History of the Malay Language

A 2009 file photo shows participants during the launching ceremony of the 48th MABBIM (Majlis Bahasa Brunei Darussalam-Indonesia-Malaysia) seminar held at Rizqun International Hotel, Gadong. Picture: BT/Saifulizam

Monday, November 8, 2010

WHAT has been agreed upon after years of research on the origin of the Malays is that the majority of anthropologists were able to trace the home of the Malay race to the northwestern part of Yunnan in China.

These tribal proto-Malays migrated through the Philippines and settled on the coastal Borneo before expanding into Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula as a result of their trading and their seafaring way of life.

The study of language indicated the movements of the Malay people as they progressed from Formosa to the rest of Southeast Asia and even to the Eastern Pacific Oceanic islands. There have been many scholarly debates with regard to determining the pre-historic Malay and the Malay language which was said to be derived from Austronesian language.

In general, scholars have agreed that the history of Malay language can be divided into four periods which are the periods of Old Malay, Early Modern Malay, Late Modern Malay and Contemporary Malay.

The Old Malay period, approximately between the years of 682 - 1,500 CE begins with records of poems and thoughts on writing materials made from plants described as the sharp cursive "Rencong", an ancient script believed to be native to Southeast Asia. Old Malay in Malay is then known as Bahasa Melayu Kuno (Ancient Malay Language).

This was at the time when the Malay man was already civilised enough to write down his language into writing. So whenever a would-be author or poet wants to jot down a pantun verse, it would be much easier for him to pick some bamboo leaves to jot down his pantuns or he could chop a bamboo trunk to make "writing planks". That was how the Malay people in Southern Sumatra did it when they recorded the original Malay in the form of sharp Rencong script on bamboo writing materials.

This is similar to the Egyptians inscribing hieroglyphics on walls of pyramids which left a record of their glorious past to survive. Unfortunately no evidence from that early period survived for the Malays. Rencong written on barks and leaves did not survive and left no proof that Rencong was the oldest known written Malay language.

When the Indians later arrived on the Malay Archipelago, they brought along Vatteluttu or Pallava, an ancient Tamil script from South India. Pallava was accepted as the Malay writing system. The Pallava writing was seen on the Kedukan Bukit Inscription, a small stone found in 1920 in Bukit Sumatra. The inscription was dated 683 CE. Over the years, Pallava gradually evolved into an ancient royal Javanese script called Kawi. Even the Jawi script during this period was used extensively with Sanskrit.

The period of Early Modern Malay is approximately from the years of 1500 to around 1850. This was said to coincide with the prominence of the Sultanate of Melaka especially when it had embraced the Islamic faith. It turned the Malay language as the language to propagate the Islamic religion.

The Malay language was further enriched with the addition of the vocabulary from Arabia, Persia and Hindi. Other changes were undergone at the same time with the introduction of the Arabic rhetorical style and changes in grammar based on oral speech.

In 1603, Frederick de Houtman published a book entitled "Spraek ende Woord-boek in de Maleysche ende Madagaskarsche Talen" in Amsterdam.

The book said to be the first book printed in Malay contained a vocabulary and a collection of dialogues, sufficient to cover essential guide to the early trading and bargaining required in the far east.

The 17th century also saw the emergence of the great Romances or "Hikayat" as the Malays recorded their experiences, religious laws and oral literature in Jawi script. Sir Winstedt categorised the "Hikayat" as Bahasa Melayu Klasik (Classic Malay Language). One of the more well known is Hikayat Abdullah published in 1849 a collection of accounts of contemporary Malay life.

The third period of the Late Modern Malay approximately from the years of 1850 to 1957 saw the incorporation of more loan words from Portuguese, Dutch and English. The Malay language was also now becoming a tool to proselytise Christianity as a result of translation of the bible into Malay by Dutch scholars.

There were more scholarly books produced. On Penyengat in Riau, one Malay scholar by the name of Raja Ali Haji completed the first pro-Arabic Malay Grammar book called Bustanul Katibin.

By the 1870s, printing in Malay was no longer exclusive to government printers or the Christian missionaries. Malay publications on Islam had increased including translations of Arabic works with Singapore and Batavia being the local presses. Other Malay communities in Mekah, Istanbul and India also contributed to the increasing publications. It was indeed the dawn of commercialised printing press and the publication of first Malay language newspapers in Arabic and Latin scripts.

In 1941, one Zainal Abidin bin Ahmad, better known as Za'ba, codified the Malay grammar into the three-volume "Pelita Bahasa Melayu". He also modified the Jawi spelling system.

The final period is the current one known as the Contemporary Malay period which takes place after 1957, that year being the year of independence for Malaysia.

In 1959, Indonesia and Malaysia signed an agreement to standardise the Malay spelling system of both countries.

Both countries thought this was necessary because Indonesia's romanised writing has been influenced by the Dutch whereas Malaysia's was influenced by the British system. They named this unified system "Melindo", an acronym for Bahasa Melayu and Bahasa Indonesia.

This included the creation of two new alphabets. There were six changes. The first was to change the the consonant "ch" to be spelled as "c" which for example "contoh" instead of "chontoh", "cuaca" instead of "chuaca" and "percaya" instead of "perchaya". The sixth was to change the diphthong "oi" to become "oy" which for example "amboi" is written as "amboy" and "seroi" is written as "seroy". It was only the first proposal changing the consonant "ch" to become "c" which was acceptable over time.

At that time the new proposed Melindo spelling was found too impractical and with the Confrontation in 1963, the project was held back. As relationship between these two countries normalised in 1966, this enabled further steps towards standardisation of a common spelling system implemented in 1972 with the formation of MBIM, the Language Council of Indonesia-Malaysia being formed.

MBIM became MABBIM, the Language Council of Brunei-Indonesia-Malaysia when Brunei joined in 1985. Today MABBIM is the regional language organisation which plans and monitors the development of the Malay Language/Indonesian Language in the region.

The Golden Legacy column is the longest running column on Brunei Times. The writer runs a website on Brunei at bruneiresources.com.

The Brunei Times