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The Sri Lankan Malay language and its future

by B. D. K. Saldin  From Artscope Daily News 14 January 2004

Much controversy has arisen about the origins of the Sri Lankan Malay Language and as to why it differs from that which is spoken in other parts of the Malay speaking world where the langauge has been standardized. Perhaps a brief history of the Malay language would throw some light on this vexed question.

The Malay language belongs to the Austronesian family of languages. The Austronesian language family can be divided into four branches, viz. the languages of the Malay Archipelago (Nusantara), the languages of Polynesia, the languages of Melanesia, and the languages of Micronesia.

The Nusantara group of languages has the biggest number between 200-300. Some examples are Malay, the languages of the Philippine Islands such as (Tagalog, Ilko, Bisaya); of Java such as Javanese, Sundanese, Madurese); of Kalimantan such as (Iban, Kenyah, Melanu); of Celebes Islands such as (Buginese, Makasarese, Selo); of Bima and Sumba such as (Bima, Manggarai, and Sumba); and of Ambon and Timor such as (Alor Roti Wetar)


It is a historical fact that our ancestors were not brought from one particular island of Nusantara but from many. Therefore they would have spoken the langauge of the island from which they came. There was neither Indonesia nor Malaysia then. Malay was the lingua franca with which all these groups communicated with one another. Our ancestors used the gundul script and wrote in Malay.

If their progeny had continued to be literate perhaps they would still be speaking in the lingua franca which their ancestors used i.e. Malay. We cannot get behind the fact that our language is a mixture for which there are historical reasons. But we do not have to be ashamed of it.

However, no Malay will deny the need to preserve and improve our langauge. In trying to improve our langauge, we are faced with a dilemma. Our langauge has now become only an oral means of communication and, but for a certain similarity in the lexicon, has become different in structure, grammar and syntax from the langauge spoken elsewhere in the Malay world. Are we to put into writing lock, stock and barrel the langauge we speak, in whatever script we choose or are we to follow the rules of Standard Malay as adopted by Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei and the rest of the Malay speaking world.


Judging from the literature of the Malay texts which were written in Gundul, it is clear that there were two kinds of Malay spoken in Ceylon, the Malay spoken by the literate classes i.e. the elite of which Baba Ounus Saldin was in the forefront and the Malay spoken by the less educated Malays, more akin to Bazaar Malay or a kind of Creole. The upper class of Malays, if I may so call them, acquired a knowledge of English and advanced materially. They gradually lost the use of their mother tongue.

The underprivileged classes could not acquire a knowledge of English for whatever reason and therefore did not improve their lot materially. But it was these Bazaar Malay speaking Malays who preserved Malay unconsciously by speaking it. Then again with the disbanding of the Malay Regiment in 1873 and the simultaneous opening up of the railways to the upcountry the Malays of the upper classes joined the tea and rubber plantations as conductors and tea makers and acted as liaison officers between the European planters and the Indian labourers.

A typical Malay family with the writer in the centre

In a sense they became isolated and did not have as much contact with the other indigenous ethnic groups as those who were left behind in Colombo.

These latter were exposed more to a variety of langauge and cultural influences, as they had to work closely with the other communities in places such as the harbour. For example the upcountry Malays always placed the adjective after the noun, as is the grammatical practice in standard Malay.

They always said "daging goreng" fried beef, "Orang Kaya", a rich man, "Orang Miskin" a poor man etc, in contrast to Goreng Daging, kaya Orang, and Miskin Orang, as expressed by Malay speakers in Slave Island.

Our ancestors wrote in the gundul script. If one reads any of the existing Malay religious manuscripts, one will see that the language used is not much different from what is being spoken today in the Malay world. Therefore, one could safely assume that a few generations ago the Sri Lankan Malays also spoke in a similar manner.

Can I say that the literary type of Malay is now dead in Sri Lanka? An attempt to revive Malay calls for both expertise and funding both of which are woefully lacking in Sri Lanka. Assuming that both the expertise and the funding are available then it would be ideal to revive the literary Malay, which is what is now being spoken in the Malay world. However, if we do this then the vast majority of Malays are bound to feel alienated because standard Malay is, lets face it, is a foreign tongue.

My personal view is that we need both kinds of Malay, Standard Malay and our own dialect.

The former in order to communicate with the rest of the Malay speaking world, 200 million in all with their priceless culture wherein lie our roots and the employment opportunities that are available under the present political scenario. The latter because this langauge is what we have preserved for 200 years in an alien soil along with the adaptations we have made.




To adopt standard malay is in a sense easy because Indonesia and Malaysia have already laid the foundation for altering the Arabic script into the Roman script. To use my favourite expression, we do not have to reinvent the wheel. Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, the language and Literature Institute of Malaysia, has agreed to help us with expertise and educational material.

To translate our dialect into the written form is a gigantic task for which we need funding and expertise. Assuming that the funding and expertise is forthcoming how do we set about it? Let us first decide on the script.

Sri Lankan Malay was earlier written in the Gundul script i.e. the Arabic script with the addition of 5 letters. Most Malays are familiar with the Arabic text and to learn the extra 5 letters would not take long. But the Malay speaking world has now adopted the Roman script. For the Sri Lankan Malays to adopt an entirely new script in the sense that they already know the Roman Script, would not be pragmatic.

Since there would be no serious objection to the Roman script, we have to determine the spelling of words.

The main argument adduced by those who oppose the use of Standard Romanized spelling for Sri Lankan Malay is that the Malays are used to spelling and articulating English words the way in Englishman does. Therefore, we should spell and pronounce Malay also in the way they are all familiar with and even "swear by".

They think the "script" ought not to be the Romanized script used in Malaysia and Indonesia. They feel it ought to be the way they would spell the Malay words, little realizing that English is NOT a phonetic language and it would be difficult to use it "haphazardly" to express Malay sounds by people who are not trained linguists. The experts in Malaysia and Indonesia have studied this problem and carefully worked out a Romanized structure, based on rules.

We all know how difficult English spelling is. For instance, put and but are pronounced differently. The written characters are tools for translating the written to the spoken but each language has a pronunciation of its own. This also applies to Malay. The use of the letter C for the Ch sound seems to irritate these conservative elements the most.

They say that they are used to the English way of spelling that sound which is "ch". They little realize that the letters "ch" in the words such as "chemistry, character and chasm" are not pronounced in the same way as in "church". So if we spell "chuchi" won't people pronounce it as "kookie".

All these words are Malay words and not English words and it is ridiculous to spell it the so-called English way. Malay words must be spelt the Malay way.




There is nothing sacrosanct about the English way of spelling. If we are so enamoured with our very own Malay why not start writing in gundul. I know that some people will say that it is not practical.

They might say why not use something that is already there like the roman script. This is exactly my point. Why squabble over a script? The Malays are well-known for their tendency to maintain that their point of view is always correct. For example, if we wish to coin our own spelling for the word "to wash" there can be a variety of ways to spell it such as, chuchi, choochi, chuchie choochie, or choochy. Is it not better to spell it in the way the rest of the Malay world spells it as cuci.

Should we not follow a well tried out system formulated by trained linguists as is now prevalent in the Malay world? Why do we find it difficult to persuade our children to speak Malay and study Malay? Why is there such a demand for French, German and Japanese? The answer is the incentive of employment.

We have always looked to the west when there are ample opportunities of employment in the east. Two hundred million people speak Malay and a knowledge of Malay will help rather than hinder the quest for jobs.

Which do you think holds out the greater incentive, learning a kind of Malay's and grammar, sans syntax, with a spelling devoid of any phonetic scheme or a well tried out system formulated by trained linguists as is now prevalent in the Malay world? I think "the blind alley", as some Malays choose to term it, is not Standard Malay but the former system which some are trying to advocate. The Roman script, the way Standard Malay is written, is the bridge that will connect us to the rest of the Malay world.

Foreign language

The ideal would be for us to learn Standard Malay in the same way that we learn any other foreign language like French or German. At the same time let us talk our very own Malay. If it were possible to translate this Malay into writing, then we should adopt some sort of grammar and syntax.

We cannot form our own systems and the logical thing would be to adopt what has been done by the Malay world. For our children who are already burdened with a heavy curriculum it would be too much to learn two kinds of Malay.

But if it were at all possible for them to learn two kinds of Malay, then one kind of Malay will supersede the other. The stronger and the more vibrant with all the resources at its command i.e. Standard Malay will swamp our local Malay. This is inevitable. What does one do?

The writer is a former Director of Forbes and Walker Ltd and the Sri Lankan Representative for the International Conference of Malay (Majlis Antarabangsa Bahasa Melayu-MABM) based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He is also the author of several books on Malay.