Sunday, January 01, 2006

Pure Malay?

(This article, written in Bali on the 28th of December, 2005, appeared in the New Straits Times on the eve of the new year. Here is the original version, with headline and copy as I had originally intended.)

Let me begin by laying my cards on the table. I know next to zilch about the etymology of languages.

That's why it impresses me to no end when someone speaks, with utmost conviction, about the preservation of the purity of the Malay language. They must know something I don't.

Because given my limited knowledge on the subject, I often find Bahasa Melayu to be littered with words originated from places as far afield as the Middle East, India, China, Indonesia, Portugal and England.

Allow me illustrate my point:

"Jangan asyik duduk memuja televisyen tu, tolong abah buat kerja. Padamkan tanglung di luar tu, ambilkan mentega yang dalam peti ais, keluarkan pisau dalam laci, tapi kalau tak ada pisau, garfu pun jadilah. Pagi ni, abah nak makan sarapan roti sahaja."

Asyik: Rooted in the Urdu word 'ashiki' which means passionately, or with love.

Memuja: Rooted in the Sanskrit 'pooja' which means to worship, or prayer.

Televisyen: Hah! No prizes for guessing where this one came from.

Abah: Rooted in the Aramaic term for father. Also frequently used in ancient Hebrew.

Tanglung: Nice word, this. Cantonese for dragon light, I think.

Mentega: Portuguese for butter; in Spanish it's 'mantega'.

Peti Ais: 'Ais' is of course ice, phonetically transcribed.

Laci: Pronounced "lah-chee". Don't hold me to it, but I think it may have originally been Dutch.

Garfu: Portuguese for fork.

Sarapan: Breakfast in Malay, Minang, Javanese, and Balinese.

Roti: Hindi for bread.

There you go. Roughly 11 out of the 41 words used here are foreign. Nothing to be ashamed of really. It's the same with English.

An Englishman traversing our country once remarked to me, with more than just a hint of ridicule in the tone of his voice as he surveyed the signages on the streets of Kuala Lumpur, "Pejabat Pos? Hah! I presume 'pos' comes from the English 'post'. Why don't you Malays invent your own words instead of borrowing from ours?"

So I turned to him and replied, not just with a hint of ridicule, but with great relish, "Ah, but John, the term 'Post Office' isn't English at all, dear. They come from the Latin words 'postis' and 'officium'. Yes, Latin, mate. West-central Italy. Romans. Spaghetti-ville. Mothers with moustache. Yessiree, the English language is a mish-mash, haggis-like, illegitimate child of Latin, German, Scandinavian languages, Viking conquer-speak, Hindi (remember bungalow and veranda?), Malay (yes, 'amok' is Malay!), and who knows what else!"

John kept well silent after that.

Why, even my second sentence at the beginning of this article ("I know next to zilch about the etymology of languages.") has words more mixed up than Penang 'pasembor'. 'Zilch' is a cross-breed of two words - 'zero' (from the Arabic 'sifr', which is a state of being nothing) and 'nil' (from the Latin 'nihil'). 'Etymology' comes from, among several other words of different ethnic origins, the Greek 'etumologia'.

So much for the purity of language/langage/lingua (English, French and Latin, respectively).

Which brings me back to my point. The Malay language. Or Bahasa Melayu. (Is it still Bahasa Malaysia now, or has it gone back to Bahasa Melayu? Who knows? All too often it depends on the political agenda of the current guardians of the language, unfortunately.)

Being myself a Melayu (well, half Javanese, a quarter Bugis and a quarter Japanese, anyway), I wonder what all the fuss is about. Now that we've established no one speaks pure anything anymore, why the endless crusade for linguistic purity here in Malaysia?

Recently, a well-renowned Malay film director went up in arms over the sanctity of the term 'Filem Nasional'. (Not a very Melayu phrase at all, to begin with, given that we can easily unearth the origins of the words 'filem' and 'nasional').

In any case, a 'filem nasional', he insisted, must be in Bahasa Melayu. Which means that Malaysian-made films which have the actors speaking in Chinese or Tamil will not qualify as 'filem nasional'. In other words, they will be classified as foreign films, and therefore, will not be eligible for local film award shows, tax rebates, and worse, will be taxed as foreign films are taxed.

Poppy, and more to the point, cock! What is the point of all this self-important paranoia? Here we are, singing "Malaysia, Truly Asia" for all the world to hear and see, but here in our own backyard, it's "Malaysia, Truly Melayu" and everyone else can go to pots.

Come, come.