing, except when followed by an unstressed i and sounds like sh in ship

FIRST IMPRESSIONS: Malagasy sort of reminds me of Hawaiian. It doesn’t sound too terribly complex to understand, just kind of flowing. Words can either be stressed or unstressed (and most are generally stressed on the second to last syllable), but I’m not sure how much this will affect understanding. There also doesn’t seem to be as many resources about Malagasy either (I had trouble finding the home page of the country!). We’ll see if I should have skipped it …

This cute little video was one of the few I could find of the language (from Tranofalafa):

2 thoughts on “Malagasy: Mangina!

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