Thursday, 6 February 2014

Malay Language in Cyrillic Script (Абжад Сирил Мәлаю) - Part 1 - Introduction

Сәламат датаҥ дан салам сәжаҳтәра!


Have you ever though about creating a new way to write a language? People have been using various forms of writing to convey messages in many different languages. In the modern days of globalisation, the world have converged into one huge interconnected village where we can learn about other people's cultures at a touch of a button. Language is one of the those things you can learn, and I really love learning them. Through this experience, I have adapted a seemingly alien writing system to my mother tongue, Malay.


It is time for me to unveil to the world the Malay Cyrillic Alphabet. It is a writing system which is derived from the Russian Cyrillic script containing unique letters to fit the different sounds that are absent in Russian. The way it is used is explained below.

The script is called the Malay Cyrillic Alphabet in English and Малайский кириллице in Russian.

In Malay I have named it (in Rumi) Abjad Cyril Melayu / (in Jawi) ابجد سيريل ملايو / (in Cyrillic) Абжад Сирил Мәлаю.


Why Cyrillic???

Many people found it puzzling and strange that I chose this script to be adapted for Malay. Previously, I have tried adapting other writing systems for Malay. I have tried to write it in Japanese Hiragana and Katakana, but I found it very impractical. It was difficult to adapt sounds needed for Malay and the consonants were almost always inseparable from the vowels. When I learnt the Russian Cyrillic alphabet, I found it the most natural choice for a new 'unofficial' third Malay writing system which is quite simple to use.

Background of Cyrillic Script Usage

The Cyrillic script is  an alphabetic writing system used widely throughout Asia and Europe, particularly in the former Soviet countries. A long time ago it was developed from the Greek script like the Latin alphabet we use to write English. This is why some of the letters are the same in both Cyrillic and Latin.

Originally it is used for the Slavic languages such as Russian, Ukrainian, Belarusian, Bulgarian and Serbian. The use of this script spread to other non-Slavic languages during the Tsarist and Soviet eras.

This map shows the extent of the usage of Cyrillic scripts around the world. Dark green countries have Cyrillic as their official script, while light green shows that Cyrillic is unofficial but is in widespread use.

Many languages of native peoples living in the Caucasus, Siberia, the Russian Far East and Central Asia were each given an official variant of the Cyrillic alphabet to follow to write their languages during the Soviet Union. Today, many of these languages still use the Cyrillic alphabet, but each are different in their own way. The alphabet is suited for each language by adding new letters not found in Russian and removing incompatible ones. This is done to match the sounds of the language. More than 30 languages around the Eurasian region currently uses the Cyrillic script.


The Russian Cyrillic is considered the most common variant, since the language has the most speakers among the Cyrillic-using languages. It is also the language of international and inter-ethnic communication between people all over the former Soviet Union countries.

The Cyrillic script has some really useful functions. The use of the script has helped lots of people learn Russian by writing their own language in it. Many countries who use the Cyrillic script in their (non-Russian) languages have a large percentage of Russian speakers. Cyrillic is also more unique and easily adaptable compared to Latin letters.

In the Malay Latin (Rumi) alphabet, the letters are completely the same as the English alphabet it was based on. This means that Rumi lacks any distinction from the rest of other Latin alphabet variations. The Cyrillic alphabets are very different in that they have included or removed different letters and diacritics which differentiates them from each other yet being visually similar as well. For example, the Ukrainian Cyrillic alphabet uses і and ї while the Russian Cyrillic variant does not. No variants of Cyrillic for any languages are the same. Each variant is unique in its own way. For a complete list of all of the Cyrillic alphabets, please click this link.

History of Development

Before deciding to present this publicly, I have shown it to my family members. Unfortunately, they were not very receptive or excited as I am, but I am determined to continue my work in this project and to let you all know that I am working hard to make this script more known to other speakers of Malay. Soon enough, I will try to translate everything here into Malay for this purpose.

I visited Russia for the first time in January 2013. I loved the environment and natural beauty very much, but I also started loving the exotic-looking Russian language. The signboards everywhere are written in Russian. Very little is in English and learning at least how to read the Cyrillic script and a few basic phrases will help you to survive living as an expat there.

Unlike Arabic and English whose scripts I have was taught since the time I could read, I had to start learning Cyrillic from scratch. It was the same experience I had when learning Hiragana (ひらがな) and Katakana (カタカナ) scripts in Japanese, except it was extremely easier! It was a familiar system in general: an alphabet with each letter representing specific sounds put together in a word. I sat down and read my parents' Lonely Planet Russian Phrasebook to immerse myself with the letters. A few are the same as Latin, but some are also misleadingly similar. A mirror image of 'R' (Я) is actually 'YA" while Russian Р is the same as Latin R. All this made recognising and memorising letters a huge challenge for a first-timer like myself.

Eventually I did remember more-or-less how the alphabet looked and sounded like. Always when I pass by a sign in the streets or in the bus, I try to read it using the knowledge I learn from the book. Slowly, little by little, I also start to understand it's meanings. Utilising what I learnt is what made me remember it in my head so I don't forget. I visited Russia 2 more times later that year and this year. By now I am fluent in recognising and reading out Russian writing (although sometimes my pronunciation may be inaccurate).

When I returned to Malaysia, I thought of an idea for me to keep using the Cyrillic which I learnt. Why not make a Cyrillic alphabet based on the Russian model for Malay? So I set out to work and made a first model alphabet for Malay. I knew that I had to make some tweaks and add unique letters here and there, but it wasn't very different from the current alphabet.

The biggest difference in the first version was that I included Ь and Ъ (the soft sign and the hard sign). I used Ь very differently from Russian; Ь was the marker to indicate that the e is a schwa (/ə/). Ъ was used to represent W's sound. This was modified as it looked unnatural and takes up a lot of space when written.

Eventually the system below became the finished Cyrillic alphabet for Malay. I have omitted 5 original Russian letters.

Below are also explanations as to why I have removed them and how they may be used if necessary (alternative uses).
  • ц
    • Reasons for deletion:
      • Very few sounds in Malay with 'ts' sound and spelling
      • Found in a few loan words, i.e. tsunami
      • Could easily be represented by 'тс' instead
    • Alternative uses:
      • May become accepted as part of alphabet if used to represent ث
      • For example: حديث / hadis ҳадиц
      • This is still under discussion, since there are relatively few words with this sound
  • щ
    • Reason for deletion:
      • Absolutely no use in Malay since there is no 'shch' spelling or sound
  • ъ
    • Reason for deletion:
      • The role of ъ in Russian to mark a sound as 'hard' or separate syllables (without having a y sound).
      • This role is absent in Malay, which means that it is not needed at all 
    • Alternative uses:
      • Before the introduction of ў, it was used to replace W in Malay
  • ы
    • Reason for deletion:
      • There is very few, almost negligible amount of words with Y coming directly after the consonant (i.e. Lycra)
      • This could easily be represented by й instead (i.e. Лйкра)
    • Alternative uses:
      • May become accepted as part of alphabet if used to represent YI (see below for YI problem under 'When Y meets vowels')
      • For example: bayi → баы
      • This is still under discussion, since there are relatively few words with this sound
  • ь
    • Reason for deletion:
      • The role of ь in Russian to mark a sound as 'soft' or having a slight y sound between or at the end of syllables.
      • This role is absent in Malay, which means that it is not needed at all.
    • Alternative uses:
      • Before the introduction of ә it was used as a mark to show that E is pronounced as a schwa (i.e. беьсар = бәсар = besar)
      • It may still be used like that to represent ә since certain fonts do not support the ә letter

The Alphabet System

The picture above is the complete Cyrillic alphabet for Malay. It has 34 letters in total.
As you can see letters which are coloured in red are not found in Russian Cyrillic while the rest of the letters are. Let me explain further:

The vowels:

Malay has 6 distinct vowel sounds: /a/, /i/, /u/, /o/, /e/ and most importantly /ə/.
In Rumi (Latin alphabet) sounds are represented like this:

A as /a/ like in car or as /ə/ at the end of a word like the i in bird
I as /i/ like in sink or as /e/ before a consonant like the e in bed
as /u/ like in booor as /o/ before a consonant like the o in rock
O as in /o/ like in rock
E has dual functions: as /e/ like in bed or as /ə/.like the i in bird.

In Malay Cyrillic, the roles of vowels are replaced systematically but with a few specific rules. Cyrillic spellings of vowels and diphthongs correspond to their Latin counterparts.
  • Latin A = Cyrillic А
    • Example: акар (akar, root)
    • Example: раса (rasa, taste)
  • Latin I = Cyrillic И
    • Example: бисик (bisik, whisper)
    • Example: кири (kiri, left)
  • Latin U = Cyrillic У
    • Example: лупут (luput, expire)
    • Example: бару (baru, new)
  • Latin O = Cyrillic О
    • Example: обор-обор (obor-obor, jellyfish)
    • Example: бороҥ (borong, wholesale)
The rules above is followed in all cases, even in diphthongs except if the letter before the vowel is Y. This will be explained below in "When Y meets vowels"

The special case is with Latin letter E. Since it has dual function to represent the schwa (upside down e sound) and the e sound, it would cause ambiguity to readers. In addition to that, Russian Cyrillic has to letters to represent the E sound: Э and Е. Although Е carry a YE sound instead of E, sometimes the sound sounds like E anyway after letters like Ч and Ш when the Y is not pronounced in Russian. Э on the other hand exclusively corresponds to Latin E. Both letters are incorporated in the Malay Cyrillic alphabet.

Here is the rule for writing E in Malay Cyrillic:
  • When E occurs at the initial of a word and sounds like /e/, Э should be used.
    • Example: экор (ekor, tail)
    • Example: экономи (ekonomi, economy)
  • When E occurs anywhere in the word and sounds like /ə/, it is always written with Ә.
    • Example: әмас (emas, gold)
    • Example: бәсар (besar, big)
  • When E occurs in the middle or end of the word and sounds like /e/, it is written with Е except! (see below examples):
    • Example: телефон (telefon, telephone)
    • Example: темпе (tempe, fermented soy patty)
  • When E occurs in the middle of the word, sounds like /e/ and has another vowel before it, Э must be used.
    • Example: даэраҳ (daerah, district)
    • Example: каэдаҳ (kaedah, method

When Y occurs before the vowels


The rules above is followed in all cases,  except if the letter before the vowel is Y. In Malay Cyrillic, YE is represented by Е, so this letter carries dual function. Fortunately in Malay, the /je/ or YE sound is very rare and only occurs in foreign loan words and place names. For example: Сараево (Sarajevo) and Аер Кәроҳ (Ayer Keroh). This rule does not apply for schwa e or /ə/. 

Special letters in Cyrillic are assigned for YA, YU and YO.
  • Latin Ya = Cyrillic Я
    • Example: яҥ (yang, that)
    • Example: баяр (bayar, pay)
    • Example: буая (buaya, crocodile)
  • Latin Yu = Cyrillic Ю
    • Example: юран (yuran, fee)
    • Example: саюр (sayur, vegetable)
  • Latin Yo = Cyrillic Ё
    • Example: ёга (yoga, yoga)
    • Example: ёҥ тау фу (yong tau fu, Chinese-style tofu)
As you can see, there is an apparent problem with YI and YE (schwa). As of now, there are no proper way to write them since the original Russian Cyrillic alphabet does not have them. As I continue to improve the Malay Cyrillic alphabet, I will find a solution to solve this problem. YI is rare in Malay, appering only in a few words such as bayi (baby) and non-Malay names such as Ying (a Chinese name).


Important note: This does not apply to any vowel which follow after 'NY' or 'SY' like in menyanyi or syampu. It is a consonant digraph on its own that is assigned its own special letters: Ң and Ш.

When Y occurs after the vowels


There is a special letter in Malay Cyrillic that indicate Y after a vowel: Й. It is used in proper names, transliteration of foreign names and place names only. Due to this Й is not a consonant at all, but part of the Y+vowel family. The prime exeption for this rule is the spelling of Cyrillic in Malay. In Latin letters it is spelt as Cyril but spelt in this Cyrillic alphabet as Сирил instead of Сйрил or Сирйл.

Examples:
Place names: Malaysia Малайсиа
Transliteration: Tolstoy → Толстой

The consonants:

Normal consonant letters:

  • Б = /b/, corresponds to Latin B
    • Example: бату (batu, stone)
  • В = /v/, corresponds to Latin V
    • Example: ванила (vanila, vanilla)
  • Г = /g/, corresponds to Latin G
    • Example: гажаҳ (gajah, elephant)
  • Д = /d/, corresponds to Latin D
    • Example: даун (daun, leaf)
  • Ж = //, corresponds to Latin J
    • Example: жалан (jalan, road)
  • З = /z/, corresponds to Latin Z
    • Example: зирафаҳ (zirafah, giraffe)
  • К = /k/, corresponds to Latin K and in loanwords and foreign place names, C
    • Example: каин (kain, cloth)
    • Example: Кроатиа (Croatia, Croatia)
  • Қ = /q/, corresponds to Latin Q
    • Example: қари (qari, male Quran reciter)
  • Л = /l/, corresponds to Latin L
    • Example: лари (lari, run)
  • М = /m/, corresponds to Latin M
    • Example: мана (mana, where)
  • Н = /n/, corresponds to Latin N
    • Example: наси (nasi, cooked rice)
  • П = /p/, corresponds to Latin P
    • Example: пинту (pintu, door)
  • Р = /r/, corresponds to Latin R
    • Example: рамбут (rambut, hair)
  • С =  = /s/, corresponds to Latin S
    • Example: сакит (sakit, sick)
  • Т = /t/, corresponds to Latin T
    • Example: тикус (tikus, mouse)
  • Ў = /w/, corresponds to Latin W
    • Example: ўартаўан (wartawan, journalist)
  • Ф = /f/, corresponds to Latin F
    • Example: фикиран (fikiran, thinking)
  • Ҳ = /h/, corresponds to Latin H
    • Example: ҳати (hati, heart)
  • Ч/tʃ/, corresponds to Latin C
    • Example: чаўан (cawan, cup)

Digraph consonant letters:


These letters are separated because when written in Latin letters they are digraphs, meaning written with two letters. In Malay Cyrillic, it is only written in one letter using letters derived not only from Russian but in the case of Ң and Ҥ, from Kazakh and Mari respectively.

  • Х = /x/, corresponds to digraph 'kh'
    • Example: Хамис (Khamis, Thursday)
  • Ҥ = /ŋ/, corresponds to digraph 'ng'
    • Example: ҥаҥа (nganga, agape)
  • Ң = /ɲ/, corresponds to digraph 'ny'
    • Example: ңамук (nyamuk, mosquito)
  • Ш = /ʃ/, corresponds to digraph 'sy' or 'sh'
    • Example: шампу (syampu, shampoo)

Comparisons with Established Forms of Written Malay

The National Anthem of Malaysia - "Negaraku" - "Нәгараку" - "نݢاراکو"

Jawi - Arabic alphabet


نڬاراكو،
تانه تومڤهڽ دارهكو،
رعيت هيدوڤ، برساتو دان ماجو،
رحمة بهاڬيا، توهن كورنياكن،
راج كيت، سلامت برتختا!
رحمة بهاڬيا، توهن كورنياكن،
راج كيت، سلامت برتختا!

Rumi - Latin alphabet

Negaraku,
Tanah tumpahnya darahku,
Rakyat hidup, bersatu dan maju,
Rahmat bahagia, Tuhan kurniakan,
Raja kita, Selamat bertakhta!
Rahmat bahagia, Tuhan kurniakan,
Raja kita, Selamat bertakhta!

Malay Cyrillic alphabet

Нәгараку,
Танаҳ тумпаҳңа дараҳку,

Ракят ҳидуп, бәрсату дан мажу,

Раҳмат баҳагиа, Туҳан курниакан,
Ража кита, сәламат бәртахта!
Раҳмат баҳагиа, Туҳан курниакан,
Ража кита сәламат бәртахта!