Monday, 21 March 2011

-kan and ‘kan in Spoken Bahasa Melayu/Malaysia

Like many other languages in the world, Bahasa Melayu/Malaysia (BM) has its own spoken variety which is quite different from the standard variety (acrolect). Although widely used (especially among the Malays), Spoken BM is never accepted as “standard”, not allowed in examinations and certainly not allowed in formal functions.

An interesting element in spoken BM is kan, either as –kan or ‘kan.

Definition of kan in DBP dictionary

DBP defines kan as:
1. short for ‘akan
2. short for ‘bukan
3. langkan pada perahu (baluster or banister)
4. cerek atau teko tempat air the dsb (kettle or tea pot)

Since DBP caters to the standard variety of BM, these definitions are somewhat limited to just that. While most young Malaysians are not familiar with definitions 3 and 4, mostly due to urbanization and modernization, they would agree with definitions 1 and 2.

However, in the spoken variety of BM, kan carries a bigger (and somewhat different) load than that.
How does kan function in BM spoken variety?

Before we start with the functions of kan in BM spoken variety, let’s look at the derivative -kan, an important and most familiar form of kan in BM.

‘kan in Suffixation

Both in standard and spoken BM, kan is used as a derivative. It is either used as a suffix alone, or with a prefix, resulting in a confix. It can be either be a class-shifting or class-maintaining derivative, depending on the use and context. For example, it is used as in:
  • Converting a noun into a verb
Noun Verb
kipas (fan) kipaskan (to fan)
kapak (axe) kapakkan (to chop/cut with an axe)
cermin (mirror) cerminkan (to mirror)

  • Converting a verb into imperative
Verb Imperative
lulus (to pass) luluskan
jalan (to execute) jalankan
terbang (to fly) terbangkan
  • Converting an adjective into verb (can also be used with prefix me-)
Adjective Verb
cantik (beautiful) cantikkan
besar (large) besarkan
rosak (damage) merosakkan
  • Converting a verb into an active verb (with prefix me-)
Verb Active Verb
lepas (let go) melepaskan
bangun (get up) membangunkan
pakai (put on) memakaikan
  • Converting an active verb into passive verb (with prefix di-)
Active Verb Passive Verb
tidur (sleep) ditidurkan
membaca (reading) dibacakan
menulis (writing) dituliskan

Functions of kan in BM spoken variety

1. ‘kan as short for akan

‘Kan used as a short for akan is mostly limited to standard BM, both written and spoken. Akan in BM is defined as “will or shall; used to express promises or obligation”. The use is somewhat poetic in this manner. For example,

Tak ‘kan Melayu hilang di dunia
The Malays will never disappear from this world.
Ke mana dikau pergi, ‘kan kucari jua
Wherever you go, I will find you.
Di mana ‘kan kucari ganti serupa denganmu?
Where will I find someone like you?

2.  ‘kan as short for bukan

In spoken BM, ‘kan also refers to the short form of bukan. However, depending on prosody of the delivery, it is limited to only questions, either yes/no questions or rhetorical questions. In a yes/no question, the speaker expects a confirmation (affirmation); ‘yes’ (although ‘no’ is not impossible). In a rhetorical question, the speaker is pointing out something that has already given attention to, and usually emphasizing that he/she is right.

For example,

Standard Literal
Ini ‘kan salinan yang saya patut simpan? Bukankah ini salinan yang sepatutnya saya simpan? Isn’t this the copy that I should keep?(yes/no question) This is the copy (of document) for me to keep. You should have one already for yourself.
‘Kan ini rumahnya? Bukan inikah rumahnya? Isn’t this his/her house?(yes/no question) I’ve been here before. This looks like the house we are looking for.
‘Kan engkau yang masuk tadi? Bukan engkaukah yang masuk tadi? Were you not the one who entered earlier?(yes/no question) I saw someone entering earlier, but didn’t get a good look. He/she looked like you.
Kan aku dah tunjuk tadi? Bukankah aku sudah tunjukkan tadi? Didn’t I just show it to you?(rhetorical) I have already shown it to you. You should have seen/understood it earlier.
Kan aku dah cakap? Bukankah aku sudah beritahu? Didn’t I say so?
I was right. I told you so.

3.  ‘kan in Tag Question

Kan is also used in tag questions, and is unique to only spoken BM. It is a syntactic variety of bukan. Thus, instead of placing ‘kan in the frontal position, ‘kan is placed in the final position. Generally, similar to the yes/no questions, the response is expected to be a ‘yes’ (affirmation).

For example,

Dia dah makan, kan? He/she has eaten, hasn’t he/she?
Rumah ni besar, kan? This house is big, isn’t it?
Budak yang dibelakang tu, tinggi, kan? The boy at the back is tall, isn’t he?

4. ‘kan used with tak

Another unique use of ‘kan only found in spoken BM is when it is used with tak (short for tidak) to mean ‘impossible’. While it’s arguable that it is perhaps a variety of ‘kan short for akan in its use, the meaning implied in this context is very different. Furthermore, its use is more like a rhetorical question than a statement. For example,

Tak kan dia tak tahu. Tidak mungkin dia tak tahu. It’s not possible that he/she doesn’t know.
Tak kan mereka tak tahu jalan nak ke sini. Tidak mungkin mereka tidak tahu jalan ke sini. It’s impossible that they don’t know how to get here.
Tak kan kita nak biarkan saja. Tidak mungkin kita boleh biarkan sahaja. We can’t just let it be.


The spoken variety of BM is interesting to observe and study. This “market language” (colloquial variety) is very different from the standard variety, especially in terms of syntactic structure, phonology and morphology. Other than kan, I think other elements in spoken BM should also be observed and studied.


Noresah Baharom (Ed.). (2002). Kamus Dewan Edisi Ketiga. Kuala Lumpur: DBP


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