21 May 2009

Language Death

In my previous posting, based on the recent research of Paolo Caluzzi, I discussed the status of various minority languages in Brunei and suggested that loss of a language, something that is almost complete for Belait, is a pity.

But why should we care about language extinction? Surely, if everyone spoke the same language, wouldn't that enable us all to understand each other, with the result that all disputes could be resolved amicably?

Actually, no. As David Crystal points out in his book Language Death (CUP, 2000 − for a review, see here), many of the most brutal civil wars in the history of the world have been between people who understood each perfectly well, including the conflicts in Northern Ireland, Bosnia, and the American Civil War. It seems that mutual understanding sometimes actually excerbates the bitterness of disputes!

But quite apart from this, why should we worry about languages dying out?

Many linguists argue that language diversity is just like biological diversity, and the loss of a language, together with all the cultural history and traditions that it encapsulates, is just as devastating as the loss of a species of fauna or flora.

However, it is true that many lay people do not ascribe to this view, and so we need to consider a more practical reason for promoting efforts to preserve language diversity, an economic argument that may be particularly relevant for Brunei.

One of the key growth areas in the economy, one that Brunei has clearly targeted, is ecotourism. But if tourists are to travel to distant places, they want to see interesting cultures with a rich variety. They do not want to find a bland society where everyone thinks, acts and speaks the same. And this is why the preservation of minority languages and different ways of life is so important for the future of Brunei: each language represents an incredibly rich resource that we cannot afford to lose. Once a language is extinct, it is almost impossible to revive it, and when it is gone, our society is impoverished.

19 May 2009

Iban and Murut

Last night, I went to a fascinating talk by my UBD colleague, Paolo Coluzzi, about the status of the Iban and Murut languages in Temburong, the eastern enclave of Brunei.

Based on some detailed surveys conducted among the Iban and Murut communities living in Temburong, Paolo concluded that the two languages are reasonably vibrant, in the sense that most of the people speak them with their friends and with their children, and also the overwhelming majority of the people are proud to be able to speak their heritage languages.

This situation with regard to Iban and Murut contrasts sharply with the status of Tutong and Belait, two other minority languages in Brunei, both of which are under serious threat of dying away. In fact, in the case of Belait, the language is pretty much moribund already.

So why the difference? Paolo concluded that there are a number of factors, including:
  • The Iban and Murut people tend to live separate from Malays, maintaining their own traditions. In contrast, other minorities, such as the Kedayan, Dusun, Tutong and Belait, tend to mix more with Malays, including frequent intermarriage, and then they are more likely to use Brunei Malay with their children.

  • There is support for Iban and Murut languages and cultures from Sarawak, in the form of books, music and radio broadcasts. In contrast, there is little support of this nature for the other minority languages in Brunei.
A separate issue is whether we should care about minority languages dying out. If everyone in Brunei spoke the same language, wouldn't that create a more cohesive society? I'll discuss this issue in greater depth in a posting tomorrow.

07 May 2009

Standard Brunei Malay

Standard Brunei Malay is similar to Standard Malay in Malaysia and Singapore, but not identical. Here I will focus on pronunciation.

Two areas that show some variation are the occurrence of [r] and the pronunciation of the vowel at the end of a word such as saya ('I').

In Brunei, most speakers pronounce [r] wherever 'r' occurs in the spelling, including at the end of words such as benar ('true') and besar ('big'). However, some speakers in Malaysia, particularly in Johor and also in Singapore, only pronounce an [r] when it occurs before a vowel, such as in rendah ('low') or beras ('uncooked rice').

The vowel that is spelled with an 'a' at the end of words such as saya and masa ('time') is pronounced by some people in Malaysia as [ə], the mid-central vowel that occurs at the start of the English word ago and at the end of comma. In contrast, many speakers in Brunei use [ɑ], a more open vowel that is similar to the one that occurs in the English word calm.

The trouble with this is that [ə] at the end of saya sounds foreign and unnatural in Brunei while [ɑ] sounds uneducated. As a result, it seems that newsreaders opt for something halfway between, with the intention of sounding educated but not too unnatural.