Friday, August 20, 2010

How language tells the history of Malaysia and Indonesia

You can tell a lot about the history of a people by the studying its language. For example, from where its speakers' ancestors originated, and which other cultures it came into contact with.

English, for example,reflects the various conquerors of the British Isles; the Germanic base language of the Angles and Saxons (which superceded the native Celtic languages), with some Latin from the Romans and a few Norse words from the Viking invaders, and then the Norman conquerors who brought a huge litany of French terms into English. Finally, the age of colonialism saw the English become conquerors themselves, and their contact with the cultures of India, the Middle East, Malaysia and the New World saw many new concepts and words enter the English lexicon.

Another study in how language reflects history is in the Indonesian archipelago. Because of its location and in-demand natural resources (predominantly spices), the region has been visited by various other nationalities over its history, seeking a slice of these treasures. These traders and conquerors have left their mark on the culture and language of the people there.

Malay and Indonesian are together spoken by around 200 million people in South East Asia. While usually listed as separate languages, they are mutually intelligible and only marginally more different than say, US English and British English. To the majority of its speakers, it is a second language, a lingua franca that binds the many ethnic groups of Indonesia together. Indonesian is based on the variant of Malay that was used as a trade language throughout the archipelago, and was adopted as the national language following independence. To the language's Austronesian base is added words from a variety of other languages, primarily Arabic, Dutch, English, Javanese, Portuguese, Chinese and several from the Indian subcontinent.

Malay/Indonesian is a member of the Austronesian language family, which also includes the languages of the Pacific Islands, Madagascar, the Philippines and the indigenous languages of Taiwan. While Taiwan is generally held to be the homeland of the Austronesian speakers, an ultimate origin in Southern China is usually postulated. A comparison of Austronesian languages backs up archaeological evidence about the agricultural life of these people; across their range, the words for items like rice, yam, coconut, chicken, egg and pig tend to be similar, indicating that these were important features of early Austronesian life.

Traditionally the people of Indonesia and the Malay peninsula were animist, but in many areas this changed due to influence from the Indian subcontinent. Indian traders brought Hinduism and Buddhism, along with their trade goods. Significantly, even though there are virtually no Buddhists left in Indonesia aside from the ethnic Chinese, the largest Buddhist monument in the world is located in Java, a holdover from the pre-Islamic era.
Malays have had another layer of Indian influence due to the more recent migrations of Indians (mostly Tamil) to the peninsula. In Indonesia, the Indian influence is harder to pinpoint; yet the huge number of loanwords from Sanskrit for many basic objects and concepts indicates that the influence was fundamental. It was probably the first significant contact Indonesians had with a major civilization from the outside world.
Below are just a small sample of some of the Malay/Indonesian words of Sanskrit origin:

topi = hat
agama = religion
warna = colour
raja = king
guru = teacher
jaya = victorious
kaca = glass
madu = honey
maha = great
suami = husband (Sanskrit svamee = lord)
nama = name
putra/putri = prince/princess
singa = lion
dwi = two
kudah = horse
roti = bread

Some words also come from Tamil, such as kapal (boat) and apam (a kind of rice flour cake); given that Tamils were heavily involved in trade in the region, many of the above Sanskrit words may have been adopted into Indonesian via Tamil (since Tamil had already adopted many words from Sanskrit).

Malay does not naturally contain the sounds sh or v; so in the case of most Indian loan words they have been converted to s or w. So the Hindu God Shiva becomes Siwa in Indonesian. Interestingly, in the case of Arabic words containing the sh sound, Indonesian/Malay has tried to be more faithful to the original pronunciation, and represents it as sy (see below).

A number of common Indonesian names are a legacy of this early Indian influence. Examples are Dewi (Sanskrit devi = goddess/angel), Budi (buddhi = wise) and names from mythology such as Indra and Garuda.

(As an interesting aside: because Sanskrit is an Indo-European language and therefore related to English, some of these words show a recognisable relationship to their English meanings. For instance, devi is related to the English words "divine" and "diva", while raja is derived from the same root as words like regal, and the Latin rex. The similarity between nama and the English "name" is obvious, as is the link between dwi and "two" or related words like "duo".)

The other early traders active in South East Asia were the Chinese. The words they left behind suggest that their cultural impact was nowhere near as great as the Arabs or Indians, but they had an enormous influence on one aspect of Malay life: the food. The loan-words that Malay adopted were predominantly from the Hokkien dialect, such as:

mee/mi = noodles
tahu = bean curd (from dou fu)
kecap = soya sauce
tauge = bean sprouts
cap cai = stir fry
siomay = dumpling
teh = tea

The rise of Islamic civilisation brought with it traders from the Middle East and Persia. Gradually, most of Indonesia adopted Islam, and many words from those cultures entered the Indonesian language. Their origin is often easily identifiable. For example:

dunia = world
akhir = end
pasar = market (from bazaar)
abdi = servant
maaf = sorry, apologise
daftar = list
musim = season (the English word monsoon is also derived from this word)
wajib = obligation, duty
adil = just, righteous
syukur = pray
selamat = safe, peaceful (from salaam)

The days Monday to Friday are derived from Arabic. And of course there are numerous religious terms that are identifiably Arabic as well (haram, halal, jilbab, Allah, masjid, etc).

The sounds represented by the letters z or f, or the letter combinations kh or sy, did not naturally exist in Malay and are almost always Arabic in origin. Many Indonesians (like Filipinos) have difficulty pronouncing the sound f, so it often is converted to p; thus the Arabic word fikr (to think) becomes pikir in Indonesian.

Before the Dutch, English and Spanish became the dominant powers in island SE Asia, the Portuguese were heavily involved in the spice trade in the region, and their presence is still felt in places like Melaka in Malaysia, and East Timor. They leave a legacy of loan-words in Malay and Indonesian, such as:

keju = cheese (from queijo)
mentega = butter/margarine (from manteiga)
bola = ball
pesta = party (from festa)
gratis = free
terigu = wheat (from trigo)
bendera = flag (from bandeira)
meja = table (from mesa)
garpu = fork (from garfo)
kereta = car (from carretta, related to the English term chariot)
nanas = pineapple (from ananas)
sekolah = school (from escola)
Interestingly, Indonesian kept the Arabic-derived terms for the days Monday to Friday, but took the Portugese word for Sunday, Domingo (ie. the Lord's Day), which becomes Minggu in Indonesian (which also means "week). The word Sabtu, or Saturday, is derived ultimately from the term sabbath, but it seems unclear whether it is derived from Arabic, or the Portuguese Sabado.

To find out where Malay and Indonesian start to differ from each other, we must understand their colonial histories. While Malaysia became English territory, Indonesia became known as the Netherlands East Indies. Prior to colonialisation, neither region had been culturally unified, merely a collection of kingdoms, sultanates and tribal territories. The following words exist in Indonesian courtesy of their former Dutch masters:

kulkas = refrigerator (from koelkast, meaning "cool case")
telat = late (from te laat)
buncis = green beans (from boentjes)
kol = cauliflower
kantor = office

For some concepts, Malays kept their original Malay terms, while Indonesians adopted new ones from the Dutch. For example, "office" in Malay is pejabat, but Indonesians use kantor (from the Dutch kantoor). The Malays call their uncles and aunts Pakcik and Makcik, but Indonesians use the Dutch terms Oom and Tante.

Many modern Western concepts were introduced into Indonesia by the Dutch, and the words reflect that; yet in Malaysia, the same concepts reflect the English who introduced them. Here are some examples:

MEANING                          MALAY               INDONESIAN                
August                                 Ogos                    Agustus
migration                              migresyen           migrasi (from Dutch migratie)
action                                   eksyen                 aksi
police                                   polis                    polisi (from Dutch politie)
apple                                   epal                     apel
bag                                      beg                      tas
ice                                        ais                        es

Indonesians also used the old Dutch system of spelling; however after independence there was a rejection of all things colonial, and a desire to bring the written language closer to Malay, which used a more English-influenced way of spelling. So names like Djakarta and Soekarno became Jakarta and Sukarno, and boentjis (green beans) and sajoer (vegetable) became buncis and sayur.
The Japanese occupation of Indonesia was brief, but left behind two notable words: ebi (dried shrimp), and toko (shop). Toko replaced the word kedai, which is still used in Malay.

Because the Javanese are the most numerous ethnic group in Indonesia, they have had a dominant influence over the development of the Indonesian language. Words from Javanese have become part of Indonesian, but not Malay. One example is the word nggak, meaning "no", or bisa, meaning "can" or "able to" (bisa in Malay means "venom" instead).
Another example are the various terms for "I" or "me". Both Malay and Indonesian use saya, but Indonesians also throw in the Javanese aku, and the Jakarta-slang gue (which is ultimately Chinese in origin).
Other influences on Indonesian have come from Sundanese, as well as from the variants of Malay spoken around the archipelago.

Studying both Malay and Indonesia today, we see a few new influences. While Malay has long been influenced by English, Indonesia has only recently been taking on more and more English words, which reflects the dominance of English as a global lingua franca. When previously Western concepts would enter Indonesia via the Dutch language, English has filled the post-colonial void.

Meanwhile in Malaysia, it is likely that the country's Chinese and Indian populations will have an effect on the Malay language. Young Malays frequently speak what is termed Bahasa Rojak, meaning a mixed-up language, which combines various words of English, Chinese and Tamil with Malay. Some words like mamak (Tamil for "maternal uncle") have become fixtures in Malay, and it would not be surprising for certain common terms to move from Bahasa Rojak into standard Malay vocabulary. A good example is the Chinese term ta pao (meaning "to take away food"), which has become as ubiquitous as the proper Malay term bungkus.

The increasing encroachment of English in both countries is a concern for some. In Indonesia, some fear English is threatening to become the new language of the wealthy classes. In Malaysia, the Malay language is tied into the ethnic Malays' struggle to hold on to their social and political dominance, and there exists great debate over the role of the language in schools, films and television, in a country where the ethnic minorities mostly speak English. It does seem almost certain that the continued influence of English will form the next chapter in the history of both Malay and Indonesian.

See also:

English words of Indian origin

How Muslim names evolve across the world

Pilaf, paella and pulao - how a rice dish conquered the world

So who really invented noodles? China or Italy?

It's official: Jesus was black. Or was it Korean?

3 things Indonesia can teach Malaysia

Indonesian contributions to world culture

Is chai latte only a drink for wankers?


  1. cool post. Just the right amount of brain food for a 4am wake up.
    You just reminded me that the word "China" comes from "Cina" - and that "China" does not exist in Chinese because the country is zhong guo. (middle kingdom). Not sure where the word "Cina" came from do you?

  2. thank you very much for this very informative post.

    yes, in Malaysia we really love to converse in our Bahasa Rojak. it is an identity that not just the young Malays but most Malaysians embrace.

    hm.. speaking of rojak.. yum2..

  3. Malay & Indonesian would be mutually intelligible, except that Indonesians speak at lighting speed while Malaysians tend to speak a lot slower.

    Listening to news in Malaysia can be torture...just waiting for the newscaster to finish their sentence!

  4. Some years ago I met a group of Malaysian. We started to speak to each other with our own languages. I didnt have to wait long to realize that it's much better for me to use English.

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