I OK, You OK: English Pronouns in Malay

In my post on English words in Malay, I suggested that such borrowings are done for practical reasons. This is also the case with the use of the English pronouns I and you by speakers of Malay. At first I was surprised, and even a bit disturbed, by the fact that Malaysians will often use the English pronouns in favour of their own (I speak of Malaysians generally here, not just Malays, because people of other ethnic groups in Malaysia are at least equally known to use such borrowings, for reasons I hope to make clear). I was surprised because I couldn’t imagine (and still can’t) ever saying “je don’t know” or “wo love you”, or “saya like your hair.” I was disturbed because, from the point of view of an English teacher, the use of the English pronoun I in Malay not just as a subject (“I tak tau”), but also as an object (“dia kasih I lima ringgit”) and possessive (“ni rumah I” or “ni I punya rumah”), makes me cringe. Imagine saying “she gave I five dollars.”

So why do they do it? Why would someone use English pronouns when referring to themselves or the person being spoken to, when the Malay language has its own ways to refer to yourself and others? The problem is that Malay has too many available pronouns to choose from. When referring to oneself, a Malay speaker will generally have two pronouns to choose from: saya and aku. Both mean the same thing, but aku is seen as more informal and is used only with family and close friends (whereas in the Indonesian form of the language aku is the standard first person singular pronoun). When addressing another person, there is a dizzying array of choices. When speaking in the second person singular a Malay speaker must choose between awak (used for a spouse, close family members or friends, children and someone below you in age or, less frequently nowadays, in social status), anda (more formal, mostly used in advertising and on signs as in the French vous), engkau (used with close friends and family members; I often hear this shortened to kau or even ko), the seldom used kamu (which I think is actually supposed to be second person plural but is sometimes used in the singular, although I could be confusing Malay and Indonesian here; I usually only see it in TV subtitles) and a large number of other forms of address such as abang/kakak (basically big brother/sister, used to address someone slightly older than yourself, usually one’s actual brother/sister or perhaps even husband, but often used to address strangers slightly older than yourself, especially at shops or markets), adik (little brother/sister, used to address someone younger; encik/cik (Mr./Ms.), pak cik/mak cik (uncle/aunty, used to address someone much older than yourself), tuan/puan (Mr./Mrs., a form of address often used for police and other officers, male or female, and also generally for married women) and a few others . Then there are the endless titles such as Tengku, Tuanku, Tun, Tan Sri, Datuk, Datin, Datuk Seri, Datin Seri, Putera, Puteri, and many others, which are used to directly address someone who is considered royalty or who has been conferred a non-hereditary title by a Sultan.

Some of the interns and assistants at my wife’s dental clinic moved in with us a few months ago, and one of the first things they did was to ask Leen what they should call me. They never address her as Leen, only as Doctor, even though they’re on familiar terms. Even if she weren’t their boss they would be careful to address her as Kak Leen. They weren’t sure what to call me though. I’m sure if they refer to me in the third person they simply call me Jordan; their problem was that they had no idea how to address me directly. After discreetly approaching Leen to get her opinion (and mine), they finally decided to address me as Abang Jordan.

When addressing some people one is not really given other options, as is the case with older family members. Leen is the oldest of four children, and her siblings almost never address her by name but as Kak Long, which means oldest sister. Accordingly, they don’t call me Jordan or even Abang Jordan but Abang Long, oldest brother. Leen’s sister Acik (whose name is actually Mazuin) has a young son who will call Leen and me Mak Long (oldest aunt) and Pak Long (oldest uncle). I still don’t know the names of most of Leen’s aunts and uncles because I must call them by the names that denote their relation to me and their position in the family.

While Malaysians wouldn’t find all this as confusing as I do, they might (and often do) find it a bit cumbersome, and that’s not necessarily because of some kind of laziness. The problem is that when one chooses a particular pronoun or form of address, one is committing to making certain social distinctions. This can refer to general social distinctions or distinctions between different levels of intimacy or familiarity between people. I can remember complaining to Leen that I could never seem to get away with referring to myself as aku or to others as kau, even though they’ve become good friends of mine and my wife uses those pronouns with them all the time. If a newcomer to Malay culture could become sensitive about such a thing, imagine how finely tuned Malaysians’ sensibilities are to it.

While there are some situations in which one must stick to the use of formal or traditional forms of address (such as in the above example of older family members), in many situations there is a growing tendency to use the English pronouns I and you. This is particularly true when one is speaking to a person whose age is fairly close to one’s own. People who use these pronouns seem to use them with those close to them and also with strangers. Even those who do not normally use it with people from their own ethnic group might use it with others, although this is my own observation and I have no hard data to back it up. It does seem to me that some Malays who hardly ever use English pronouns when speaking to other Malays will sometimes use them (or use them more often) when speaking to Chinese, Indians or other groups that make up Malaysia’s cultural mosaic. I’ll have to start listening more carefully to see whether this observation has any basis in reality.

I use you quite a bit when speaking in Malay in the second person singular. The only times I don’t use it are when I’m speaking to my wife and a small number of her relatives or friends (in these situations I use awak), or to my in-laws and other relatives, or to strangers considerably older than myself (with whom I would use encik/cik, pak cik/mak cik, etc.). Otherwise I use you. I never use the English pronoun I when speaking Malay. I think it’s great when people use you because of the purpose it serves and the fact that it translates easily into Malay, but it drives me crazy when Malay speakers use I. I’ve already given my reason, that it just sounds wrong when used as an object or possessive pronoun (strangely enough I’m willing to overlook the unsuitability of you as a possessive pronoun, as in “you punya kereta”). Besides, the Malay word saya is suitable in almost all social situations, so I’m not even sure why Malaysians use the English pronoun I at all. I almost always use saya.

Other English pronouns have not entered into common use in the Malay language, and that is because their Malay counterparts do not imply the same social distinctions as the first and second person singular Malay pronouns. In fact, we could learn a lesson from the Malays, who have only one third person sigular pronoun, dia. It can mean either he or she, whereas in English we must make a distinction between male and female. There is more than one way to say we in Malay, but the distinctions implied are not quite the same as those implied by other pronouns (kita means you and me whereas kami means we in the sense of a group that does not include you; kita-orang is also used informally in the latter sense). The two words in my Malay vocabulary that correspond to they are different only in their degree of formality (mereka is the standard word whereas dia-orang is used informally). The only exception here is the use of the English pronoun you in the plural. In the four years since I started learning Malay I’ve yet to hear or see an ‘official’ second person plural pronoun that is consistently used in common speech. Kamu and anda are sometimes used in writing or maybe on TV, but I still have no idea what the right word is, or even if there is one. Sometimes the English phrase you-all is used for this purpose.

As with the borrowing of English words into Malay in general, the use of these English pronouns is not a sign that Malay is beginning to succumb to the dominance of English. Rather, it is a sign that Malay can adapt and remain vibrant where other languages would stagnate. Javanese, a language spoken by millions of people in Indonesia, is virtually unknown to people outside that country (except here in Malaysia where there are many Javanese and their descendants, my wife and her family among them) and is in decline all over the country. There are many reasons for this, among them economic factors (the fact that Bahasa Indonesia is the national language puts other languages at a disadvantage because along with the national language comes opportunity). One of the reasons for the decline, I think, is the fact that Javanese speakers must choose not only different forms of address but completely different registers of the language when they speak to different people. Thus there are at least two or three Javanese languages, and the rules governing which register one uses are at least as complicated as in Malay, if not moreso. Finding and agreeing upon a ‘middle’ or ‘neutral’ form of Javanese is possible (and has been done to a certain extent), but the socio-cultural elements that made the language difficult in the first place (along with economic and other factors) have prompted some Javanese to abandon it in favour of Bahasa Indonesia. Bahasa Malaysia, on the other hand, seems to be in no great danger of being abandoned, despite the borrowing of something as basic and important as personal pronouns from another language.