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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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