14 March 2009

Bi-syllabicity in Malay

In the Media Permata of 14 March 2009 (pp. 1/2), there is an announcement of a competition to name a new strand of rice in Brunei. One of the stipulations is that the proposed name should mempunyai dua suku kata ('have two syllables'). This is a nice reflection of the underlying bi-syllabic nature of Malay.

Although there are a few monosyllabic roots, such as sah ('valid') and had ('limit'), these are the exception rather than the rule; and, as discussed earlier (11 March), when affixes are added to these monosyllabic roots, an extra syllable is added, so we get mengesahkan ('to confirm') and mengehadkan ('to limit').

One word that confused me in this respect is mengemukakan ('to put forward'). The root is muka ('face'), which is already bisyllabic. So why is the extra syllable added? After all, no similar extra syllable is added when memulakan ('to start') is created out of mula ('start'), and muka and mula would seem to have a very similar phonological shape. Adrian Clynes tells me this is because the root of mengemukakan is actually ke muka, where ke ('to') is a preposition.