Q&A: Malay Tenses – How Do They Work?

Q&A: Malay Tenses – How Do They Work?

Asked by ZIA Network in Lesson 62: Learn a Malay Song (Kau Ilhamku)



QUESTION (edited for clarity and brevity)

I’m confused about this part of Malay language. Example:

1) I go to school everyday
2) I’m going to school today
3) I was going to school last week
4) I will go to school next week

Everything appears the same in present, past, and past perfect.

They don’t look like English tenses. How should I identify sentences in present, present continuous and past continuous in Malay language?





I’ll give you the Malay translation and the direct English translation.


1) I go to school everyday
Saya pergi sekolah hari-hari / setiap hari
I go school daily / every day


2) I’m going to school today
Saya pergi sekolah hari ni
I go school today


3) I was going to school last week
Saya pergi sekolah minggu lepas
I go school last week


4) I will go to school next week
Saya akan pergi sekolah minggu depan
I will go school next week


Malay is a language firmly grounded in the present. Our verbs don’t really transform to indicate if it’s in the past or present or future as we don’t have the Malay equivalent of ‘am/is/was/were’.

While we DO have suffixes and prefixes to transform the verbs to indicate continuity (e.g. do – buat | doing – membuat), they are employed in the realm of formal Malay which I do not teach because it’s unnecessarily confusing and not employed in every day Malay conversations anyway.

If you want an indication of what is in the past, present or future, we use words like ‘sudah, akan, belum, sedang/tengah’ which you can check out in my Lesson 40: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u6QHf0rz3UI

And another point I’d like to highlight, because the Malay language is simple in its delivery, there tends to be more back and forth Q&A between two people because it is not specific like in English.


So, let’s take Example Number 2: I’m going to school today.

Imagine this conversation is taking place between two friends over the phone.

Friend 1: Hey are you free today?

Friend 2: I’m going to school today.

Immediately, Friend 1 knows that Friend 2 is GOING to school, but is not there yet.


But in Malay, it is less specific, like this:


Friend 1: Hei, free tak hari ni?
Hey, free or not today?


Friend 2: Saya pergi sekolah hari ni
I go to school today


Friend 1: Dah pergi ke belum?
Have you gone or you haven’t?


Friend 2: Dah pergi
I have gone


Friend 1: Ada lagi ke kat situ?
Are you still there?


Friend 2: Ada lagi. Pukul sepuluh baru free.
Still here. At ten only will I be free.


So in Malay, saying ‘I go to school today’ can mean 3 things :

1) I am GOING to school today
2) I AM at school right now
3) I WENT to school today but I’m no longer there

So follow up questions are normal because the lack of tenses makes the sentence not at all specific. Hope this clears some things up.



P/S: A friend of mine commented that the dialogue above makes it sound like Malay people are simpletons :p Which we are not!! It’s just an extreme example of how the language leaves a lot of room for ambiguity. One of the reasons why I think we do this is the importance we place on being casual. Giving too much specific information might sound like you’re reporting an event or crafting an essay which friends might call you out on, and it makes you sound uptight and awkward.

The upside to all this ambiguity is that you can control exactly the amount of information you disclose to other people. In English, sometimes people accidentally give away information on timing because they have to use the correct words and tenses, but in Malay there’s no such thing.

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