Language Ideologies from Sabah, Malaysian Borneo: “More Similar Than We are Different But No One is a Kadazandusun”

Author: Trixie Tangit (Universiti Malaysia Sabah)
Speaker: Trixie Tangit
Topic: Language Ideologies
The GLOCAL CALA 2022 General Session


The so-called Kadazandusun ethnic grouping in Sabah, Malaysia, a political network of at least 40 cultural groups with Bornean roots and animistic traditions, continues to grapple with identity issues and threats of internal splitting. In 2019, the Kadazan Society of Sabah (KSS) sought to contest the 1997 conjoining of the ethnic terms, “Kadazan” and “Dusun”, a move seen to expunge the Kadazan people from history. The Malaysian government through the Ministry of Education responded by embarking on linguistic research of the cultural groups associated with the Kadazandusun grouping from 2019-2022 to reveal sheer similarities between the Kadazan and Dusun languages. Despite the language relation, the KSS rejects the continuation of the Kadazandusun language taught in Sabahan schools, a standard seen to favour Dusun vocabularies. This paper presents the findings of a lexicostatistics survey led by the author and discusses them against the identity politics of the Kadazandusun groups. Based on a 100-word Swadesh list, more than 350 lists were gathered from 22 districts throughout Sabah during an extensive fieldwork spanning the COVID19 pandemic hit years. When compared for percentage of shared cognates, the data showed varying and high degree of relations amid a shift to the more dominant Malay language. The prolific use of shared vocabularies appearing as synonyms, particularly indicate that while language is changing, there is an openness among adjacent communities to uphold the ideology that “we are more similar than we are different”. While this outlook may serve to ameliorate tension and debunk the stereotypical idea of indigenous communities in Sabah today as being distinct cultural Indigenous groups marked solely by religion (Muslim/ non-Muslim), the amalgamation of the plethora of Kadazandusun groups has not been an easy one and the ideology that “no one is really a Kadazandusun” still abounds. The author draws upon the findings from the lexicostatistics survey and ongoing research exploring the dynamics of Indigenous-Malay relations in Sabah.

Keywords: Language ideology, Kadazandusun, Identity politics, Lexicostatistics