Saturday, 26 September 2009

Grammatical lunacy - a view from between the coconut palms


Regular readers of No Good Boyo's erudite blatherings will recently have been entertained and/or baffled by a mind-warpingly detailed discussion of the relative ease-of-use of Latvian and Polish. And lest there are any monoglot Brits out there saying to themselves "So, do all these foreign languages come draped with unnecessary and impossible-to-memorise grammatical fripperies?" I say unto them "No, indeed not."

Indonesian (or Malaysian as the Malaysians insist on call it. Or Malay as the Singaporeans insist on calling it... Or indeed Melayu as the Bruneians insist on calling it*) is a wonderfully intuitive tongue, which does away with articles, tenses, cases, and - largely - the verb 'to be'. So, for instance, to construct the statement "I am a teacher", one need simply say "Saya guru" - literally 'I teacher'. Whatever the head word is comes first and modifiers follow; so 'My teacher' would be "Guru saya". Neat, eh? (Unfortunately it also means word order is sometimes flexible and sometimes critically important - I once intended to ask someone the time and instead asked them how many watches they were wearing ["Jam berapa?" vs "Berapa jam?"])

This makes Indonesian in general a delightful language for grammarphobes (they say it takes 2 months to learn it passably; and the rest of your lifetime to learn to speak properly). However, when grammarphobic students get to lesson five or thereabouts and have to start forming transitive verbs, many of them start whimpering as it is discovered they are also morphology-phobes. Like all Austronesian languages (Tagalog, Malagasy and Maori to name but three), Indonesian is agglutinative, meaning that forming sentences may be easy but forming the words in them can sometimes be bafflingly hard.

This is partly because prefixes not only slot onto the start of roots, they cause the initial consonants to mutate into homorganic nasals (so 'p' and 'b' become 'm', 't' and 'd' become 'n', 'k' and 'g' become 'ng' and so forth). This means that untangling prefixes and their warping effects is a critical skill to acquire before you can even use a dictionary - you'll find 'pengecilan' (diminution), for instance, under 'k' for 'kecil' (small) - a letter under which the uninitiated would never think of searching since it doesn't appear anywhere in the word. On the plus side, learning a few comparatively simple roots and add-ons makes learning vocabulary comparatively easy.

There is also the excitingly randomising feature that while most words with multiple affixes (the catch-all term for prefixes and suffixes; and in some Austronesian languages infixes and simulfixes, which are even more fun) can be built up lego-like from their constituent parts, occasionally a word can acquire an unexpected meaning that can throw you off.

I once encountered an American who had attempted to translate the English word 'shyness/emabarrasment' from the root adjective (or stative verb, depending on which side of that particular grammatical controversy you place yourself) by taking the root word 'malu' ('shy, embarrased') and adding the ke-****-an simulfix, turning it into an abstract noun. Unfortunately, 'kemaluan' is a common euphemism for genitalia. What he meant was to say he was very diffident about doing something (making a speech, I believe it was). What landed in the ears of his Indonesian listeners' ears was "I have an ENORMOUS todger!" ["Kemaluan saya besar..."]


Someone else of my acquaintance, when on a language course in Bali, found the window of his boarding-house room stuck and wished to open it. Unfortunately, he had confused the word jendela (window) with celana (trousers). Add to which the curiosity by which the same verb - buka - is used both for 'to open' [a window, door, box etc]and 'to remove [an item of clothing]', and you have the ingredients for classic comic misunderstanding. He sought out the landlord's 17-year old daughter and asked what he thought was "Can you help open my window?" What came out, inevitably, was "Can you help me remove my trousers?"

When she recoiled in confusion and embarrassment, he effortlessly made the situation far worse by saying "Just come to my room - I'll push from the inside and you can pull from the outside!" It was at this point that he had an opportunity to reflect on what a graceful thing a Balinese girl's running action is when seen from behind to the accompaniment of melodious shrieking.

*The number of native speakers is consistently underestimated owing to the consistency with which the countries where it's spoken happily chat to each other perfectly well and then insist vehemently that their languages are mutually incomprehensible (see also Czech vs Slovak, Hindi vs Urdu, Serbian vs Croatian, Norwegian vs Swedish vs Danish...)

7 comments:

The Jules said...

lol - Did he chase her, repeating it a few times? And then claim his meaning was lost in translation?

I want to start using infixes and simulfixes now.

No Good Boyo said...

Delighted to see that voicing letters for idiotic grammatical reasons (mutation) is not an exclusively Celtic malady.

Russian and Ukrainian don't bother with the verb "to be" in the present tense, but more than make up for it in other respects.

Welsh has four different versions of "to be" depending on whether you are making a statement, putting a question, answering one or looking for a fight.

Gyppo Byard said...

Jules - He didn't say. The fact that his wife was sitting next to him at the time may have precluded a full and frank discussion of the outcome, though.

English has recently required an infix: "f***ing", as in "unbef***inglievable!" That word also uses the simulfix "un----able", curiously enough...

Boyo - the thought of Welchmen mutating even further makes me feel positively queasy, and I speak here as a person of partially Welch heritage with a genetic disorder; so imagine what that would do to someone normal.

I like the idea of a special grammatical form for picking a fight - a provocative case, so to speak. I've observed that 'being from England and trying to chat up young Blodwen' is normally enough to earn you a severe kicking even if you don't know the language.

inkspot said...

Russian also lacks articles. Moreover the Russian style of mathematical exposition is far more allusive than the German-influenced style familiar in the West; this combination can make reading older Russian mathematics agonizing, since in mathematics an apparently slight difference in meaning can in fact be enormous. These days English is near-universal, and Russians know that their audience demands articles, so they insert them at random. Bastards.

inkspot said...

Gyppo, we crossed.

My amateur view is that your example of an English infix is in fact a tmesis. Boyo's view might be valuable here, as we've discussed this one before.

Gyppo Byard said...

Inkspot bor [that's 'bor' in the Romnichal sense, of course]- I'll take your word for it, having never been able to understand a mathematician in any language. I just nod and try to look intelligent. I dread an Open University course with which I shall soon have to grapple - "mathematics for science". As long as it's taught by non-mathmos who just want to use it as a pragmatic tool of the job I should survive.

As for the tmesis, you're probably right but I was just trying to give a feel for what an infix is. A better example would be 'pe' in chemical nomenclature to indicate hydrogenation (lutidine becoming lupetidine), but that wouldn't have been either as comprehensible or as entertaining.

More to the original point, Tagalog has taken the English verb 'to graduate' and created the active form "grumaduate" [I graduated...] using the common Austronesian 'um' infix (the same as gives us the Javanese 'kumlebet' from 'klebet').

No Good Boyo said...

Is that like the "edumucate" you hear south of the Mason-Dixon line? Usually at a library-burning?