Monday 10 September 2012

The "cooperative rise" in Malay English

My PhD student Noor Fadhilah Mat Nayan, who successfully defended her thesis on my birthday earlier this year, has written on intonation in Malay English - as opposed to Malaysian English - and has found an interesting feature (well, it's all interesting as far as I'm concerned but this is one of the most interesting bits).  She calls this feature the "cooperative rise".

Unlike uptalk - also known as the high-rising terminal or HRT (see Wikipedia on this topic) - the pattern is not used in statements, which would commonly have a falling tone in my English but not that of my undergraduate students (I sometimes joke that I'm too young for one type of HRT and too old for the other!  Ahem).  The use of uptalk is common in American and Australian English and, in fact, its appearance in British English is sometimes blamed on the popularity since the 1980s of Australian soap operas, which usually feature younger speakers many of whom use uptalk.  From the point of view of discourse meaning, one suggestion is that using a high-rising terminal at the end of a phrase is an appeal to the listener to be more involved in the conversation, and another is that it shows the reader is seeking approval from the listener in a sort of "inclusion in the social group" kind of way.

In Malay English, however, the cooperative rise identified by Noor seems to be doing something slightly different.  Here's a transcript of an example, where the tones are indicated at the start of the tone unit as follows: R = rise, CR = cooperative rise, F = fall and L = level.

 / CR oK | CR we move forWARD | R STRAIGHT | F we going DOWN | F SOrry | CR we going DOWN | CR and THEN | CR move forWARD | CR go STRAIGHT | L and THEN | L we going to GO | CR we going to turn RIGHT | ... /

Stressed syllables here are marked with capitals.  You can see that Malay English does not necessarily stress the same syllables as e.g. British English, which would have initial stress on forward in this passage.  We found that the stress in polysyllabic words could be quite variable with e.g. monastery being stressed MONastery, monaSTERy and monaST'RY by the same speaker.

Noor's data is from map tasks and so the bulk of the interaction is spent giving directions.  The CR is found to be statistically significantly different in pitch range and duration from the "normal" rising tone and seems to be used by Malay speakers of English to slowly guide the interlocutor in an encouraging and highly cooperative way, as if to say "let's work this problem out this together".  There is no question that the listener is paying attention, as there might be with HRT, and no sense that the speaker is seeking social approval.  There's a definite soothing, laid back feel about the speech ... and I have to say it sounds very attractive when you listen to the recordings.

Anyone who is au fait with the English spoken by Malay speakers will no doubt have come across this feature but nobody had documented it until now.  We'll be writing some research papers on this soon so keep an eye out for them.

[Dear readers - I do apologise for not having posted anything in a while.  Life has not got any less hectic - I'm now Head of the Department of English Language & Applied Linguistics for one thing - but I'll try to visit and update this blog more often.]


  1. I have the Dr. Noor's thesis . It is really of great benefit for those who are interested in the World of Englishes and Phonetics particularly 'Intonation'.

  2. this is really an interesting topic. Malay English (or as we call it, Manglish) is really different yet attractive