Perils of coining new words

Professor Tan Sri Dato' Dzulkifli Abdul Razak
Learning Curve: Perspective
New Sunday Times - 28-08-2011

WE can now string a sentence such as “Staf mempunyai set minda inovatif sukar dikokunkan kerana adanya akses kepada informasi berkualiti melalui teknologi komputer secara akauntabiliti” (It is difficult to cocoon staff with innovative mindsets because of access to quality information through computer technology with accountability).

This is so since words such as kokun (cocoon) and akses (access), in addition to akauntabiliti (accountability) have been added to the Kamus Dewan, which has some 30,000 new Bahasa Melayu words since its first edition was published in 1970.

Words like staf (staff which replaces kakitangan), kualiti (quality which replaces mutu) and informasi (information which is occasionally used for maklumat) have gained acceptance. In the same way, words such as set minda, komputer and teknologi — which do not have an equivalent in many other languages — are almost universally adopted worldwide.

Such a development is usual in the life cycle of any language which borrows and adapts vocabulary from other cultures. It is especially so when a word does not exist in other cultures! “Durian” is one good example! Even the word “technology” is not entirely English in origin. The root word is said to be “techny ” or “technic” which means “skill” and “craft”, as in technical, for instance.

Technology is derived from the ancient Greek word “techne”. Those who are technically skilled are generally called “technicians”. The craft, in this respect, is more inclined to mechanical ones as possessed by a mechanic.

Technology is, therefore, a study of mechanical craft, especially directed at providing industrial solutions! It is a combination of téchne and -logía — meaning “study of” in Greek — and variously used to describe specific study areas such as Communications Technology, Forensic Technology and Biotechnology — teknologi komunikasi, teknologi forensik and bioteknologi (not teknologi bio as some are fond of writing) respectively.

Indeed, we can string sentences in Bahasa Melayu nowadays with more of the borrowed vocabulary than original Malay! After all, since 1970, more than 50,000 other words have made their way into the Kamus Dewan, which is in its fourth edition.  Incidentally, kamus is also a borrowed word! And so is dewan.

During the days of active teaching of Science (Sains) and Technology in Bahasa Melayu, several committees were set up to sieve through terminologies that could be adopted, particularly when the local equivalent is not available. Or, if available, is not considered “scientific” enough.

I recall a heated debate on the use of air kencing for “urine”, as some preferred urin. It was argued that air kencing is not scientific because to the colonised mind, scientific words must be foreign sounding.

This is despite the fact that the act of producing urine by foreigners and Malays is no different! Yet the former produces “urine” while the latter passes urin, not air kencing. Ironically, diabetes is kencing manis, not urin manis! This example illustrates the effort spent on coining new words; all languages experience the same difficulty in the expanding world of knowledge.

What most fail to realise is that cultural context and values as well nuances are often lost if we are not sensitive.

It could also imply that there is a void in that particular culture when a word is adopted wholesale. Again, “durian” is a good example. No one will ever attempt to translate it into any other language, simply because it does not exist in any other culture.

At most, such words are spelt differently like oren (orange) and epal (apple). So when mutu becomes kualiti, and berijazah becomes bergraduat, it has a severe implication in that the “new” nullifies the existence of “original” Malay words, and the concepts and values associated with Malay culture. Interestingly, the national motto for Malaysia reads: Bersekutu bertambah mutu — not kualiti! While we welcome new entries into our lexicon, we must at the same time be passionate about context and relevance so their meanings and values continue to be rooted in culture and practice.

Modernising words is only important if it enriches the culture, and not alienating it as is often the case! That said, I wish all Muslim readers Selamat Hari Raya Aidilfitri or it is Eidul Fitri Mubarak?

* The writer is the Vice-Chancellor of Universiti Sains Malaysia. He can be contacted at