31 January 2009

Finding Words in a Malay Dictionary

Yesterday (here), I commented on the spelling systems of Malay and English and suggested that, although there are one or two areas where Malay is not quite predictable, its spelling is certainly a lot more straightforward than that of English.

In contrast, one area where English is easier than Malay is finding words in a dictionary. For English words, you just look them up alphabetically ‒ no problem. But for Malay, most dictionaries list all the derivatives of a word together under the root word. This can be very helpful for the learner, for example when kebaikan ('advantage') and memperbaiki ('to improve') are shown together with the root baik ('good'). However, sometimes it is not so straightforward to guess what the root is.

For example, imagine you come across the word menguruskan and want to find out what it means. The trouble is that you cannot tell if the root word is urus ('to manage') or kurus ('thin'), because in both cases, adding the meng- prefix and -kan suffix will give you menguruskan. In fact, in this case there are two distinct homonyms (words with completely different meanings that are pronounced the same): menguruskan can mean 'to manage' when the root is urus; and it can also mean 'to lose weight' when the root is kurus.

Although I can usually find a word now without too much difficulty, sometimes I still get caught out. The other day, I was trying to look up mengesahkan, so I tried esah, kesah and ngesah as the root, with no luck. It was only with the help of my UBD colleague, Adrian Clynes (who knows far more Malay than I will ever learn) that I found the answer: the root is sah ('valid'), and mengesahkan means 'to confirm'.

We might note, however, that such frustrations are mild compared with the problems of finding entries in a Chinese dictionary ‒ now that is a real challenge!

30 January 2009

Malay Spelling

Learners of English (as well as first-language speakers of English) often complain about the vagaries of the English spelling system. Indeed, it is true that it is sometimes not easy to predict the pronunciation of a word ‒ at first sight, banal looks like it should have stress on the first syllable and be pronounced as [ˈbeɪnəl], rather than the standard [bəˈnɑ:l]; and who would expect ballet to have a silent final 't' unless you already know the word?

It is sometimes claimed that Malay has a completely predictable spelling system, so you can tell how a word is pronounced from its spelling. Actually, this is not quite true. I will here outline three exceptions: the pronunciation of 'e'; the pronunciation of 'ai'; and the pronunciation of borrowed words.
  • 'e' may be pronounced as [e] or as [ə]. Thus perang can be pronounced as [perɑŋ] (in which case it means 'brown') or as [pərɑŋ] (meaning 'war'). Sometimes, the first of these is shown with an accent over the 'e': pérang. Unfortunately, this is rarely done.
  • 'ai' may be one syllable or two. Thus in capai ('achieve') the 'ai' is pronounced as a diphthong; but in mulai ('beginning from'), the 'a' and 'i' are pronounced separately, because the 'i' is a suffix added to the root word mula ('begin').
  • borrowed words may be influenced by their original pronunciation. Thus universiti is most often pronounced with [j] (the initial sound in the English word yes) at the start, just as it would be in English; but untuk ('from') does not have [j] at the start, as it is not a borrowed word.
Nevertheless, it is basically true that the Malay spelling system is much more straightforward than that of English, and one empathises with learners who struggle to master English spelling when their own language has fewer problems.

29 January 2009

Trying to Learn Malay

In my blog of 24 January, I included a picture of a road sign in the centre of Bandar Seri Begawan (the capital of Brunei) urging people to prioritise the use of Malay. Another road sign at the same location is this:

Using Arabic-based Jawi script at the top and the Roman alphabet at the bottom, this says: "The Malay Language is the official language of the country."

When there is so much public encouragement for people to use Malay, why is it so hard for an expatriate like me to learn the language? Whenever I try to speak Malay to local people here, they always reply in English, so my opportunities to practise using Malay are virtually zero. It must be one of the hardest places in the world to try and master the national language.

One suggestion is that people reply in English because their English is good, so it is more natural to hold a conversation in English when my Malay is so obviously rather limited. While this is certainly true, in most countries people would be delighted to know that you are making an effort to learn their language, and they would go out of their way to help you even if they are able to speak good English. I went to Labuan recently, and the hotel staff were delighted to try to talk to me in Malay, even though their English was excellent.

So why not in Brunei? One possibility is that, although Standard Malay is the national language, it is rarely spoken outside of formal settings, and people feel uncomfortable using it in ordinary conversations. So maybe I should be trying to learn Brunei Malay instead! Except that there are no materials, so it would not be easy. At least I can get hold of newspapers and listen to TV broadcasts in Standard Malay, and there are one or two textbooks available.

One way or another, it is quite frustrating. But never mind, I will soldier on in my efforts to learn Malay. I believe it is important as a teacher of English to try to master the local language.

28 January 2009

Multiplicity of Meaning

Someone recently told me that, about 20 years ago, cars in Brunei started to install air-conditioners. And at the time it was a big deal to be able to afford a car with an air-conditioner. Then it became common for cars to have a sign on the back saying "No hand signals."

This sign is interesting because it has two very distinct meanings: at the basic level, it is (very helpfully) telling the driver behind you that, because your windows are closed, you are not able to use your hands to signal where you are going; but at a deeper level, it is saying "I am successful, because I can afford a car that has air-conditioning installed."

In reality, everything we say has a multiple range of meanings. Even if I just ask you a simple question like "How are you?", I am conveying a range of things: not only am I asking you how you are, but I am also telling you about my education (by the way I pronounce the words), how friendly I am (by the intonation I use), and a whole host of other things.

One of the basic lessons of pragmatics is that language is very rarely used just to convey simple factual information. It performs a wide range of other functions, and in many cases, these other functions are the real essence of the message.

27 January 2009

More from Bukit Mentiri

Today I showed the "Baru ya macam inda nggalih kita atu" picture from my 25 January blog (here) to my Year 4 students at UBD, and though they are fluent in Brunei Malay, none of them could make any sense of it -- until someone worked it out and read it with the right intonation. Then the others said, "Oh, I get it now!" This neatly underlines the fact that Brunei Malay is a spoken language, and a written representation of it does not seem to work too well.

One more thing of linguistic interest from the Bukit Mentiri forest walk: someone from the Forestry Department has labelled lots of the trees in different local languages. For example, the following tree has been named in Brunei Malay, Tutong, Kedayan, Dusun, and Iban:

I was puzzled by the following sign, which also has 'KM'. So I asked one of the villagers (many of whom are clearly putting lots of effort into maintaining the trail magnificently), and he told me that 'KM' refers to 'Kampung Mentiri' or maybe 'Kadayan Mentiri' -- he wasn't sure which, though maybe there's no difference, as most of the villagers are Kadayan.

It is splendid to see this effort being spent on making a record of words from the heritage languages of Brunei, as some (such as Belait) are almost extinct and others (such as Tutong) are under severe threat of disappearing.

26 January 2009

Languages and Dialects

In yesterday's blog (25 January 2009), I referred to Brunei Malay as a language. Some people would prefer to describe it as a dialect of Malay. We should consider for a moment what is a language and what is a dialect.

From a linguistic point of view, two varieties are different languages if they are mutually incomprehensible. In contrast, if speakers of one variety can basically understand speakers of another, despite some differences in words, pronunciation, and grammar, then we say that the two varieties are two dialects of the same language.

On this basis we would have to describe Dutch and German as two dialects of the same language, as speakers of Dutch and German can, on the whole, understand each other. (Note that Germans refer to their language as Deutsch, so even their name for their language is nearly the same.) However, it is more usual to classify Dutch and German as independent languages. We need, therefore, to consider an alternative definition of dialect and language.

From a sociolinguistic perspective, a dialect does not have its own norms. Instead, it looks to a standard variety for its norms of spelling and grammar. On this basis, Dutch is clearly an independent language, as it is Dutch, not German, that children in the Netherlands learn when they go to school.

We might also consider varieties of Chinese such as Cantonese, Hakka and Hokkien. By the linguistic definition, they are all different languages, as they are mutually incomprehensible. However, from a sociolinguistic point of view, they can be considered dialects of Chinese, as schoolchildren throughout China only learn Mandarin Chinese (Putonghua) in school.

So what about Brunei Malay? Using the linguistic definition, it should be classified as an independent language, as people who try to speak Brunei Malay in places like Kuala Lumpur and Kota Kinabalu will find that they are not understood. But Brunei Malay is never taught in schools, and there are no established standards of spelling or pronunciation, as people in Brunei look to Standard Malay (Bahasa Melayu) for their norms. On this basis, Brunei Malay can be considered a dialect of Malay, not a language in its own right.

Here is a rare sample of Brunei Malay written down. As with the examples from yesterday's blog, it is attached to a tree along the forest trail in Bukit Mentiri:

It means "Be careful when you go down." The only word of Standard Malay is turun ("go down"). Of the other words: bisai means "careful", bah and atu are discourse particles and hard to translate, and kita is the second person pronoun ("you"), even though kita would be "we" in Standard Malay.

25 January 2009

Brunei Malay

Brunei Malay is an informal language, used between friends and among family members, and as such it is mostly spoken and almost never written. The only place I have seen any signs written in Brunei Malay is along the forest walk at Bukit Mentiri, where there are a series of jokey signs attached to the trees. An example is:

The only words here that might be regarded as Standard Malay are macam ("like") and faham ("understand"). It looks like kita is a Standard Malay pronoun, but in fact it means "you" rather than "we" (as it would in Standard Malay).

A rough translation is: "You look like you are not tired; so now do you get it?"

The pronunciation of the word nggalih ("tired") starts with a velar nasal, which we write phonetically as /ŋ/, the sound that occurs at the end of the English word sing. As such, it should really be spelt with 'ng' at the start (as that is how /ŋ/ is represented in Malay). This illustrates that Brunei Malay is a spoken language, and people who try to write it may struggle with the spelling. We might regard nggalih as a spelling error, except that it is not certain what that means in the absence of fixed rules of spelling.

24 January 2009

Language Use in Brunei

The aim of this blog is to comment on linguistic issues here in Brunei. The inspiration for it comes from John Wells's Phonetic Blog and also Language Log, both of which are excellent. While I cannot hope to compete with them, there are plenty of interesting aspects of language usage in Brunei that are worth discussing. I aim to talk about them in a dispassionate way: observing the way language is used, celebrating diversity and creativity, but not making critical or judgmental statements. This is the role of linguists: to describe, not to prescribe.

The national language of Brunei is Standard Malay (Bah
asa Melayu). While many countries promote a national language, few have a road sign in the middle of the capital prominently encouraging its usage:

(This sign says 'Prioritise the Malay Language', using two different scripts: above is the Arabic-based Jawi script, and below is the Roman script that is more commonly used to represent Malay.)

Why is there this effort to promote the use of Malay? While nearly everyone in Brunei speaks Malay, it is the local variety, known as Brunei Malay, that generally occurs, and Brunei Malay is completely different from Standard Malay. The government believes that it is important to promote the use of Standard Malay, to allow people to communicate with people in Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore, and to read books and newspapers and understand official broadcasts.

We can describe Standard Malay and Brunei Malay as two dialects of the same language existing in a diglossic relationship. Diglossia describes the situation where two language varieties have complementary roles:
  • the H (= High) language, is used in official communications and in the classroom;
  • the L (= Low) language, is used at home, among friends, and in most colloquial exchanges.
Note that the two roles, H and L, are just labels describing patterns of usage. There is no suggestion that one of the varieties is "better" than the other. It is just that they have complementary roles. The H variety is more formal, while the L variety is more colloquial.