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Borgesian pronouns in Malay

The other day at the library I browsed a couple of books on the Malay language. Although it's not inflected and doesn't at first glance have any major phonological barriers to entry, it has its own confusing subtleties. Consider, for instance, this table of personal pronouns (from Sir Richard Winstedt's Colloquial Malay, Singapore, 1957):

Malay pronoun table

In case you didn't notice, there are not only separate sets of pronouns for different combinations of social ranks, but a distinct set reserved just for addressing ethnic Chinese. Shades of John Wilkins! No wonder Winstedt goes on to say that "Malays shun the use of personal pronouns" -- although the practice he describes of substituting nouns representing rank, title or metaphorical family relationship seems just as complex.

I'd write this off as a quaint and obsolete colonialism but linguablogger Jordan Macvay reports that the situation today isn't much simpler. In fact he notes with surprise that many Malays have started borrowing the English I and you so as not to have to commit to one of the social relationships encoded in their own pronouns.

language 2005.06.12 link


I wonder how much this differs from Malaysia to Singapore to Indonesia (Bahasa Indonesia is about 95% Malay).

I'd have to disagree with Jordan Macvay when he says:

As with the borrowing of English words into Malay in general, the use of these English pronouns is not a sign that Malay is beginning to succumb to the dominance of English. Rather, it is a sign that Malay can adapt and remain vibrant where other languages would stagnate.

When I was in Malaysia last fall, I was continually surprised by how often Malay-Malaysians, Chinese-Malaysians, and Indian-Malaysians would use English as their primary language of communication.

oso [oso cxe el-oso punkto net] • 2005.06.12
Oso, might not your presence have had something to do with their choice of language in a particular situation? And were you maybe circulating among people of a higher educational level or in a more urban or ethnically mixed setting than is typical for Malaysia as a whole?

Prentiss Riddle [riddle cxe io punkto com] • 2005.06.13
As you may know, the situation is somewhat similar in Japan. I can think of 8 first-person singular pronouns (one of which can only be used by the emperor) offhand, which vary depending on gender and level of address. Three second-person singular, again, varying depending on level of address (although people frequently avoid saying "you" and address the person by title or name). Bar fights could conceivably break out over the incorrect choice of pronoun.

Adam Rice [adamrice cxe crossroads punkto net] • 2005.06.13

Wikipedia has an article on the "T-V distinction" between informal and formal second-person pronouns but doesn't go into more complex systems. The notes on Norwegian and Swedish are intriguing. "Norwegians use exclusively [informal] du in their daily life, and it is said that [formal] De is reserved for the king of Norway, who at the first use would comment `Please, let's use du', thereby limiting the use of De to once in a lifetime." In Swedish du had all but vanquished the formal Ni until a very recent trend (late 1990s) brought it back. No explanation of why. Didn't one of the Scandinavian languages once have a political movement to stamp out a particular second-person pronoun used to address social inferiors?

A related and slightly odd Wikipedia article on grammatical person says:

"Other languages have much more elaborate systems of formality that go well beyond the T-V distinction, and use many different pronouns and verb forms that express the speaker's relationship with the people she addresses. Many Malayo-Polynesian languages, such as Javanese and Balinese are well known for their complex systems of honorifics; Japanese and Korean also have similar systems to a lesser extent."

I suspect that's the tip of the iceberg. There are of course many other ways to indicate linguistic registers than in pronouns.

The reference to gender of the speaker in Japanese brings up a vague memory of some Native American languages in which women's speech was so different from men's that initially researchers thought they were two separate languages.

Prentiss Riddle [riddle cxe io punkto com] • 2005.06.13
Prentiss, good points. I'd have to answer yes and no to both of them. Most of what I heard, I overheard. And yes, it was mostly amongst stylish, urban youth and businessmen and women. But what also surprised me is just how much of Malaysia's population (both in major cities and in rural areas) are in fact stylish, urban-looking youth and businesswo/men.

Jordan MacVay obviously has much much more experience with Malaysian culture and language than I do, but I was definitely given the impression that Malaysia is headed for a Singapore-like embrace of English which is, in part, spearheaded by a Malay, pro-neoliberal government.

oso [oso cxe el-oso punkto net] • 2005.06.13
Language Hat has picked up this thread, if you want to follow it there.

Prentiss Riddle [riddle cxe io punkto com] • 2005.06.23
Nice blog.I like this.

Nick [nick_21 cxe yhaoo punkto com] • 2005.10.03
Couldnt find your email hun, so heres the dictionary I found :P
blessid be! And Happy hoildays
Siren ROse
Dartmouth Nova Scotia

Siren Rose [Siren_rose cxe walla punkto com] • 2005.12.10

Im from Brasil and have just created my blog about languages.Please,go there and appreciate my work ! I will come back soon.



Eugenio [genio punkto latino cxe gmail punkto com] • 2005.12.20
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