2.4 Language & culture

What Did Asian Peranakans Speak?

As we have mentioned, the culture of the Asian Peranakans is very much a product of the interactions between migrant peoples and native peoples. 

An environment with influences of European, various Chinese, Malay, and Indian cultures have produced a hybrid and varied culture, which comfortably assimilates and draws strength from its multicultural sources. 

The language spoken at home by Asian Peranakans is, like the rest of their culture, a hybrid. The early Chinese husbands, in addition to their native languages, would have spoken basic Malay to their native wives, and the wives in turn would have learned bits of the Chinese languages. Children growing up in such an environment would have absorbed both, switching comfortably between languages. This resulted in a creole based largely on Malay, peppered with varying amounts of the South Chinese languages depending on the location. 

Just like their food culture, the Asian Peranakan patois, originally an informal register borne of necessity and spoken only at home, became a common element linking an entire community and a mark of identity.

The Asian Peranakans of Malacca and Singapore traditionally spoke Baba Malay, which is a subvariety of Malay that was originally a group of pidgins based on Chinese grammar with mostly Malay vocabulary. A notable exception is the Chetti Malacca community, which speaks Baba Malay with a larger admixture of Tamil words as befits their South Indian roots.

Unfortunately, the Baba Malay language is endangered, with the younger generations speaking mostly English and Mandarin as a result of the push towards Western-style education and the Speak Mandarin campaign. Nevertheless, there has been a revival of the language in recent decades, with classes and cultural activities seeing a surge of interest. 

On the other hand, the Asian Peranakans of Penang have largely been assimilated and adopted the Penang Hokkien the larger Chinese population, although Penang Hokkien itself has not remained unchanged by this, as the large number of Malay loan-words in Penang Hokkien will show. The dominance of Penang Hokkien has also declined in recent years, with younger generations of Asian Peranakans speaking mostly English and Mandarin. 

Just like their cousins in Malacca, Singapore, and Penang, the Asian Peranakans of Indonesia, the Philippines, Burma, and Thailand, speak similar blends of the local speech enriched by elements of Chinese and other languages. All these variants of Asian Peranakan lingo have been, to varying extents, seen a decline due to the language standardisation of Chinese and Malay, with Baba Malay difficult to categorize into either. Nevertheless, Asian Peranakans retain a deep emotional connexion to the language, as it provides a sense of familiar ‘rootedness’, just as to their food. How will the linguistic map change over the next few centuries? Only time will tell, as the Asian Peranakan culture has always always been accepting of new influences and making them its own, as much in speech as in cooking.

Different Tongues in Different Places

As the original fusion culture of South-East Asia, the Asian Peranakans have absorbed the local culture wherever they have settled. As such, both the language and culture of each subgroup of the Asian Peranakan family will differ from place to place, sometimes in subtle ways, and sometimes in not so subtle ways. 

The Chetti Malacca speak Baba Malay with a larger admixture of Tamil words, and are generally of the Hindu faith, and their Hindu rituals are conducted in Baba Malay. The other Asian Peranakans tend to follow either traditional Chinese religions such as Buddhism and Taoism, or have adopted forms of Christianity. 

In line with the tradition of assimilating the local culture and language, the Asian Peranakans of Burma, Indonesia, and Thailand have similarly adopted elements of the majority culture around them. Asian Peranakans of Indonesia speak a language with an abundant presence of Javanese words, and their cooking naturally also includes Javanese dishes with a Peranakan twist, or the use of native Javanese elements in the dishes shared with other Peranakans of the region. The Thai Asian Peranakans likewise have been influenced by the majority Thai culture, so their speech contains a Thai element and their food is has a distinct preference for sour-sweet flavours, a preference also reflected in the food of the Penang Peranakans, who are geographically midway between Thailand and Malacca.

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