24 January 2009

Language Use in Brunei

The aim of this blog is to comment on linguistic issues here in Brunei. The inspiration for it comes from John Wells's Phonetic Blog and also Language Log, both of which are excellent. While I cannot hope to compete with them, there are plenty of interesting aspects of language usage in Brunei that are worth discussing. I aim to talk about them in a dispassionate way: observing the way language is used, celebrating diversity and creativity, but not making critical or judgmental statements. This is the role of linguists: to describe, not to prescribe.

The national language of Brunei is Standard Malay (Bah
asa Melayu). While many countries promote a national language, few have a road sign in the middle of the capital prominently encouraging its usage:

(This sign says 'Prioritise the Malay Language', using two different scripts: above is the Arabic-based Jawi script, and below is the Roman script that is more commonly used to represent Malay.)

Why is there this effort to promote the use of Malay? While nearly everyone in Brunei speaks Malay, it is the local variety, known as Brunei Malay, that generally occurs, and Brunei Malay is completely different from Standard Malay. The government believes that it is important to promote the use of Standard Malay, to allow people to communicate with people in Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore, and to read books and newspapers and understand official broadcasts.

We can describe Standard Malay and Brunei Malay as two dialects of the same language existing in a diglossic relationship. Diglossia describes the situation where two language varieties have complementary roles:
  • the H (= High) language, is used in official communications and in the classroom;
  • the L (= Low) language, is used at home, among friends, and in most colloquial exchanges.
Note that the two roles, H and L, are just labels describing patterns of usage. There is no suggestion that one of the varieties is "better" than the other. It is just that they have complementary roles. The H variety is more formal, while the L variety is more colloquial.