Language links to culture

  • Letters
  • Friday, 15 Dec 2017

EVERY two weeks, a language disappears from the face of our planet, and with it goes extinct the history and culture that it has embodied for years.

This fact bears particular relevance to Malaysia where linguistic diversity is remarkable (our country is home to a stunning 137 languages) yet rapidly diminishing as its “socially subordinate” dialects – from Bajau to Dusun to Hainanese – are being rendered obsolete by dominant languages such as English, Malay and Mandarin.

Efforts have been put into conserving these dialects but more needs to be undertaken in order to sustain the pressures of their being crowded out in an increasingly integrated world.

In 2014, the Penang Hokkien Language Association was formed in an attempt to preserve its eponymous dialect. However, funding shortages have meant that many of its projects have not been put into place.

Last year, Professor Tan Siew Imm published the first-ever Penang Hokkien-English dictionary at Sunway University. While such an undertaking is no small feat, much of the change needs to come from within communities in order to truly counteract the pressures of linguistic extinction.

For what good reason does the preservation of dialects merit our attention in the first place? After all, their extinction – much like that of biological species – is arguably a natural process resulting from their inability to adapt to the evolving climate with which they are faced. In other words, their deaths ensue from their being rendered useless in an era of globalisation where lingua francas (dominant languages) have become of significantly greater utility.

A dialect, first and foremost, serves as an important form of preserving the cultural identity of the particular region within which it was born. Hokkien, peculiar to the state of Penang, is a southern Min Chinese-based creole amalgamated with elements of Malay and English. Words such as “please” (tolong), “but” (tapi) and “like” (suka) have been borrowed from the

former, while others – such as “try” and “darling” – are terms that have been carried over from the latter. The resultant dialect serves as a linguistic photograph of the state’s idiosyncratic cultural makeup and provides speakers with the ability to perceive and experience Penang’s local culture in a natural and immersive manner.

Yet, the state finds its youths replacing this antiquated dialect with the aforementioned lingua francas. This is a result of institutional and societal pressures, where elementary public schools strongly discourage the use of Hokkien in classrooms by form of punishment and discrimination.

Likewise, within social spheres, children are pressured to refrain from speaking Hokkien since its linguistically heterogeneous nature is often associated with an “unculturedness” that defines their typical uneducated elderly.

The death of Hokkien that I have personally witnessed growing up in my own home hasn’t been a subtle one. Born and raised in Penang, my intermediate competence has only been succeeded by a progressive degradation of fluency in my two younger siblings; the first of whom can understand but can’t speak it, and the youngest rendered completely unable to comprehend the dialect altogether.

Faced with a diminishing population of speakers, the state finds itself losing not only its cultural identity but also a knowledge base intrinsically embedded in the dialect itself. This is elucidated by the following example: the wild ginger flower doesn’t have an official name in Hokkien but is commonly referred to in the dialect as “laksa hua” (laksa flower), a key ingredient in Penang’s laksa noodles.

The extinction of Hokkien would, in effect, sever the connection between this local delicacy and its ingredient. Similarly, “pak jit sao” – whooping cough – directly translates into “sun-induced cough”. Although no scientific link between exposure to the sun and whooping cough has been made thus far in the Western world, an investigation into the origins of such a seemingly arbitrary linguistic connection could potentially yield interesting findings.

The decay of Hokkien’s knowledge base is echoed by that of many other Malaysian dialects facing the same threat of linguistic homogenisation. The extinction of dialects means not only the erosion of such valuable knowledge connections but also the loss of linguistic lenses through which we are able to perceive and understand a local region’s cultural flavours.

I strongly urge those of you who retain a sense of your dialect to speak it with friends and families; to use it with pride and efface its “socially subordinate” status; and, ultimately, to impart it to future generations so that they are able to hold on to their cultural roots by means of language.


Abu Dhabi, UAE

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Opinion , Letters; Language; Hokkien


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