Thursday, 21 April 2011

Synonymy in Bahasa Melayu/Malaysia: Strict Synonymy and Loose Synonymy

This work is dedicated to Prof. Dr. Asha for the awesome lecturer/teacher that she is.

1. Introduction

“Synonymy” comes from a Greek word meaning ‘having the same name’. It refers to the paradigmatic relationship between lexical items in a language, in terms of similarity of meaning. However, even when lexemes have a meaning (or more than one meaning) potential, that potential can become reality if the lexemes are used in a particular context. Thus, two or more lexical items are considered synonymous when they can be used, but not always, intersubstitutably in sentences.

For example, the words awal-mula-pertama are synonymous, and are accurate when used in this sentence:

Dia yang awal tiba di sekolah.
Dia yang mula tiba  di sekolah.
Dia yang pertama tiba di sekolah.

However, while Mereka sampai lebih awal dari yang dijangka is accurate,  Mereka sampai lebih mula dari yang dijangka and Mereka sampai lebih pertama dari yang dijangka is odd and ungrammatical.

This implies that even when lexemes are identifiable as synonyms, there is some difference in meaning, however small.

2. Strict Synonymy

Many linguists argue that there is no such thing as strict (or absolute or intimate) synonymy in any language. Strict synonymous lexemes would be interchangeable or intersubstitutable in all possible contexts of use, without affecting the meaning, style or connotation of what was being conveyed. In reality, this is not possible in a language because it is uneconomical. Any language cannot afford to have one meaning or concept for several lexemes. Different lexemes are used for different situation or context. However, if strict synonymy happens in a language, it could indicate that that particular language is going through a phase of restructuring its lexicon.

In Bahasa Melayu/Malaysia (BM), though arguable, strict synonymy does happen due to language contact. Currently, BM has a very intimate relationship with English, it being our second language. Previously, it was mainly Arabic and Sanskrit, among other less influential languages spoken by various colonials/merchants from different countries. Most of our strict synonymous lexemes are due borrowing and transfer. For example,

maklumat – informasi (Arabic-English)
juhumriyat – republik (Arabic-English)
komprehensif – lengkap (English-BM)
emosi – perasaan (English-BM)
komuniti – masyarakat (English-Arabic)
pelbagai – aneka (Sanskrit-Sanskrit)
cermin mata – kaca mata (BM-Sanskrit)

When lexemes are strict synonymous, two things could happen to them over time: being phased out of the language and semantic specialization.

2.1. Being phased out of the language

Historically, there have been many lexemes which have been phased out or fallen out of use, or their use is very restricted to certain contexts only in BM when they are strict synonymous.  For example,

Current state Replaced by
fallen out of use republik
paksina fallen out of use
fallen out of use angkasa
lengkap very limited use
telanjang very limited use
Table 2.1: Current state of selected strict synonyms

2.2. Semantic Specialization

Semantic specialization is another possible occurrence to the strict synonymous lexemes. These lexemes could go through narrowing of meaning, and their use would be limited to certain context only. For example,

Narrowing of meaning
bakti – homage, devotion
setia – loyalty
basmi – eradicate
musnah – destroy, reduced to ashes
dewa– mythical god/goddesstuhan – god
penjara – jail (for criminals)
sangkar – cage (for animals)
Table 2.2: Examples of Semantic specialization of strict synonyms

3. Loose Synonymy

Often, when people talk about synonyms, they refer to loose synonyms, where there is overlapping of meaning between these lexemes, but they are not interchangeable or intersubstitutable in some contexts.
In BM, this synonymous meaning relationship exists in many lexemes. For example,
  • matang – tua
    • matang – ripe, experienced, mature, seasoned
    • tua – old, aged
  • utama – penting
    • utama - priority
    • penting – important
  • besar – luas
    • besar – large, big (size)
    • luas – spacious
  • kata – sabda
    • kata – words, saying
    • sabda – words/saying of prophets
  • kata – firman
    • kata – words, saying
    • firman – words/saying of Allah
  • rosak – binasa
    • rosak – malfunctioned, damaged
    • binasa – ruined, totaled
  • solat – sembahyang
    • solat – prayers (for Muslims)
    • sembahyang – prayers
  • irama – muzik
    • irama – melody, rhyhm
    • muzik – music
We can see the overlapping of meaning in these lexemes to some degree. However, how much or how little they overlap is not clear and tricky to measure.


The paradigmatic relationship between lexemes in a language, or synonymy, exists naturally in many languages, evident in the production of many dictionaries and thesauri. Synonymous lexemes, whether strict or loose, signals that a language is dynamic, alive and ever-changing.


Asha Doshi. (2005). Lexicology (Lecture notes). Kuala Lumpur: University of Malaya

Jackson, H. and Ze Amvela, E. (2000). Words, Meaning and Vocabulary: an introduction to Modern English Lexicology. New York: Cassell.

Yule, G. (1985). The Study of Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


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