The MacVaysian Invasion: English words in Malay

I mentioned in a previous post that Malay has served as a ‘lingua franca’ in this region for many years. I got a taste of this yesterday when a young Japanese woman came to my school. In Malaysia as part of a Japanese government program similar to the Peace Corps, she has decided that she would like to learn English. Up to this point, however, she’s been communicating with everyone in this country in Malay. When she came to my school, she spoke only Malay. I found it interesting, a native Japanese speaker, a native English speaker, and a native Chinese speaker (Christine, the supervisor at the school, who like many ethnic Chinese in Malaysia can speak several different Chinese dialects) speaking together in Malay. The Malay language has been used as a common language throughout the Malay Archipelago for centuries, which is one of the reasons the Indonesians adopted it (in a slightly modified form) as their national language. After independence, and especially under the leadership of Tun Dr. Mahathir Muahmmad, the Malaysian government took steps to ensure that Malay would always keep its status as the national language.

Some Malays, however, feel their language is being threatened by English. Of course, English is THE global language. (There was an article in one of the Chinese dailies last year that stated something about Manadarin being poised to become the dominant global language, but that idea is just plain wrong. Mandarin still has more native speakers, but just go to a country where it’s not a native language of a significant number of people and try to use it in everyday situations with people you meet; now do the same with English and you’ll see what I mean). For better or worse, English has become the global language, and it’s influence in Malaysia is especially strong because Malaysia was a British colony. Many people in this country speak English (although a lot of them are actually speaking what is usually called Manglish, an appropriate term since they tend to really mangle the language badly). There are plenty of English TV channels, English radio stations, English newspapers and magazines, English signs, and people who are eager to practice their English. An English speaker could easily live in Malaysia without ever having to learn Malay or any other language (although I think that would be silly). In fact, despite the Malaysian government’s efforts to keep Malay in its position, English is welcomed by the government as a sort of official second language. Another interesting fact is that most of the people who are crying foul over the perceived threat English poses to Malay have no problem with English being spoken in Malaysia as a second language. They acknowledge the importance of English and are used to the idea of several different languages co-existing side-by-side in Malaysia as Malay, numerous Chinese dialects and Tamil have been doing for many years.

So what’s the fuss about? Well, the people raising the alarm are concerned not about English in Malaysia, but about English in Malay. They are alarmed by the large number of English words that are in common use in the Malay language. RTM has even banned some Malay songs that contain English lyrics, and the newspapers frequently contain letters from people upset by the use of English words in Malay TV and radio broadcasts. It is true that the average conversation between Malays will likely contain several English words, or at least words that are derived from English. Here’s a very short list of some common words: amaun (amount), akaun (account), bajet (budget), bas (bus), bank, beg (bag), buli (bully), cek (cheque), diskaun (discount), draf (as in bank draft), edisi (edition), fail (file), fesyen (fashion), hospital, hotel, imigresen (immigration), kad (card), komuter (commuter), komputer, kompaun (compound, in the sense of a fine or levy), kredit, motosikal (motorcycle), motivasi (motivation), pakej (package), preskripsi (prescription), projek (project), rekreasi (recreation), resit (receipt), sains (science), seks (sex), seksyen (section), sesi (session, as in a university year), skim (scheme), sup (soup), tayar (tire), treler (trailer), tren (train), universiti, wad (ward, as in hospital ward)……this list is tiny but it could go on and on. There are many, many more English words in common use in Malay right now.

Is it really such a bad thing, though? A look at the history of Malay, and a closer look at the way Malays use English words, will reveal that there probably isn’t anything to worry about. First of all, the ‘purists’ who decry the use of English words have to realize that stripping words of foreign origin out of Malay would leave it with hardly any words at all. One prominent historian has pointed out that only three Malay words are exclusively Malay: kayu (wood), batu (stone) and babi (pig). Another historian has added padi (rice field) and two or three other words to that list. So where the heck did all the other Malay words come from? Most Malay words came from other languages including (but not limited to) Sanskrit, Arabic, Javanese, Portuguese and, you guessed it, English. For many centuries Malays have had a flair for adopting foreign words and adapting them to suit their language needs. A closer look at the English words in the above list shows that while some of them are in their original English form (bank, hospital, hotel), this is only because their spelling suits Malay conventions of spelling and pronunciation. Other words are altered to reflect these conventions, and these alterations make the words uniquely Malay despite their English origins. This is the case of the word bajet, which has prompted some purists to question why the government didn’t use the Malay term, anggaran belanja (at least I think that’s the official term, I’ll have to check a dictionary). The government has explained that the old term does not adequately express the exact meaning of a budget being tabled by the a government, so the English word has been adopted, albeit in a modified form. So who’s to say bajet is not a Malay word? It serves a purpose, and now there it is. Sometimes even the meanings can be altered, as with the English word terror (used as an adjective to describe someone who’s really good at doing something, as in “Does he know how to drive a car?” “Ya lah, dia dah terror!”); power and action are similarly used as adjectives instead of nouns.

The adoption of English words into Malay should not be seen as a sign of weakness, nor should English necessarily be seen as a threat to Malay. It is true that the dominance of English and a small number of other world languages (among them Spanish, French, Mandarin, Arabic, Russian, Hindi and a few others) is contributing to the demise of many languages every year. A few thousand languages are in danger of being lost as their speakers turn to national and international languages that offer more adavantages and opportunities. In his great book, Language in Danger, Andrew Dalby tells us in no uncertain terms that for several reasons, either because people choose to stop speaking a language or are more or less forced to, most of the world’s languages are doomed. He also says that even the most well-intentioned linguists and language lovers might be powerless to stop the decline, because if someone chooses not to educate their children in their mother tongue for practical reasons, whose right is it to tell them they can’t or shouldn’t? It’s a complicated issue. Still, it will be better for everyone if the world’s languages can somehow be kept vibrant. It would seem that I am in an awkward position, being a lover of languages and a supporter of endangered languages on the one hand, while on the other hand running a language school where English is the main offering, and being an advocate of English in a country where it is not a native language. Unlike many of the languages in danger of being lost, however, Malay is indeed a vibrant language that has adapted and survived in much the same way as English (most of the words in English came from other languages, and there wouldn’t be much left if we stripped it down to the original Anglo-Saxon vocabulary). Language change is inevitable, and those languages that do not change will surely die (Dalby dislikes talking about languages as if they’re living things that can spread, die and perform other actions, but I think it’s totally appropriate). The adoption of the word bajet is one example of how Malay has been able to absorb foreign words when native terms do not fit the meaning that is to be expressed. Do you know the official Latin word for motorcycle? Neither do I. but there is one, released a couple of years ago by the Vatican, and it’s as long as my arm. Malays just call it a motosikal, instead of trying to use older Malay terms to come up with something as ridiculous as the Latin version.

English and Malay can co-exist peacefully in Malaysia. In fact, they have been doing so for a long time. As an English teacher I cringe when I see and hear the ways Malaysians can sometimes mangle my language, but even some of what is considered Manglish can actually be seen as a valid English dialect, at least in informal speech (I wouldn’t recommend using phrases like “Cannot lah!” in any kind of formal or official setting). English and Malay can complement each other in this country. It’s important to remember that Malay has also contributed some words to English, such as ketchup (from kicap), amok, orang-utan, cockatoo (from kakak tua; thanks to Bin Gregory for that one) and, interestingly enough, compound (interesting because in the sense of a group of buildings the word came to English from the Malay word kampung, whereas the Malay word kompaun, which is in the above list, has gone back from English to Malay and means a fine or levy). Malay has been and continues to be a vibrant language. So I don’t think the ‘purists’ have much to worry about. I think Malay will be just fine. And even if that Japanese girl learns English at my school, it won’t replace Malay, it will just open up a whole new world to her that will exist alongside the world that she discovered when she learned Malay.