Friday, April 30, 2004

Bahasa Rojak

The Kementerian Penerangan (KEMPEN), the Malaysian Ministry of Information, in mid-April stirred up a bit of debate about what's appropriate to air on the channels of Radio-Television Malaysia. The concern wasn't about Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake, Howard Stern or even crank calls to Fidel Castro, no the problem is "rojak language."

Rojak, according to my only Bahasa Melayu dictionary, is a "cold dish of sliced vegetables or fruits seasoned with a sauce," or basically a mixed salad. (Here's a recipe that describes rojak as "Singapore salad.") But in the context of the Malaysian debate, the rojak is being used to describe the common mixture of English (and Hindi and Arabic and French and other languages -- although English is the admixture in question at the moment) with Basaha Melayu. From an article by Zieman in The Star:
"The ministry disallows Malay songs that incorporate English lyrics. We are following the guidelines given by Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (DBP [the Institute of Language and Literature]) which state that songs with inaccurate translations or improper language should be banned," [Deputy Information Minister Datuk Zainuddin Maidin] said.
However, there seems to be some disagreement about what is to be banned.
"A few English words in a Malay song is quite normal in this borderless world. I am certain the ban was not imposed for that reason because many English words or terms have been Malaysianised," [said Information Minister Datuk Paduka Abdul Kadir Sheikh Fadzir].
A "Malaysianised" word is part of the problem with at least one of the songs, "Seksis" (Sexist) by Singaporean diva Anita Sarawak. Songwriter Norman Halim said that the word seksis had to be used for the song "because we could not find a suitable word in Malay to describe the content of the song. It should consider including new words like Seksis in the Malay dictionary."

Dara Naga's Lair has a good two-part [ I | II ] rant about mixing English and Bahasa Melayu (with a bit of code switching to help make her point): "I'm all for upholding the national language but unlike some people, I'm not stupid enough to think that our language in its present form is perfect."

However, others don't agree, including Arts, Culture and Heritage Minister Datuk Seri Dr. Rais Yatim, who said that "most Malaysians spoke 'half-eel, half-snake' language." To counter this, the ministry plans "several language culture education programmes to revive and protect Bahasa Melayu as the nation's heritage."

Beyond all the actual issue of whether or not a language should grow by adopting words from other languages, the use of rojak to describe the process and to label the "mixed language" as a bahasa rojak (as former Prime Minister Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad did). The only parallel I can think of in English is salgamundi, which in cuisine terms is a composed salad, but it also has the meaning "a mixture, olio or medley." The mixture aspect can refer to foods, such as a stew, but the word is also used more broadly. However, salgamundi is hardly a common word.

Going back to Zieman's article in The Star, Zieman makes the argument that Bahasa Melayu must evolve and adopt new words if it is "to be an effective language:"
One language expert [unnamed] went so far as to claim that there are only four words in the Malay vocabulary that are genuinely Malay: api (fire), besi (iron), padi (rice) and nasi (cooked rice).
I'm sure there is a bit of hyperbole going on here, but the point is valid. English borrows heavily from pretty much every language it encounters without suffering a lowering of status or a loss of cultural identity. And considering that Malay-Indonesian in one form or another is among the top ten most widely spoken languages in the world (this article (Google cached version) argues it's among the top four, but that doesn't jive with other sources I've seen), it would seem that borrowing and evolution can only help ensure that the language remains pertinent to its speakers.