Malay grammar.

I have been taking Malay language classes for 10 weeks already. I used to think that the [verb] + [adjective] structure was quite confusing (e.g. kawan baik – “kawan” means friend and “baik” is good). Now I think I have gotten quite used to how verbs and adjectives come together in Malay. The current challenge now is learning the conjunctions, classifiers and the prefixes and suffixes. I also realize how “Singlish” our local version of the Hokkien dialect is. It’s pretty interesting actually – I always thought that Singlish manifests as a mix of English, Chinese and Malay and I have never noticed that it also comes in the form of a mix of Malay and Hokkien. For instance, my family use “sabun”, which means soap, when they speak in Hokkien and they always thought that “sabun” is a Hokkien word. Another example is “makan angin” which means go on a vacation (literally it means “eat wind”). My family doesn’t say “makan angin” but we translate the phrase into the Hokkien words and use it in the same way.

1. Conjunctions.

The Malay conjunctions are not too difficult I think – they have their own distinct rules that we just have to get used to. For instance, “ke” means “to” and a sentence can be: keluarga saya pergi ke rumah sakit bersama-sama. (My family go to the hospital together.) However, “ke” is only used when describing time, direction and place so its usage is not as ubiquitous as “to”. For instance, saya memberi seekor burung kepada dia. (I give a bird to him/ her.)

For me, the hardest conjunction to master is “yang”. It actually means “which” but Malay actually makes a distinction between “dia seorang baik ibu (she is a good mother)” and “dia seorang ibu yang baik (she is a mother which (who) is good)”. The latter is the preferred version because the former seems to be categorizing the mother while the latter is characterizing the mother.

2. Classifiers.

Many Asian languages have classifiers apparently. In Chinese, that’s essentially our 一个,一只 etc. So for Malay, they have different classifiers for different categories, it’s interesting to have a peek into how Malays in the past perceived the world. “Orang” is used for people so we have seorang, duaorang corresponding to one person and two persons respectively. The same rule of [number] +[classifier] is used for the other classifiers. “Ekor” is used for animals”, “biji” is used for fruits and roundish objects and “batang” is used for rod-like objects etc. It’s interesting how the shape of the objects determines which classifier it has in both Malay as well as Chinese. Things were so simple back then, why has life become so complex?

3. Prefixes and suffixes.

Prefix is what makes the root word a grammatically proper verb. For instance, “beri” means give and it has a prefix “mem” so it combines to become “memberi”. Different words have different prefixes, there is a kind of pattern for words beginning with b, p, s and t but apart from them, the others are all about memorizing and becoming familiar with the system. Below are some examples:

Tulis – menulis (write)
Pandu – memandu (drive)
Sayang – menyayangi (love)
Blog – mengeblog (blog)
Naik – menaiki (to board)
Ajar – belajar (study)

While the prefix satisfies the grammar rules, the suffix can control the usage of the word. We learn the power of the i at the end of the word – it makes it such that an object comes after the word. For instance: saya menaiki bas (I board the bus). We will never say “saya menaiki.” Another example is the “kan” suffix which makes a intransitive verb transitive – “saya tidurkan anak saya(I put my child to sleep)”, there is no “saya tidurkan.”

Malay is becoming quite a bother, we have a lot of small assignments to do and it’s time-consuming. It’s an interestingly succinct language with interesting rules, I wouldn’t mind taking it for another half a year. The only problem I have with learning Malay in NUS is we don’t get to speak it so much and it makes me quite concerned about my pronunciation. But a part of me also wants to learn another language. I’ll think about it when the time comes.


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