Symbolisation in Ancient Tales: A Special Reference to the Malay Text Hikayat Merong Mahawangsa

Author Information

Asmah Haji Omar,
University of Malaya, Malaysia

DOI: 10.47298/cala2022.1-1
The GLOCAL Proceedings:  The GLOCAL Conference in Asia 2022


Symbolisation can be interpreted as expressing what is real, not in terms of the actual object, but that which is represented in other forms. A narrative or a story that is in the mind of the writer or the storyteller still remains in the form of ideas or concepts. It becomes a message when it is expressed in an organised form in the language medium that we call ‘text.’ It is the text that forms the symbol to the story. In Ferdinand de Saussure’s theory of the sign, the story is the signifié or the signified, and the text is the signifiant or the signifier. Language is an abstract and conventional symbol in the life of human beings. At the same time, there are non-language forms of symbols that have been identified as icons and indices, in particular by Charles Saunders Peirce with his theory of semiotics.

This paper and talk present an interpretation of an ancient text, a composite of narratives of the founding of Kedah (which today is a sultanate in the north-western part of the Malay Peninsula) circa 3000 B.C.E., until the arrival of Islam circa 10th century C. E. Originally an oral tradition, the text was given a written form in the mid-18th century, using the Jawi (Malayised Arabic) script of the time. It was only in 1970 that the Jawi manuscript was transliterated using the Roman alphabet.

Interpretation of the text goes through various layers of symbols, beginning with symbols in their Jawi script, and as identifying words in their various forms. Making sense of linguistic elements entails taking into account their usage within the text itself as well as information from historical texts (in co-texts) and findings of research by relevant disciplines, specifically archaeology, geology and geography.

By employing the theories and approaches mentioned above, some of the major factors in Kedah history discovered in the text are: (1) Evolution of the geomorphology of Kedah since 5000 years ago (which has been verified by scholars in the field); (2) identification of ethnic groups living in Kedah in those ancient times and the assimilation of at least one of these with the Malays;  (3) evolution of Kedah from a simple civilisation to an urbanized one, by using technology available to the people when building the kota (urban centre) and man-made rivers that are still seen in Kedah today;   (4) events that led to the spread of the Kedah dialect to North Perak and to Southern Thailand; and (5) the fact that the sending of gold and silver flowers as a tribute from the King/Sultan of Kedah to the King of Siam from time immemorial until 1905 began as a tradition of sending gifts from the younger brother who was king in Kedah to his elder brother in Southern Thailand every two years.

Keywords: Linguistic anthropology, symbolism, Kedah, texts, Thailand, Hikayat Merong Mahawangsa

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