Book of the Day: The Encyclopaedia of Malaysia: Language and Literature

Encyclopedia Cover

The wide-ranging nature of Captain Thomas Bowrey’s activities has had resulted in me having to educate myself in a similarly wide-ranging list of subjects. One of those subjects is the fascinating Malay language. This has not been as difficult as you may imagine. I should not have been so surprised to find Professor Dato’ Dr Asmah Haji Omar’s beautiful volume on the Malay Language and Literature in the Encyclopaedia  of Malaysia series. If you look in detail at many of today’s coffee-table books, so many of them have been printed in Singapore or Malaysia even when published elsewhere.

Today, we are used to English being widely understood but this was not the case in Bowrey’s day. In the earliest days, the English East India Company officials often resulted to Latin in their communication primarily because the Portuguese had been in the East Indies for so much longer. The intra-Asian trade had been in existence for even longer and the Malay language had become the lingua-franca of business. It was also one of the international language of diplomacy alongside Arabic and Persian. Malay is still the fifth most widely spoken world language. It is one of the official languages of Malaysia and Singapore and, in a slightly different form, of Indonesia. It remains an important contact language – that is a language spoken by native speakers of other languages. It is easier to learn than European languages.

Because of the importance of Malay Bowrey’s dictionary, the earliest Malay-English dictionary published, still has relevance now. It has been claimed that even today anyone following his vocabulary and rules for pronunciation would learn to speak Malay sufficiently to be understood.

This is more remarkable than you would imagine because Malay is a much more complex than English. There are three forms of the language: colloquial, formal and bazaar. Colloquial Malay is the spoken form used as a contact language. Formal, or standard, Malay is a highly developed language used for literature, education and administration in both written and spoken form. This written for of Malay is at least as old as written English. The earliest inscriptions used Indic-based scripts. As the use of Malay spread with the spread of Islam, an Arabic-based script known as Jawi came into use. The Malay Roman script known as Rumi was not adopted until the period of British administration long after Bowrey’s time.

Bazaar, pasar or low Malay was used as the trade language, that used as the lingua franca of the Malay Archipelago.  It is a reduced form, grammatically simpler with a smaller vocabulary. This third variation is the form Bowrey knew and the source of any criticism of his dictionary but he had been required to develop his own method of Romanising Malay for English speakers. When Malaysia and Indonesia agreed on a standard Romanised spelling system to replace Jawi in 1972, it was based on the existing Dutch and English systems. It was the culmination of the evolution of a written system in part started by Bowrey.

It is thanks to Professor Omar that I can understand all this.

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