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The KadazanDusun language dilemma
Published on: Sunday, October 01, 2017

By Richard A. Gontusan
DURING the third and final round of the recent state-wide Mr Kaamatan or Harvest Festival Contest 2017, the seven finalists, out of forty-four contestants, were asked two questions.

It was mandatory for first question to be answered in the finalist’s mother tongue while the second question, in the finalist’s choice of language. Only one of the contestants, Dicky Jerry, representing the Keningau District, responded to both questions fluently in his mother tongue, Dusun.

Some of the other finalists could barely muster enough words in their mother tongues to deliver coherent sentences. At nineteen years old, fulfilling other criteria superbly, Dicky impressed the judges, most of whom are KadazanDusun speakers, to win the coveted title.

Based on the 2010 census, Sabah’s population stood at roughly 3.2 million. Thirty-two ethnic groups call Sabah their home, out of which only 28 are recognised as indigenous. The largest indigenous ethnic group, which forms 17.8pc of the population, is the KadazanDusun.

The other prominent ethnic groups include the Bajau at 13.4pc of the population and the Murut at 3.3pc.

Other indigenous ethnic groups constitute 14.6pc of the population while the non indigenous groups constitute the rest of the population.

On 24 January 1995, the Kadazan Cultural Association and the United Sabah Dusun Association consented to declare KadazanDusun as the standard language of the KadazanDusun people.

Based on the 2010 census, the language is supposedly spoken by about 560,000 speakers residing in the Districts of Penampang, Papar, Tuaran, Tambunan, Ranau and Keningau. Depending on the locations, the language is spoken in a variety of dialects.

The KadazanDusun’s Tangara dialect, for example, is predominantly spoken in the west coast of Sabah while the Bundu-Liwan dialect is more popular in the interior.

The similarities between the Kadazan and Dusun languages are sufficient for speakers of these two languages to understand each other easily. In a nutshell, the most salient distinction between these two languages are the differences in their phonemic charts.

Kadazan consists of fricatives [v] and [z] which are absent in Dusun. On the other hand, /w/, / y/ and /r/ are present in Dusun but not in Kadazan.

In an earlier 2005 Unesco’s report, the KadazanDusun language was classified as an endangered language, spoken by a mere 300,000 people. The language has apparently joined about 7,000 other languages worldwide that face the real threat of extinction. Indeed, the language could eventually become a mere literary exhibit in fifty years if is left to survive on its own devices.

Prior to the formation of Malaysia in 1963, the KadazanDusun language was the predominant language in all KadazanDusun households. After 1963, Malay gradually replaced English as the medium of instruction in schools, and the official language in government. Sabah Malay, which, according to a study is a dialect of Malay rather than a bazaar language, has become the language of communication among the multi-ethnic groups in Sabah.

English continued to be held in high esteem.

Probably thinking that their children could learn their mother tongues at home, KadazanDusun parents born in the 1950s began to encourage their children to learn English or Malay, hoping for them to gain an advantage in securing jobs in both the government and private sectors.

Eventually, these parents too started to communicate with their children in English or Sabah Malay instead of their mother tongues. As a result, many KadazanDusun children nowadays grow up not acquiring a command of their mother tongues.

Through constant and popular use, Sabah Malay gradually replaced the KadazanDusun tongue in many KadazanDusun homes. This language shift contributed to the decline in the use of the KadazanDusun language.

The current speakers of the KadazanDusun language are mostly in the fifty-year old and above category, particularly in the Penampang District where urbanisation occurred earlier relative to the other districts.

It appears that the more urbanised a KadazanDusun household is, the more the KadazanDusun language is pushed out the window to make way for other languages which are viewed to be more practical or possess more economic values.

In the District of Penampang, where I live, the likes of Dicky, who speaks his mother tongue fluently, are fast become rare breeds. Many youths below the age of thirty in the District can barely speak the Kadazan language, the language of the Kadazan people.

At the rate the language is losing its popularity among the Kadazan youths, the expiration of the current speakers will mark the demise of the language in the District as well.

It does not help that the KadazanDusun language is relatively a difficult language to learn and master.

Only when one is totally immersed in an environment in which the language is solidly spoken can one master the essence of the language.

Its grammatical construction is as intricate as that of the English language in that the verb forms change with the notion of time. For example the root word “go” or “mugad” in KadazanDusun may change to “ko’u’ugad,” “minugad,” “nokougad” or “kinougadan” in keeping with the various grammatical tenses.

Currently, the KadazanDusun language is used in churches and in ceremonial events particularly the Kaamatan or Harvest Festival celebration. The local newspapers carry sections of their daily publications dedicated to the language. Since 1954, there have been radio programmes in the language, which have recently been complemented by television news in the language.

KadazanDusun literary works have found their way into bookstores and libraries while songs in the language flood the local entertainment scene.

All is not lost for the KadazanDusun language in the current circumstance. In the effort to preserve, develop and promote the KadazanDusun language and other indigenous languages of Sabah, the Kadazandusun Language Foundation was established in 1995.

The foundation immediately started work by conducting writer training workshops and writing competitions to increase the number of publications in the language. It assisted the Sabah Education Department and Universiti Malaysia Sabah with technical consultancy in their preparations of KadazanDusun language classes.

The effort to preserve, develop and promote the language culminated in the government’s approval to teach the KadazanDusun language in Sabah schools, a request first proposed by the Kadazan Dusun Cultural Association.

The language is now taught in 336 primary and 38 secondary schools in Sabah.

The efforts of the KadazanDusun language’s stakeholders, however, will continue to be an uphill task without the foremost and solid support of KadazanDusun parents.

These parents must face the reality that if they continue to shy away from doing their part in preserving, developing and promoting the language, it will eventually disappear from the Sabah’s literary scene in time to come. It is just a matter of time.

KadazanDusun parents must first introspect and appreciate that language is the soul of a racial identity.

Cultures and traditions are embellishments to racial identities to render them unique.

Without a language to keep the culture and traditions together, a racial identity collapses into oblivion.

If the KadazanDusuns continue to forsake their mother tongue in favour of Sabah Malay, eventually, they would be identified by that racial identity in time to come on the premise that a language does indeed define a race more than anything else.

The real work can then begin. It will have to start with the parents. Many KadazanDusun parents these days are not proficient in the language, and will have stopped communicating with their children in the language.

With conscious effort and a desire to succeed, however, they can learn the language themselves from their own parents or elders who would still be proficient in the language.

In addition, there are other resources available out there, including programmes promoted by the Kadazandusun Language Foundation and PACOS Trust; literary works, dictionaries and news media which they can use to hone their proficiency in the language. Parents and children need to undergo the learning process together.

The household will then acquire a language bearing skewed towards the mother tongue.

It is a herculean task now, but accomplishment is possible.

In answering the second question, Dicky opined that the indigenous youths of today should do their level best to preserve their cultures and traditions. He proposed that people heed the Malay proverb, “Biar mati anak, jangan mati adat” or “Let the child perish, but not cultures and traditions.”

A culture and traditions need a language to keep them together. In the case of the KadazanDusun culture and traditions, the KadazanDusun language glues them together.

To that, I would like to add another Malay proverb, “Hilang bahasa, hilanglah bangsa” or “If a language disappears, so will the race.” Let that be warning enough for us, KadazanDusuns.

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