Monday, September 18, 2006

An Equal Language

A friend of mine frequently rails against the numerous pronouns we have in Malay and how this perpetuates the feudal mentality among Malay speakers. For the first person alone, we have several words, ranging from the casual aku to the royal beta. We also have a few words for the second person like kau, kamu and awak, but since it is considered rude to address people directly in the second person unless you know them very well or are deliberately trying to be rude, the use of these words is limited. The Malay speakers' obsession with politeness and social decorum has engendered a situation where the English word "you" could be translated in more than 20 ways into Malay, all depending on the social status and age of the person being addressed.

If I wanted to borrow my uncle's car, I would never say, "I would like to borrow your car." Instead I would use the oblique-sounding form "I would like to borrow uncle's (pak cik) car." And this applies throughout. When forced to address another person directly in the second person, a Malay speaker would instinctively look for a title that applies to the person and use is rather than say awak or kamu (you). (Yes, forced. For in case you haven't noticed, we tend to drop the noun altogether whenever we can). As a result, even the lowliest specimens on the social ladder would get the honorific title abang (elder brother), if he's older, or adik (little brother), if he's younger, or the slightly more formal encik (mister). What sticklers for propriety we are, the Malays. Thus, a sentence like "What is your opinion on the rise of Big Mac consumption among the young?" could be translated in Malay as "Apakah pendapat (cross as appropriate) tuan/puan/encik/Dato'/Tan Sri/Puan Sri/Datin/Datin Sri/Tok Puan/Tuan Haji/Yang Mulia/Toh Puan/Tun/Tuanku/abang/adik/mak long/mak su/pak ngah/abang andak tentang meningkatnya pemakanan Big Mac di kalangan muda-mudi?", depending on who you're speaking to.

And of course, in a country where there is a proliferation of noble titles both deserved and undeserved, the question of using the right titles to replace the second person pronoun can be a bewildering to the unitiated. Imagine having to say something like "You are most welcomed to give comments or any views you may have on this matter or any other issues that have been brought forward to your attention by your stakeholders." in Malay to a Tan Sri or a Dato'. It's small wonder that people prefer doing business dealings in English in this country. The use of English is not just a question of obviating the hassle of social propriety: it also involves the question of equitability. Having to address someone by his noble title in every other sentence may seem like a small concession, but subconsciously, it already affects the dynamics of the conversation, an important consideration in million ringgit business negotiations.

The use of titles is a constant reminder of the difference in social status, and by extension, of power, real or imagined, among the speakers. This is what my friend meant when he avers that the use, or rather the disuse, of pronouns in Malay perpetuates the feudal mentality among the Malays; for how can there be lords if there are no servants? This gave me food for thought. When Malay was adopted as the national language for all Indonesia by the Indonesian independence movement in 1928, it was chosen not only on account of its status as an established lingua franca, but also because it was seen to be free of the hierarchical inhibitions that bedevilled Javanese, the actual majority language of Indonesia. In short, Malay was adopted in Indonesia because it lends itself more readily to democratic principles and equality for all.

Ironic, don't you think?


p/s : This article was originally posted in Fazurin's blog. Aku re-post kat sini without permission. Maafkan aku...

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