by Katharine Gosling


For this exercise I decided to look at the different meanings and uses of the word bahasa in a number of old Malay texts.  Although it is obviously still in use today, in the old texts bahasa seems to be used in a more diverse manner, or perhaps those meanings which are less common today are used more frequently in the old texts.  The reason why I chose bahasa as a key word was mainly to do with its connection with the concepts of correct manners and behaviour.  These are very important themes in many old Malay texts, a good example being the Hikayat Hang Tuah which was studied during the course of this unit.  Hang Tuah centres on a subjectís correct behaviour towards his ruler and also contains numerous examples of how people of various social standings were expected to interact with one another, such as polite ways to address the king.  The specific examples given below were found using the search program on the Malay Concordance Project website.  (Initials in brackets indicate the text from which an example is taken; texts are listed at the end.)  I also compared my findings to the entry on bahasa given in R.J. Wilkinsonís A Malay-English Dictionary (1959).

According to Wilkinson, the word bahasa is of Sanskrit origin and has three main meanings: I. diction; language; II. softly; slightly; gently; and III. that; in order that.  The third meaning is from Minangkabau Malay and I did not find any examples of its use in the texts so I will concentrate on the first two definitions.  Under I. diction; language Wilkinson gives four subheadings: (i) in a general sense; (ii) in a specific sense; (iii) speech as indicating breeding; and (iv) breeding or manners.  In my search I found examples of the use of bahasa which could be listed under each of these subheadings, but also a few interesting uses which were harder to classify thus.  There were also examples of bahasa with meaning II. softly; slightly; gently, and I have tried to find a link between this use of the word and the first range of meanings.

Examples of bahasa meaning language in a general sense are jalan bahasa (KPA) (idiom), and jurubahasa (SM) (interpreter).  Bahasa is also used to mean general speech (rather than speech indicating breeding), as in berbahasa kepada (SM) and dibahasakan orang (SMB).  Bahasa meaning language in a specific sense is frequently seen in the form of bahasa Melayu, bahasa Keling (HT) and so on.  There are also some more interesting examples such as bahasa rong and "bahasa Rumi, ertinya bahasa dalam" (HT) which mean the language of the royal court, in other words very polite language.

An example of a slightly different usage is "kitab dengan dua bahasa, suatu, bahasa zat, kedua bahasa sifat" (SM).  The meaning here is not a book written in two languages but rather a book which can have two different interpretations.  An unusual use of bahasa which does not quite fit any of the categories is "yang empunya bahasa 'Yang Dipertuan'" (SP), where bahasa is used to mean title.  Perhaps the most interesting example is "marilah kita ubahkan dengan bahasa Islam" (HMM).  Bahasa Islam here could either specifically mean Arabic, the common language of Islam, or, if one were to take the definition of bahasa as manners or breeding, it could mean the customs of Islam.  In fact it probably holds both meanings - Arabic being the symbol of Islam and implying its customs, to take on the language means to convert to the religion.

As stated above, Wilkinson distinguishes between the use of bahasa to mean speech indicating breeding, and breeding or manners themselves.  However, in searching the texts I found that it was often very difficult to tell the two apart.  For example "bahasa dan laku" (HT) could either mean polite speech and behaviour or good breeding and behaviour, though in this case they may well be much the same thing.  Similarly "istiadat dan cara bahasa" (SM), which could mean customs and manner of speech or customs and manner of behaviour.  Another ambiguous use of bahasa in Hang Tuah is "tiada tahu bahasa" or "Hang Tuah pun tahulah bahasa".  This could either mean to know how to speak a language or to have good manners, although the latter is perhaps more likely where no specific language is mentioned.

There were some examples where the meanings were more clear, such as "mengeluarkan bahasa sangatlah cantik" (SKB), which seemed to me a definitive example of speech as indicating breeding, and the frequently used term budi bahasa (HT) (good taste/manners).  I stress the frequency of use of terms such as budi bahasa as it demonstrates my main point about the importance of polite and correct behaviour in old Malay texts.

In addition to the use of bahasa in relation to language and manners, the old Malay texts contained examples of bahasa which agreed with Wilkinsonís second main definition: softly, slightly or gently.  I came across a few examples of these, such as "kelakuannya gila-gila bahasa" (SM), "malu-malu bahasa" (HT), and "cahaya matahari redup-redup bahasa" (HM).  It is interesting to note that, in each of these examples, there is a duplicated word whose meaning is softened by adding bahasa.  (I also found a slightly ambiguous example, "berdatang sembah tersedan bahasa" (SRD), which could mean sobbing gently, although there is no duplication, or alternatively it could be connected to speech or behaviour.) 

Having observed this use of bahasa of which I was previously unaware, I wondered whether there was a link between this meaning and the other meanings discussed previously.  Indeed, I did identify a possible link, and it is connected with the importance of politeness and good manners in old Malay texts.  Take the example from Hang Tuah: if the phrase used was "kelakuannya gila-gila" it would be a very strong, blunt statement, but by adding bahasa it is made softer and therefore, I would argue, more polite.  So bahasa meaning politeness and good breeding adds refinement to a statement which without it would sound blunt and perhaps even rude.  (This is just my own personal theory.  I have not yet researched it further to see if there might be any truth to it.)

The various examples which I have given above show that the word bahasa is indeed a key word in old Malay texts, its importance stemming mainly from its connection with the major themes of politeness and correct behaviour which are so common in such texts.  I have also found that the different ways in which bahasa is used generally fit in well with the definitions given by Wilkinsonís dictionary, although there are a few interesting examples which deviate from the general rules.  Finally, I have suggested a possible link between two different meanings of bahasa, again relating to the idea of the importance of politeness, which I will have to research further in the future.



Hikayat Hang Tuah (HT)

Hikayat Marakarma (HM)

Hikayat Merong Mahawangsa (HMM)

Kisah Pelayaran Abdullah (KPA)

Salasilah Melayu dan Bugis (SMB)

Sejarah Melayu (SM)

Silsilah Perak (SP)

Syair Kerajaan Bima (SKB)

Syair Raja Damsyik (SRD)



Malay Concordance Project -

Wilkinson, R.J., A Malay-English Dictionary (Romanised), MacMillan and Co., London, 1959, Part I, pp 65-66