Asian and African studies blog

11 September 2023

How Old is the Language of Young Malay Manuscripts?

This guest blog, by Prof. Edwin Wieringa of Cologne University, How Old is the Language of Young Malay Manuscripts? A note on the unusual Malay reflexive phrase bertunjukkan diri(nya), turns the spotlight on a phrase in of one of the oldest Malay texts, ‘Tales of the Wise Parrot’.

A drawing of a green parrot
A drawing of a green parrot, in a copy of the Arabic text, Kitāb ʿajāʾib al-makhlūqāt wa-gharāʾib al-mawjūdāt, 16th-century. British Library, Or 4701, f. 214r Noc

Some years ago, when two copies of the Hikayat Bayan Budiman or Tale(s) of the Wise Parrot just had been digitized, Annabel Teh Gallop posted helpful background information to this work and its textual witnesses on this blog, pointing out that it was probably composed in the 15th century or earlier, but that the two digitized manuscripts at the British Library dated from the early 19th century. This considerable time gap prompts the general and broader, though rarely raised or discussed, question as to whether such relatively young copies may still be regarded as faithful keepers of an older language layer. As the Dutch philologist Roelof Roolvink (1965: 311) warns us, “at any period a copyist, apart from making the usual copyist’s mistakes and embellishments of style etc., was inclined – as was only natural – to substitute new words and forms for those that had already become obsolete or otherwise unintelligible at the time the copy was made.”

Opening pages of Hikayat Bayan Budiman, copied in Penang in 180
Opening pages of Hikayat Bayan Budiman, copied in Penang in 1808. British Library, MSS Malay B.7, ff. 1v-2r  Noc

An intriguing example of a substitution of an unusual grammatical expression can be observed in the transmission of the Hikayat Bayan Budiman. Profiting from the availability of digitized images of MSS Malay B.7, which I recently used for a course in reading the Jawi script of Malay manuscripts, my attention was drawn to a reflexive phrase with an unconventional ber-…-kan verb, namely bertunjukkan dirinya (“to show itself/herself/himself/themselves”), which may very well represent the original wording of many centuries ago. This variant reading does not occur in the critical text edition made by Sir Richard Olaf Winstedt (1878-1966), which is based on two other principal manuscripts from the 19th century. In the Malay Concordance Project, a wonderful online research tool of the late Ian Proudfoot (1946-2011), the latter observed “a tendency to complex verbal morphology” in the Hikayat Bayan Budiman; Proudfoot’s list of words found in Winstedt’s edition facilitates research in this aspect of the text, but without – of course – reference to the morphological form ber-tunjuk-kan.

The opening of the frame story in MSS Malay B.7, which I had chosen for students as reading matter, telling about the plucking of the parrot by the merchant’s wife, is not too difficult to read, because the script is clear and easily legible, while the text runs parallel to Winstedt’s edition. However, in the episode in which the published text edition (Winstedt 1966: 14) has Maka bayan itupun keluarlah terbang menunjukkan dirinya kapada isteri saudagar itu seraya katanya (“Then the parrot came out flying, showing itself to the merchant’s wife, while saying …”), the British Library manuscript is considerably shorter, namely (f. 7v, line 12): Maka bayan itupun bertunjukkan dirinya kepada perempuan itu seraya katanya (“Then the parrot showed itself to the woman, while saying…”).

A line of Malay text from Hikayat Bayan Budiman
The line reading: Maka bayan itupun bertunjukkan dirinya kepada perempuan itu seraya katanya from Hikayat Bayan Budiman, 1808. British Library, MSS Malay B.7, f. 7v (line 12) Noc

The reflexive phrase consisting of a ber-...-kan verb with the reflexive pronoun diri (“self”) is not found in the dictionaries (including the online official monolingual dictionaries of Indonesia and Malaysia), whereas Roolvink (1965), in a rare case study of the historical grammar of the Malay language, could not muster any examples of bertunjukkan. Roolvink based his grammatical study on a corpus of fifteen text editions, including Winstedt’s Hikayat Bayan Budiman, which in my opinion is merely a random sample, though Roolvink (1965: 313) confidently thought that it gave “a good representative of the older language”.

Fortunately, over the last decades, many more text editions have become available, but the unusual reflexive phrase remains a peculiarity: a Malay Concordance Project search for bertunjukkan mentions only one example in the Hikayat Indraputra, in which the eponymous protagonist is “showing himself” (Indraputra … bertunjukkan dirinya…) and is subsequently seen by the nymphs (maka Indraputrapun dilihat oleh segala bidadari). The MCP also mentions three other examples of bertunjukkan (but without diri(nya)), namely two from the Hikayat Iskandar Zulkarnain and one from a 17th century collection of Sufi tracts. An internet search brought to light another example in a copy of the Hikayat Amir Hamzah (Indonesian National Library, ML 23, p. 3), in which the two brothers Ghar Turki and Tar Turki, who want to attack Hamzah, “show themselves” (bertunjukkan dirinya), whereas the text edition by A. Samad Said has the common expression of menunjukkan dirinya.* As the Hikayat Indraputra and the Hikayat Amir Hamzah together with the Hikayat Bayan Budiman belong to the oldest works of traditional Malay literature, it seems likely that the reflexive phrase bertunjukkan diri(nya) reflects an older layer of Malay, which by the 19th century was considered by copyists as an archaism in need of revision.

All this goes to show that a reader of Malay manuscripts needs to be sensitive to the textual instability of the transmitted texts. Variant readings are invariably cause for ‘philological alarm’ and should draw us into closer reading.

* Retrieved from an unpublished paper by Prima Hariyanto, p. 27, uploaded on Scribd. The Romanised transliteration in this paper (which I could not check against the original) is: “Maka arikian Goraterka dan Taraterka pun bertunjukkan dirinya.” The corresponding sentence in A. Samad Ahmad’s text edition (1987: 323) reads: “Ketika itu Tarturki dan Gharturki pun menunjukkan dirinya.”

R. Roolvink, “The passive-active per-/ber- // per-/memper- correspondence in Malay” in Lingua 15 (1965), 310-337.
A. Samad Said, Hikayat Amir Hamzah. Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, 1987.
R.O. Winstedt, Hikayat Bayan Budiman. Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1966.

Edwin P. Wieringa, Professor of Indonesian Philology and Islamic Studies, University of Cologne, Germany Ccownwork