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The Voices of Contact Languages in Asia: An Introduction

The languages featured in this issue take us back more than five hundred years, when the monsoon winds brought traders from the Arabian Peninsula, China, and India to the Malay Archipelago. Language contact between different Asian communities who sailed across the seas to trade, and the arrival of first the Portuguese and Spanish, and later the Dutch and British, in Asia resulted in the development of hybrid communities, out of which arose new contact languages, often referred to as creoles. Spanning across four countries and boasting influences from various linguistic traditions, the contact languages represented in this issue are Zamboangueño Chavacano in the Philippines, and three Portuguese-based creoles, Sri Lanka Portuguese, Melaka Portuguese (also known as Papiá Cristang), and Patuá (also referred to as Macau Creole Portuguese and Makista). Also featured is a lesser-known Malay-based vernacular, Chetti Malay (Malay Chetti Creole), spoken in Malaysia. Based on their dwindling number of speakers and a lack of intergenerational transmission, Sri Lanka Portuguese and Melaka Portuguese are classified as endangered, while Chetti Malay, and especially Patuá, which has fewer than fifty speakers left, are critically endangered. This special issue aims to provide a space for the voices of these contact languages to be heard, offering readers a glimpse into the world of these mainly minority communities as they share their thoughts and stories in their original languages, which appear alongside the translated versions of their writings.

In the fifteenth century, Bazaar Malay, a form of pidgin-derived Malay, was the lingua franca among traders and locals in the Malay Archipelago, including in Melaka (located about 150 kilometers south of the current-day capital city, Kuala Lumpur). A particularly bustling port city, Melaka was the birthplace of two of the contact languages featured here: Chetti Malay, a Malay-based contact language spoken by the Melaka Chetti, who are said to be descendants of intermarriages between South Indian Hindu traders and local women; and Melaka Portuguese, which traces its roots to the arrival of the Portuguese in Melaka in the sixteenth century. The resulting unions between the Portuguese and the locals led to the development of the Melaka Portuguese-Eurasian community. Other than the Portuguese, from which most of its vocabulary is derived, Melaka Portuguese displays influences from Malay in terms of its grammatical structure, and also contains words from Malay, Dutch, and Indian (e.g., Hindi, Konkani, and Tamil) and Chinese (e.g., Hakka and Hokkien) languages as well as English.

To the west, the Portuguese presence in Sri Lanka from 1505 to 1648 gave rise to another Portuguese creole, Sri Lanka Portuguese, which was used by the Burghers, i.e., those of Portuguese and even Dutch ancestry, and by the Afro-Sri Lankan community (also known as the Kaffirs1). Today, it is mainly spoken by around three thousand Portuguese Burghers in a few locations in Sri Lanka. As the Portuguese moved to East Asia, yet another Portuguese creole, called Patuá, developed. More specifically, Patuá arose when Melaka Portuguese speakers settled in Macau, and it is indeed very similar to Melaka Portuguese, showing the connections between these and other locations along the Portuguese route. Patuá also displays influences from Malay, Cantonese, and English, while Sri Lanka Portuguese is influenced by Tamil and Sinhala. The final language in this issue, Zamboangueño Chavacano, however, differs significantly from the others: it is the only Spanish-based contact language featured, and its status is stable, with about 300,000 speakers and a tradition of language education, literacy, and literature.

This issue includes poems in Chetti Malay, Sri Lanka Portuguese, Patuá, and Zamboangueño Chavacano, and a folktale in Melaka Portuguese. The four verses in Chetti Malay by four members of that language community—Nironjini Pillay, Shagina Bhalan, Nadarajan Mudalier, and Mahendran Pillay—are in the style of a traditional Malay poem known as the pantun, with its typical a-b-a-b rhyme scheme. The tradition of the pantun among the Melaka Chetti distinguishes them from other Malaysians of Indian origin, as this form of cultural expression is particularly associated with the Malay communities of Southeast Asia. In their oral form, these poems require linguistic creativity and dexterity as verse after verse is traded between speakers. The Melaka Portuguese, in fact, had a similar form of these singing duels, the mata cantiga (literally “to kill with a song”), while a related exchange of pantun, also known as the Dondang Sayang, is still performed by another hybrid community, the Baba Nyonyas in Melaka.

This particular pantun comprises four verses that describe the origins and cultural heritage of the Melaka Chetti people, with a special focus on their traditional attire. As is typical in a pantun, the first two lines in each verse present a figurative suggestion of the more direct message contained in the final two lines. The translation of the poem attempts to retain the rhyme and rhythm of the pantun while maintaining the overall meaning of each verse.

The two Sri Lanka Portuguese poems included here, written by Magin Mario Balthazaar, a Sri Lanka Portuguese Burgher, also reflect the cultural heritage of the author’s community. Translated by Hugo C. Cardoso, “Minha ámoor nóóna” (“My Beloved Lady”) and “Tééra nósa viida” (“The Land of our Lives”) reflect the importance of music and dance in the Portuguese Burgher community as it celebrates love and life.

“Macau nôs-sa téra” (“Macau, Our Homeland”) is a poem in Patuá by lawyer and playwright H. Miguel de Senna Fernandes. The poem is an expression of love for one’s homeland, a theme that is shared by Balthazaar’s “Tééra nósa viida” and can also be found in Melaka Portuguese literature; it can perhaps be related to the need to identify with a place, to find a sense of belonging among mixed minority groups and their diasporic communities, who over the last five hundred years have lost or are losing their language and possibly parts of their culture. This language loss has taken place gradually, as more dominant languages replace a community’s home language, as speakers become more fluent in these dominant languages, and as they culturally assimilate with people outside their communities through, for example, intermarriage and migration.

The tone shifts in two poems by the late Francis C. Macansantos, a poet and writer who wrote in Zamboangueño Chavacano and English. Born in Cotabato City in the Philippines, Macansantos grew up in Zamboanga City and lived in Baguio City from 1981 until his death in July 2017. His works have won several awards, including the National Book Award for Poetry in English in 2017 for Snail Fever. In both of the poems that appear here, “Ojos del marijada” (“Eyes of the Wave”) and “Ñor Marcos (Un Soliloquia)” (“Mr. Marcos—(A Soliloquy)”), the sea plays a key role, as does a sense of succumbing to one's fate.

The final piece in this issue is a folk story told in Melaka Portuguese. “Diabu kum Tripa” (“The Gut Demons”) is translated here by Sara Frederica Santa Maria, who teaches Melaka Portuguese to children at the Portuguese Settlement (and to both children and adults online since the COVID-19 pandemic began). The Portuguese Settlement (Kampung Portugis in Malay) was established in the early 1930s by the coast of Melaka. The approximately twenty-seven-acre village is about fifteen minutes away from the city center and has a population of about a thousand people. The Melaka Portuguese refer to the Settlement as Padri sa Chang, which literally means “The Priests’ Land,” as the land for the village was obtained through the efforts of two Catholic priests, Father Alvaro Martin Coroado and Father Jules Pierre François.

In “Diabu kum Tripa,” Sara brings into English a story she heard many times as a young girl, which is a rather gory tale of six pregnant women who become bodiless demons. It was not uncommon for such frightening stories to be passed from one generation to another as a form of advice to prevent children and young people from going out late in the evening.

You will notice that the original Melaka Portuguese text of “Diabu kum Tripa” has similarities to Sri Lanka Portuguese and Patuá. This is not just because Portuguese is their main lexifier—it also relates to their historical development as the Portuguese traveled through South, Southeast, and East Asia. Along the way, the contact languages that developed were already likely to be a mixed variety, which then continued to evolve through further contact with local languages, peoples, and cultures. Five hundred years on, these three Portuguese-based languages, as well as Chetti Malay, are at risk of disappearing and, like Patuá (and Tugu Portuguese in Indonesia), may only be heard in performances in the future; Zamboangueño Chavacano is the only one of the contact languages featured here that continues to be used and learned widely. The writings in this issue, then, are a rarity, and we are pleased to present them in both their original languages and in English translation, so readers may first “hear” the authors’ own voices and then begin to grasp them through translation.

For speakers of endangered languages, creative writing can be an opportunity to express themselves on subjects personal, traditional, and contemporary, using the nuances and melodies of their languages. The work they produce often speaks to their histories, traditions, and values, and gives readers a sense of what is important to them, whether it be love, family, or maintaining cultural traditions (themes found in many of the works presented in this issue). However, as Macansantos’s poems show, these writings can also be a powerful expression of the human condition, particularly that of the poor and marginalized. In addition, for multilingual writers such as those represented in this issue, choosing to write in their heritage languages can be seen as an expression of agency, an active choice to communicate in a nondominant language rather than, for example, an official or national language (e.g., Malay, Filipino, Portuguese, or Chinese), or an international language like English. Thus, providing a space for minority and endangered languages to be published and read in their original form, rather than just in a translated version, connotes respect for these languages, their writers, and their communities, and helps to document their use for future generations.


1. Note: This term is not offensive in the Sri Lankan context.


© 2021 Stefanie Shamila Pillai. All rights reserved.

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