Sunday, 10 February 2008

Glimpses into lost worlds

Walking back from the library yesterday, my daughter and I stopped to browse the second-hand book stall at the Saturday market, as we frequently do. And there on the table was a a somewhat elderly copy of the 2nd edition of A.W. Hamilton's "Malay Made Easy". There was no date, but I would guess the timing to be immediately post-WWII, since within the text the author sometimes calls Indonesia "Indonesia", and sometimes "The Netherlands Indies".

The overall feel of the book, however, is much earlier - 1920s at latest. Aimed largely at rubber-planters and minor colonial officials, Hamilton states in his introduction that his book is intended "...for English people who propose to reside in Malaya and wish to learn to speak Malay intelligibly and with a reasonable degree of accuracy but do not desire to become serious students of the language, it also serves those living in Indonesia."

A first dip reveals a lovely collection of crusty old colonial hand phrases:
"Boy, bring some cold water."
"Peon, tell my syce to go home."
"Go and ask my wife where's my old hat"
"Tell the Malabari from the coffee-shop to bring some biscuits."
"Why are you hitting the horse?"
"Mistress is using the carriage this afternoon."
"The Punjabi Muhammadan is wearing white trousers."
... and so on.

I tried some of these on Mrs Byard, who is a native Indonesian speaker (Indonesian and Malay being in fact the same language). She looked bemused, and commented that the Malay recommended was very rough and pidgin-like.

The reason for this deliberate 'dumbing-down' of a rich and beautiful language can be found in Hamilton's introduction:

"As Malay is the sole common medium of communication between the polyglot peoples of the Peninsula it is advisable in the course of conversation with races other than Malay to avoid a too meticulous correctness of speech as a Malay himself under similar circumstances always tends to talk down to his interlocutors level of intelligence or knowledge of his tongue."

The more you read, the more it strikes you that much time is given to direct imperatives and the passing on of information about the running of a household and rubber plantation, and none to social interaction. The "other races" in Hamilton's world are not there to be talked to, but merely shouted at:

"Mandor, go and call two coolies."
"Tamby, order my motor-car driver to come tonight."
"Who is looking after the cattle today?"
"This Cantonese woman is going to take up work as amah tomorrow."
"I propose to cut your wages by a dollar."
"Boy, get the seats ready and clean them."
"You have swept only a very little, gardener."
"Bring the gun here together with the six-chambered revolver."

...or investigated for petty crimes:

"At mid-day I saw the knives were there."
"When were the windows opened, Awang?"
"Two plates of cakes were finished last night, Puteh. How was that?"
"Who is going to take the magistrate's place?"
"Whether he wants it or not the case must be tried just the same in Brunei."
"The office safe is open; he forgot to close it."

The unwritten assumption is that the people with whom you would interact as social equals would be English-speakers, with "other races" held very much at arm's length behind an impenetrable barrier of severe practicality, barked commands and automatic suspicion.

Tuesday, 5 February 2008

The precocity of my offspring - 2

"Daddy, I did recite Shelley's 'Ozymandias' to them, but they [her 9-year old schoolfellows] said I was weird."

Alas, I remember similar conversations when I was in junior school.

Mind you, a good memory for poetry can have unexpected advantages. Many years ago, on a sultry Indonesian night, there was a knock at my door. I opened it to reveal a charming young lady, to whom my name had been passed by her elder sister who was in one of my TEFL classes.

"I'm sorry to bother you" she said "But I'm studying English at Sanata Dharma University, and our poetry lecturer's set a very tough assignment. Could you explain an English poem to me, as all our native speakers are American and haven't got a clue what it means?"

"Poetry, eh?" I drawled, twirling my moustache rakishly (This is too easy, I though ter m'self). Come in. Now - what is the poem that you're having problems with?" hoping that it might be some decadent cavalier poem dealing with assorted naughtiness which would need demonstration.

"It's by Wilfred Owen." She replied. "It's called 'Anthem for Doomed Youth'."

"What passing bells for those who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns,
Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons."

"Gosh. You're so clever. Forgive me a moment while I remove all my clothes."

Well, OK, actually she didn't say that last bit, but she was pretty damn impressed. We've now been married ten years. On the downside, the elder sister who was responsible for introducing us now claims that the only thing she can remember from any of my classes was the day I turned up in a cheap shirt bought from a local street market and then turned to write something on the whiteboard, upon which the room was filled with an entertaining noise of ripping cloth and I was revealed from waist to armpit by a failed seam.