Lesson 49 Sebutan (Pronunciation - Part 1)
If you have been following the lessons till now you would have noticed that Malay pronunciation is not much different from English pronunciation (it's even closer to Spanish for the vowel sounds) and that the consonants do not pose any problem at all for English-speaking people except for the sound c which needs some explaining.
When Malaysia and Indonesia agreed to standardize their spelling in 1972 Malaysia discarded its "ch" for "c" so chari and chuchi became cari and cuci. Indonesia, in its turn, discarded its "tj" for "c" so tjari and tjutji became cari and cuci, "tj" being the older Dutch spelling of "ch" that Indonesia adopted from its Dutch masters and both Malaysia and Indonesia compromised on using just c for the "ch" sound. Thus "c" has not at all the sound of "c" in English as in "catch" but is equivalent to the sound of "ch" in "cheese". If you are wondering how the palate-enticing but "killing" curry so typical of Malaysian and Indonesian gastronomy is spelt just spell it phonetically, so kari. If it helps think of the "c" sound in Malay as the equivalent of the "c" sound in such Italian words as arrivederci or cappuccino (the 3rd syllable, not the first!) and you should be able to pronounce cuci (to wash) correctly. You will now understand why the word "sandwich", which is pronounced the same way in Malay, is spelt sandwic (yes, without the h at the end since the "c" alone has the sound of "ch").
This table on the Malay alphabet comes from the official Malay language agency (Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka):
However if the Malay pronunciation is relatively phonetic in nature there are two sounds (ng and ny) which are a different kettle of fish altogether. For many of you these sounds are not found in your native languages so be prepared for some hard phonetical exercises (try to get a Malay friend to correct you). For a few other sounds (like c and sy), it's just a question of finding their equivalences. Thus if you speak English just remember that c is pronounced like ch (as in "chair") and sy is pronounced like sh (as in "shut") and you will be all right. Come to think of it the words "fashion", "tuition" and "fiction" are used in Malay too with the same pronunciation but spelt fesyen, tuisyen and fiksyen. That should help you a bit with getting the sy sound right!
Since pictures speak louder than words (or rather since hearing them spoken speaks louder than explanations in this case) please listen to the pronunciation of these illustrative words:
Click to listen
A second reading (by Muhammad Nor Ismat, a native speaker)
Tidak sengaja = Not purposely, unintentionally
Can you try to pronounce this very common word sengaja (= purposely, intentionally) on your own? How do you break up the syllables?
The answer: se-nga-ja. Practise the "ng" sound above (as in bunga meaning "flower") which is pronounced bu-nga. I know it's going to be a real challenge.
By the way Italians will be familiar with the word bunga as the phrase "bunga bunga" is quite popular in Italy. Excuse me for the digression. If you are curious to know what that means look it up in Wikipedia!
Once you are able to pronounce the ng sound, try to learn this sentence off by heart as it could come in handy one day when you find yourself in an "explosive" situation! Maafkan saya, itu tidak sengaja. (= Please excuse me, that was not done on purpose.)
If you need reminding maafkan is pronounced as three syllables (ma-af-kan).
The "h" sound:
If you are used to a language where "h" is not pronounced (such as French) please note that "h" is almost always pronounced in Malay. Thus bahu meaning "shoulder" is pronounced "ba-hoo". If you should pronounce it as "ba-oo" it would be a totally different word (the word bau meaning "smell"). (The exceptions are found in words such as tahu and mahu which are also written as tau and mau and therefore can be pronounced without the "h" sound.)
Note: This lesson is just on getting the pronunciation right so I have not given the meanings of the words in the above table (all of which are words in common use). If you are really keen to know what they mean Click here!
The Malaysian government imposed bahasa baku (standard pronunciation of Malay) some years ago but met with tough resistance and had to discard it due to lack of popular support (for example, it's almost impossible to make Malays in certain states pronounce apa as "apah" and not as "apeu" as they have been used to pronouncing for generations.)