…there are not only separate sets of pronouns for different combinations of social ranks, but a distinct set reserved just for addressing ethnic Chinese. Shades of John Wilkins! No wonder Winstedt goes on to say that “Malays shun the use of personal pronouns”—although the practice he describes of substituting nouns representing rank, title or metaphorical family relationship seems just as complex.
I’d write this off as a quaint and obsolete colonialism but linguablogger Jordan Macvay reports that the situation today isn’t much simpler. In fact he notes with surprise that many Malays have started borrowing the English I and you so as not to have to commit to one of the social relationships encoded in their own pronouns.
Jordan’s post is long and extremely interesting; an excerpt:
The problem is that Malay has too many available pronouns to choose from. When referring to oneself, a Malay speaker will generally have two pronouns to choose from: saya and aku. Both mean the same thing, but aku is seen as more informal and is used only with family and close friends (whereas in the Indonesian form of the language aku is the standard first person singular pronoun). When addressing another person, there is a dizzying array of choices. When speaking in the second person singular a Malay speaker must choose between awak (used for a spouse, close family members or friends, children and someone below you in age or, less frequently nowadays, in social status), anda (more formal, mostly used in advertising and on signs as in the French vous), engkau (used with close friends and family members; I often hear this shortened to kau or even ko), the seldom used kamu (which I think is actually supposed to be second person plural but is sometimes used in the singular, although I could be confusing Malay and Indonesian here; I usually only see it in TV subtitles) and a large number of other forms of address such as abang/kakak (basically big brother/sister, used to address someone slightly older than yourself, usually one’s actual brother/sister or perhaps even husband, but often used to address strangers slightly older than yourself, especially at shops or markets), adik (little brother/sister, used to address someone younger; encik/cik (Mr./Ms.), pak cik/mak cik (uncle/aunty, used to address someone much older than yourself), tuan/puan (Mr./Mrs., a form of address often used for police and other officers, male or female, and also generally for married women) and a few others. Then there are the endless titles such as Tengku, Tuanku, Tun, Tan Sri, Datuk, Datin, Datuk Seri, Datin Seri, Putera, Puteri, and many others, which are used to directly address someone who is considered royalty or who has been conferred a non-hereditary title by a Sultan.
I’m particularly interested in the distinctions between Malaysian and Indonesian, which I lazily tend to think of as pretty much the same.
Update. See now Lameen’s post at Jabal al-Lughat.