Population and languages

madagascar population

We say that "The man who wants to learn must read first, and then travel to rectify what he has learned". So, if your wish is to discover Madagascar and you want to see beyond the exotic side of the country and the lemurs, let's discover together one of the most important riches of the island: the population and the language of Madagascar.

The population: figures that do not lie

With an annual growth rate of about 3%, Madagascar now has 25.64 million inhabitants. 83% of them live in rural areas and the remaining 17% live in urban areas. Its population is characterized by its extreme youth with 64% under 25 years and 47% under 15 years. A figure that seems bewildering in a context where nearly 80% of Malagasy live on less than $ 1 a day and about 64% who are illiterate.

Despite these figures that show us that the island is among the poorest in the world, you should know that this population is part of the beauty of the Big Island. The most important thing to remember is that the Malagasy population consists of 18 major ethnic groups, each with their own culture, but united in one common language: Malagasy. In all this nuance is a warm and shy people at the same time, endearing and multicultural, a mix of Asia and Africa. Malagasy cosmopolitanism offers a unique cultural wealth to the world.

An intriguing origin, an intriguing people

The history of the Malagasy origins remains to this day an enigma. The eternal debate between African and Asian frustrates both nationals, scientists and tourists alike. Against all logic, a consensus suggests that the first settlers in Madagascar come from the Austronesian countries, not from its neighbors in the Mozambique Channel, only 400 km away. An existential question that explains the singularity of the island's population. The mystery of the Malagasy origin intensifies because if the first settlers were Asians, the recent scientific studies on the question established that the Malagasy are 66% genetically African. Its insular character explains the singularity of this identity duality, becoming an identity in its own right.

An identity for a mixed people and a mixed culture

To put it simply, the strongest influences are for example the Indonesian features of the highlands, around the capital towards Fianarantsoa. Also, the African type that is generally observed on the coast, further north towards Diego and its surroundings and south from Ranohira to Tulear and its surroundings, especially among the Bara or Makoa ethnic groups. From there, you will better understand during your trip the Afro-Asian duality of the Malagasy when you discover the kilometers of rice fields, ancestor worship, totemism, intriguing mixture of slanted eyes and tanned skin of all variations beige, brown to black, the small size of the inhabitants of the highlands and the slender silhouettes on the coasts. The rest of the population is composed of miscegenation between the two Afro-Asian traits, with a hint of mixing other races.

Indeed, over time, immigrants from the countries of the Indian Ocean and Arabia also composed the miscegenation of Malagasy. Today, we can also count the Chinese, Indo-Pakistani, Comorian and French minorities. Their influence is very much reflected in the restoration among others. In addition to Malagasy dishes made from rice, the menus are often composed of salads, foie gras or cooking with French wine, pizza and Italian pasta, coconut sauce bases or spicy Comoran influence and Indian, as well as sauteed vegetables, soup, soy sauce and Chinese pork. These are also present in the east and south-east of the island, on the side of Mananjary or Tamatave, where you will find it difficult to differentiate them from some Malagasy, as they are alike.

Nevertheless, if this cocktail of race explains the cosmopolitanism and the cultural richness of the island, the population identifies itself by a strong cultural uniformity: to be Malagasy.


The biggest witness to the homogeneity of the Malagasy people is the official language of the island called "Malagasy". Of Austronesian origin, it is derived from the Central Highland dialect, spoken throughout the island, despite dialects that vary by region. The Malagasy people understand each other no matter in what part of the island they are. The language that comes closest to it is Maanjan, spoken in South Borneo. Like its speakers, Malagasy has been mixed over time by influences of Swahili and Arabic at the very beginning, then different Anglicisms and Gallicism to date. The word "Latabatra" is, for example, derived from the French "table" and the days of the week in Malagasy are directly derived from Arabic.

The Malagasy language is also recognized for its wisdom and complexity through word games, proverbs, city or people names, etc. It is particularly an art when it takes the form of Kabary, a metaphorical and rhythmic speech performed traditionally during important ceremonies. His translations are often very poetic and tedious. As a result, they are interpreted both literally and figuratively. Thus, the capital Antananarivo translates for example by "The city of the miles", symbol of force meaning originally "village fortified by a thousand soldiers". The naming of the ethnic groups each has a particular meaning. Examples include Antaifasy or "people of sand", Antandroy or "people of thorns", Betsimisaraka or "the many inseparable". Appellations symbolizing the particularity of the ethnic group, or a description of their way of life and location.

The length and complexity of Malagasy names is world famous. They retrace the secrets and the history of the families or relate a particular destiny that one wishes to its owner. As proof, Madagascar holds the world record for the longest name of head of state in history, with a total of 44 characters. If you find the gentleman's full name, you still have to pronounce it. Indeed, we must know that the Malagasy language has some specificities: the "o" is pronounced "or" as in "cabbage"; the letters "tr" and "dr" are pronounced as in English "trump" and "dream"; the "r" is rolled as in Italian, and many other rules specific to its linguistic ensemble. In short, if you have the courage, have fun asking and pronounce the full name of your meetings during your stay and ask them the meaning. Otherwise, you can always learn some common Malagasy words, you will gain a smile from the locals and warm their hearts.

In short, both the population and the Malagasy language are complex. But this mix is precisely the greatest cultural wealth of the island. Although we have overflown the specifics of the Malagasy population, everything is still to discover. Besides the meaning of their name, each of the 18 Malagasy ethnic groups has their own culture, history and tradition that you will have the opportunity to discover at each stage of your journey. With globalization and the development of technology, traditions and mentality are changing and you will make your own opinion of today's Malagasy society. This brings us back to the quote quoted at the very beginning of this article. It is taken from the memory of Giacomo Casanova. Forget his libertine side and retain his adventurer side. Do not believe what you read or hear about, check for yourself and experience the legendary Malagasy hospitality. Discover his people and tell what you have learned. And on that, have a good time on the Red Island.

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