Kadazandusun - A Language Dilemma
31 August - 16 September 2006, Merdeka Time... but where really is Sabah identity?

by Herman, 9 September 2006

The indigenous languages of Sabah are dying, and a Sabah Identity may never be born – despite progress and modernism. Or because of them? The Malay Sultanates gained independence from the English 31 August 1957. In 1963 Singapore, Sarawak and Sabah joined to form a new nation, and Malaysia was proclaimed 16 September 1963. This year we have to celebrate 49 years of nationhood. In 2007 Malaysia will officially be 50 years old. Thanks to? Sabah and Sarawak? The ending –sia in Malaysia still recalls a time when Singapore was part of the Federation. Are Sabahans and Sarawakiens now Malaysians. Or even Malays? A look at Malaysian nationhood through Sabah’s struggle to maintain some of its cultural identity.


Out of the 138 languages spoken throughout Malaysia there are 54 indigenous languages of Sabah (Grimes, 1996), all belonging to the Austronesian language family. These languages vary in size from several hundreds to over one hundred thousand speakers. Most of the languages of Sabah belong to one of four subgroups: Bajau (Sama-Bajau), Dusunic, Murutic and Paitanic. The "Kadazandusun language" belongs to the Dusunic subgroup and comprises several dialects spoken by the Kadazan and Dusun (or: Kadazandusun) people of Sabah.

The Dusunic group is the largest indigenous group in Sabah. They are actually a collection of ethnic groups speaking similar languages and dialects as well as having similarities in culture and traditional beliefs. Within this group there exist at least ten (13, SIL, 1996) distinct languages with possibly 30 or more dialects.

Kadazandusun speakers are mainly found along the West Coast of Sabah and in some interior areas such as Ranau, Telupid, Tambunan and along the upper Kinabatangan River. The Kadazandusun languages consist of chains of dialects that are reasonably understood by neighbouring communities, but because the languages and dialects differ in varying degrees it may be difficult for one end of the chain to communicate to the other.

There are some people of this group who prefer to call themselves Dusun, while others, particularly in the Penampang/Papar areas prefer the term Kadazan (see below).

The Kadazandusun – Sabah’s Largest Ethnic Entity (a.k.a the 'Kadus')

The Kadazandusun are the largest ethnic group in Sabah, making up about one third of its original population and forming the largest single language community in Sabah. Nowadays one can find Kadazandusun all over the world, working in various professions, but their total number does not exceed an estimated 800,000. However, less than half of that speak their native language, and of those 75% are above 45 years old. Less than 5% of those under 25 years old can speak their language!

Kadazandusun languages are extremely complex in terms of grammar, syntax and semantics and therefore almost impossible to teach effectively at schools through formal conventional methods. The best way to learn Kadazandusun languages is at home, naturally (where few parents still speak their mother tongue, or want to impart their native language to their offspring); or living with a community of native speakers (which are getting exceedingly rare).

Main Threat to Kadazandusun

Sabah’s modern socio-cultural and economic development since its ‘Independence through Malaysia’ in 1963 has seen the local languages eroding fast in favour of the national language. But the main threat may not come from the national language or other international languages such as English, per se: it is the generally negligent attitude towards cultural and traditional heritage conservation within the Kadazandusun communities that can still not come to terms with their plural cultural identities. That the Malaysian government does not instill indigenous cultural identity amongst its indigenous minorities is not helpful at this point, either.

Bahasa Malaysia, the national language of Malaysia since 1963, was selected on the basis of having the greatest number of speakers at the time of the formation of Malaysia: the Malay people, an ethnic entity in Peninsular Malaysia that made up more than half of the population of Malaysia then. Malay has also served as a vehicular language in Sabah, and the greater part of the Sunda archipelago for a long time.

Notwithstanding, Sabah’s population then consisted of over 80% of indigenous ethnic people.

Kadazandusun Beginnings

It is yet unclear from where the Dusunic languages originated. Most recent linguistic research points towards south-central Philippines (Dr Yabit Alas, 2005), probably some 10,000 years ago. Another mystery is from where most of Sabah’s ethnic entities come from in the first place… Legends abound, and one is that the Kadazan language, and maybe the Kadazan people, has its roots in the migration of a band of seafaring Chinese from Southern China. Anecdotes describe a provincial Chinese tribe whose language differs greatly from other common Chinese dialects but bears striking similarities to the Kadazan language; a tribe that purportedly bears physical resemblance to the Kadazan as well. However, no research or concrete evidence has risen to support these claims although there seem to be cultural and linguistic affinities in Taiwan.

The people of Sabah spoke their languages and dialects without much bothering as to their linguistic origins, or about politics. Life in the valleys of the northern part of Borneo centred about vast nuclear families, the rice cycle and the village community. Major differences between ethnic groups were promoted by their traditional geographical locations. Kadazan mainly inhabited flat valleys and deltas, conducive to paddy field farming and Dusun traditionally inhabited hilly and mountainous regions where they cultivated ‘hill rice’. Loosely administrated by the Islamic Sultans of Brunei and before the influence of missionaries in the mid 19th century the Kadazandusun were animists with sometimes elaborate ceremonies that revolved around ‘Bambaazon’ or ‘Bambarayon,’ the rice spirit that ruled over the planting and harvesting of rice. The Kadazandusun also have their own traditional costumes, varying with each subgroup, and they developed their own unique dances, usually accompanied by gongs.

But with the emergence of an ethnic awareness in the late 19th century, and later nationalistic movements (1950’s and 1960’s) names for the languages and tribes were sought. And while most people would identify themselves by the river where they lived, or another accepted term (Rungus, Lotud, Tindal, Bajau, Murut, Orang Sungai, Kadazan…), there was no overall term for the indigenous people of Sabah.

The first Kadazandusun to receive some form of school were the Papar, Kuala Penyu and the Penampang Kadazan – curiously communities that have referred to themselves as ‘Kadazan’ for some time. The first schools were brought to the Kadazan by the Mill Hill Missionaries in the early 1880’s. The missions were interrupted during the wars but resumed teaching until the formation of Malaysia in 1963. Their schools were known as the ‘Native Voluntary Schools’ and appealed to the local Kadazan and Dusun because they opted to teach literacy to rural folks initially through their local Kadazan or Dusun language before gradually shifting to English in the third and fourth year (Reid ,1997).

In the post-war years the Kadazandusun languages underwent vast developments. In 1953 Sabah’s first English newspaper ‘The Sabah Times’ introduced a Kadazandusun section, and this remains the largest Kadazandusun newspaper section to this day. Shortly after The Sabah Times introduced Kadazandusun, Radio Sabah followed suite, and some publication in local literature issued. By then, Sabah was not yet part of Malaysia – which indeed did not come to being until 10 years later – and English was widely spoken: law and commerce, and any official business was in English, with Chinese and local languages being used regionally. Malay had, by then, almost disappeared as the traditional vehicular language.

But the greatest “development” was yet to come. During the Nationalism era after joining Malaya in 1963 to form an independent Malaysia mother-tongue development went into decline. Emphasis was now on the acquisition of the national language, Bahasa Malaysia (which is now officially called Bahasa Melayu, the language of the Malays)*.

To safeguard social and economic development as well as to assist assimilation and integration into the fast-growing Malaysian culture, Kadazandusun parents had begun to allow the use of the Malay language in the home.

This did more harm than good especially when code-mixing became evident, slowly removing the need to converse uniquely in the mother tongue. (Lasimbang, 1996)

The now-apparent loss was only identified in the early 1980’s. By then, the infiltration of 'broken' Kadazan and Dusun songs into the music industry had added further damage to the situation. Their fun and catchy tunes belied the growing disparaging view held against mother-tongue use by many Kadazandusun speakers themselves.

As has happened in many other language situations around the world (Mulhausler,1996), modernisation and development ultimately meant that the ecology of the original Kadazandusun language chains was broken and powerful new languages entered, in this case notably Bahasa Malaysia (Bahasa Melayu) and to some extent English.

Kadazan vs Dusun

In the 1960’s, with an emerging nationalism it became necessary for language labelling. This brought several dilemmas to the many Dusunic communities, not only in terms of mother tongue conservation. Sabah politicians then, moving forward towards a unified Malaysia struggled with the pressure of a single way of cultural identification, and it seems that even though this started with best intentions this is simply never possible.

It was, and is, a delicate subject: Dusun, or Kadazan? Dusun, in Malay, means farmer, apparently a term used by the ruling Brunei for the natives in Sabah already a long time before the advent of the English and subsequently taken up by the latter; Kadazan is an indigenous Dusunic word which can be interpreted as ‘townspeople’. The ruling elite obviously did not want to be called ‘farmers’! To make matter worse for the Dusun: the ruling elite then came from Penampang and Papar where the word ‘kadazan’ had been in use for a long time already although this is disputed: it is widely believed that the term Kadazan was a political derivative that came into existence in the late 50's to early 60's, coined by such notable political figures as the late Tun Fuad Stephen and Datuk Peter J. Mojuntin. But while most explanations assume the word of recent origin and being derived from ‘kakadazan’ (town; or ‘kedai’ shop) there is some older record in the writings of Owen Rutter. Rutter writes in his in 1929 published book “The Pagans Of North Borneo”: “The Dusun usually describes himself generically as a tulun tindal (landsman) or, on the West Coast, particularly at Papar, as a Kadazan.” (page 31). Owen Rutter worked in Sabah for five years as District Officer in all five residencies and left North Borneo with the onset of the First World War. This means that he worked in Sabah (then North Borneo) from 1910 to 1914. We can therefore safely say that the word ‘Kadazan’ was already in existence before any towns or shops were built in the Penampang or Papar Districts and that Kadazan politicians did not invent the word in the late fifties and early sixties. The most likely explanation for the term ‘Kadazan’ is that it means ‘the people’.

To-day, the Kadazan are associated with similar indigenous tribes of Dusunic origin under the blanket term Kadazandusun. This is officially recognised and the result of political machinations, notably a resolution of the 5th KCA (Kadazan Cultural Association) Delegates Conference 4 and 5 November, 1989. The association itself was then renamed to Kadazan-Dusun Cultural Association (KDCA). It was decided that this was the best alternative approach to resolve the "Kadazan" or "Dusun" identity crisis, which has crippled and impeded the growth and development of the Kadazandusun multi-ethnic community socio-culturally, economically and politically - ever since Kadazanism versus Dusunism sentiments were politicised in the early 1960's.

Language Conservation Today

Public schools in Sabah do not teach in Kadazandusun, at least not officially. There are some really remote villages such as Longkogungan in the Penampang district where communities still produce native speakers and children’s first official contact with ‘the language of the Malays’ is effectively at school; they continue to speak their native tongue at home, even amongst siblings, and in their community. But few make an effort to speak their own language when they come into contact with other Kadazandusun, and it is not always because their languages and dialects differ: in most areas the Kadazandusun themselves like to view their language as outdated, or primitive, an obstacle towards development. They prefer to speak in the Malay language “so that their children have better chances in life”.

There are significant differences between the Malayan language in Peninsular Malaysia and the Malayan language in Sabah. This has its historic reasons: the Malay language developed out of the Indonesian language, and in Sabah pronunciation and certain word uses are closer to Indonesian than to Peninsular Malay, especially when it comes to slang and dialects. ‘Baku’, the ‘accent-less’ form of Malay that radio and TV speakers must adopt in Malaysia is very much the way Malay is pronounced in Sabah.

But the dire truth is that even though children of most households in Sabah now grow up with Malay, they never excel in that new language, which is essentially only properly taught at school. Theirs is a simplified and sometimes bastard language ‘bahasa pasar’ – the market language, maybe very much like Malay was spoken at Sabah courts under Brunei rule two hundred years ago. Thus they do not express themselves very well in the ‘new’ language. But they also cannot express themselves in their native language. And since a reading culture yet has to grow roots people tend to have problems writing and expressing themselves in any language as they also have great troubles learning an other language with the uncertain bases they possess.

But the desire for mother-tongue conservation and education has become central to both communities, Kadazan and Dusun (and also amongst other ethnic entities in Sabah, such as Murut etc) with the emergence of a new cultural awareness.

A breakthrough came in 1985 with a crucial decision on orthography for a unified Kadazandusun language; in 1990, various fruitless efforts were made at introduction of Kadazandusun at schools in Sabah; only in 1994 Tan Sri Bernard G. Dompok began seriously pursuing the matter. By that time Kadazandusun was taught in private class, but under pressure by YB Tan Sri Bernard G. Dompok Kadazandusun language classes started in April 1995, after the standardisation of dialects had materialised. However, the labelling of the language was still a problem. Eventually the Sabah Education Department played the mediator for the two cultural custodians - the Kadazan Dusun Cultural Association and the United Sabah Dusun Association - on deciding the name of the standard language that was taught in schools. And after some compromise, the term 'Kadazandusun' was chosen as the official name of the shared language.

The standard Kadazandusun language, and its agreed-on name, was the closest approach yet to a wider ethnic group identification. But it is, in the end and from a linguist’s point of view only a poor attempt at trying to safe a set of dying languages by the introduction of a standardisation of various dialects, while most people still don’t see the use of their mother tongue. However, this perception of the indigenous people of Sabah might change: in 2000, Kadazandusun was taught to 19731 children by 881 trained teachers at 440 primary schools in 21 districts throughout the State of Sabah. Maybe one day they are proud Sabahans, Malaysians in their own right in multi-cultural Malaysia. I should say that then we can indeed celebrate nationhood since 1957.

Kadazan Language Samples (Christian Ere Prayers)

Tama za doid Surga apantang daa oh ngan nu koikot oh Perintah nu kaandak nu adadi doiti id Tanah miga doid Surga.

Pataako dagai oh takanon* za do tadau diti om pohiongo dagai oh douso za miaga dagai do popohiong di nakahasa doid dagai kada zikoi pohogoso doid ponginaman katapi pahapaso zikoi do mantad ngaaci do kalaatan. Amen.

Ave Maria, nopunu' do graasia, miampai diau o Kinoingan**, obitua ko do id saviavi' tondu, om obitua o tuva' tinan nu Jesus.

Sangti Maria, tina' do Kinoingan pokiinsianai zikoh tu' tuhun do mominiduso, baino om ontok jaam do kapatazon za. Amen.


Our Father, which art in heaven (Surga, a Malay word), hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom (Perintah, a Malay word) come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory for ever and ever. Amen.

*takanon in the Kadazan text literally means ‘rice’ – the staple food of the Kadazandusun, which is not bread. Nice touch…

Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with thee. Blessed are thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.

Holy Mary, Mother of God. Pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.

**Kinoingan in the Kadazan text is the Kadazandusun word for God, since in their animistic religion they also only had one God – who was married, obviously for practical reasons …


 *April 2007: Malaysia's official language is now again called Bahasa Malaysia...


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