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!