Languages of Sabah
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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