The Particularities of Malagasy

The Malagasy alphabet has constantly undergone changes and has been updated because the first character set created many issues and limitations. In 1828, it was officially established that the vowel “o” could be pronounced /u/ as in “do” and /ɒ/ as in “hot,” as is the case in English. In the 1823 alphabet, both sounds were represented by separate vowels: the vowel “u” was pronounced [u] and the vowel “o” pronounced [ɒ]. The 1828 alphabet consisted of 20 characters, as the vowel “u” was removed.

In 1962, another change was implemented. It concerned two letters: a vowel “ô was added to the alphabet to represent the sound /ɒ/, despite the fact that this was against the standards of the API, and the n-tilde consonant “ñ was introduced to represent the sound of “gn”, which is present in many regional dialects. Additional changes were needed when foreign terms containing the five excluded letters were adopted by Malagasy people; such terms were often used in jargon for mining, industrialization and technology. As a result, in 2001, the government adopted a new alphabet with 26 characters: a, b, c, d, e, f, g, h, i, j, k, l, m, n, ñ, o, p, q, r, s, t, u, v, w, x, y and z.

The Particularities of Malagasy Challenge Its Use and Survival

Despite all of the changes the alphabet has undergone, there are still difficulties when using the Malagasy language:

  • It is hard to know in what case the vowel “o” is pronounced /u/ as in “do” or [ɒ] as in “hot,” given that the newly introduced vowel “u” represents the French vowel /u/ pronounced /y/ as in déjà-vu.
  • The addition and removal of letters in the Malagasy alphabet continues to create confusion among native speakers, especially when writing: “ô” can be used in writing to represent the sound /ɒ/ as in “hot,” yet some Malagasy still use the vowel “o” pronounced /u/ as in “do” to write the sound /ɒ/ as in “hot.”
  • Most Malagasy words are lengthy, which is an issue in translation. This mainly affects the localization of texts into Malagasy that must be put in a limited available space, particularly in the domain of telecommunications.
  • The lack of officially-established Malagasy translations for many new foreign words or concepts, particularly in the domains of technology, Internet, and telecommunications, may contribute to a slow impoverishment of the Malagasy language, which could lead to its demise.
  • When there is no established translation, it is difficult for translators to choose between keeping a foreign word or using a Malagasized form of the foreign word due to the fact that the latter may be incorrectly written and, therefore, misunderstood.
  • The predominance of the French language, inherited from Madagascar’s colonizers, makes it difficult to promote the use of Malagasy translations that are accurate equivalents of many foreign words.
  • Malagasy has a rare verb–object–subject word order, which poses a challenging for non-native speakers.
  • Foreign users could easily be confused by the particularity of some Malagasy words. For example, the Malagasy equivalent of the personal pronoun “we” has two forms: “izahay” refers to the speaker and a second person when the speaker is speaking to that second person, but “isika” refers to the speaker and a second person when the speaker is speaking to a third person or an audience.
  • In terms of spelling, combined words also create an issue, as some are joined by a hyphen and others not. Both forms exist and are commonly used, however. For example, both “fanatanjahan-tena” and “fanatanjahantena” (literally “strengthening of – the body,” meaning “sports”) are used and understood, but neither of them is officially established as the correct spelling.
  • No spell checker exists for the Malagasy language, which further accentuates the above-mentioned issues.
  • There is a lack of monolingual and bilingual dictionaries for the language, and the few that exist were likely published over a century ago. These contain outdated terms and are desperately lacking in new, modern terms.
  • The Malagasy equivalent of the English definite article “the” is “ny,” and the indefinite article is omitted or replaced by the number “iray” (one).
  • Malagasy nouns do not have gender and do not inflect for number.

Malagasy can be written on any keyboard with Latin character sets (mainly the AZERTY or QWERTY keyboards). However, the keyboard used most often is AZERTY, as it makes writing accents easier. The only special character in Malagasy is the n-tilde ñ, sometimes simply written as gn, which represents the “velar nasal /ŋ/ as well as palatal nasal /ɲ/” consonant form of n. The n-tilde is used in some Malagasy dialects. It is mainly used orally and rarely appears in manuscripts or documents. As a result, its existence does not represent a challenge.

About Gabriella Ralaivao

I am a professional translator living in Mauritius. I have a strong command of Malagasy, English, French, and Mauritian Creole. I received my B.A. in English and M.A. in Translation Studies from the University of Antananarivo in Madagascar.