WHENEVER a new nation comes into being, among the first requirements is for that nation to write into its constitution the name of its national or official language. Some countries have more than one. For instance, Switzerland has four official languages.
Our country has only one. When Malaysia was formed as a federation on Sept 16, 1963, its national and official language was to be the Malay. That was written into the supreme law of the nation.
We need only one national and official language, but every ethnic group in this country is allowed to use its own language.
It was then styled Bahasa Kebangsaan, intended to be one of the most vital instruments to unite the various cultural communities that make up the population of the newly-created political entity into a Malaysian nation.
A slogan or motto ‘Satu Bangsa, Satu Bahasa’ (One Nation, One Language) was coined as a focal point of nation building. The aim of the founding fathers was that a national culture would eventually evolve from the confluence of cultures.
Those who supported Malaysia believed in this slogan as a truism. Those who opposed its formation were sceptical at first, but gradually accepted the concept of One Language Plus, once Malaysia was a fait accompli.
During the transition period of 10 years, English could still be used as the official language in parliament and the state legislatures of Sabah and Sarawak, and in government administration.
When I was in New York in 1971, the UN tour guide, after enquiring which country I came from, said that “one of these days Malay language” would be used in the United Nations proceedings because there were experts in that language who could do the simultaneous translations during the proceedings in the General Assembly.
There was a proverbial lump in my throat.
I don’t know if this hope to use Malay in the UN has materialised.
Much later Bahasa Kebangsaan was called Bahasa Melayu: it’s the same language.
Young Malaysians studied the language in earnest and became so well versed in it that it has become their lingua franca ever since. Old people like me found it awkward to speak with the lower and upper jaws firmly clinched.
In our clumsiness, we prefer to speak in the Sarawak Malay or the Bazaar Malay. With my old friend Sinkeh from Swatow, I speak a strange version of Teochew laced with the Sibuyau accent. And there is perfect communication between us.
My daughter coached me how to speak in the standard Zaaba tradition if I was to be understood at all. The Bahasa sounds and is spelt differently from the old Romanised form. But when in KL for the National Economic Consultative Council meetings in 1989, I had to do what ‘the Romans did while in Rome’.
Sadly, many of the beautiful expressions, proverbs, and idioms of the old tradition are seldom used any longer. For example, the word ‘shahdan’ has almost disappeared from the vocabulary. An Arabic word used to start a story or a chapter in a story or as ‘furthermore’, it and many others add colour and beauty to the Malay language.
Alas, how times have changed. I’m just being sentimental.
Nevertheless, there is one word that I’m most uncomfortable with: ‘kamu’. No one in our village school would ever use it when addressing an elder friend or a stranger. Our teacher would make any pupil stand on the chair for being so uncouth. The proper term is ‘kita’ for ordinary man or woman. And we use the term ‘kola’ for I or me, not ‘aku’ or ‘saya’ when you talk to a person with the title Datuk.
Among contemporaries, we call each other ‘Po’ or ‘Ngan’.
We use the term ‘You’ for you. When feeling sorry for a friend for not toeing the line, we would mildly rebuke him with the term ‘You You’.
Many locals have concocted another means of communication among their own circle. Colloquially, when some one says, ‘I macham ya jua you’, he means ‘I’m with you there’.
Keep on enriching the Bahasa
Now that the national language is here to stay, we might as well embellish it with both the old, albeit archaic words and expressions, as well as coin new words and terms, and by taking on board those of the Ukits, Beketans, Serus, Sipengs, Tanjongs, Kanowits, Kelabits, Kayans, Kenyahs, Penans, Punans, Sebobs, Selakos, Laras, Sibuyaus, Bisayahs, Kedayans, Melanos, Lugats, Muruts, Sians, Tabuns, and Kajamans. Include also all the Bidayuh languages spoken in Serian, Bau and Lundu.
Don’t forget to include words from our own local Malay. Listen to the song ‘Puteri Santubong’ by Madzhi Johari in that language; it’s a classic.
I believe the Dewan Bahasa Dan Pustaka have been making an effort to adopt local languages and dialects to the national vocabulary. Sometime ago, the Iban words ‘randau’ (discussion) and ‘merarau’ (lunch) were adopted as Bahasa words.
But I have not seen them being used in the print or electronic media for several years now. Almost daily I scan the various newspapers like the Utusan Malaysia, Berita Harian, Utusan Sarawak and Utusan Borneo. Not there. What’s happened, lah?
It’s not a shame to ‘plunder’ words from other languages to enrich and embellish the national tongue. English has its origins in the language of one of the wandering German tribes. It’s stuffed with words from various tongues throughout the ages: Latin, Sanskrit, Dutch, French, Greek, Arabic, and so on. And it has become a powerful language of science and diplomacy in the world.
Language of science and technology
It is our hope and prayer that our national language will eventually evolve into a full-fledged medium of instruction in science and technology.
Worrying about fate of Bahasa
On Monday this week, I managed to obtain a copy of the Utusan Pengguna. One writer expressed his concern over the habit of people, ranging from those in the electronic media to artistes and ministers, who make rojak of the national language in their conversations. He was wondering what would happen to Bahasa Melayu itself.
In my opinion, there is no danger of the language disappearing from the face of the earth any time soon. To those who love languages (me included), it is one of the most beautiful languages in existence.
Rather, I’m more worried about the extinction of ethnic languages and dialects of the country. One danger comes from the intrusion of cyber lingo like “r u ok 2 tok?” I call it Bahasa Kayangan and it is as alien to me as the Esperanto. Rest assured, I’ll not respond if it intrudes into my mobile.
Fate of other languages in the state
Many other languages in Sarawak may face extinction if the speakers do not make an effort to preserve and promote them. The Serus and the Beketans may have become extinct and with their extinction, their respective languages. The Tanjongs, Kanowits, Lugats, Lisums, Sabups, Sipengs, Sians, Tabuns, Tagals, Laras, and Sibuyaus- all face the possibility of losing their languages. Some like the Tanjongs have increased their numbers slowly and the Miriek and the Kiputs are trying to preserve their languages and cultures.
The Iban language has acquired a status of its own and is being taught in some schools. It is widely used in songs and publications including the Bible.
All these mother tongues, including those of the various Orang Asli groups in the various states in the Peninsula, plus Mandarin and Tamil, can bind Malaysians into a united nation.
Fate of languages in the world
On Feb 20, 2009, the AFP quoted sources in Unesco that out of 6,900 languages, 2,500 would be in danger of extinction within the next two centuries.
The Lengilus in Indonesia have four speakers alive; the Karaims in the Ukraine have six speakers; 10 Wichitas are still alive in Oklahoma in the US.
The languages of the Manx (Isle of Man), Ubykh (Turkey), Asax (Tanzania) and Eyak (Alaska) have vanished from the face of the earth within the past 36 years.
Efforts are being made to revive Cornish, a Celtic language spoken in Cornwall, England, and Sishee in New Caledonia. Countries like New Zealand, Canada, Mexico, Peru and the US have successfully managed to preserve the native languages of their countries.
According to Unesco, some 200 languages have become extinct during the past three generations in the last century.
On our part then, we must ensure that none of our own languages shall meet with similar fate.