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 Difficulty over Malay prefixes 

I have been trying to understand the "secret of the prefixes" - I read your appendix, so I sort of get the idea of PE is for nouns, ME and Be for verbs, ... but I can't figure out why, how and when to use them.
Should I say : saya hendak beli sebuah basikel - or should it be : saya hendak membeli ... and why don't you say : saya menghendak membeli ??
Actually, I don't get the difference between the root-word and the prefixed forms .... You know my first malaysian sentence in Malaysia was Kami boleh makan di sini? and I must say, even if it must have been pidgin-malay, I was understood (the answer was ... boleh-boleh !!) - now I wonder: should I have said : kami boleh memakan? .... Argll!!! I just don't get it!

- Talitha by email on 05 August 2011 (reproduced with permission).
My reply follows below:

Perhaps I should not have introduced prefixes and suffixes at all in this basic course on Malay as they only confuse students in the end. But since you are bound to see them everywhere I thought you (students) should have an understanding of how they are formed - that's all.
Actually if you have just an understanding of how they are formed (as you have) it is good enough. Don't worry about using them in your own sentences. For beginners, using the root word of the verb is really good enough.
Besides, the prefixes are not often used in the spoken form, even among the Malays. It is mostly used in newspaper reports and official documents. So don't worry unnecessarily about something that is not that important, finally.
As for the word hendak it does not take a prefix as most of the time it is not used as a verb by itself but as an auxiliary or helping verb meaning to want or wish TO DO (which is the real verb) something as in Saya hendak beli barang itu. (I wish to BUY that object.)
But hendak can also be used as a verb in its own right i.e. when there is no other verb coming immediately after it. In such a case it takes on the meaning of "need" or "require" and can take a prefix (plus the suffix -i). Thus "I need help" in Malay (with hendak as the verb) is Saya mengehendaki pertolongan though you can simply say Saya perlu pertolongan. As you can see the first translation with the word mengehendaki is actually beyond the reach of a beginner and also beyond the scope of a basic course in Bahasa Malaysia.
Incidentally there are occasions when not just one, but two prefixes, are attached to the root word as in the case of memperkatakan where the root word is kata or terperdaya (sometimes spelt terpedaya meaning deceived or tricked) where the root word is actually daya!
Then there are the exceptions. Thus although normally a verb that starts with the letter t loses it when it takes on the men- prefix (eg. tari becomes menari) yet some words don't lose their t eg. ternak becomes menternak.
To add to the complexity of the subject, sometimes a root word can take on two different prefixes, example mengaji and mengkaji both come from the word kaji, though there are slight differences in meaning between them.
So my advice to you as a beginner is: Don't worry too much about them.
Hope this helps. - pgoh13
(Thank you Talitha for allowing me to reproduce your email so that my reply can also benefit other students who might have the same questions as you have.)
Back to lesson on Malay prefixes.