Sarawak, a land of many tongues

IN MALAYSIAN textbooks, much has been made of the three main races in our country — the Malays, Chinese and Indians. This national picture is a distortion, ignoring the colourful ethnographic composition of Sarawak.

In Sarawak, the Land of the Hornbills, the ethnographic picture is much more complex than in West Malaysia. There are officially 27 ethnic groups, with not a single one constituting a simple majority. Sarawak is rightly the most diverse and colourful conglomeration of the ethnic mix that makes this state so unique.

The Malay language is still the most important tongue of the land. But even here, unlike in West Malaysia, the Sarawak Malays speak a dialect that would be incomprehensible to most other Malays from the rest of the country. It is distinctively and unmistakeably a Malay language, though its route of evolution has taken a unique twist on its way to its present shape and form.

The single most widely spoken native language is Iban. The Iban language is pretty universal and spoken by 34 per cent of the total population of Sarawak, not counting those non-Ibans who are fluent in Iban. Even so, there are minor variations in the Iban spoken by the people of Sarawak, with small differences in the vocabulary and the modes of pronunciation of individual Iban words. For instance, the word Udoh is to the Rajang Iban, the word for dog, but away from the Rajang region, Ukoi is the more common term for that domestic animal much loved by the Iban.

The Bidayuh language is spoken by about 10 per cent of the population of Sarawak. But even among the Bidayuh, there are six major dialects and their speakers may not understand one another. It is not uncommon to see two Bidayuhs from Sarawak conversing in Malay because that is a common language that can be understood by all Bidayuhs.

By and large, the various dialects spoken by the Bidayuhs can be classified as follows: Bukar Bidayuh, Singai Bidayuh, Biatah Bidayuh, Semban Bidayuh, Bau-Jagoi Bidayuh, and Tebakang BIdayuh.

The greatest variety of languages can be found among the Orang Ulu, the collective name for the three dozen or so indigenous tongues spoken by the native upriver tribes. One of the smallest of these tribes is the Penan, accounting for 12,000 in absolute numbers.

Despite the great array of indigenous tongues, interpersonal and inter-tribal communication never poses much of a problem, for everybody reverts back to Pasar Malay, a kind of patois, serving as a lingua franca among all Sarawakians.

Though Bahasa Malaysia is touted as the national common language, it is not all that popular in daily use. Bahasa Malaysia is an official language of administration, and it is a very structured form of self-expression, totally alien to the rapid-fire Pasar Malay which is on everybody’s lips.

Among the many races, Iban is also used as a lingua franca among the ethnic communities. It is an easy language to learn, though its richness in verbal expression and complexity is hard to master.

Another of the major languages is Melanau, spoken by both Muslims and Christians alike. The Melanau enjoy great political influence in the state and some of the most notable Sarawakians come from this Melanau speaking group.

As their own contribution to this great linguistic diversity, the Chinese have their own Babel’s Tower. Though the Chinese speak the second largest collection of ethnic languages, they suffer from deep linguistic divisions. The Chinese speak numerous dialects, of which Hokkien, Foochow, Hakka, Cantonese, Teochew, Hailam and Henghua form the majority.

In recent years, politics has driven Mandarin to its pre-eminent position as the most common language spoken by the Chinese. Mandarin is a very literate form of the classical language, which will put off many first-time learners. They also have an advanced, complicated written form, and it would take many years for a non-Mandarin speaking person to master it.

As if this variety were not enough, there is also the English language widely used by the elite western-educated class of citizens. I daresay that the standard of written and spoken English in Sarawak is generally better than other parts of Malaysia. The English used by Sarawakians is mostly of the British variety, though American English is creeping into daily use, largely thanks to the advancing influence of the entertainment industry.

But whatever the complexity of the linguistic milieu, in talking across so many tongues, the great miracle in interpersonal communication in Sarawak is still the mutual respect held by so many people, speaking so many languages. Whatever differences in our modes of speaking, people in the Land of the Hornbills stand out as the most harmonious community in the entire country.

In Sarawak there are no strangers; there are only friends who have not yet met. That is the greatest story in this, the Land of Many Tongues, being played out among our people of one heart.  (The author can be reached at [email protected] All comments are welcomed.)

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