The Sociolinguistic Status of Malaysian English: Spoken Varieties and Standard Language

Authors: Ralf Vollmann, Tek Wooi Soon (University of Graz, Austria)
Speaker: Ralf Vollmann
Topic: Language, Dialect, Sociolect, Genre
The (SCOPUS / ISI) SOAS GLOCAL CALA 2020 General Session


Background. The interplay of four standardised languages and more spoken languages makes Malaysia an interesting case of multilingualism. There is extensive convergence between the spoken languages in multilingual Malaysia, even standard languages such as Mandarin and English adopt “all-Malaysian” characteristics. The English in Malaysia (spoken by speakers of South Chinese languages) has developed its own structures which can be shown to copy structures of the mother tongues of the speakers at all levels of grammar (phonology, words, grammar, pragmatics, idiomatic usage). Malaysian English (ME) is also an example for the localisation of a standardised language (SE), the creation of a new dialect/sociolect, providing a linguistic marker of identity to a multilingual and culturally diverse nation.

Material & method. This analysis focuses on the spoken or basilectal register of ME. Therefore, ethnic Chinese speakers were recorded in natural or playful situations, and interviewed about their language use. The sociolinguistic functions of language variation in both ME and Hakka is analysed.

Analysis. (a) The grammatical analysis shows ME to be part of the converging grammars of the Malaysian (Chinese) languages. As for lexical borrowing, speakers choose a word from various different lan­guages in accordance with situational contexts. Syntactically, basilectal English regularly marks Chinese grammatical categories (e.g. aspect, topic-comment, coverbs, underspecification). (b) The use of ME vs. SE provides essential functions of distinguishing L and H registers, ME thereby being an ingroup (identity) marker as well as allowing a low-level approach to other people (mesolect). For acrolectal (outgroup) communication, SE is used.

Conclusions. (a) Spoken English in Malaysia is technically an English creoloid based on a Malaysian-Chinese substrate. (b) Sociolinguistically, it fills the slot of an orate register for basilectal and mesolectal intra-group communication, similar to languages such as Hakka. It does not hinder the ability to acquire also a literate register of the standard language (SE).

Keywords: Malaysian English; World Englishes; orate and literate styles; language and identity