Embracing the Past, Present and Future of Bahasa Malaysia

How has the national language evolved, and how will it continue to evolve? These are the questions that KATA KATA 2100 hopes Malaysians ask themselves during its month-long exhibit.

An art and design exhibition, KATA KATA 2100 aims to trace Bahasa Malaysia's linguistic roots throughout history.

From its role as a regional lingua franca during the Malacca Sultanate to its present status as Malaysia’s national language, Bahasa Malaysia has evolved through exposure to different cultures over the centuries. It contains a rich mix of loan words borrowed from Sanskrit, Arabic, Persian, Portuguese, English, Tamil and Chinese. The political and social dynamics it has experienced and evolved within have been earth-shaking – from Islamisation to colonisation, migrant settlement to Westernisation and now, modern technology.

Dr Mustafa Kamal Anuar, a fellow and head of Nusantara Studies at Penang Institute, notes that Bahasa Malaysia’s continuous evolvement is dependent on its ability to adopt and adapt to the terminology of other languages. “Additionally, the language must have the capacity to embrace other customs and cultures. This happened in the past, manifested in the interaction between the Malays and the Portuguese, Dutch, Chinese, Indians and English,” he says.

The KATA KATA 2100 exhibition will be held throughout August in conjunction with George Town Festival and Butterworth Fringe Festival.

This August, in conjunction with the George Town Festival and the Butterworth Fringe Festival, Bahasa Malaysia’s evolution will be extensively explored by Sarah Ahmad and Gianluca Menini, cofounders of creative studio Something Meaningful. Their exhibition, KATA KATA 2100, is an art and design project which tracks the development of Bahasa Malaysia through historical foreign cultural influences, locality and modern technology, and predicts how its patterns can be expected to shift in the future.

“Our goal is to create a meaningful journey into local cultural identity and diversity by pushing people to explore different notions of what a language is and can be,” says Sarah. “Language has been one of the key achievements of the human intellect because it has allowed us to discover our ‘Permanent Collective Memory’ – better known as writing. We also want to create a moment where people can investigate how languages in general represent a huge deposit of insight into the evolution of human communication, interaction, habits and behaviour.

“With this project, we hope to discover, appreciate and exhibit an evolution of what the Malaysian language is and could mature into in years to come.”

Service designers by profession, both Sarah and Menini will be drawing from their artistic talent to produce an array of creative design research methods in their exhibition to link Bahasa Malaysia’s linguistic evolution throughout history. “For KATA KATA 2100, we will be using a variety of methods including ethnography.

KATA KATA 2100 was inspired by dinner talk between Sarah and her Malaysian friends.

“We will also be using co-design processes, which are participatory methods that involve other stakeholders in the conceptualisation and design of our prototype for a ‘language of the future’.

Gianluca Menini and Sarah Ahmad, the co-founders of Something Meaningful.

We shadowed [people], immersing ourselves in conversation with fellow Malaysians in different everyday situations, recording their ways of communication without them knowing it. We also had discussions with linguists, academicians, poets, writers and speakers who have given us very different perspectives of what language is. They contributed immensely to the final design of the exhibition,” she says.

Interchangeable Influences

While Bahasa Malaysia has absorbed influences from other cultures, it has also reciprocated, creating a unique identity found nowhere else in the world. Think Hokkien, a dialect widely spoken in Penang – and not just by the local Chinese. It is inevitable then that words like kahwin (to get married) and tapi (but) have woven their way into everyday parlance, further enriching Penang Hokkien and making it distinct from the way it is spoken in other states.

“From our current understanding, language is a tool of communication that evolves with each generation. There is always a new word being invented, a new phrase being used and a new language emerging. There are layers of subtle changes, stemming from transformations in local communities, families and clans,” says Sarah.

“It’s the same in Penang. People absorb their surroundings and have their experiences as keepsakes and then express these through language when they communicate with one another. If that means creating a rojak (mix) of Malay and Hokkien, then it is what it is. Language will constantly change, especially now with the advancement of technology and globalisation.”

But how crucial is it to strike a balance between evolving with technology and preserving the authenticity of Bahasa Malaysia?

“It’s very important to preserve the heritage of the language as it strongly reflects the country’s cultural backgrounds, history and diverse identity. However, preservation of the language doesn’t have to work against evolution,” says Sarah.

“That’s one of the reasons why we have created KATA KATA 2100 – we think that by celebrating the past, the present and the future of the Malaysian language, we can raise awareness of the cultural richness that it carries with it. The rediscovery and re-appropriation of the language is an opportunity for people to make use of this cultural asset. The transformation of language throughout time is exactly what has created its richness and its authenticity,” she explains.

And as Bahasa Malaysia continues to evolve with time, Sarah foresees the language shedding its characteristic formality and floweriness. “Most Malaysians no longer practice that type of language on a daily basis. However, we do think that the language will become more or continue

to be as colourful as it is today. Manglish is very interesting, even if it sounds a bit kasar (rough). It’s a relatively young and evolving way of talking that exhibits many cultural differences and offers a new way for people to express themselves. It’s unique!”

The duo channeling their service designing talents to produce a variety of creative design research methods for their KATA KATA 2100 exhibition.

Through the exhibition, both Sarah and Menini aim to use Bahasa Malaysia as a tool of empathy, to make the embodiment of cultures visible to the naked eye.

“We want people to ask questions and challenge the way the language is evolving. If you’re Malaysian, you should wonder where your everyday slang phrases come from.

Why do you use so many acronyms while texting? Why is it so difficult to explain words like manja or cincai in English, although you might use Manglish in all your informal conversations with friends? If you’re a foreigner, you might discover some words that are or sound familiar to you. Do you know the origins of those words in your vocabulary?

The exhibition will hopefully open wider conversations amongst those coming by for a visit.

“We hope this will spark interest in the roots of their own languages and in the reasons why foreign expressions or words can be found in contemporary Malaysian language. We also want to kindle a sense of curiosity in what language will become in the future. Our exhibition will show only one potential development but the possibilities are endless and open to interpretation.”

The KATA KATA 2100 exhibition takes place on August 13-14 at Jalan Jeti Lama, and at Wakao Café on 278, Lebuh Pantai throughout August. For more information, visit the George Town Festival website at http:// georgetownfestival.com.

Regina Hoo is a Broadcasting and Journalism graduate from the University of Wolverhampton. She is obsessed with alliteration and Oscar Wilde.

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