Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Ibu Sakit Gigi

I had an interesting lesson in grammar recently. About a week ago, Milady had a toothache that ultimately required her tooth to be pulled. As I drove away from the dentist's office, I tried to tell my two-year-old daughter why we had left Ibu (Mother) behind: "Ibu gigi sakit" (literally, "mother teeth hurt"). The maid, who was sitting behind me in the car, corrected my sentence: "Ibu sakit gigi."

I found this difference in syntax interesting. Using the rules of English syntax for a Malay sentence, I was trying to say, "Mother's teeth hurt." But the Malay syntax makes it seem to me that "Mother hurt (her) teeth." In English, of course, we assign blame (or not) in our sentences as the case may be. Milady didn't hurt her teeth deliberately; the tooth began hurting of itself. From my perspective, it seems like the Malay sentence is casting blame on my wife for having hurt her tooth intentionally, even though I know that's not really the case.