A quick overview
by Herman, 2003
See also our
language/ethnic entity chart
One of the most definitive aspects in
identifying a culture is language, and with some 55 major languages,
Sabah is a particularly interesting field for those linguist who
have conducted their studies over the past 40 years here. Besides
the many languages, Sabah has also a variety of over 80 dialects! It
is now commonly accepted that 32 of Sabah’s languages are indigenous
to the State, associated with the 32 major ethnic entities. The
languages comprise the Dusunic, Murutic
and Paitanic Families of the Bornean Stock of the West
Austronesian Superstock of Austronesian languages, and are quite
closely related. Then there are the many Chinese languages that have
come to Sabah with Chinese settlers and immigrants. However, even
though the Chinese are Sabah’s largest non-indigenous group, they
are not discussed in an in-depth manner in this paper.
The Dusunic Family is the largest of these, much as
the Kadazandusun are the main indigenous group of Sabah. 14 distinct
languages are recognised, whereby the central Kadazandusun language
is the largest in the State with chains of dialects spreading from
Papar in the south to Penampang, Kota Kinabalu, Tambunan and Ranau
in the interior, and Tuaran and Kota Belud in the north.
The Murutic Family is found in southern Sabah, and in
northern parts of Sarawak and Kalimantan. There are a total of
twelve languages including Timugon Murut, which is spoken in Tenom,
and Tagal, which is the most widespread.
The languages of the Paitanic Family are found along
the eastern rivers such as the Paitan, Kinabatangan and Segama
Rivers. Already in ancient times Chinese traders visited these
rivers, and in the 15th century the first Islamic missionaries made
their way along the Kinabatangan into the interior of Sabah. Many
peoples of the Paitanic group have converted to Islam then, and they
call themselves the Orang Sungai – the River People – like the
inhabitants of Sukau and the surrounding area.
There are other Austronesian languages represented in Sabah, some of
which are indigenous to other parts of Borneo, and some that are
indigenous to the southern Philippines, and to parts of Indonesia.
Malay, which is also an Austronesian language, has been brought to
Sabah by the Bruneis, who once ruled over much of Borneo.
Although Borneo has been inhabited since at least 40’000 years, it
is believed that the Austronesian ancestors of Sabah have only come
here over the past 5’000 years. They were probably originally from
Taiwan and came via the Philippines. Language affinities, and
similarities in dresses and rites make this theory most probable.
The various Bajau groups belong to those immigrants
who have settled in Sabah over the past three hundred years or so.
They were originally seafaring people and originate from the
southern Philippines, much as the Irranun (from the Lake Lanao and
Illana Bay in Mindanao), and the Suluk (called Tausug in the
Philippines). The descendants of these settlers are now counted
amongst Sabah’s indigenous ethnic groups.
Non-Austronesian peoples have also settled in Sabah, especially the
Chinese: it must be presumed that the Chinese have long ago, maybe
as far back as 2’000 years, established firm trading routes to
Borneo. The wealth of Sabah’s jungles was famous for products highly
esteemed: rattans and bamboos, feathers for fashion, bezoar-stones
and deer horn for medicines, rhinoceros horn as an alleged
aphrodisiac, the casque of the huge Hornbill birds (prized as
‘golden jade’ by Chinese carvers), camphor and other woods, honey
bees, wax, sago. From the sea came tortoise shell, coral and shells
for decorative purpose, shark-fins, sea slugs (or sea cucumbers),
dried squids and jellyfish and other special foods and medicine.
From the caves came gypsum and birds-nests. The Brunei Annals of
about 1410 AD mention a Chinese settlement in the Kinabatangan area,
and we know of Portuguese records that mention Chinese building
junks in Brunei in 1512.
In 1882 the Basel Mission began bringing large numbers of Hakka from
southern China to Sabah to work in the newly established North
Borneo Chartered Company. Land was opened and tobacco was planted,
together with rubber, coconuts, and some spices. Then, North Borneo
also produced a lot of sisal, which was used in the shipping
industry for ropes. More Chinese immigrants came to Sabah to work in
the plantations in the early 20th century. Most of them were Hakka,
but there were also the Cantonese, Hokkien, Teochew and Hainanese.
The descendants of these immigrants still maintain their cultural
identity in Sabah until this day.
Other Austronesian immigrants include the Javanese, who were brought
here during the Chartered Company time. Today, many Filipinos and
immigrants from Sulawesi and other parts of Indonesia come to Sabah
in search of temporary work. Sabah’s cultural history as a melting
pot is still being written!
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