29 October 2014


In recent posts, I have discussed the pronunciation of words borrowed from English into Malay, especially those with 'g' or 'a' in the English.

Recently, there has been an exhibition on science and technology in Brunei. In his titah opening the exhibition, HM the Sultan said the word teknologi many times, and he quite deliberately used /g/ every single time. (He also sometimes dropped the [s] at the end of sains – I wonder whether [sain] is becoming the standard way of pronouncing this word in Malay.)

Surprisingly, in her summary of the titah, the newsreader clearly used /dʒ/ in every single token of teknologi. I find this divergence between the pronunciation of HM and the newsreader's discussion of the titah quite surprising.

Finally in the Sudut Pelita ('Lamp Corner' – a short programme for government discussions) later in the day, the State Mufti was talking about the impact of science and technology on Islam, and he alternated between /g/ and /dʒ/ in teknologi. I'm not sure if he was uncertain about what pronunciation to use or was deliberately choosing an indeterminate form.

This neatly illustrates how the pronunciation of 'g' in borrowed words such as teknologi, generasi, agenda and alergi is uncertain.

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.

'g' or 'j' in borrowed words

Something I don't understand is why some English words borrowed into Malay retain a 'g' while others do not. For example, agenda, generasi, teknologi and alergi are all spelled with 'g', and then there is variation over whether they should be pronounced with /dʒ/ (as in English) or as /g/ (as suggested by the spelling).

In contrast, plenty of borrowed words get spelled with 'j', such as imej ('image'), kolej ('college'), mesej ('message') and caj ('charge'). It seems that 'j' is used for English 'g' at the end of a word, but 'g' is (mostly) retained elsewhere.

There are also a few words in which 'j' occurs in non-final position, such as enjin ('engine').

If 'j' can be used in kolej and enjin, I don't understand why it is not used in agenda and generasi as well.

23 October 2014


In my previous post, I discussed a Malay alphabet chart for kids, expressing surprise at the number of words borrowed from English that were included. Something else that is surprising is the inclusion of 'x' as a letter in Malay, with the word xilofon ('xylophone') to illustrate it.

My dictionary includes just two words for 'X': x-ray and xilofon. In fact, all other words borrowed from English with an 'x' in them are spelled with 'ks': e.g. teksi ('taxi'), oksigen ('oxygen'), faks ('fax'). So it seems that 'x' only occurs in x-ray and xilofon.

Is it really necessary to include the letter 'X' for just these two words? Surely x-ray could be written as eksrei, and xilofon could start with 's', as that is presumably how it is actually pronounced.

22 October 2014


I just saw this colourful alphabet poster for sale in a local shop, to enable Malay children to learn the letters of the alphabet:

What is rather surprising about this is how many words are borrowed from English: belon ('balloon'), epal ('apple'), foto ('photo'), helikopter ('helicopter'), jip ('jeep'), oren ('orange'), raket ('racquet'), van ('van'), wisel ('whistle'), xilofon ('xylophone'), yo-yo ('yo-yo) and zip ('zip').

While some of these are understandable, as sounds such as /v/ and /z/ are not native sounds of Malay and only borrowed words have the letters 'v' and 'z', others are more surprising: Why are native Malay words not used for letters such as 'b', 'j' and 'r'?

12 October 2014

tall tree

In the forest, it is really important for trees to grow tall, to enable them to reach the canopy. However, once a tree has reached the canopy, there would seem to be no advantage in growing still taller. So I'm not sure why this tree (seen in Tasek Lama) is so much taller than its neighbours. Wouldn't that make it more likely to be blown down in a storm?

Chinese has a proverb that reflects this: 树大招风 (shù dà zhāo fēng, 'the big tree catches the wind'), which suggests you should keep your head down and not become too prominent, for fear of attracting attention. It is rather similar to the English 'tall poppy syndrome', the idea being that the tallest poppies get chopped down (I guess).

Does Malay have a similar proverb? Or are Malays not so concerned about standing out from the crowd?

09 October 2014


I have mentioned lexical doublets in Malay before (e.g. here and here). In yesterday's titah ('royal speech') in celebration of Teachers' Day, HM the Sultan used two in one sentence (assuming that Media Permata are quoting him accurately):

Kebawah Duli Yang Maha Mulia turut mengingatkan bahawa dalam penilaian dan rebiu mengenai Sistem Pendidikan Negara Abad ke-21, SPN21, perlu juga dilihat dari segi kelemahan atau kekurangannya jika ada dan tidak hanya menonjolkan perkara-perkara yang bagus sahaja.

which might be translated as:

His Majesty also reminded us that the evaluation and review of the National Sistem of Education for the 21st Century (SPN21) should also look at weaknesses or shortcomings, if there are any, and not just showcase things that are good.

This includes two categories of doublets:

  • the use of a Malay term together with an English one: penilaian dan rebiu ('evaluation and review')
  • the use of two Malay terms with a similar meaning: kelemahan atau kekurangan ('weaknesses and shortcomings')

Given that it occurs in a royal titah, it also reminds us that this use of lexical doublets is part of the rhetoric of well-written Malay. Whether it should be retained in the translation into English is something that should be considered.

One more instance of what might be regarded as repetition in this extract is hanya ('only') as well as sahaja ('only'). In this case, I think it is clear that the English translation should just use one term.

06 October 2014

Bot Pam

A 'false friend' is a word that is borrowed from one language to another and then undergoes a change in meaning. It can be really tricky for the translator, as the temptation is to use the original word.

An example in Malay is kompaun, referring to an on-the-spot fine, such as one given out by the traffic police. It clearly comes from 'compound', and it may be related to 'compound fine'; but in English we do not use 'compound' to refer to an on-the-spot fine.

Today I saw bot pam in this extract from an article on page 10 of the Media Parmata, reporting an incident in Sabah, Malaysia:

... pasukan peronda berjaya menahan sebuah bot pam dinaiki tiga lelaki dan seorang wanita ...

which might be translated as:

... the patrol succeeded in catching a pump boat which was carrying three men and one woman ...

But what does 'pump boat' mean? Is this a false friend from English?

I checked bot pam in the on-line Pusat Rujukan Persuratan Melayu, but there is nothing there. Next, I searched the web for bot pam, and I found this headline from the MStar newspaper of 4 September 2014:

Tentera Lepas Tembakan Ke Arah Bot Pam Penceroboh Di Perairan Pulau Selingan

So, what does it mean? I managed to find the equivalent article in English, in the online New Straits Times of 4 September 2014:

Soldiers fire at intruding pump boat off Sabah, arrest a man

Well, that doesn't help me much, except to confirm that writers in English use 'pump boat'. Finally, I found a Wikipedia entry for Pump Boat, which explains that it is an outrigger canoe widely used in the Plilippines.

So, it appears that 'pump boat' is not necessarily a false friend, and in fact the term now exists in English. Or at least it occurs in Wikipedia, which is maybe the same thing. Maybe we can say that it is a word in Philippines English, and people in Brunei and Malaysia may also be familiar with the term, though I doubt too many people in the UK or USA would understand it.