Multilingual Malaysia: A Land Where Language Is Never A Barrier
Malaysia is known for being a multilingual country, housing speakers of approximately 137 languages. The national language is the Malay language. Other commonly spoken languages include English, Mandarin and Tamil. Most people in Malaysia, especially the younger generation, are multilingual and are able to speak several languages (not just their mother tongues!) with varying fluency. Undoubtedly, Malaysia has become a mosaic of languages due to its diversity.
A common Malaysian phrase – “Wei macha, want to makan here or tapau?” which essentially means ‘Hey friend, dine-in or takeaway?’, actually combines four different languages in one sentence!
Slang words adopted from multiple languages and dialects are used on a daily basis practically everywhere in Malaysia. For example, instead of saying ‘takeaway’, we use the word ‘tapau’ derived from Mandarin and Cantonese. Adding the word ‘lah’, ‘leh’, ‘bah’, ‘eh’ or ‘ah’ in different tones makes the way we express ourselves rather unique in this part of the world! This includes saying “where got lah?” (commonly used in denying something), “cincai lah” (whatever), “gostan your car” (reverse your car), just to name a few.
In fact, it is these unique lingos that brings us together as Malaysians!
In today’s feature story, we highlight some interesting facts about some of the main languages in our country which represent our truly Asian identity.
The Malay language (Bahasa Malaysia) bears its origins in Sumatra and is not only spoken in Malaysia but also neighbouring countries such as Brunei, Indonesia and Singapore as well as parts of Thailand.
Every Malaysian citizen is required to learn the national language from a young age and it is regarded as the binding factor uniting various ethnic groups in Malaysia as a medium of communication.
Its roots can be traced back as early as 1000 BCE in Borneo. There are said to be five historical periods to the development of the Malay language, namely Old Malay, the Transitional Period, the Malacca Period (Classical Malay), Late Modern Malay and modern Malay. Classical Malay played an integral role during the Malacca Sultanate as it was the lingua franca used by traders across the Straits of Malacca.
Much of the Malay language is influenced by other languages of the world, including Arabic, Sanskrit, Tamil, Persian, Portuguese, Dutch, and some Chinese dialects. Some popular examples would be days of the week (Arabic), ‘bumi’ (Sanskrit) and even almari (Portuguese). Even some of the scientific and technological terms are borrowed from English.
The Malay dialect differs according to the region. Notable ones include Kelantanese, Terrenganuan, Kedahan, Sarawakian and Negeri Sembilan Malay. In fact, the slogan for the Kelantan state football club in Kelantanese – ‘Gomo Kelate Gomo’ (Fight Kelantan Fight) garnered international attention due to its uniqueness.
Mandarin is commonly spoken by the Chinese community in Malaysia. Despite it being the standard language, the older generation prefer to speak in their own mother tongue or native dialects such as Hokkien (the largest group), Hakka, Cantonese, Teochew, Hainanese and Foochow.
Hokkien and Teochew are widely spoken in the north, especially Penang, Kelantan and Kedah. Cantonese is mostly spoken in central Malaysia such as Ipoh (Perak), Selangor and Kuala Lumpur. The Chinese in the south, on the other hand, usually speak Hokkien, Foochow or Mandarin.
In East Malaysia, Hakka, Hokkien and Cantonese are typically spoken. More often than not, the Chinese community in Malaysia can speak more than one dialect. Certain dialects such as Hokkien have had great influence in the Baba Nyonya culture and the Chinese Peranakan community in Kelantan.
The majority of Indians in Malaysia speak the Tamil language. This native language is also taught in vernacular schools and is an elective subject in national schools. Other languages from the Indian subcontinent spoken here include Telugu, Malayalam, Hindi and Punjabi.
The presence of this language can be traced back to 779 AD where an inscription was found in Ligor situated in the Malay Peninsula as Indian traders often travelled to Malaya. According historians J.V. Sebastian, K.T. Thirunavukkarasu and A.W. Hamilton, Tamil was among the common language of commerce in Malaysia and Indonesia during historical times. During the 17th century, it is believed the Dutch East India Company used the Tamil language as part of its medium of communication. In the 19th century, Malay terminology pertaining to book-keeping and accountancy in Malacca was still largely in the Tamil language.
There are over 30 native tribes in Malaysia that speak in their ancestral languages. Such tribes include the Orang Asli community and East Malaysians. They speak Austronesian languages which are largely inherited from the older generation as a way of preserving their heritage.
In Sarawak, Jaku Iban (Iban) and Coastal Kadazan (Kadazan) has a strong presence as the common medium of communication. In Sabah, the indigenous community speak Bajau, Murut, Lun, Rungus, Bisaya, Iranun, Suluk, and Sama. However, due to the wide use of the national language, some of these indigenous languages are now facing extinction.
*Featured image sourced from Sunway Echo Media