14 April 2012

Malay spelling

On the whole, Malay spelling is predictable: you can determine the spelling of a word from its pronunciation; and you can predict the pronunciation of a word from its spelling. But there are a few exceptions:
  • the letter 'e' can be pronounced as [e] or as [ə], so [peraŋ] ('blond') and [pəraŋ] ('war') are both written as perang
  • cukai ('tax') is two syllables while mulai ('begin') is three syllables, because the former is a single morpheme while the latter is mula+i
  • universiti is usually pronounced with an initial [j] (because it is a borrowed word) while untuk ('for') never has an initial [j]
  • borrowed words with 'g', such as alergi ('allergy') are pronounced by some people with [g] and by others with [dʒ]
Note that the last two involve words borrowed from English, and borrowings often cause irregularities in spelling. We might note that the English words carriage and marriage both end in [ɪdʒ] while massage and collage both end in [ɑ:ʒ] because they are more recent borrowings from French.

One more case of indeterminate spelling in Malay derived from borrowings from English involves words like zink ('zinc'), which is usually pronounced as [ziŋ]. In other words, you would not be able to tell from the pronunciation whether the word should be written as zing or as zink.

In fact, this gives rise to a potential minimal pair in Malay: bang ('a Muslim call to prayer') and bank ('bank') are both pronounced as [baŋ].