[lg policy] Sarawak, a land of many tongues

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Sat Jan 29 15:51:50 UTC 2011

Sarawak, a land of many tongues

In Malaysian textbooks, much has been made of the three main races in
our country — the Malays, Chinese and Indians. This national picture
is a distortion, ignoring the colourful ethnographic composition of

In Sarawak, the Land of the Hornbills, the ethnographic picture is
much more complex than in West Malaysia. There are officially 27
ethnic groups, with not a single one constituting a simple majority.
Sarawak is rightly the most diverse and colourful conglomeration of
the ethnic mix that makes this state so unique.

The Malay language is still the most important tongue of the land. But
even here, unlike in West Malaysia, the Sarawak Malays speak a dialect
that would be incomprehensible to most other Malays from the rest of
the country. It is distinctively and unmistakeably a Malay language,
though its route of evolution has taken a unique twist on its way to
its present shape and form.

The single most widely spoken native language is Iban. The Iban
language is pretty universal and spoken by 34 per cent of the total
population of Sarawak, not counting those non-Ibans who are fluent in
Iban. Even so, there are minor variations in the Iban spoken by the
people of Sarawak, with small differences in the vocabulary and the
modes of pronunciation of individual Iban words. For instance, the
word Udoh is to the Rajang Iban, the word for dog, but away from the
Rajang region, Ukoi is the more common term for that domestic animal
much loved by the Iban.

The Bidayuh language is spoken by about 10 per cent of the population
of Sarawak. But even among the Bidayuh, there are six major dialects
and their speakers may not understand one another. It is not uncommon
to see two Bidayuhs from Sarawak conversing in Malay because that is a
common language that can be understood by all Bidayuhs.

By and large, the various dialects spoken by the Bidayuhs can be
classified as follows: Bukar Bidayuh, Singai Bidayuh, Biatah Bidayuh,
Semban Bidayuh, Bau-Jagoi Bidayuh, and Tebakang BIdayuh.

The greatest variety of languages can be found among the Orang Ulu,
the collective name for the three dozen or so indigenous tongues
spoken by the native upriver tribes. One of the smallest of these
tribes is the Penan, accounting for 12,000 in absolute numbers.

Despite the great array of indigenous tongues, interpersonal and
inter-tribal communication never poses much of a problem, for
everybody reverts back to Pasar Malay, a kind of patois, serving as a
lingua franca among all Sarawakians.

Though Bahasa Malaysia is touted as the national common language, it
is not all that popular in daily use. Bahasa Malaysia is an official
language of administration, and it is a very structured form of
self-expression, totally alien to the rapid-fire Pasar Malay which is
on everybody’s lips.

Among the many races, Iban is also used as a lingua franca among the
ethnic communities. It is an easy language to learn, though its
richness in verbal expression and complexity is hard to master.

Another of the major languages is Melanau, spoken by both Muslims and
Christians alike. The Melanau enjoy great political influence in the
state and some of the most notable Sarawakians come from this Melanau
speaking group.

As their own contribution to this great linguistic diversity, the
Chinese have their own Babel’s Tower. Though the Chinese speak the
second largest collection of ethnic languages, they suffer from deep
linguistic divisions. The Chinese speak numerous dialects, of which
Hokkien, Foochow, Hakka, Cantonese, Teochew, Hailam and Henghua form
the majority.

In recent years, politics has driven Mandarin to its pre-eminent
position as the most common language spoken by the Chinese. Mandarin
is a very literate form of the classical language, which will put off
many first-time learners. They also have an advanced, complicated
written form, and it would take many years for a non-Mandarin speaking
person to master it.

As if this variety were not enough, there is also the English language
widely used by the elite western-educated class of citizens. I daresay
that the standard of written and spoken English in Sarawak is
generally better than other parts of Malaysia. The English used by
Sarawakians is mostly of the British variety, though American English
is creeping into daily use, largely thanks to the advancing influence
of the entertainment industry.

But whatever the complexity of the linguistic milieu, in talking
across so many tongues, the great miracle in interpersonal
communication in Sarawak is still the mutual respect held by so many
people, speaking so many languages. Whatever differences in our modes
of speaking, people in the Land of the Hornbills stand out as the most
harmonious community in the entire country.

In Sarawak there are no strangers; there are only friends who have not
yet met. That is the greatest story in this, the Land of Many Tongues,
being played out among our people of one heart.


(The author can be reached at kenyalang578 at hotmail.com. All comments
are welcomed.)

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