Tuesday October 2, 2012
By ALISTAIR KING
THIS week’s Right For Business looks at the impact that some features of Malaysian pronunciation have on writing.
I recently went to visit an office in Kuala Lumpur, where I was met by a note on the door. It read “We had move”. Since there was no sign of life and the door was locked, I assumed that the writer of the note intended to tell the caller that the occupants of the premises were no longer there.
I assumed that what should have been written was “We have moved.” While an indication of the premises to which the occupants had moved would have been useful, my immediate interest was in the deviant form “We had move.”
The form “We had moved.” would have been meaningless, as the past perfect tense needs to have an identifiable point in past time before which the action in question HAD happened. Thus, the present perfect “We HAVE moved.” is appropriate here, as this tense occupies an unspecified period of time, extending right to the present.
At a later date, I will discuss the differences in usage between the present perfect and the past perfect. For the moment, I would like to look at reasons for the word “move” to be written without a -d. It looks like a mistake and, on the face of it, it is; however, I believe this kind of mistake has more to do with pronunciation than with grammar.
Consider why there are many Malay words that end in t, but not in d: ulat, bulat, alat, selat, sulit, sakit, perut, semut – to mention a few. Why is there not the same number of words ending in d?
The t in Malay and in the South Chinese languages is a non-aspirant. For example, the Cantonese word for kill would be romanized to sat, but this sound is very different from the past tense of sit. In the English sat, the tongue stops the air at the ridge behind the teeth and immediately releases the sound. In the Cantonese sat and the Malay words in the list, the tongue stops the air at the same place, and then relaxes without any force.
In English, to produce the difference between sat and sad, lit and lid, foot and food, the air needs to be aspirated so that the difference is made between a voiced d and an unvoiced t. When there is no aspiration (releasing), as in Malaysian pronunciation, the voiced-unvoiced distinction is not clear.
Thus, we may not know whether the speaker means pod (voiced) or pot (unvoiced). Indeed, the final consonant is often almost absent.
In the past tenses in English, the ed at the end of a regular verb may be voiced, as in cleaned (d) or unvoiced, as in washed (t). In Malaysian pronunciation, the final d or t sound is almost non-existent. This is often reflected in writing. How many times have you approached a supermarket cashier or even a bank counter to be greeted by a sign bearing the word “CLOSE”. Did you feel tempted to take out your pen and write a d at the end?
Since the native pronunciation makes almost no distinction between close and closed, the absence of the d is more likely to be the result of pronunciation features than ignorance of grammar. This applies also to move and moved. This, I believe, is where “We had move” comes from!
In our public training course, Speak Like A Professional, participants learn to aspirate the d and t at the end of the word, particularly at the end of the regular past participle, so that abnormalities like “We had move” will never again be produced.
Only yesterday, I saw a further example of this feature of pronunciation-spelling. In the gents’ toilet at a client’s office, there was a sign that read: “Have you wash your hands?”
> Dr Alistair King is an applied linguist and corporate training consultant.