16 January 2014

Passives in Malay

Passive verbs (using the di- prefix) are common in Malay; and their function is a bit different from passive verbs (using 'be' plus -ed participle) in English.

The main purpose of a passive construction in English is to change the order of the subject and object. For example, if we say:

John was bitten by a dog.

instead of the comparable active:

A dog bit John.

then the main purpose of using the passive 'was bitten' is to get 'John' to the front of the sentence (to function as the theme) and to place 'the dog' at the end.

An alternative purpose in English is to avoid mentioning the agent. So, if we say:

The students were warned about their behaviour.

then the purpose behind use of the passive verb 'were warned' is to avoid stating who did the warning.

Although these two roles for the passive, changing the word order and avoiding stating who the agent is, both occur in Malay, a major reason for the use of the passive in Malay is to express the fact that the subject is not the agent. For example, take this sentence start, from page 1 of the Media Permata of 16 January, quoting the Minister of Development in Brunei:

Saya difahamkan bahawa ...
    I     am-believed   that ...

In English, we would say 'I believe that', but a more accurate translation might be 'I am led to believe that'. However, 'led to believe' is rather a marked construction in English, while difahamkan is perfectly normal in Malay, and this use of the passive in Malay does not suggest there is anything particularly unusual about how the Minister gained his understanding.

My guess is that the passive construction is rather more common in Malay than the equivalent in English, but we would need to look at some equivalent texts in the two languages to confirm that. That could offer a nice little research project for a student.