Thursday, April 28, 2011

What's in a (language) name?

I live in the United States of America, and we refer to our main language as "English." Perhaps at one point this upset people, since we had gone through two wars with the English, but today we don't really give it a second thought.

But it's different in Malaysia.

First off, here's one important fact about Malaysia, courtesy of the U.S. State Department:

Malaysia's multi-racial society contains many ethnic groups. Malays comprise a majority of just over 50%....About a quarter of the population is ethnic Chinese, a group which historically played an important role in trade and business. Malaysians of Indian descent comprise about 7% of the population and include Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, and Christians. Non-Malay indigenous groups combine to make up approximately 11% of the population.

These multiple ethnic groups create some tensions in the country. Decades ago, I knew a Malaysian who was an ethnic Chinese. The reason that I knew her is because she went to college in Oklahoma - since (at least at the time) the number of ethnic Chinese students in Malaysian colleges and universities was restricted.

We spoke to each other in English, despite the fact that England had not ruled either of our native countries in a long, long time. And my friend obviously spoke Chinese. But before she left Malaysia to go to Oklahoma, what language did she speak to conduct official government business?

Well, it depends. The language remained constant, but the name of the language changes from time to time. Here's the story:

The forefathers of Malaysia have agreed among other things during formation of the nation, that the language of Malays, be the official language. The federal constitution guarantees this privileged status of Malay language or Bahasa Melayu in article 152.

But there was a subsequent change:

A bloody racial riot which started on May 13, 1969 prompted the Malaysian government to take remedial measures. One of the steps is to promote the official language as Bahasa Malaysia, literally the language of Malaysia, for a more universal appeal sanctioned by the National Language Act 1967.

What's the difference? If you're part of the nearly 50% of Malaysia who is not Malay, it could be a very big difference.

But not to everyone:

Says the Education Minister who eventually became deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Abdul Razak: "The government is not rigid about this. Although in the constitution the term Bahasa Melayu is used, in certain situations, the use of the term Bahasa Malaysia is allowed...We do not want to go into a debate on semantics. On the government's part, we are being pragmatic by accepting both. This is not an issue to be exaggerated."

Or perhaps it is, based upon this event that occurred in 1999:

Malaysia's literary agency Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka ( DBP ) refused to publish a collection of short stories. The reason? The writers used the term " Bahasa Malaysia". DBP's stance is that Bahasa Malaysia is political and it acknowledges Bahasa Melayu.

Or perhaps it isn't:

he strange part is, DBP has been publishing books using the term Bahasa Malaysia before this and continues to do so until as late as 2002.

There is a similar language spoken in Indonesia, but apparently everyone there agrees to call the language Bahasa Indonesia. The language is similar, but not identical:

In Bahasa Melayu: budak means 'children'
In Bahasa Indonesia: budak means 'slave'
So, the Indonesians can get offended if someone calls their children 'budak'.

Well, I'm glad that I don't live in southeast Asia and the name of my language is fairly simple to understand, and has no controversy whatsoever.

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