Baba Malay Language

by Hugh M. Lewis


One of the most visible aspects of any society is the language. "Even more striking than Malay physical appearance is the Baba's general Malay behavior: hence they not only look like Malays, but they walk, gesticulate, shake hands, eat, chew betel, sit, squat, expectorate, defecate, laugh and talk like Malays." (L. A. P. Gosling, 1964: pg. 212)

Malay, particularly the bazar or "pasar" Malay, has been the primary lingua franca, or "business language" of the Malay Peninsula and Indonesia between the many different ethnic groups. Before the coming of the British, Dutch and Japanese, each of whom promoted their own language curriculum, Malay was the preferred language of choice in doing business with other people outside of one's own community. It is therefore reasonable to expect that this language, as a primary index of acculturation and assimilation, should be spoken by any community which has achieved some degree of successful adaptation and accommodation within the larger Malay social world. Tan Che-Beng, in his study of the "rural Chinese" of Kelantan, notes.

Part of the reason for this assimilation has been the proximity and convenience of Malay schools and the lack of availability of Chinese or English-medium schools. But linguistic acculturation is also a normal and expected aspect of accommodation to a host society--children acquire the socially predominant language quite naturally through indirect means, whether it is spoken in the home as a primary language or not.

The early article by Chia Cheng Sit ("The Language of the Babas" in "The Straits Chinese Magazine" Vol. II, 1898) noted that though in religion, manners, customs and though the Babas remain Chinese, for the most part they speak Baba Malay with little Chinese infusion, except for the Penang Babas. The article claimed that the Baba spoke a "patois" of Malay adulterated with many borrowed idioms and words. The grammar was greatly reduced, dropping the many particles of proper Malay speech, and, similar to Chinese, without prefixation or affixation and with the syntactical significance of words defined by their relative positioning. In somewhat condescending manner, Chia noted that the patois was sufficient for everyday business and practical matters, though insufficient for the expression of ideas on social, ethical and philosophical subjects.

A more informed linguistic analysis by Sonny Lim (1982 Baba Malay: The Language of the Straits Born Chinese Master's Thesis, Australia: Monash University), comparing Baba Malay to Pasar Malay Chitty and Portuguese Malay, places it along a continuum bridging the gap between Baba Malay and Standard Malay. Baba Malay is primarily used intra-communally--i.e. spoken between themselves. It is defined situationally by a number of elements, including accommodation, and is variably mixed with English and Chinese. Literacy and illiteracy has been an important factor in the history of the language. "The Rising Star" was an awkward Baba attempt at standard Malay. The rise of Baba Malay as a lingua franca in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries reflected the economic importance of the Chinese--it represented the growth of a pidginized Malay to a Creole Malay featuring a syntactic reduction and simplification. Thus Baba Malay is a special creolized form of the wider form of Bazaar Malay, arising from the latter as an early pidgin or pidginized variety.

According to Lim's analysis, Baba Malay has a reduced topic-comment structure featuring the "Punya" article meaning literally to "possess" and is semantically related to the Hokkien form "e". This particle has three functions, as a possessive marker, as a marker of temporal and locative modifiers and as a relativizer, all of which correspond exactly to the Hokkien word "e" but which are foreign to standard Malay. Similarly the particle "kasi" or "to give" is related to the Hokkien "ho" and has the same functions of benefactive, causative-benefactive, causative and passive marker. Also "kena" corresponds almost exactly to the Hokkien "tioh?" with overlapping semantic fields. Similar particles include "Mau" (intention), "Pigi" (to go), "Nanti" (to wait) and the sentence final "la" which is originally a Hokkien form and which is an emphatic marker signaling "rapport, solidarity, familiarity and solidarity between speakers."

The word order of Baba Malay is Hokkien, in which noun phrases preceded by a marker will embed a sentence with an obligatory "punya" relativizer. Lim summarizes the admixture of Malay and Hokkien as strictly syntactic-semantic in nature--meanings and syntactic functions have been borrowed from Hokkien but not the forms, and mostly constitute direct substitutes for parallel and convergent Malay forms. Lexicon is mostly Malay with Hokkien elements borrowed which cover those Chinese aspects of Baba culture--kinship, marriage, religion, birth, death and some moral precepts. The pronomial system has also been modified by Hokkien.

"Baba Malay is essentially the Malay language pared down to the minimum, with the expected morphological and some syntactical features of Malay altered or missing, and with radically modified phonology." (Lim, 1982:p. 11) The sentence structure of Baba Malay reflects the passification or topicalization, or a "topic-comment" structure of Standard Malay. Information "is arranged such that the part of the information that is given, or the part that is already familiar, is placed at the front of the sentence (and thereby highlighting it as well)." (Ibid. p. 116)

Robert Winzeler, in his study of the village-Chinese in Kelantan, notes that these communities never completely lost use of their Chinese dialects as the Baba and Peranakan communities of the Straits and Java had, but usually became bilingual or even trilingual. Code switching and code-mixing is a common pattern in radically plural societies. In Penang, fused and independent bilinguals with competence in three or more languages are not unusual, but, on the contrary, are to be expected. Ann Pakir's linguistic study of the natural discourse patterns of members of a Baba community in Singapore reveals a pattern of code switching; between Malay, Hokkien and English in which speakers attempt to negotiate "a collective social identity" and accommodate to other speaker/hearers. I have observed extensively a similar pattern among Penang Chinese--many speakers being quite expert in code-switching/mixing between several different languages. Such linguistic skills seem to be acquired quite early and remain permanent part of speakers' linguistic facility.

Several brief studies on "Baba Malay" are extant. There seems to be about as much linguistic variation across Peranakan societies as anything else, and in general a "Peranakan" dialect can be said to rest along a continuum of creolization between mainly Hokkien, Malay or Indonesian, as well as a third or more languages, whether English, Dutch or another Chinese dialect or another regional language--for instance Siamese, or Dayak. It appears that the degree to which Chinese or Malay is the predominant language of discourse is a measure of the extent of acculturation of the particular peranakan community. But for the majority of Hokkien peranakans of Java and Malacca and Singapore, Malay appears to be the base language. "Baba Malay" is structurally and lexically the same as other vernacular dialects of Malay, with only a few phonological "dialectical" variations in the form of glottal stops, dipthongs, final alveolars and fricatives.

There are numerous Hokkien loan words, associated with Chinese-derived institutions, which has had otherwise relatively little effect on the phonological system (Anne Pakir, 1986) According to Pakir, Baba Malay stands as a unique dialect of Malay, in which the influence of Hokkien has been overestimated by other scholars. Hokkien borrowings are present in extent limited to certain semantic and cultural fields, including value judgements and emotive terms. Though other Malay dialects have incorporated Hokkien terms, the way that Baba Malay uses Hokkien is unique.

According to Tan Chee-Beng, Penang Hokkien is also unique due to its Baba cultural influence, by its incorporation of many Malay words. Baba Malay spoken in Penang is also held to be different from the variety spoken in Malacca and elsewhere because of the greater influence of Hokkien and English. The Hokkien of Kelantan that is spoken by the "village Chinese" is also dialectically distinct in intonational patterns, due to the alleged influence of Malay and Siamese.

Victor Purcell, in his book The Chinese in Malaya (1948), declared that Baba Malay was different from Malay in many important respects, and is "practically a different language." He stated that a great many Malay words were unknown to the Babas, as well as the "more polished syntax of the Malay. They are ignorant of the words connected with the Mohammedan religion. Also they mispronounce many Malay words..." (pg. 294)

He goes on to state that the greatest divergence between Baba Malay and Malay is in its construction, in which the former follows the Chinese pattern in a reduced form. It is possible that the sources of data between Ann Pakir's analysis and that of Victor Purcell, or Rev. Shellabear's, are different, reflecting substantial areal variations in the pattern of the 'patois' as different speakers range along different parts of the continuum. If Purcell's interpretation was accurate, it would reflect speakers who are using Chinese as the basolect, and Malay as the mesolect. On the other hand, Pakir's source suggests just the reverse--Malay remains the base language only slightly modified by the superimposition of Hokkien lexicon.

 It is evident that Purcell based part of his study on the earlier study made by Reverend W. G. Shellebear, published in the Journal of the Straits Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, (Vol. 65, 1913), which was reprinted as an appendix in John Clammer's work Straits Chinese Society (1980). Shellabear emphasized the influence of the Chinese idiom, and the distinctiveness of Baba Malay from either the High Malay of the literature of the Malay Peninsula, or the low Malay spoken in Indonesia. "It is true that the number of Chinese words which have become assimilated with this dialect is not very large, and that many words have been borrowed from English, Portuguese, Dutch and Tamil, and from other neighboring tongues, but it is rightly called 'Baba Malay,' for it is largely the creation of the Baba Chinese, and is their mother tongue, so that it belongs to them in a sense that no other people can or do claim it as their own." (Ibid. pg. 156)

Tan Chee Beng takes a more restrictive definition of Baba Malay as that dialectic spoken by the Baba's of Malacca, that became the 'business dialect' of the three Straits Settlements--Penang, Malacca and Singapore. The Malay learned by members of each of these settlements was dialectically different--and the bazaar Malay or "Melayu pasar" from which Baba Malay developed was a lingua franca for commerce.

Hokkien loan words are more salient in areas of customs, religion and kinship, for things related to the house, furniture, food, utensils, personal effects and other things. "In general it may be said that Chinese loanwords are used mostly for things and concepts which are of Chinese origin or which have no Malay equivalents." (Tan Chee Beng, 1980:156)

Maurice Freedman, who made an important study of the kin terms in Baba Malay, stated that "in general, Malay words were used for junior relative and Hokkien-derived terms for senior. And this usage appears to correspond with that of the analogues of the Babas across the water in Java, the Peranakans, among whom both Malay and Javanese terms come into play for junior relatives." ("Chinese Kinship and Marriage in Singapore," 1962)

Tan Chee Beng concluded by noting that "Linguistic acculturation does not necessarily mean that a people have to speak the same dialect or language of the "host" group. In fact, a new dialect may develop, giving the people a distinct dialect which also serves as a crucial symbol of ethnic identity..."(1980:165)

Language serves as one of the most important agents and vehicles of social integration. In a plural context, it can be both a barrier and a facilitator to interethnic interactions. Racial, ethnic, and class differences are all reflected in linguistic differences, and linguistic difference is an important indicator of an individual's social status, orientation toward the larger social world, background, and ability to successfully interact in the world.

The contribution of a unique genre of Peranakan literature from Java is noteworthy. It was a genre of fictional novels, poems and plays that have not been well studied. The Babas of Singapore made their own contribution to Peranakan literary development in the form of stories translated from the Chinese and English in Baba Malay, newspaper and journal articles, as well as a few original works in English. "Baba Malay literature; continued to be printed in Singapore until about the Second World War." (Maurice Freedman, 1962)

John Clammer points to several interrelated social factors in the relative paucity of this literature. Many Peranakans up until the turn of the century were basically illiterate. Furthermore, as an interstitial community, there was a fundamental ambivalence of cultural identity which precluded any such great literary florescence--even what language to primarily publish in Chinese, Baba Malay or English, remained a critical trilemma. Due to the basic ambiguity of their cultural identity "at the nexus of three civilizations" and their lack of any clear political culture, except that framed by the colonial administration, the Peranakans lacked the appropriate developmental or cultural context conducive to the cultivation of a refined literature. "The mutual reinforcement of socio-political-cultural and literary values of this kind was absent from Straits Chinese society at its outset. Indeed, what peranakan culture had to do was to find or create precisely such a nexus of interrelated influences."(John Clammer, 1980: 68)


Peranakan Ethnoculture: An Introduction to the Straits Chinese


Hugh M. Lewis

Blanket Copyright, Hugh M. Lewis, 2005. Use of this text governed by fair use policy--permission to make copies of this text is granted for purposes of research and non-profit instruction only.

Last Updated: 03/17/05