Tuesday, February 16, 2016

The Transformasi of a Language

In Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s novel The First Circle there is an odd character, Dimitry Sologdin, an engineer in a “special prison” built by Stalin for highly qualified political prisoners. Sologdin is obsessed with the purity of his beloved native language. He is disgusted with the habit of many Russian writers of polluting the Russian language with the indiscriminate fashionable borrowings from the West. The disgust is so strong that when he catches himself inadvertently committing the offence, he makes a tick on a sheet of paper. The ticks are penalty marks, and he punishes himself according to how many there are. I don’t fancy Sologdin’s masochism, but I do share his disgust with the habit of borrowing foreign words when there is no need for it.

All languages borrow from others, but the borrowing should be dictated by necessity, not fashion, laziness, pretentious-ness, or any other self-indulgent motives. Bahasa Malaysia writers in general are prone to this habit of indiscriminate borrowing from English. This is not a recent phenomenon; it has been with us ever since Independence. The ironical thing is that the worst culprits are not the English-educated whose Malay vocabulary is poor and who are too lazy or too uninterested to do anything about it. No, the worst culprits are the Malay-educated, especially those who make a lot of noise about the sanctity of the National Language. 

These writers, especially the literary critics, borrow, in some cases kidnap, English words not because they are desperately poor in BM vocabulary, but because they are desperately in need of ego-boosting, or something with which to dress up the poverty of their ideas. When you have nothing to say, big foreign words, the more abstract the better, can be quite handy. I think it is the Indonesians who taught them, or encouraged them in this pernicious habit. Indonesian writers have always been thoroughly indiscriminate in their borrowing of European words. (That lively Indonesian weekly Tempo is for me quite painful to read, despite its solid critical content.) Malay writers who have always looked up to their cousins across the Straits cannot resist copying them. They have always felt inferior when dealing with them; witness the way they ape the Indonesian accent when reading poetry or when speaking to Indonesian writers. Even those who should know better can’t resist the temptation to pollute the language. One distinguished novelist, I remember, thought that the simple Malay word petikan (quotation) was not distinguished enough; so he coined a new word, kotasi. It was this same novelist who came up with the inspired BM term for playwright, pelirait. This one never became popular, presumably because its unintentionally obscene sound. The whole business is really quite absurd (pronounced “absood”), to borrow a wonderful transformasi (transformation) of “absurd” by a theatre enthusiast.

It is revealing that the most commonly borrowed English word in Malay puisi (poetry) is also a ghastly mistake. The word is antologi which has become a standard word now. Malay poets use the word to mean collection or selection of poems by an individual poet. “Anthology” in English means a collection of poems or writings by various writers. There is a good Malay word for a collection or selection (kumpulan, pilihan), and when a Malay word for a real anthology is required there is that wonderful word Bunga Rampai or Rampaian. Bunga Rampai is literally a posy, which is interesting because the word “anthology” itself is from the Greek anthologia meaning a flower-gathering.

The worst polluters of the Malay language are, of course, the critics or kritikus (this one I like; it’s unintentionally apt – apt because tikus in Malay means rat). I remember one hyperactive kritikus in an article on drama trying to numb his readers with obscenities like mistikus, audienisman, mentransformasikan, pengkonsenterasian (he must have nearly choked on that one). And this is how one academic kritikus writes about the poetry of one of our most sensitive poets:

“... dalam hubungan konteks pada proses exteriorization dan interiorization lahir perilaku-perilaku osilasi dan stasis organisme... (... in the context of the process of exteriorization and interiorization, emerges features of oscillation and organic stasis...”)

Talk of critics mauling and pulverizing poetry! If much of what goes under the name of literary criticism in English today is quite unreadable, in Malay it’s even worse. Malay literary critics love theories and the horrible jargon spawned by them; when it comes to Western literature most of them seem to read nothing but theories and criticism, not the creative works themselves. I have often been struck by the ease with which they co-opt the latest structuralist or post-structuralist jargon (not always accurately), and by their ignorance of specific Western poems, play or novel.

I wouldn’t be surprised if in the year 2020, we get a “writerly” (poststructuralist jargon, this) kritikus from one of our universities with perhaps a Ph.D. from the University of Buffalo, writing like this:             
“Situasi sastera kontemporari Malaysia memanifestasikan sindrom-sindrom dan episteme kekrisisian; sindrom yang dominan ialah sindrom alienasi yang bermultilevel, bermultidimensi dan berkontradiksi antara sinkronisasi dan diakronisasi – alienasi sosial, alienasi kultural, alienasi komunal, alienasi intelektuil, alienasi metafisikal, alienasi literalisma; totalitinya adalah konsekuensi kontradiksi dan tensyen antara tradisi dan modenisasi, osilasi stasis antara pretensi dan mediokriti, autentisma dan autisma…” (“The situation of contemporary Malaysian literature manifests the syndromes and epistemes of crisis; the dominant syndromes being those of alienation which are multilevel, multidimensional and full of contradictions between synchronization and diachronism – social alienation, cultural alienation, intellectual alienation, literalistic alienation; the totality of which the consequence of contradictions and tensions between tradition and modernization, static oscillation between pretension and mediocrity, authenticity and autism…”

What a wonderful way of bermastibasi (masturbation) and berbulshitasi (bullshit)! You’d need a Ph.D. from University Kerbau (Buffalo) to be able to do that.

12 June 1991

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