In Malay there is a syllable-final -h with some unique properties distinct from the "normal" syllable-initial h. But in all the accounts of the language I can only see a single symbol used, the regular unadorned h.

From the Wikipedia article on Malay phonology:

/h/ is pronounced clearly between like vowels, as in Pahang. Elsewhere it is a very light sound, and is frequently silent, as in hutan ~ utan ('forest'), sahut ~ saut ('answer'), like Romance languages. The exception to this tendency is initial /h/ from Arabic loans such as hakim ('judge').

From Lonely Planet Malay Phrasebook, 2nd Edition:

h     always pronounced. Stressed a little more strongly than in English, as if you were sighing. This heavy pronunciation is especially evident for words of Arabic origin, when the 'h' appears between two vowels that are the same;

(h)   at the end of a word, in brackets, a breathier, slightly prolonged version of the preceding vowel sound

But what options do we have when we want to do narrow transcriptions to illustrate the actual sounds in detail?

  • 1
    Surely it's just a glottal fricative? At least, that's how it's usually described in acoustic analyses of Malay varieties that I've seen, though I assume voicing and duration vary depending on position; but they can be indicated with standard IPA. Commented Nov 22, 2014 at 22:31
  • Yes I'm looking for which symbols or diacritics from standard IPA are applicable. I've added another non-linguist description from a second source. Commented Nov 23, 2014 at 5:29

2 Answers 2


The Malay textbook I have (Дорофеева, Т. В.; Кукушкина, Е. С.. Учебник малайского (малайзийского) языка. М. Академия гуманитарных исследований, 2006) does use a special IPA symbol for the word-final h and the one between different vowels: boleh /boleʰ/, tahu /taʰu/. See page 26.

The textbook is very detailed in its phonetic part and uses the IPA to explain the pronunciation of the alophones.

  • 1
    Oh the same symbol used for aspirated consonants. I was actually thinking this would make sense! Commented Nov 22, 2014 at 14:39
  • 1
    I don't see why that makes sense. It looks like a claim that aspiration is a secondary quality of (some) vowels, i.e. breathy vowels, but these have their own IPA diacritic, thusly [i̤ ]. Commented Nov 23, 2014 at 6:53

The cited Wikipedia article is extremely weak. “Elsewhere it is a very light sound, and is frequently silent, as in hutan ~ utan ('forest'), sahut ~ saut ('answer'), like Romance languages.” First of all, this is ungrammatical (it should be “as in Romance languages”). More significantly, it appears that the anonymous author does not understand the difference between phonology, phonetics, and spelling. The "h" in (for example) French “homme” is not a “very light sound” but merely a historic spelling for /zero/. Malay /h/ is a phoneme, which can be realised phonetically in different ways, though to call it “a very light sound” is not exactly the pinnacle of phonetic sophistication. Insofar as it is a phoneme, it is legitimate to represent it with a single symbol /h/ in phonological transcription.

  • Yes I thought there was something much better but when I decided to post a question here and went back to look at the articles I couldn't find anything better than this quote )-: I must've read something better in my phrasebook or elsewhere on the web but couldn't find a solid quote by Googling. Commented Nov 22, 2014 at 14:41

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.