29 September 2009

'e' vs 'i' and 'o' vs 'u'

In my previous posting, I discussed the vowel in the third syllable of kebersehan. In fact, use of 'e' or 'i' in the closed final syllable of a Malay root is arbitrary; nowadays, standard spelling specifies 'i', but in the past it was often 'e'. And the 1949 edition of The Prinicples of the International Phonetic Association shows lebih ('more') as [ləbeh] for its Malay trasncription of the North Wind and the Sun passage, suggesting the vowel in the second syllable to be quite open.

Similarly for the back vowel, 'o' or 'u' in closed final syllables. That is why we have the modern spelling kampung, but traditionally it was kampong. And the same applies to place names: we have Jurong in Singapore and Jerudong and Tutong in Brunei, but all of these would have a 'u' in the final syllable if modern spelling were used.

02 September 2009


Have a look at this sign, by the side of a road near the centre of BSB, the capital of Brunei. It means "Take care of cleanliness". What is interesting is the spelling kebersehan, as the Standard Malay spelling would be kebersihan, with 'i' rather than 'e' in the third syllable.

This reflects two things:
  • In Brunei, there are only three vowels, so /i/ and /e/ are not distinguished.
  • In Standard Malay, final /i/ in a closed syllable (such as in the root bersih) tends to be quite open, so it might be regarded as an allophone of /e/ rather than /i/.
Note, for example with regard to the second point, that terimah kasih ('thank you') is often said with [e] in the final syllable.

Nevertheless, it is quite surprising that non-standard spelling is used on this sign, especially as kebersihan is quite common on signs around Brunei.