Politically Problematic Pronouns

In the latest batch of English spots I’ve written for a local radio station is included a short piece about difficulties in translation from English to other languages. I am by no means a translator (though it sounds really interesting), but even my layman’s knowledge of the complexities of the English language allows me to know that, like any language, English is rich in terms and distinctions that are not easily translated. House and home, for instance, or sensual and sensuous, or continual and continuous. Not only would many learners not know when to use one or the other, some learners might not recognize a distinction at all. The best example I can come up with of this potentially causing problems is the subtle but important distinction between childlike and childish.

Malay has its share of troublesome distinctions as well. The first example that comes to mind is tidak and bukan. It’s easy enough for Malaysians of all ethnicities to grasp the idea that tidak is used to negate verbs and adjectives and bukan to negate nouns. But for a learner it can be a bit tricky. The trickiness is compounded by the fact that in idiomatic speech I often hear (or at least think I hear) bukan used to negate adjectives and verbs.

In yesterday’s news I saw another good example of tricky distinctions, namely between the Malay first-person plural pronouns kita and kami. They both mean we, but the former includes everyone while the latter excludes the person(s) being spoken to. Many languages around the world have more than one second-person pronoun (whereas English, which has long since dropped the informal singular pronoun thou, now has only one, you). Malay not only has several second-person pronouns but also a dizzying array of first-person pronouns. I’ve written about these before, with a focus on the fact that many Malaysians use the English singular pronouns I and you to avoid having to commit to social distinctions inherent in the use of the various Malay pronouns. Anyway, the first-person plural pronouns come with their own issues. According to a report on the Dewan Rakyat in yesterday’s New Straits Times:

Datuk Badruddin Amiruddin (BN-Jerai) riled up the opposition when he used the term “negara kami” (our country) while rebutting opposition leader Lim Kit Siang.

Chong Eng (DAP-Bukit Mertajam) offered a solution. She proposed “negara kita”, reasoning it was more inclusive and comprehensive.

“The term used by Yang Berhormat gives the impression that this country belongs only to one group.”

The opposition harassed Badruddin to make a correction when he refused to budge from his stance, prompting the MP to complain to the Chair.

So there you go. In Malaysia, even pronouns can be politically explosive. It doesn’t surprise me, considering all the keris-waving going on at the recent UMNO general assembly.

Anyway, one could argue that Malay is overly complicated. Others might say such nuances add delicious complexity to the language.

On the other side of the coin, the Malay language does beat out English in the simplicity department when it comes to the third-person singular pronoun. English makes the distinction between males and females, but Malay identifies any person (and sometimes things) with the single pronoun dia. As with Malay and its kita and kami, one could argue that English is overly complicated, an argument which could be countered with an argument that it is not complicated at all but precise. As in the case of kita and kami, it could be both: the use of he and she certainly clears up some confusion that might befall Malay speakers who might not know which person dia refers to, but the Malay use of dia largely leaves the Malay language free of certain issues which have plagued English. In this age of political correctness, achieving gender neutrality in both academic and popular writing in English is a challenge; writers are left with the choice of using the incredibly clunky he or she or the gender-neutral plural (and therefore often inaccurate) pronoun they, or just sticking with either he or she (therefore pissing off certain groups of people, such as those loons ladies who call themselves ‘womyn’). Perhaps English speakers should think about using gender-neutral pronouns (well, apparently we have, but perhaps we should seriously think about it). Or, perhaps we could simply all accept they as a singular pronoun.

Speaking of kita/kami, one thing you usually won’t find in books that purport to help people learn Malay (books which almost always teach an overly formal register of the language, even a book I have called Colloquial Malay) is that people don’t actually use kami very often these days. Instead, most people use the relatively more recent (at least I think it’s more recent) pronoun kitorang (from kita orang).

Going off course a bit here, but such changes have been occurring with other Malay pronouns as well: the third-person plural mereka is often seen as a bit formal and is giving way more and more to diorang (dia orang). Also, many Malays use korang (ko orang) as a second-person plural pronoun, which is good because despite its abundance of pronouns, Malay is seriously lacking second-person plural pronouns. The use of the word orang (which means person) to make a singular pronoun plural is very interesting, since orang itself is singular unless coupled with a number or a word like semua (everyone) or ramai (no real equivalent in English, but basically it means a lot of people). In fact, in Leen’s home state of Johor, orang is itself used as a first-person singular pronoun: Leen never refers to herself as saya when speaking to her family, instead using either the less formal aku or, just as often, orang, as in the sentence orang nak beli jam baru (I want to buy a new watch).

But I digress. Anyway, as you can see, choosing the wrong pronoun can cause problems, not just for learners like me, but for native speakers as well. I guess the difference is that for learners, the problems arise because of a poor choice of words and such mistakes are easily forgiven. When native speakers misuse their pronouns, however, while it could be due to genuine confusion (an English speaker could be forgiven, I think, for not having a clue which third-person pronoun to use in certain situations), it could just as likely (if not moreso) be due to bigotry. In both cases, the problem is ignorance. The difference is that learners who make such mistakes are probably just ignorant of the rules of the language, whereas some native speakers who make the same ‘mistakes’ are just plain ignorant.

You know what’s almost as disturbing as the BN rep’s behaviour? My fetish for interest in pronouns, particularly subject pronouns. I just love ’em. Hmmm…