Blog: “The prostitute of languages”: Malay musings from a cynical Dutchman

…and no, Tom Hoogervorst is not referring to himself here. The late 19th-century autodidact D.F. van der Pant anonymously and acrimoniously expressed his discontent with the language skills of his compatriots. How much of what he wrote still rings true today?

In 1879, the Indisch Militair Tijdschrift (‘Indies Military Journal’) published a satirical diatribe on the Malay proficiency of Dutch soldiers. The author was later identified as lieutenant-turned-teacher (and, incidentally, KITLV member) Dirk Frederik van der Pant, whose writing skills received posthumous praise:

“That man could write and paint simultaneously! Those unconvinced by his portrayal of the foolish impression that many a Dutchman, and foreigner alike, must make in the eyes of the native through an inadequate knowledge of the language, cannot be convinced of anything.”

Indeed, Van der Pant went at lengths to describe the barely comprehensible “Dutchmen of reputedly cool disposition”, many of whom became violently emotional (“One is reminded of parleying sea officers”) whenever meaningful communication could not be established:

“Not infrequently, the difficulty to make himself understandable gives rise to a lavish scattering of Dutch interjections […] supplemented by gestures reminiscent of physical aggression. […] Inability to express himself, indignation at stupidity, […] shame over personal clumsiness, usually cause the temper of the European to flare. […] As soon as a Dutchman opens his mouth to speak Malay, one may generally look forward to new surprises. Yet not every European demonstrates the same audacity in their language-rape.”

Indonesians were rarely in a position to remedy the Malay gibberish (“brabbelmaleisch”) of those in power. The result: a Malay-based lingua franca derided by the author as the “prostitute among languages (“lichtekooi onder the talen”) – abused by everyone without any respect for morphology”. Even native speakers adopted it:

“Knowing that they will not be understood if they express themselves correctly, they often shamelessly commit the greatest atrocities. […] And those not subservient or newly employed, who are gawking in pure amazement at the dished-up nonsense, are – in further simplification of the matter – castigated as geese or semi-savages.”

Were things really that bad?

“The Malay language is – they say – very poor. I admit that it presents particular difficulties to chat with a native about the Parisian exhibition or the marvels of Professor Edison. But to explain to a soldier his rights and duties – methinks – sufficient words can be found yet.”

To the author, none of these missed opportunities were too surprising in the light of the education system of his days:

“Due to the exaggerated value attributed “from higher up” to the hard sciences, the so-called humanities ended up being miserably oppressed. Not yet aware that there are different gymnastics for the mind, the majority of cadets were firmly convinced that mathematics was to be understood, whereas language had to be memorized; some radicals even went so far as to simply despise whole-heartedly everything irreducible to dots, lines, planes and formulas.”

One cannot help but notice some subtle echoes in today’s discourse…

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