Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Glimpses into forgotten worlds - 2

Or "Malay as she is spoken by a Welch academic".

The bookseller of Woodley market came up trumps for me this last Saturday, with a 1947 edition of "Teach Yourself Malay". A more substantial volume than Hamilton's 'Malay Made Easy', it moves away from the 'yell at the servants' paradigm and shows that its author, one M.B. Lewis, had a genuine love of Malay literature that transcended mere quotidian practicality in favour of language so flowery it could be displayed at the Chelsea Flower Show.

Flicking through at random, one comes at first to some delightful dialogues, redolent of pith-helmeted Hamiltonian lunacy:
"If you are free on Friday, come up river crocodile-shooting, will you?"
"Your coollies, Mat, are often late assembling."
"Bring me the chisel when you come back."
"The prisoner, who was deaf, could not hear what the judge said."

And clearly Lewis was a man with a feel for life's necessaries:
"Nurse, come here a moment, will you?"

But for Lewis these are clearly distractions to be put aside in favour of slightly mildewed copies of chronicles and tea-stained reams of pantuns.
"Then without a moment's pause he lit the fuse and set spurs to his horse."
"The queen sat under a pandan tree with all the wives of the magnates in attendance. The king took much pleasure in watching the court maidens sporting there, each following her own inclination."

Wouldn't we all?

And his approach to everday grammar is evident in this delightful translation from a 16th century prose romance:
"The said Hang Mahmud to his wife, whose name was Dang Merdu Wati, 'Lady, it were well that we should go to Bentan so that we may more easily seek a livelihood. Moreover, it is a large settlement; it were well that we should move thither, we and our child'."

One wonders if he spoke English like that. And the following pantun may tell us more about Lewis's personal life than he realised:
"In the swamp the monkeys play
Swinging down from leafy tree.
Plain, uncomely others say;
Sweet and fair she seems to me."

Poignantly, however, the book gives the occasional "twitch of the curtain" to reveal just how dire life in Malaya must have been in 1947.

There is, for instance, this given as an example of correspondence:
"I apologise for this shabby scrap of paper. I had to buy it because there was nothing else to be had. We reached a very low ebb when the war was on. We had scarcely more than we stood up in. But what does it matter, as long as we are still alive?"

And the following comes from an Engish-Malay translation exercise:
"In consequence of reports received by the District Officer that many persons are hoarding food far in excess of their needs... No one is allowed to keep in his house more rice (sugar, flour etc) than is sufficient for 3 days consumption... The officer in question hs power to enter and search any house to enforce this regulation."

One wonders why they rebelled.

16 comments:

Daphne Wayne-Bough said...

One must be so careful when issuing instructions to foreign servants, as I found out when I asked Godwin, our Nigerian steward, to prepare a suckling pig with an apple in the mouth and flowers in the ears. He looked a proper sight when he served the dinner I can tell you.

Gyppo Byard said...

A charming image, Daphne. I trust you never made the mistake of asking him to serve the salad without dressing.

There is an supposedly true story of the time Stamford Raffles was Lieutenant-Governor of Java and wrote to a Dutch regent that in the light of corruption allegations against the man's deputy, he should have the said deputy "suspended with immediate effect". Gaving only rudimentary English and a slim dictionary, the regent worked out what he thought it meant and promptly hanged his deputy from a nearby tree.

Mrs Pouncer said...

"The bookseller of Woodley Market", honestly Gyppo it sounds so pastoral. It's a lovely image. It's a shame you can't paint the adjacent Gregg's the bakers in the same arcadian hue; or the Iceland supermaket. Or maybe you can.

Gyppo Byard said...

Mind you Mrs Pouncer, there's also the Oxfam bookshop just up past Clinton's. My entertainingly demented neighbour runs that...

Oddly enough, I was thinking of you on Saturday; looking sideways at everyone and thinking "could one of these people be Mrs Pouncer?"

Or did you stay in Hurst?

Mrs Pouncer said...

Coo, you're sharp aintcha, Gyppo? How did you work that out? Actually, I was in Oxfam books on Saturday, collecting my copy of Sowing (Leonard Woolf). Your neighbour runs a dippy ship: they had written "Sewing by Leonard Woolf" on the reservation card. It's one of a series, you know, including Knitting by Lytton Strachey and Embroidery for Beginners by Saxon Sydney-Turner.

Gadjo Dilo said...

Phew, a bit less frighteningly offhand than the Hamilton, but one can still feel the prickly heat rash and hear the distant rumbling of the monsoon madness! (Is it always like that in the Oxfam bookshop in Woodley?)

No Good Boyo said...

Being a scholarly Welshman, young Lewis probably did speak like that.

Another triumphant Welsh linguist of the Lewis family - GL in this case - was commissioned by OUP to write their "Teach Yourself Turkish" volume in the 1950s.

It is about 90 pages long and seems to have been designed with a NATO officer on secondment in Diyarbakir in mind.

The exposition of grammar is admirable, albeit dense, and it's useful if you want to discuss how many soldiers were "martyred" by the perfidious Greek. It also includes the longest non-Joycean sentence ever written.

Sometime in the 1980s an OUP-wallah got round to reading the book and, after a stiff drink, asked a civilian to replace the tank specifications and chunks of Arabic with quotidian stuff about ordering breakfast. In the end they gave up and commissioned a wholly new book.

Prof Lewis's overgrown pamphlet is rivalled by the work of another Welsh - Lewis V Thomas - whose "Elementary Turkish" is anything but.

Gyppo Byard said...

Mrs Pouncer - this is all getting horribly 'small-world'-ish. Were you perchance at said dippy neighbour's barbecue for the shop volunteers a few weeks ago? If so, we may have met - we came over (well, *through* the accidentally demolished fence) and joined the party later on. Spooky.

I am prety much as I describe myself - a balding, overweight, 40-something, moustachioed, gamelan-playing Didacoi Oxford Music graduate with an Indonesian wife, a ten-year old daughter and a baby son. But you meet so many such people every day, I'm sure...

'Hurst' was an educated stab in the dark based on information you had previously given - village, 3 miles from Woodley, but near enough to Twyford Waitrose to tempt you there on occasion; and you'd already spoken of Sonning but not as the place you live. Any mug with an OS map could have come to the same conclusion. It had to be that or Charvil, so I picked the further up-market one as being more in character.

Boyo - I knew a student couple at Oxford in which the Welch lady was attempting to teach her English classicist boyfriend the ancient Celtic tongue. After a couple of weeks I asked him how it was going and he said "I can just about decline the verb 'to be' in the present tense."
"But can you say anything?"
"No."
It was not a great loss to Wales, I have to say...

No Good Boyo said...

He'd find it's much more fun to conjugate verbs, Gyppo, but if he insists on declining...

The verb "to be" in Welsh is pretty much the only one you need. In the spoken language, especially in the North, all the common tenses are conjugated using "to be" + verbal noun - eg "I am going".

Sadly, there is little consensus among Welsh-speakers as to what the forms of the verb "to be" are.

Our failure to tackle such basics scuppers our hope of becoming the language of preference for normal people.

Gyppo Byard said...

Conjugate, decline - in his case 'twas much the same, liguistically or physically. He had a thing about being smeared with jam too, allegedly; and ended up marrying a lady from New Zealand. Such is life.

I know not what happened to the Welsh lady involved.

Mrs Pouncer said...

No barbecues for me, Gyppo. I don't know your neighbour, just his shop. No wait, maybe I do? Late-50ish, permanently harrassed but munificent look, Lancashire/Yorkshire-ish type vibe/accent going on? Crikey, I shall be haunting his retail empire now hoping to catch a glimpse of you, possibly by the Fairtrade jute carrier bags. I shall be heavily veiled, of course.

Mrs Boyo said...

Ah, jute. For most of the world it is used for matting in the homes of the poor. In England people are happy to carry it around.

In Wales it is the lingerie fabric of choice.

Gyppo Byard said...

That's him! Sorry, I misunderstood you to be volunteering in there - on checking again I see that you were shopping. 'My bad', as the youngsters say.

And yes, that's my neighbour to a 'T'. (PS - I love your Bloomsbury needlepoint series. Could we add Lady Ottoline Morrell's 'Cross-stitch'?)

Mrs Pouncer said...

Yes, Gyppo, and I fully intend (purely in the spirit of gentle ribbing) to request this series from your neighbour, and to pout when he tells me that Intermediate Tailoring by Dadie Rylands is out of print. (I think his name is Bill? Yr neighbour; not Prof Keynes).

Scaryduck said...

Wait... what's wrong with Charvil?

Gyppo Byard said...

There's nothing *wrong* with Charvil, it's just that from what we know of Mrs Pouncer, Hurst is more in keeping.