Prentiss Riddle: Language

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Borgesian pronouns in Malay

The other day at the library I browsed a couple of books on the Malay language. Although it's not inflected and doesn't at first glance have any major phonological barriers to entry, it has its own confusing subtleties. Consider, for instance, this table of personal pronouns (from Sir Richard Winstedt's Colloquial Malay, Singapore, 1957):

Malay pronoun table

In case you didn't notice, there are not only separate sets of pronouns for different combinations of social ranks, but a distinct set reserved just for addressing ethnic Chinese. Shades of John Wilkins! No wonder Winstedt goes on to say that "Malays shun the use of personal pronouns" -- although the practice he describes of substituting nouns representing rank, title or metaphorical family relationship seems just as complex.

I'd write this off as a quaint and obsolete colonialism but linguablogger Jordan Macvay reports that the situation today isn't much simpler. In fact he notes with surprise that many Malays have started borrowing the English I and you so as not to have to commit to one of the social relationships encoded in their own pronouns.

language 2005.06.12 link