Q&A: Difference between ‘tak’ and ‘ke’ in a question

Q&A: Difference between ‘tak’ and ‘ke’ in a question

Asked by Himel Ahmed in Lesson 13: Speaking to the cashier at the payment counter

 

QUESTION

Hi, I have a confusion between ‘Tak‘ and ‘Ke‘. I guess both of them are used for asking something. Hope you will explain it. Thanks a lot.

 

ANSWER

Hello Himel, that is a very good question.

In colloquial Malay, they seem almost completely interchangeable. You hear them both at the end of a sentence that is meant to be presented as a question.

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Let’s tackle ‘ke‘ first.

The finer difference is that ‘ke‘ (I believe, but I could be wrong) is the informal version of ‘kah‘ of formal Malay. Like if you look at formal Malay texts, you will see questions such as ‘where, when, what, why, who, how’ accompanied by a ‘kah‘ right after the interrogative word.

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EXAMPLE 1

Formal

Di manakah rumah awak? : Where is your house?

Informal
Rumah awak kat mana? : Where is your house? (Same meaning, but no ‘ke‘ in informal Malay. Just a change of arrangement and word from ‘di‘ to ‘kat‘)

If you still use ‘ke‘ in this particular sentence, it will sound strange…

Informal (Example of wrong usage of ke)
Rumah awak kat mana ke? : Where is your house, is it not? (As you can see, using ‘ke‘ here is out of place. Also it is redundant since the ‘kat mana‘ part is already a question, so it does not need the help of ‘ke‘ to make it sound like a question)

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If you want to use ‘ke‘ the right way in informal Malay, the question has to be in a way that seeks a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ confirmation rather than it being an open-ended question like the above example.

EXAMPLE 2

Informal with ‘ke
Rumah awak yang ini ke? : Is your house this one? (‘Ke‘ makes it sound like a question)

Informal without ‘ke
Rumah awak yang ini : This is your house (If you don’t know how to say it in the right questioning tone, the absence of ‘ke‘ makes the sentence sound like a statement of fact instead of a question)

This is why sometimes I translate ‘ke‘ as ‘or not’ in my lessons because the presence of ‘ke‘ automatically transforms the whole sentence into a question. So technically, ke‘ literally acts like a question mark. If I just put a ‘?’ in my translation, people might get confused.

Summary: The informal version (ke) is used in a ‘yes or no’ kind of question whereas the formal version (kah) can be used in both open-ended and close-ended questions.

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Now let’s tackle ‘tak‘ which is the informal, short form of the formal ‘tidak

Formal
Mahu atau tidak mahu? : Want or don’t want?

Informal
Nak tak? : Want or not?

Summary: ‘Tak‘ is also used as a close-ended question. It is also very similar to ‘ke‘ in a sense that without a ‘tak‘ in the question, it becomes a statement when said without the right questioning tone.

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DIFFERENCE between ‘tak‘ and ‘ke

There is a really subtle difference in meaning that doesn’t come through in English.

EXAMPLE: Is this blouse pretty?

Baju ni cantik tak? : For this particular question, it has some strong expectations to it. Even though one can respond with ‘yes the blouse is pretty’ or ‘no the blouse is ugly’, the ‘tak‘ is usually used to gently nudge people into agreeing with you. Use this if you’re looking for consent*.

Baju ni cantik ke? : Sounds less sure. So if you’re on the fence and want a more genuine, unbiased answer, use ‘ke‘. It sounds like you’re still making up your mind.

Other than the above…
• There is no rule governing the right usage of ‘ke‘ and ‘tak‘ in colloquial Malay other than it ‘sounds right to my local ear’.
• I feel that the difference happens by pure preference. So over time, one tends to sound ‘more right’ than the other because more people use it in a certain way more times and it becomes an unwritten rule.
• Generally though, I feel ‘tak‘ is more widely used than ‘ke‘ in seeking confirmation.
• I would say they are generally interchangeable

*Note: But not all questions with ‘tak‘ expects consent. Like in the case of finding out about someone, like ‘Is he friendly?’, you can ask ‘Dia peramah tak?‘. No expectations in it. Just a purely, objective question.

Haha I’m sorry if I end up confusing you more. It’s really difficult. NO RULES for this one. I really tried.

If anyone wants to leave a comment and continue the discussion here, please feel free!



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