Local lingo: the Malay language in dictionaries and phrase books

Of the quarter-million resources held at ISEAS Library, 37% are in Bahasa Indonesia and a further 3% are in Bahasa Melayu as used in Brunei, Malaysia and Singapore. These languages are based on the Malay language, and this post will use the term ‘Malay’ to include both Bahasa Indonesia and Bahasa Melayu [1].

Malay vocabulary books gained popularity in the 17th and 18th centuries, when the Europeans intensified their study of the language to facilitate trade and other interactions with people in the region. There was a small proliferation of bi- and multilingual word and phrase lists, dictionaries and grammar books of the Malay language. They were written and compiled by mostly European missionaries, administrators, etc. The British Library has an excellent blog post that gives an overview of early Malay vocabularies.

At ISEAS Library, the earliest vocabulary book in our collection that features Malay is a phrase book from 1811. Published in 1811, A comparative vocabulary of the Barma, Malayu and Thai languages was compiled by John Leyden (1775-1811), who is perhaps better known for his translation of the Sulalatus Salatin or the Malay Annals.

A comparative vocabulary contains common words and phrases in Burmese, Malay (in Jawi script), transliterated Thai, and English. The continued relevance of some of these phrases is still apparent, as seen in Image 1 below. For more on this item, see also this post by the British Library.

Image 1: Entry #3127 – How to say LOL in four languages, 1811-style. [Modern Romanisation of Jawi in second column: “Kita orang mati tertawa.”]

Another European whose wordbook found its way into the ISEAS collection is Jan Pijnappel (1822-1901). A keen scholar of the Malay language, Pijnappel published a good number of works on the subject. Building on the work of the Irish orientalist William Marsden (1754-1836) and others, he compiled the Maleisch-Nederduitsch woordenboek, a Malay-Dutch word list published in the 1860s. As was common at the time, the entries are in both Jawi and Rumi (romanised Malay), and organised according to the order of the Jawi alphabet rather than the Roman alphabet.

Image 2: Entries for ب [b] in J. Pijnappel’s Maleisch-Nederduitsch woordenboek, followed by entries for ت [t]

Also in our collection is a Dutch-Malay-Javanese-Sundanese phrase book published in 1915 with the colourful title of Vademecum voor het Indische leven bevattende ± drie duizend bevelen, vragen enz. aan inlandsche bedienden in het Hollandsch, het Maleisch, het Javaansch en het Soendaneesch met woordenlijst in de drie talen (Vademecum for Indonesian life containing ± three thousand orders, questions, etc. to native servants in Dutch, Malay, Javanese and Sundanese with a glossary in the three languages). Indeed, samples from this phrasebook provide a good snapshot of everyday life in colonial households of the Dutch East Indies.

Image 3: Some phrases used in everyday life in the colonial Dutch East Indies.

From the Far East, a number of Japanese scholars turned their focus to the Malay language as Japan began eyeing the resource-rich lands of Southeast Asia. Among them was Uehara Kunzo, who had begun studying Malay since 1914 and taught the language at foreign language schools Kyoto and Kobe, and at Takushoku University in Tokyo. In the preface to his Japanese-Malay phrasebook, Saishin maraigo kyōhon (1943), in the context of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, Uehara explains to his Japanese readers that “mastering the Malay language is one of the greatest weapons for the development of the South [i.e. Southeast Asia]”.

Saishin maraigo kyōhon, or Pemimpin bahasa Melajoe, is part of the Toshio Egawa Collection at ISEAS Library. Besides Malay-Japanese wordlists and chapters on pronunciation, grammar and other basics of the Malay language, it also observes some differences in the Malay vocabulary as used in the Dutch East Indies and Malaya.

Image 4: The first page of a chapter from Saishin maraigo kyōhon by Uehara Kunzo, mapping Malay phonemes to Japanese.

During the Second World War, the Japanese also reprinted Malay dictionaries, possibly to meet the administration’s needs for communication with the local population. One such volume is R.J. Wilkinson’s A Malay-English dictionary [romanised]. First published in 1901, it went through a few editions before being reprinted in 1943 by Daitoa Syuppan Kabusiki Kaisya [大東亞出版株式会社] in Tokyo. In the immediate post-war period, when the British returned to Malaya to begin work on post-war rehabilitation, this dictionary was “unavailable in Malaya or England”, prompting the British Military Administration to request their mission in Tokyo to “buy up all available copies in Japan” [2].

Image 5: Title page of the Japanese wartime reprint of R.J. Wilkinson’s A Malay-English dictionary.

Post-war, bi- and multi-lingual dictionaries of Malay and other major languages around the world became much more commonplace, and the ISEAS Library has collected a respectable number of these. Among them is one small item: the Karmannyĭ russko-indoneziĭskiĭ slovarʹ, a Russian-Indonesian dictionary published in 1958. Standing at 9cm high, and with its very reasonable 576 pages, it is currently the smallest book in the ISEAS Library.

Image 6: The smallest book in the ISEAS Library: a Russian-Indonesian dictionary.

This post has focused mainly on Malay wordlists and dictionaries of languages from outside of Southeast Asia. Meanwhile, the multitude of languages within Southeast Asia, including the many variations of Malay, have also given rise to bilingual dictionaries and wordlists. An introduction to these, however, is too long to carry out here, so look out for them in a future post!

Acknowledgment: Some of the books featured here are gifts from Tan Ta Sen, the first permanent research staff at ISEAS. Dr Tan was Research Officer at the Institute from 1966 to 1968 and later held various other academic appointments here and elsewhere.

Further reading:

[1] As of 11 April 2023, the ISO 639-3 website mapped both these languages as well as more than 30 other languages to the Malay ‘macrolanguage’.
[2] Secretariat General, “Education. Publication of books & periodicals,” Online Finding Aid, National Archives of Malaysia, https://ofa.arkib.gov.my/lores/hq/digitdoc_10/19570572419d02.pdf

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