Sri Lankan Malay language and its future
by B. D. K. Saldin From Artscope Daily News
14 January 2004
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
typical Malay family with the writer in the centre
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
personal view is that we need both kinds of Malay, Standard Malay and our own
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.
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.
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.
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.
there would be no serious objection to the Roman script, we have to determine
the spelling of words.
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
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
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.
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".
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.