There was an interesting discussion a couple of weeks ago on the An-lang (Austronesian languages) listserv about how those languages distinguish gender. Here’s my heavily copyedited rendition of the posting by Waruno Mahdi, whose breadth and depth of knowledge about Malay is hard to match.
The situation in Malay is similar to that described by Paz Naylor for Tagalog/Cebuano/Hiligaynon in the Philippines. The language did not originally have gender-specific terms, other than for ‘man’, ‘woman’, ‘mother’, ‘father’, ‘aunt’, ‘uncle’, ‘elder brother’, perhaps also ‘elder sister’. There are also gender-specific honorific titles in Malay folklore, where hang appears before a man’s name and dang before a woman’s name.
Terms for animals can be made gender-specific by adding the attribute jantan ‘male’ or betina ‘female’ behind the gender-neutral noun. That usage is already widespread in the earliest (16th-century) manuscripts, and does not appear to reflect late external influence.
The corresponding pattern for distinguishing male and female human terms is to add lelaki ‘man’ or perempuan ‘woman’ after the head noun. This usage is likewise attested in early manuscripts, but not as frequently as the usage for animals. The most frequent headword with those attributes was anak ‘child’, and the resulting construction distinguished ‘boy/son’ and ‘girl/daughter’.
Another such headword in earliest sources was raja ‘king’, a loanword from Sanskrit. In the Sejarah Melayu (Malay Annals) one can find raja perempuan used to mean ‘female king, reigning queen’ (not simply ‘king’s wife’).
Malay borrowings from Sanskrit go back to the first millennium A.D., but the rise of word pairs marked specifically for gender in Malay did not occur until fairly recently. The term for ‘madam, milady’ in the earliest Malay manuscripts was tuan putri (‘master, sir, milord’ + Sanskrit loanword for ‘daughter’). The male equivalent of putri in Sanskrit is putra ‘son’, but the two words were used differently in Malay. Putra ‘son’ was fully incorporated into the language, giving rise to derived forms such as berputrakan ‘to have as son’, whereas the usage of putri was restricted almost exclusively to the expression tuan putri attached to the proper names of noble women. In a quick search of Ian Proudfoot’s MCP, I only came across a single deviant example in Hikayat Bayan Budiman, in which putri is used in both singular and plural to mean ‘princess’.
The rise of morphologically distinguished gender pairs dates to the 1930s in Indonesian Malay, where saudara ‘sibling’ had come to be used as term of address between indigenous Indonesians (somewhat like the word citoyen during the French Revolution). Political gender-correctness then demanded a term for female compatriots (equivalent to citoyenne), so the Sanskrit pattern of putra ‘son, prince’ vs. putri ‘daughter, princess’ (in their modern meanings) was extended to create saudari as the female counterpart to saudara. This pattern was later extended to create many more gender pairs, such as mahasiswa vs. mahasiswi for male vs. female students.
In response, David Gil notes Malay usage of mister (< English) to mean ‘white person’, whether male, female, singular, or plural. Whereupon Mahdi observes that similar antecedents, sinyor (< Portuguese senhor) and menir (from Dutch mijnheer), applied only to white males. A funny example he cites is a brand of Javanese herbal medicine (jamu) from the early 20th century known as jamu cap Nyonya-Meneer (lit. ‘missus-&-mister brand herbal-medicine’), with a picture of a Dutch couple on the package.