Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Why does Synonymy happen? A look at Bahasa Melayu/Malaysia

Bahasa Melayu/Malaysia is rich in synonyms. The main reason for that is the history of the language and the country. Contact with other cultures and societies, and colonization play important roles in shaping the language.

Why does synonymy happen in BM?

1.  Borrowing/transfer

Borrowing/transfer is the biggest contributing factor to synonymy in any language. Because of our unique location and history, BM has been in contact with many other languages since the beginning of our civilization. These languages brought with them new concepts, ideas, ideologies, culture and merchandise to the region. Foreign items quickly made their way into the language, while existing ones are replaced by the “new words”.

Unfortunately, because the old language writing system and orthography (possibly Rencong) was written on leaves and barks, it did not survive. As a result, we have no record of what things were before the massive change in the language and its writing system before the adoption of Palava via Sanskrit/Hinduism.
However, because BM is very dynamic and ever-adaptable, lexical items from other languages still come in and out of use till today. For example,

sekejap – sebentar (BM-Sanskrit)
sedih – nestapa (BM-Sanskrit)
kakitangan – anggota (BM-Sanskrit)
umum – am (BM-Arabic)
tuduh – dakwa (BM-Arabic)
kesan – akibat (BM-Arabic)
maklumat – informasi (Arabic-English)
lucah – erotika (BM-English)
gerek – basikal (BM-English)
biara – konven (Sanskrit-English)
sembahyang – solat (Sanskrit – Arabic)

2. Different dialects of regions

Like many languages in the world, varieties of BM are spoken in different regions of the country. As a result, the use of synonyms is based on the dialect or variety of BM. For example,

Standard BM Dialect
balik kelik (Kelantan)
senget joreng (Perak)
almari gerobok (Johor)
payau hayai (Perak)
tidak sik (Sarawak)
pasir semba (Perak)
tukul mertun (Perak)

3. Formality of the context

Formality of contexts also contributes to synonyms. One word is used in a more formal context than the other, or one word is used in the standard variety, while the other is more common in the spoken variety (colloquial). For example,

Formal Informal
filateli pengumpul stem
titah (royalty) cakap
bersiram (royalty) mandi
teman wanita makwe
meninggal dunia mati
suami laki
isteri bini
jelita jambu
buang angin kentut
kurus cekeding
tinggi lonjong

4. Different connotations of lexical items

Many words in BM may be synonymous, but unless they are strict synonyms, each word carries a different level of meaning (connotation). For example,

kasih – cinta

o       kasih – love, between child and parent, sense of appreciation, unconditional
o       cinta – love, between lovers

dunia – alam fana

o       dunia­ – the world
o       alam fana – the mortal world (poetic)

bersinar – bergemerlapan

o       bersinar­ ­– shines, bright
o       bergemerlapan – shines, glitters, bright, festive, colourful

terang – bermandi cahaya

o       terang - bright
o       bermandi cahaya - bathe in light (poetic)

jernih – bersih

o       jernih – clear, transparent, limpid, pellucid (also spiritual, of a person’s face)
o       bersih – clean

makan – mengisi perut

o       makan – eating
o       mengisi perut – eating to fill the stomach, just enough (poetic)

mati – korban

o       mati­ – died, killed
o       korban ­ - died, killed unnecessarily and/or senselessly, sacrificed

menderita – sakit

o       menderita – prolonged suffering (emphasis on the suffering), in pain, unable to function at all
o       sakit ­– ill, not well

5. Euphemisms

Euphemism is common in many languages. Language speakers create euphemisms where there are subjects that they do not want to talk about directly. BM is well-known for its figurative speech (ungkapan, simpulan bahasa, peribahasa, kiasan, pantun) for the purpose of poetry, politeness and not loosing face. Euphemisms in BM, like many other languages, are related to death, sex, body parts and honour (although as a speaker, we know they are used in almost anything). For example,

Lexical item Standard Euphemism
sex seks bersetubuh
virginity dara mahkota gadis
penis kemaluan (genitals) keris
useless sia-sia gajah putih
death meninggal dunia menghembus nafas terakhir
propose (marriage) meminang memetik bunga di taman
murder bunuh tamatkan riwayat
enemy musuh gunting dalam lipatan

6. Technicality of the context

Synonymy also exists due to registers and technical jargons. They enrich the lexicon of a language, where the lexemes are used based on specialisation, profession, business, sports and social activities (such as hobbies); different from everyday language. These registers are necessary to describe something accurately (within that field), and they are a symbol of membership of the user in that particular field. For example,

Lexical item Standard Jargon
lungs paru-paru pulmonari
fabric kain fabrik
impotent mati pucuk impoten
dose sukatan dos
philately mengumpul stem filateli


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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