Popular Science Monthly/Volume 54/April 1899/The Malay Language




A GENTLEMAN who had lived for several years among the Indians of the Canadian northwest said that he went among them believing they were an untutored race. But when they told him of a dozen kinds of berries growing in a locality where he knew but two, brought him flowers he could not find after careful search, and around their council fires showed as deep an insight into the mysteries of life as the savants of his university, then he concluded they could no longer be called untutored.

And why should they be? Is there no culture or civilization outside of the enlightenment of Europe or America? And because a civilization does not exactly fit the grooves in which most of the world has moved, may it not be a real civilization for all that? If such is possible,-then we vote, the Malays a cultured people. Of course, their culture is not like our own; it knows no railroads, no telegraphs, boasts of no intricate political machinery, has no complicated social despotisms. Native princes rule for 'the most part over peaceful states, and politics means no more than the regulation of quiet village life. But what need of railroads, when the rivers are avenues of trade and communication? Why telegraphs, when the world is bounded by the jungle horizon? Or why, in short, severe civil and social enactments, when the common Wahlspruch of life is, "Fear disgrace rather than death"? Such a civilization, we admit, is a humble one; but it also has the advantage of being a nappy one. And where contentment dwells, where honesty prevails, where the home is a stronghold, there are culture and civilization, even though they may not coincide with our own.

The Malays are not barbarians, and their language by its grace and adaptability has shown its right to be. To-day it is the mother tongue of more than forty millions of people, and the lingua franca of Chinamen, Hindus, European, and natives. It is spoken from Madagascar to the distant islands of the Pacific, and from the Philippines to Australia. With it one can barter in Celebes and sell in Java; converse with a sultan in Sumatra or a Spaniard in Manila. Moreover, it is soft and melodious, rich in expression, poetical in idiom, and simple in structure—a language almost without grammar and yet of immense vocabulary, with subtle distinctions and fine gradations of thought and meaning; a language that sounds in one's ears long after Tanah Malayu and the coral islands and the jungle strand have sunk into hazy recollection, just as they once dropped out of sight behind one's departing ship.

Malay is written in the Arabic character, which was adopted with Mohammedanism, probably in the thirteenth century. Anciently, the Malays used a writing of their own, but it is not yet clearly settled what it was. There are now thirty-four characters employed, each varying in form, according as it is isolated, final, medial, or initial. Naturally, the Arabic influence over the language has been a marked one; the priest who dictates in the religion of a people is a molder and shaper of language. We have only to recall the Catholic Church and the influence of the Latin tongue in the mouths of her priests to know that this is so. Many Arabic words and phrases have been adopted, but more in the language of literature than in that of everyday speech. A large number of expressions of court and royalty, and terms of law and religion, are Arabic; also the names of months, days, and many articles of commerce and trade; nevertheless, the language of common speech is still Malay.

Another influence, also, has been felt in the Malay—that of the Sanskrit language. The presence of many Sanskrit words has caused some very ingenious theories to be constructed in proof that the Malays were of Indian origin, and such word fragments the survival of the primitive tongue. Such theories, however, have not stood the test of philology, and the fact still remains that the language is essentially unique, with an origin lost in the darkness of remote antiquity. However, Sanskrit influence has been much greater, and has penetrated much deeper into the elemental structure of the language than the Arabic. In fact, the aboriginal language, before it felt the animating spirit of the Aryan tongue, must have been a barren one, the language of a primitive man, a fisherman, a hunter, a careless tiller of the soil. As Maxwell says in his Manual of the Malay Language, the Sanskrit word hala (plow) marks a revolution in Malayan agriculture and, one may say further, Malayan civilization. What changed the methods of cultivating the soil, changed the people themselves. It is probable that this change came through contact with people to whom Sanskrit was a vernacular tongue, but whether through conquest by the sword or by religion is hard to tell. Perhaps it was by both. At any rate, it was deep and strong, and left a lasting impression on the language. Sanskrit names fastened on trees, plants, grain, fruits, household and agricultural implements, parts of the body, articles of commerce, animals, metals and minerals, time and its division and measurement, family relationships, abstract conceptions, warfare, and fundamental ideas of religion and superstition. Such a conquest must have been an early and tremendous one.

Strangely enough, Malay is almost a grammarless tongue. It has no proper article, and its substantives may serve equally well as verbs, being singular or plural, and entirely genderless. However, adjectives and a process of reduplication often indicate number, and gender words are added to nouns to make sex allusions plain. Whatever there is of declension is prepositional as in English, and possessives are formed by putting the adjectives after the noun as in Italian. Nouns are primitive and derivative, the derivations being formed by suffixes or prefixes, or both, and one's mastery of the language may be gauged by the idiomatic way in which he handles these Anhängsel. Adjectives are uninflected.

The use of the pronouns involves an extensive knowledge of Oriental etiquette—some being used by the natives among one another, some between Europeans and natives, some employed when an inferior addresses a superior and vice versa, some used only when the native addresses his prince or sovereign; and, last of all, some being distinctly literary, and never employed colloquially. Into this maze one must go undaunted, and trust to time and patience to smooth out difficulties.

Verbs, like nouns, are primitive and derivative, with some few auxiliaries and a good many particles which are suffixed or prefixed to indicate various states and conditions. These things are apt to be confusing, and when the student learns that a verb may be past, present, or future without any change in form, he does not know whether to congratulate himself or not. Prepositions, too, are many and expressive; conjunctions, some colloquial, some pedantic.

We now come to a peculiarity which Malay has in common with other Indo-Chinese languages—the "numeral co-efficients," as Maxwell calls them, which are always employed with a certain class of objects, just as we say "head" of horses, "sail" of ships, etc. They are very many as compared with English, and very idiomatic in their use. For instance, the Malay says, "Europeans, three persons," "cats, four tails," "ships, five fruits," "cocoanuts, three seeds," "spears, two stems," "planks, five pieces," "houses, two ladders," and so on to fifteen or twenty different classes of articles or objects. By some this has been regarded as a peculiarity of the languages of southeastern Asia; but the same thing may be noticed in the Indian languages of our own continent.

As a language Malay is easily learned and has much to repay for so doing. It is full of wonders and surprises—among other things is the natural home of euphemism, where a spade is called anything but a spade. For instance, to die is beautifully expressed in Malay as a return to the mercy of Allah. The language is decidedly rich in poetical expression and imagery. A neighbor is one whom you permit to ascend the ladder of your cottage, and your friend is a sharer of your joys and sorrows. Interest is the flower of money, a spring is an eye of water, the sun the eye of day, and a policeman all eyes. A walk is a stroll to eat the wind, a man drunk is one who rides a green horse, and a coward a duck without spurs. A flatterer is one who has sugar cane on his lips, a sharper is a man of brains, a fool a brain-lacker.

In his proverbs also the Malay shows a matchless use of metaphor and imagery, his words having the softness of the jungle breeze, and at the same time the grimness of the jungle shades. Nowhere does the nature of his race or the peculiar genius of his language show out better than in these terse, pithy sayings which the Malay uses to sweeten his speech or lend effectiveness to it. The real Malay is a creature of the forest or the sea, whence he draws his livelihood, and it is but natural that he should envelop his daily and perhaps dangerous life with homely philosophy. He loves the freedom which he enjoys; take him away from it and he eats his heart out in homesickness. "Though you feed a jungle fowl from a golden plate, it will return to the jungle again." In his humble life he has discovered that blood, be it good or bad, counts for something, and he thinks of the forest lairs; "a kitten and small, but a tiger's cub." He is beset with dangers by sea and land; often he is between the devil and the deep. "One may escape the tiger, and fall into the jaws of the crocodile." He recognizes the inevitable, and draws what consolation he can. "When the prow is wrecked the shark gets his fill"—a very stoical recognition of ill winds. "For fear of the ghost he hugs the corpse," is often the solution of his dilemma. Sometimes he indulges in drollery, but is never unphilosophical. "To love one's children, one must weep for them now and then; to love one's wife, one must leave her now and then." The language is full of such expressions; they are the natural products of the speech of a poetical and Nature-loving folk. Without attempting a classification we give a few of the most characteristic proverbs, drawing largely on a collection made in the Malay Peninsula by W. E. Maxwell, at one time British resident there:

Will the crocodile respect the carcass?
Follow your heart, death; follow your feelings, destruction.
You find grasshoppers where you find a field.
Earth does not become grain.
Don't grind pepper for a bird on the wing.
The flower comes, age comes.
When the father is spotted, the son is spotted.
The plant sprouts before it climbs.
When he can't wring the ear, he pulls the horn.
The creel says the basket is poorly made.
Ask from one who has,
Make vows at a shrine,
Sulk with him who loves you.
When the house is done the chisel finds fault.
As the crow goes back to his nest (no richer, no poorer).
Whoever eats chilies burns his mouth.
Because of the mouth the body comes to harm.
If you are at the river's mouth at nightfall, what's the use of talking of return?
A broken thread may be mended, but charcoal never.
The pea forgets its pod.
As water rolls from a kladi leaf.
A shipwrecked vessel may float again, a heart once broken is broken forever.
It is a project, and the result with God.
He carries a torch in daylight.
A slave who does well is never praised; if he does badly, never forgiven.
It rains gold afar, but stone at home.
What if you sit on a cushion of gold with an uneasy mind!
When money leaves, your friend goes.
If you dip your hand into the fish tub, go to the bottom.
Whoever digs a hole falls into it himself.
If your legs are long, have your blanket long.
Like a frog under a cocoanut shell, he thinks he sees the sky.
If you can't get rattan, bind with roots.
The plantain does not bear twice.
He sits like a cat, but leaps like a tiger.

The tortoise lays a thousand eggs and tells no one; the hen lays a single egg and tells all the world.
Those will die of thirst who empty the jar when it thunders in a dry time.
Handsome as a princess, poisonous as a snake.
Small as an ant, wise as a mouse-deer.