I have been taking Malay classes in my university for a month already. I was motivated to learn Malay because since Singapore is situated in the Malay Peninsula and therefore our culture is, to a considerable extent, influenced by the Malays, I felt that some knowledge of the Malay language would allow me to better understand the Singapore culture/ identity. I also always thought that if I can speak some Malay, I would be able to impress some of my students in the future and therefore gain their respect in a certain way when I am teaching. Well, furthermore, I really enjoy picking up new languages. In any case, I imagined learning Malay to be easy for a Singaporean Chinese, because in Singlish, the complex lingo that mixes phrases from the many cultures here, we do use quite a number of Malay phrases. Ask any Singaporean and he/ she will certainly know what “kopi” (coffee), “teh” (tea), “kayu”(wood i.e. stupid), “makan” (eat), “bukit” (hill), “tak boleh” (cannot), “balik kampung” (go back to kampung) etc mean. As a consequence of this, from time to time, the class moves very fast as the teacher (Malay: guru) assumes that we know the stuff and that includes numbers and food so sometimes I do feel kind of bad for the non-Singaporeans in the class. Personally, in every class, I see at least one Malay word/ phrase that I am familiar with and that I didn’t know that it came from the Malay language previously so it’s pretty interesting. Just from the last class itself, I remember learning “sekali lagi” and “pengsan” which mean one more time and faint respectively.
I also always imagined that the strange yet familiar sentence structures in Singlish came from Malay but it turned out that Malay is a lot more complex than I thought. What is similar between Singlish and Malay is the missing “is/ are/ am” in the sentences. In Singlish, we have “why you so smart?” and that really means “why are you so smart?” In Malay, we say “Saya (I) pelajar (student)” and it means “I am a student”. The usage of “lah” in Singlish at the end of the sentence to emphasize its meaning probably stems from Malay as well. We say “come lah” in Singlish in the same manner as we say “majulah” in Malay (“maju” =going forward). As of so far, the similarities between Singlish and Malay end here.
I was taken by surprise as well that some parts of the Malay language remind me of the Japanese language. Side point, actually the Malay pronunciation is almost the same as the Japanese pronunciation except for certain endings. That makes me happy actually because people have always been telling me that leaning Japanese is not too useful because it’s only spoken in a small part of the world. So I’m quite glad that at least the Japanese pronunciation sound similar to that of Malay and Spainish as well. Well, not all of course, but enough for me to have at least something to work on. So in both Malay and Japanese, they have “here”, “there” and “over there” – in Malay, that will be “di sini”, “di situ”, “di sana” respectively and in Japanese, that will be “koko”, “soko”, “asoko” respectively. Both languages also have the question particle. In Japanese, it is “ka” which comes at the end of the sentence to indicate that it is a question: kore wa enpitsu desu ka? (is this a pencil?) Without the “ka” at the back, it will become a sentence: kore wa enpitsu desu (this is a pencil). In Malay, that will be “kah”, for example: Nama awak Alikah? (Is your name Ali?) Similarly, without the question particle, it will be nama awak Ali (your name is Ali). However, the usage of “kah” in Malay is more complex because it doesn’t always come at the end of the sentence. For example, “siapakah nama awak?” (what is your name?) When kah comes behind a question tag, such as siapa (=who), it is grammatically incorrect to say “nama awak siapakah?” as “siapakah” cannot be put at the end of the sentence. It is pretty complex.
Beyond all these similarities, Malay has pretty different rules from what I have come across so far. As mentioned earlier, Malay language doesn’t have “is/ are/ am” and this feature makes the language pretty challenging to pick up at first. But I am slowly getting the hang of it. To begin with, Malay actually puts the adjective behind the noun (I’m not a linguist but I’ll try to explain) and that’s counter-intuitive for me at least and it is because, according to the teachers, Malays like to say the more important things first. For instance the phrase “nama awak” actually means “name” and “you” respectively. When “awak” is placed behind “nama”, it means “your name”. Well, ‘you’ is not an adjective but in Malay, there’s no “your”, when “awak” is placed at the back, it is understood as “your”. These two sentences (last one being the negative example) really exhibit how complex yet simple Malay is, I’m looking forward to learning more:) –
Ini komputer kawan saya. = This is my friend’s computer.
Komputer ini kawan saya. = This computer is my friend.