In a the comments to a recent post, Nizar expressed his annoyance with the fairly widespread practice of calling Malaysia’s national language Bahasa when it should be called either Bahasa Malaysia or Bahasa Melayu. Of course, a whole debate could be had on which of those two options is more appropriate: Bahasa Melayu means ‘the language of the Malays’ whereas Bahasa Malaysia is ‘the language of Malaysia’. A political minefield, that.

Political landmines aside, the exonymic labelling of BM as simply Bahasa is, as Nizar rightly points out, rather silly, since bahasa simply means language and could therefore denote any language. Perhaps one could get away with arguing that Bahasa with a capital B means The Language (perhaps not really a stretch since Malay lacks a definite article), but I don’t buy it.

I can sympathise, since I’ve heard similar exonymic labelling of English by Malaysians. On more than a few occasions I’ve heard Malays refer to English simply as speaking.

My absolute favourite, however, has to be the numerous times I’ve heard people refer to English as orang putih, which literally means white person. The first time I heard it was in a shop across from the school I worked at in Rawang. When I asked a question in English, the lady behind the counter said something like ‘Sorry ah, saya tak pandai cakap orang putih’ (‘Sorry ah, I don’t know how to speak white man.’). I wonder where that leaves all the English people who aren’t white, and all the white people who don’t speak English!

As for the whole Bahasa Melayu-Bahasa Malaysia thing, I think I’ll stay out of it for now.