25 October 2014

'e' or 'a' in borrowed words

Most words that are borrowed from English to Malay and have /æ/ in the English are spelled with 'e' rather than 'a' in Malay: e.g. kem ('camp'), setem ('stamp'), and teksi ('taxi'). This makes sense, as Malay /a/ is a central or back vowel that sounds rather like English /ʌ/ and is quite different from English /æ/.

The use of 'e' for English /æ/ helps explain why speakers in Malaysia and Brunei are sometimes unable to differentiate between /e/ and /æ/ in English. If kem and setem have /e/ in Malay, it is hardly surprising if speakers of Malay also use /e/ in 'camp' and 'stamp' when they are speaking English. Furthermore, if teks ('text') and teksi ('taxi') have the same vowel in Malay, it is not too surprising if 'text' and 'taxi' also have the same vowel for Malay speakers of English.

However, one word that is rather surprising is faks ('fax'). Why does it not have the expected 'e' instead of 'a'? Especially as pronouncing this word with a vowel that sounds like /ʌ/ is a bit unfortunate in English.