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Mind your language


The long arm of Portuguese influence stretches to language, music, festivals and food.

ERHAPS the most common misconception about the Malacca-Creole Portuguese language Papiah Kristang, or Bahasa Serani, as it’s also commonly known, is that it’s spoken merely by the Portuguese descendants in the Portuguese settlement in Malacca’s Ujong Pasir. Also, the language being called Kristang is a point of contention, with some settlement folk insisting that it’s just an ancient form of Portuguese.

Joan Marbeck, 67, a retired specialist music teacher and authority on the language, insists it belongs to every Malaysian-Eurasian who can trace his roots to Malacca at one time or another.

“I would like to think it is the choice of the people there to project the name of the language they speak. Most of them believe that they are speaking ‘Portugis’, but I speak for the majority of Eurasians in the Portuguese settlement in Malacca, Malaysia, Singapore, Perth, together with top Creolists, linguists and historians, and we’d like to believe that the name of the language is and should be Papiah Kristang,” Marbeck sets the record straight.

What is indisputable is that Papiah Kristang isn’t a pure language, it’s one that has evolved with the influence of other colonists and the prevalent languages of the time.

“The etymology of Kristang can be traced to the history of Portuguese rule in Malacca for 130 years, their intermarrying with the local population, and the Dutch and English influence and other foreign traders that found their way to the great port of Malacca. First a pidgin Portuguese, then the pidgin developed into a Creole with a Portuguese base,” she explains.

And just as Papiah Kristang has liberally taken from Bahasa Malaysia, it has also given back its fair share. Bahasa Melayu words like almari (almario, or, in English, cupboard), bendera (bandera, flag), mentega (mantaga, butter), garfu (garfo, fork) and meja (mesa, table) originate from it. “I would say the Kristang language borrowed some words from Bahasa Melayu through the 500 years of its existence while the Malay language practically adopted almost 600 Portuguese words into its vocabulary,” Marbeck says.

The Portuguese spread their wings wide, reaching Goa in India and Macau in China on their global adventures hundreds of years ago. Naturally, culture and language are remnants of what they left behind. So, does the Portuguese spoken in these regions bear any similarity to Papiah Kristang?

Marbeck certainly thinks so: “There is a common thread that links former Portuguese colonies, and it is a similar language that has a common Portuguese base mingled with the local language of the country.”

Apparently, Papiah Kristang is on the list of endangered languages, along with 6,000 others. It’s reported that every week, two languages die because the last living person speaking the language passes on.

Marbeck is doing her best to keep the language and its tradition alive. She’s even written books like Ungua Adanza (An Inheritance) and Linggu Mai (Mother Tongue) on the subject, not to mention what is believed to be the first Kristang play, Seng Marianne. “I have been researching and trying to save Papiah Kristang for 20 years because I am a Malaysian Eurasian, born in Malacca and a native Kristang speaker for over 60 years,” she shares proudly.

In 2007, telco Digi honoured her as one of their picks for their “Amazing Malaysian” CSR programme, naming her “The Kristang Poet of Melaka”. With the award, she wrote and directed the Kristang musical, Kazamintu na Praiya.

Marbeck became inspired to preserve her language after reading about Alaskan Mary Smith in a language journal, who at 89, was the last of the Eyak people who knew her mother tongue.

Likewise in many remote parts of the world, the last surviving custodians of a language are in the twilight years of their lives. Marbeck is very much aware that she is in a race against time.

According to her, learning Kristang isn’t difficult.

“Because of the over-prescribed use of other dominant languages in Malaysia, Kristang was left to ‘die’. My hope and wish is that Papiah Kristang, the Malacca-Portuguese Creole, the Malaysian-Eurasian language or Bahasa Serani – call it what you wish – will create an awareness about identity, unite the Malaysian-Eurasian community and save a unique heritage.”

Commemorating the quincentenary, Marbeck has three books to share: Bersu Serani – Eurasian Verse And Song, Speak Serani – Comprehensive Bahasa Serani Language Book and the Commemorative Bahasa Serani Dictionary.

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