Tuesday, January 15, 2013

A Laughter of Eggs?

ADIBAH AMIN takes a look at the fancifulness and quaintness of collective nouns, both the English and Malay varieties

FOREIGN STUDENTS of Malay are charmed, tickled and exasperated by the penjodoh bilangan—literally “number matchers”—that come between a number and the object it “numbers.”

“Why oh why,” they sigh, “must you say a fruit of table when you mean table?” Come to think of it, that is what I have been saying all my life: a fruit of table, house, ship; two trunks of pencil, three legs of umbrella, four seeds of coconut.

The English have these too, as in a length of rope, two loaves of bread, three sheets of paper, four heads of cattle, etc., but the English know where to stop.

Not so the Malays. Everything under the sun must be number-matched—not a man but a person of man; not a mouse but a tail of mouse. Scholars even argued about what to use for hantus (ghosts): a person of hantu or a tail of hantu. Finally it was left open, to be decided by the appearance and character of the hantu concerned. Only abstract nouns escape number-matching, taking the simple suatu meaning “a,” but even here some people insist on saying a fruit of idea rather than just an idea.

Most of us take the number matchers for granted in Malay. But translate some of them into English and we are struck by their strangeness and wonder how on earth they came to be thought of.

You can see the point about using person for human beings, tail for animals, trunk for long hard object, sheet for thin flat objects, even seed for fruit. A book of bread seems apt enough, and so is a formation of ring. But a shoot of letter? Can it be because letters of old were scrolls and when rolled up looked like banana shoots? Shoot is used for guns too, sepucuk senapang, but the pun works only in English because the Malay word for shoot in the sense of fire a gun is entirely different: tembak. And serawan jala, “a sadness of fishing net,” is enough to give you a guilt complex over the plight of fishermen or the fate of fish depending on your point of view.

What a quaint language, what fanciful people, murmur my foreign friends. Ah, but last week an Englishman I know, a physiologist with philological leanings, gave me Eric Partridge’s Usage and Abusage (1970), saying I might find it amusing to look at the section on sports technicalities.

I did, and did I! In that section, under “group terms: nouns of assemblage and company,” I came across a wealth of collective nouns I never dreamt existed in the English language.

At school I only learnt a herd of cattle, a flock of sheep, a swarm of bees and other pedestrian stuff. A school of fish fetched a giggle or two, and that was that. Why could I not have had a teacher with a sporting background to teach me gorgeous things like: a murder of crows, an unkindness of ravens, a charm of hummingbirds, an army of frogs? And to think that I have used English for three decades without suspecting it contains gems like a business of ferrets and a skulk of foxes.

How eagerly I learn up the terms now, noting particularly that (tame) cats are a cluster and (young) cats are a kindle. What about wild old cats, you may ask. Ah, well, they are probably lone hunters. It is interesting to learn too that while cattle is a drove or a herd just like Teacher said, in Australian it is a mob.

What larks—an exaltation of larks—I am going to have using the language from now on, especially as the book also lists suggested collective nouns for modern times on the lines of particularly imaginative medieval terms like a rascal of boys, a gaggle of gossips, a hastiness of cooks and a laughter of eggs (perhaps the result of hasty cooking?).

My favourites among the suggestions are a dampness of babies, a bareness of bathers, and a corpulence of councillors.

Perhaps in the next edition of Usage and Abusage, Partridge will consider including some Malaysian suggestions—say, a tergendala of television evenings, a rojak of road repairs?

Reproduced from As I Was Passing II, by Adibah Amin (MPH Publishing)


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