Saturday, 3 December 2016

What kind of language is the Cocos Malay Dialect?

Cocos Malay is the mother tongue for the people of Home Island. It's older than modern Malaysian and Indonesian, but shares the same roots as these languages.

As far as I know the Malay of the Cocos (Keeling) Islands is also spoken in the Cocos Malay diaspora, that is, in Christmas Island, Perth, Katanning, Port Hedland, Bunbury and in Tawau, Malaysia. It might be that the differences of the Malay spoken in this diverse locations outweigh the similarities. But for the meantime it's probably safe to say it's the same language spoken in all these locations. As far as numbers; there are probably a little over 5000 speakers. They comprise about 4000 native speakers in Malaysia; 400 on Cocos (Keeling) Islands; 400 on Christmas Island, and a similar number on the Australian mainland.

What language family does Cocos Malay belong to? I should first warn you, I'm a socio-cultural anthropologist, not a linguist! With that caveat in mind, there are different ways of categorising and bracketing the languages of the world. I think this is one way of doing it for Cocos Malay.

1. Austronesian

First, Cocos-Malay is an Austronesian language. We think that around four thousand years ago, one of the great migrations of human history occurred. The Austronesians began their grand journey. They probably started from Taiwan. First they sailed to (maybe on their outriggers) and inhabited the islands of Southeast Asia. Then they head further east (to the Pacific) and a lot further west (to Madagascar). Such a widespread migration of a single people in pre-modern times is probably hard to match. I think the spread of the indigenous people through the Americas would come a close second.

This maps depicts the commonly accepted picture of Austronesian migration, spreading from its earliest point (Taiwan 3000 BC) to its most recent (New Zealand 1300 AD). It probably should include a small area of Cambodia, where Cham people speak an Austronesian language.
Anyway, the first point to make is that the language the Cocos Malays speak today is directly related to their Austronesian speaking ancestors from 4000 years ago.

2. Malayo-Polynesian

Second, among the Austronesian languages there are two major kinds:
  1. Malayo-Polynesian. From Hawaii to New Zealand, the Philippines to Malaysia you can find Malayo-Polynesian languages, spoken by indigenous populations. Excluding Australia and Papua, Malayo-Polynesian languages predominated in the Pacific and island Southeast Asia.
  2. Non-Malayo-Polynesian. Basically, these are the indigenous languages of Taiwan otherwise known as Formosan.
So the Cocos Malay dialect could be grouped among the Malayo-Polynesian languages.

3. Western Malayo-Polynesian

Third, among the Malayo-Polynesian languages, Cocos Malay belongs to the 'Western' branch. Malayo-Polynesian can be divided into:
  1. Eastern Malayo-Polynesian. This incorporates the Pacific Ocean or Oceania; Polynesia, Micronesia, and parts of Melanesia. It is the yellow part, "Oc", on the map below
  2. Western Malayo-Polynesian, the 'Malayo' part. This incorporates Madagascar, Malaysia, Indonesia. It is indicated as "WMP" on map below.
  3. Central Malayo-Polynesian. These languages are spoken in Eastern Indonesia, the small area just to the north of Australia. See "CMP" on the map below.
  4. South Halmahera West New Guinea. See the small area SHWNG squashed between the other three.
This map shows the Austronesian world, but divides it into 4 language areas. 

In the above map, the huge yellow area to the right incorporates Oceanic languages or EMP. The smaller WMP area is to the left. And squashed in between are SHWNG and CMP. Note that in the areas with stars the indigenous peoples do not speak Austronesian language, but rather the 1,000 or so Papuan languages.

Several languages in the WMP have been influenced by, for example, Arabic, Sanskrit, Chinese languages, and subsequently colonial languages.

As Aronof & Rees-Miller write, the WMP languages include the Austronesian languages with huge numbers of speakers (numbering in the millions). With only around 5000 speakers, Cocos Malay is not one of the largest WMP languages.

4. Malayic /Malay-Indonesian

Fourth, within the Western Malayo-Polynesian languages, one of the large branches is the Malayic (also known as Malay-Indonesian) languages. Cocos Malay is similar to modern Indonesian, Malaysian, and other varieties of Malay (such as spoken in Kupang and Bangka in Indonesia; Pattani in Southern Thailand). They all derive from a similar language Malayic or Malay-Indonesian language. Most probably this was spoken by the Melayu (Malay) people of Sumatra and peninsular Malaysia.


So there you have it. Cocos Malay is a Malayic language. Malayic languages belong to the Western branch of Malayo-Polynesian languages. The Malayo-Polynesian languages themselves belong Austronesian family. The next question is what distinguishes Cocos Malay from other forms of Malay, including modern Malaysian and Indonesian? I will take a more detailed look in a later blog.


This blog has situated Cocos Malay in progressively smaller language groups from the huge (Austronesian) to the small (Malayic /Malay-Indonesian). Personally, what really interests me is the maps. These indicate that a single culture complex united such apparently diverse cultures as from Madagascar to Hawaii.

That was at least until about 1500, when societies on the Western seaboard of Europe (Portugal, Spain, and later England, Holland, and then France) started colonising the world. As a result the majority of people in Hawaii and New Zealand now speak English and in several Oceanic nations French is spoken. In other places, 'creoles' or 'pidgin' languages prevail. Nevertheless, the Austronesian language survive and flourish.

Was there a uniquely Austronesian culture? Initially the Austronesian migrants probably spoke a single language, Cribb explains in his Digital Atlas of Indonesian History. For survival:
The Austronesians brought with them the technologies of pottery, outrigger canoes, and bows and arrows, as well as domestic pigs, fowl and dogs, and they cultivated rice and millet, along with other crops. Rice and millet at this stage were crops suited to temperate and sub-tropical climates, and they apparently did not become established in [in the tropical climate of] Indonesia until somewhat later; their place in the Austronesian diet was [initially] taken by taro, breadfruit, bananas, yams, sago and coconuts.
Austronesian religion probably included animism (the belief that spirits inhere in local trees, hills, streams etc.); ritual meals to feed and reward these spirits; and maybe other things. For instance, dolmens, However, it's difficult to sustain the argument of a uniquely Austronesian culture-complex, because we find these things elsewhere in the world and not always in Austronesian cultures. Still, when in 1497 Vasco de Gama set sail around the Cape of Good Hope; and, in 1521, when Magellan, coming from the other direction, rounded the Magellan Straits, there may have been a definable culture-complex linking these cultures of the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

But actually this large scale type thinking is not part of my anthropological background. I have been more influenced by detailed study of small places. In particular, this the anthropology from Malinowski (say 1920) to Geertz (1970) tended to have microscopic focus. Anthropologists looked at big themes (e.g. kinship) in little places (e.g. a villages) in relation to specific issues (e.g. gift-giving).
The context in which I learned anthropology was sceptical about considering a culture as a cohesive and unique single entity; and even more wary of the idea of larger cultural complex.

But anthropology hasn't always been like that. In the early days (1880-1920), anthropologists Tylor and Frazer tried to search for the original forms of all human culture (an approach which could be called 'Origins and Evolution'). Boas studied how one culture influenced another (an approach known as 'Diffusionism').  In the 1960s, Levi-Strauss, taking his structuralist approach, treated indigenous cultures of North, Central, and South as a single Amerindian culture complex. 

If you want to look at more recent examples large, big-picture anthropology you could look at Europe and the People without History, in which Eric Wolf uses a Marxist approach to talk about swathes of the world in a single breath--and it works! Scott, also using a Marxist approach, takes a grand view of a huge area of Asia in The Art of not being Governed. Tim Ingold and Marshall Sahlins are two other original and exciting thinkers who take a step back and try to apprehend the larger scene.

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