Malagasy is the language of Madagascar. Spoken by around 18 million people, Malagasy is also the name of the inhabitants of Madagascar.
Malagasy is spoken throughout the country -- something which comes as somewhat of a mystery given the size and ethnic diversity of the island. As Peter Tyson writes in The Eighth Continent, "...that an island as large as Madagascar, with diverse ecosystems cut off from one another by forests, deserts, mountains, or rivers, should have but one language baffles linguists. Madagascar's neighbor, Africa, has 1500 languages. The island of New Guinea, only a third large than Madagascar, has 700 languages. Why does Madagascar have only one?"
Malagasy only recently became a written language. Until Welsh missionaries transcribed the language in the 1820s, the Malagasy had to rely on oral history to mark past events. However, even with the development of a written form, written Malagasy hardly resembles spoken Malagasy -- the last syllable is typically dropped while unstressed syllables in the middle of words often disappear .
The Malagasy alphabet has 21 letters found in the English alphabet. Malagasy lacks C, Q, U, W, and X. Thus "Madagascar" is not a Malagasy word -- as Tyson points out -- since Malagasy lacks "c" and all words end in a vowel. The Malagasy word for their country is "Madagasikara," a name in itself that is somewhat unwarranted. Tyson explains that Marco Polo, the European explorer who never actually saw the island but named it, probably confused the island with the Somali town Mogadishu and corrupted the name as "Madagascar."
Malagasy woman with face paint