Thursday, April 16, 2009

Vocabulary as Social History

Not about books but I just have to share with you this fascinating post by Rachel Leow * about loanwords in the Malay language, and how they give us insights into the social history of the region.

Her conclusion :
... in the face of the unmistakable traces of Ancient Khmer, Old Tamil, Urdu, Sanskrit and a distinctly Persianized Arabic in the very language that you utter your denials of pre-Islamic-Malay history in — this is masterful hypocrisy. Also, failing to acknowledge the deeply porous character of the Malay language (nearly a third of the Malay-Indonesian language is loaned) might blind us to the way in which two of the most salient ’semantic field’ vacuums in Malaysia, over the last century, have been and are still today being filled by non-Malay terms: science and politics. No prizes for guessing what the words for those in Malay are: sains and, yes, politik.
(Many thanks Caving Liz, for the link.)


dreamer idiot said...

Even English is, as my linguistic professors, would say, a 'bastard' language, with its Germanic, Celtic and Saxon roots, adding to that Norman French etc. and then English went on to take other words in other languages, from India, Africa, North America and our part of the world too.

The main point, however, is that people should recant from the idea of a monolithic cultural 'purity', even while acknowledging the existence of cultural borders and distinction which have over time evolve, mix and intermingle. And obviously, people most guilty of constructing the idea of 'purity' are none other than politicians who used it as a political instrument.

Faizah Roslaini said...

I don't really agree with the conclusion. Those who deny the pre-Islamic Malay history would need to relearn the Malaysian Education History Syllabus from form 1 to from 5, AGAIN.

The very fact that such history was embedded in our very own Sejarah syllabus, compulsory for Form 1 to 5, is an evident that goes against what Rachel said.

And as for 'failing to acknowledge the deeply porous character of the Malay language', I think the words are 'loaned' because we realized that there is a deeply porous character in the language. If the words are already there, why the need to reinvent the wheel and create a set of new ones?

dreamer idiot said...

Faizah Roslaini,

Thanks for your views. We definitely need more of these civil discussion and debate.

Perhaps Rachel is mistaken then, and my suspicion is that, though taught in Sejarah school syllabus, this acknowledgement of a Pre-Islamic past is not 'translated' or evident in the public/political discourses, which are ustead centered on a monolithic, monocentric view of Malay as a culture, language an people. In a sense, what Rachel might be doing is stating evidence for Farish Noor's thesis on the Other Malaysia - one that has been largely suppressed for political ends.

dreamer idiot said...

Btw, just in case I be mistaken, which once happened before on this blog, and though I am as our politicians would term me, a non-, I am concerned about the future of behasa melayu, which I think is a beautiful language that needs to be revivified through its literature (a love for a literature translates to a love for the language, me thinks), but whose present condition I suspect has been exacerbated firstly by a general non-love for books by Malaysians (which also affects literary outputs in the language, not including those purely romance ones), and secondly the alienation of people like myself when the language has been primarily instrumentalized for the kind of exclusionary rhetoric and nationalism which is quite hurtful (sadly speaking).

May we all find the love for the language again.

bibliobibuli said...

DI - am the first to admit english is a mongrel language. quite a lot has been written of its origins but now am really fascinated by the more general questions of how languages travel and how you can use them to excavate the past.

i find too, and i think i've mentioned this before, the ways that the variety of english here differs from other varieties, a great source of fascination.

not sure i agree with the conclusions of the post, but that really is because i really do not know enough ... thought it would be interesting to let the question float though and get other viewpoints

rachel said...

Hi there, it's lovely to see a discussion developing here - readers of my website aren't really Southeast Asian specialists, by and large. Thanks for the link, Sharon.

Faizah - I do hear your point about pre-Islamic history in Sejarah Form 1-5, but I think my point was, on one hand, closer to what Sharon said about the inadequate acknowledgment of pre-Islamic history (and there is so much of it!) in public and political discourse; and on the other hand, simply a point about the potential of linguistics to provide a different window into the past. You're also right that languages (not just Malay - other languages too, and as some commentators pointed out, especially English) can be very porous, but it's certainly not an essential feature of languages. There are some languages in the world that barely loan words at all. For example, Khet, a language spoken by a very small group in Russia, despite being such a minority language, has extremely few loanwords. On the other hand, Romany, the language spoken by Slovak gypsies, despite also being a minority language, borrows more words than any other language in the world. Those are the extremes. Most languages fall in a spectrum between the two. Malay's on the higher end of the spectrum than many: it's partly a testament to how rich and variegated our history is, and to the wonderful flexibility of the Malay language.

Sharon - if you've become interested in such things, I'm reading a wonderful book at the moment about the origins of Indo-European languages, called 'The Horse, the Wheel and Language', by David Anthony. It's a really interesting look at how languages form and branch from one another, and eventually turn into different creatures altogether.

bibliobibuli said...

thanks a lot Rachel. am very glad that i came across your post and blog - and thanks to Liz for that. would indeed by interested in David Anthony's book. love the idea of words having complex histories

the romany dialects are extremely interesting and i have read quite a lot about them (inc a dictionary of the UK variety Anglo-Romanes), and of course pourous english has absorbed romany words. (pal, cosh, chav, ... and the oddest one of all "porridge" meaning "time in prison" which derivess from "stir" which derives from "staripen" - the romany for "four walls").

i am fascinated by the way english words in malaysia often have different shades and colours of meaning from the same words used in for e.g. the UK, and also how certain words came in via british english, but there is a tendency now for english loan words to come from US english via TV and films

Amir Muhammad said...

Extracts from an interview with a respected litterateur just two months ago:

Pada pandangan Dr, bilakah tamadun bahasa Melayu bermula di negara kita?

- Mengikut tulisan Ismail Raji al-Faruqi, apabila tauhid tiba ke sesebuah negara, maka datanglah bersama tamadun Islam itu.Tetapi jika sesesebuah masyarakat itu mempunyai teknologi yang tinggi, mempunyai bandar-bandar yang besar dan hebat di samping kehidupan yang makmur, namun jika tidak bertauhid ; ia masih tidak dapat dianggap sebagai bangsa yang bertamadun.


In other words, there were pre-Muslim Malays, true, but they were *by definition* 'uncivilised'.

Sufian said...

Politic = siasah

No prize for you Rachel Leow

rachel said...

Amir - thanks for that, it's very revealing.

Sufian - according to the Kamus Dewan:

siasah: sj pengetahuan yg bersangkutan dgn hal-hal kenegaraan (pemerintahan dll); politik.

rachel said...

Actually, the etymology of the word "siasah" in Malay is really quite interesting. The word "siasah" only used to imply quite generally the idea of "policy" or "organization", and it was only around the 1920s that it started to become very tentatively yoked to the English word "politics", or "politik", as Malay journalists of the period preferred to spell it. Even by 1941, Ibrahim Yaacob, in his Melihat Tanah Air, if I'm not mistaken, still uses the word "politik" qualified with the word "siasah" afterwards in brackets, and the word "politik" probably suggested at the time a very specific and novel (probably Western) manner of behaviour that people were picking up on from the 1920s onwards.

Now, of course, as you can see from the Dewan entry, the two words have become over time more or less synonymous, though I would say politicians still use the word "politik" in speech a little more often. But maybe I'm wrong there.

Jordan said...

Fascinating stuff. I've always found the ever-increasing percentage of English loanwords in Malay interesting, especially those which take on new meanings (like terror and action). I wrote about this in my blog almost five years ago and have been meaning to post a more complete list. I'm especially fascinated by Malaysians' growing tendency to resort to English pronouns (notably the pronoun you) to avoid committing to certain social distinctions when speaking Malay.
Thanks for posting that link, Sharon!

Damyanti said...

There is an Urdu word called Siasat, is that related to the Malay word Siasah?

Siasat in Urdu means "politics"

Zed Adam said...

The media used to say "belanjawan" but now it's "bajet". Why resort to English words when there are Malay words available? Laziness? Sophistication? Pfft.

I also read somewhere or someone told me that there are only three original Malay words (while others are loaned), but can't remember what they are.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting post Sharon. I have been following your blog for awhile now. Just wanted to point you to an article on language and the construction of post colonial identity that might interest you.’s-rooted-cosmopolitan/

- Simon

Anonymous said...

Yes, that's right, Damyanti, the word "siasat" is an Urdu word meaning (loosely) politics or current affairs, and it's also the name of one of the largest Urdu daily newspapers in India. So it's a "borrowed" word in Malay (I find "borrowed" to be an odd term in this context since the loan is permanent -- maybe "assimilated" is better?), just like "politik" (though an older "borrowing"), and therefore, Sufian, I think Rachel Leow does get her prize after all :-) :-) . Not that she was asking for a prize.

-- Preeta

Anonymous said...

P.S. Or, if "siasat" and "siasah" are two different words -- I'm no expert in etymology -- perhaps the more important point is that "politik" is the far more commonly used word anyway. Usage does count -- what's "correct" and "incorrect" in English is constantly evolving as a result of common usage.

-- Preeta

Anonymous said...

jordan wrote: "...Malaysians' growing tendency to resort to English pronouns (notably the pronoun you) to avoid committing to certain social distinctions when speaking Malay"

that's interesting. malay has several words for the 2nd person personal pronoun: awak, anda, kamu, kalian, hang, etc...each corresponding to a certain social status. and when the person has a title, they just use it instead of the pronoun, like datuk, tan sri, etc. it's the same as in japanese - and also in french, with the difference between vous and tu.

on the other hand, most malay pronouns are gender-neutral (e.g. dia, as opposed to he and she), which is better, in a certain sense.

-- burhan

Anonymous said...

Good thing the English Language has no diacritics,accents and hyphen issues or we'll be squabbling over which/whose orthography is the "correct" one. Even more headaches!


Anonymous said...

A-ha! Very few degrees of separation. Siasat means 'politics' in Urdu, and currently means 'investigate' in Malay. Siasah+siasat = politik kita needs investigation

Damyanti said...

Thanks, Preeta, for the confirmation. I do not speak Malay at all, but when I see words like "dunia", I have this burst of good feeling: hey, I know that word!

Dunia has been "borrowed" from Urdu into Hindi(which I speak).

As in Malay, Hindi is riddled with English words as well, and has contributed quite a few words to English, like "pundit" or "pukka".