The word ‘gibbon’ originated in an Orang Asli language, researcher discovers

An illustration in the French archives of the live male gibbon from Kedah that was taken to Europe in 1755, along with the word ‘gibbon’. — Public domain

A researcher's curiosity about Orang Asli Batek words for animals 10 years ago led him to prove that the English word “gibbon” originated from the tribe’s word kebon.

Dr Teckwyn Lim, an adjunct lecturer in biodiversity at the University of Nottingham Malaysia, recently had his research paper “An Aslian origin for the word gibbon”, published in Volume 15 of Lexis, a linguistics journal based in France.

Lim is the managing director and co-founder of environmental consultancy Resource Stewardship Consultants Sdn Bhd since 2004. His research began after that, he says, when he volunteered to help with a tiger conservation project in Taman Negara 10 years ago.

“I was out jungle-trekking for this project and asked my Orang Asli guide to teach me the names of some plants and animals. My guide, Yam @ Latif, told me several words in the Batek language, including bek (tiger), gagok (elephant) and telabas (bear). I wrote these names down in my notebook and hoped that one day I would be able to share them with others.

“It was only quite recently, when I was finally typing up my field notes, that I noticed something strange: the Batek name for gibbon was remarkably similar to its English name,” he says in a recent email interview.

Lim (middle) conducting an interview for his research on the origin of the English word ‘gibbon’. — Teckwyn LimLim (middle) conducting an interview for his research on the origin of the English word ‘gibbon’. — Teckwyn Lim

The gibbon is a species of long-armed ape known as ungka in Malay and kebon in Batek, says Lim.

This struck him to be an unlikely coincidence and he immediately wondered whether the English word had been borrowed from Batek.

“When I looked up ‘gibbon’ in the Oxford English Dictionary, I found that the word has been in use since the 18th century but its root was not known. This had me even more intrigued and I began trying to discover how it could have been possible for a Batek word to be transmitted to English,” he says.

It took him a month to solve the puzzle, using a combination of linguistics, zoology and history, says Lim, beginning first with researching all the different native words for gibbon to confirm that kebon was the closest match.

Next, he had to check on the species of gibbon that was first described by Western scientists.

“Finally, I had to check whether there was a possibility for words to have been transmitted from Batek to English 250 years ago. Fortunate-ly, at each stage in my research I found that not only was it possible for ‘gibbon’ to have come from kebon, it started to look more and more likely that the word did indeed have such a root.

“Finally, I concluded that all the evidence supported the idea that ‘gibbon’ originated in an Orang Asli language,” he says.

Lim, who began his research in March 2019, says the most interesting part of his research paper is the history section that shows that the word “gibbon” appeared in Europe in 1755 along with a live male gibbon from Kedah.

Lim has a particular fondness for gibbons – he loves the species for how they form close family groups that sing to each other every morning: “I still remember the morning that I first heard a gibbon calling in the hills and I asked my friend Yam to tell me the Batek name for the animal making that sound.

“Yam has such a deep understanding of the plants and animals of the forest and I felt privileged to be learning a bit of a Malaysian language that has very few speakers and is not taught in any school,” says Lim, recounting the pivotal moment a decade ago when he first came across gibbons.

Lim says he would like Malay-sians to take pride in the fact that the word gibbon has its origins in the people of this country.

“I hope that my finding leads people to learn more about gibbons and to appreciate the fact that there are still wild gibbons in Malaysia. It is remarkable, there are even wild gibbons in forests close to Kuala Lumpur such as Bukit Cherakah, the Ampang Forest Reserve and Kuala Langat Forest Reserve.

“I hope that the gibbons’ remaining forest homes will be protected,” he says, adding that gibbon habitats continue to be threatened as forests are cleared for development.

“Gibbons are a totally protected species and the wildlife department has an efficient and professional enforcement team (to ensure the animals aren’t poached). However, the main problem for gibbons is habitat loss and fragmentation.

“To stop gibbon habitats from being broken up, I would like to see gibbon crossings built if highways have to pass through their forests.

“These crossings would go above the traffic and complement existing wildlife crossings,” he says.

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gibbons , environment , language , conservation


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