Documenting Temiar: An interview with Dr Geoffrey Benjamin

by on June 13, 2016

Frances Loke Wei speaks to Dr Geoffrey Benjamin, anthropologist, linguist, and formerly Associate Professor in  Sociology at Nanyang Technological University and the National University of Singapore, about his extensive work on the Aslian (Peninsular Mon-Khmer) languages and his experience in the field in Malaysia.


Dr Benjamin, you’ve got quite a varied academic background in both the natural sciences and social sciences! What was interesting for you in linguistics?

Well I’m primarily an anthropologist, but I did do linguistics and associated fieldwork early on. I was already interested in languages from a young age. Although I now hardly speak any languages besides English (a little bit of Malay, a little bit of Temiar, and a little bit of French), as a child, I was exposed to several different languages: I grew up in South Wales, and so was forced to learn some Welsh in school. And before that, I was living near London where I learnt some French in a sort of dame school I went to, although any French I know now has been due to later studies. I also learnt a little bit of Latin at school, for O-levels, and a little bit of Greek. For fun, I studied some other languages at the time: Italian, Swedish, Russian, and a bit of Arabic—none of which I use now, but I can still read some of them if I absolutely need to.

When I was a student doing biological sciences, I more or less completed the first part of that degree. Then I got a bit…bored with the lab work, and I was looking around for some other subject to complete my studies. Social Anthropology, as it was then taught, had options in ethnomusicology, and linguistics. I took linguistics, but I got interested in anthropology for its own sake, so I decided to do an extra year and then went straight into a PhD with fieldwork in Malaysia. The population I chose to study had an understudied language, from what was then a not-very-well-understood language family, namely the Mon-Khmer branch of Austroasiatic.

So you spent 50 years studying the Aslian languages!

I suppose I have! It’s not been 50 years continuously, but in the last few years I’ve certainly come back to working on Temiar grammar with quite different insights now than I could have gained 50 years ago. Linguistics has moved on a lot since then. But I also did a lexicostatistical classification of all the Aslian (Peninsular Mon-Khmer) languages quite early on, which spread into looking at the ethnological reasons for this pattern of language differentiation. Other researchers have since done studies based on other lexicostatistical techniques—more recent and refined than the ones I used—and also on historical linguistics.

What’s so unique about Aslian languages that might be of interest to linguists in general?

In terms of Southeast Asian linguistics they certainly are interesting. First of all, they’re phonologically, morphologically, and semantically conservative. That’s important because a high proportion of the other Austroasiatic family languages got denuded of a lot of the material. Vietnamese is the extreme case: it has become tonal, extremely monosyllabic, leading some people to think Mon-Khmer languages are simply monosyllabic when they are not. They sometimes have a complex morphology, which is still present to some extent in Khmer and Mon, and some of the other languages. Aslian languages also retain much of this. That’s one interesting feature. Another is that they have absorbed a little bit of morphology from some Austronesian source, though not necessarily from Malay. That’s a bit of a puzzle because this seems to be evidence in the Aslian languages of a prior Austronesian presence in the Peninsula before Malay. However, most of the morphology is recognisably Austroasiatic.

Semantically, particularly in the Northern Aslian languages—which I haven’t worked on directly very much—there are a lot of fascinating features, such as the mapping of semantic structures onto other features, such as botanical modelling, as Temiar does. For example, Temiar (a Central Aslian language) uses the same word for “tree trunk”, “mother”, and the idea of “normality”. The Northern Aslian languages often use river patterns as a semantic basis for expressing other meanings. The Aslian languages have been spoken by populations who have lived by a variety of different subsistence modes over the centuries and millennia.

This means you’ve got this particular subfamily with four different sub-subfamilies within it. It’s divided between nomadic hunter-gatherers, swidden farmers, forest traders, and (in more recent years) some coastal populations. This makes it a kind of a natural laboratory for seeing how the subsistence mode might feed back into certain aspects of language structure, which we’re now beginning to look at more closely.

In terms of broader history it’s clear that Aslian languages have been present in the Peninsula for much longer than Malay, something that isn’t fully appreciated or understood in Malaysia. The centre of Aslian language differentiation was either in the Peninsula or just to the north in the Kra Isthmus. It probably goes back 4,000–5,000 years. Malay, on the other hand, probably arrived only 2,000 years ago, and from the south. Aslian is still a single language sub-family with about 20 languages. Therefore, a vast amount of Malaysian history is tied up in these languages, especially for those who might want to use linguistic material for historical work.

Some of the languages have peculiar semantic features, like middle-voice nouns—which I don’t think have ever been reported before—and deponent verbs. Deponency is now a growing topic in linguistics, relating largely to verbs that have passive morphology but apparently active meanings. In Temiar, there are many nouns that have the same morphology permanently built in to them as the productive middle voice of the verb. But when you look at the meanings, they do in fact encode this middle-voice meaning—something that both does and is done unto at the same time, becoming syntactically both actor and patient. So in Temiar for example, the names of very many animals that move themselves, are marked for middle voice in a fixed manner.

The other Aslian languages all have peculiar features in various ways. These are currently being looked at, now that the Chomskyian view based solely on formal syntax has fallen by the wayside, and we’re realising that language is fundamentally about meanings and how you express them. Incidentally, while I was an undergraduate, I went to a public lecture given by Roman Jakobson, at the time when Chomsky’s ‘Syntactic Structures’ had just been published as the first of his books. Even then Jakobson (in a thick Russian accent, in spite of his expertise in phonology!) said that it was absolutely ridiculous to pursue linguistics without any concern for meaning.

What prompted you to write an article in 2012 on why people should learn Aslian languages or less studied and/or endangered languages in general?

I had actually written earlier versions of that paper, initially for a conference in the Netherlands many years ago on endangered languages and literatures in Southeast Asia. There was in fact relatively little material available on Aslian languages at the time: there was my own sketch grammar, there was Gérard Diffloth’s sketch grammar of Jah Hut, and there was a partial grammar of Kentakbong (Kintaq) by Asmah Haji Omar, the Malaysian linguist. That’s all there was for Aslian grammar. At that stage, whether or not any of the languages was endangered was simply unknown.

Anyway, I like the sense of detective work that attaches to working on less-known languages. I’d much rather work on an area where there isn’t much material. But that’s not always the pattern followed in Singapore—and certainly not in Malaysia, where there are more and more studies on Malay, but mostly on standard Malay. There has been some on spoken Malay, but not yet enough. In Singapore, most of the social sciences are concerned with economic development issues. This is certainly important, but how much can yet one more study add to this already overcrowded field? I’d rather do something where almost anything you write is adding to knowledge in a more basic way.

How did you find yourself interested in the Temiar language?

The Temiars are the population that I got my main grant to study on. The topics that interested me about the Temiars at the time were rather technical ones, in the sense that they exhibited issues that  were then of interest in anthropology. One such topic was cognatic kinship, that is to say, kinship that’s neither patrilineal (where relationships are traced primarily through the father), nor matrilineal (where they are traced primarily through the mother). In cognatic kinship, relationships are traced through both parents. That turned out to be more interesting than I expected because, at the time—again it’s a technical matter—it was said that cognatic descent groups couldn’t exist. But in fact the Temiars had them. From the point of view of kinship and social organisation studies, which I still carry out, this was an important discovery.

The other topic of anthropological interest at the time was shifting or swidden cultivation, an excellent example of how populations dealt with their natural surroundings. Although this was important, I couldn’t do a great deal on it because I was too isolated to get the plant materials out. I had made an arrangement at the Singapore Botanical Gardens to send items to them to for identification, but it proved logistically impossible. I mean, I was so isolated—during my first fieldtrip at least—even my food had to be parachuted in by airplane, once a month. I myself was taken in by helicopter and thereafter I had to walk everywhere, so it was impossible to do some of the planned work. The Temiars then—not so much now, but then—were one of the more isolated Orang Asli groups.

Are they less isolated now?

Yes, because roads have been built and the young ones have been to school, and some of them are in waged employment. When I stayed there for about 17–18 months in 1964, I came out of the field from time to time, usually when the tape-recorder broke down. On later visits, I have taken the roads that have been available since the 1990s, even though some of the intervening visits still required a lot of walking through the forests.

How did you manage to find the community and assimilate with the culture and people?

With a certain degree of stubbornness! I had met the headman of the village I used as a home base, because he was at the Orang Asli hospital at Ulu Gombak just outside Kuala Lumpur—being treated for tuberculosis. He adopted me as his younger brother, although he was very much older than me (I wasn’t quite 24 when I went into the field, which by current standards is very young to go and do PhD fieldwork.) I therefore already had the necessary linkage, so when I was dropped off by helicopter into the village, I could claim some kind of prior relationship. Of course, it took the people some time to realise that I wasn’t just a casual visitor. I was really quite keen to learn all I could, but I had to start by speaking (bad) Malay working for six weeks with two respondents—whom I paid on a daily basis—to work with the Temiar language. Thereafter I deliberately dropped Malay and forced myself to speak Temiar, although I hadn’t by any means fully analysed the language—not even the phonology at that stage.

How did you take to learning Temiar? Do you see yourself teaching Temiar at some point?

Well it’s not as if I didn’t know any linguistics. My linguistic training had involved two years of phonetics ear-training with John Trim, a well-known phonetician. And I did linguistics with John Lyons, who wasn’t so well known at the time and just beginning his career. I met him on a one-to-one basis for a year as an undergraduate, and I wrote him an essay every week. The linguistics he taught wasn’t orientated towards doing research in the field, but he was very semantically oriented. That’s important, because he was ahead of his time in the way he dealt with linguistics. But of course there were textbooks of field linguistics, especially the ones by Kenneth Pike and Eugene Nida, which I brought with me to the field. However, linguistics has changed a great deal since then, thank goodness!

I couldn’t teach Temiar. The way I speak Temiar would be considered defective compared to the way it’s actually spoken. For example, I don’t use expressives at all: they are hard to use and I don’t employ them in any language I know. But I still send SMS messages in Temiar, using with diacritics where necessary.

What were some of the other challenges you faced conducting fieldwork, given that you were an outsider in that community?

For someone who is fairly shy—like myself— it took some cheek to force myself to ask questions all the time. I mean, it wasn’t easy for them to answer questions, especially when I wasn’t too fluent in Temiar—though I’m more fluent now. It was tedious for them as it’s difficult for respondents to explain things that they never had to explain before to someone they think doesn’t have sufficient background. The first stages were tricky, but it got easier after a while.

Does this mean that pursuing fieldwork on Aslian languages is more of an academic interest to you?

It’s academic, but it’s also out of a sense of exploration. I mean you’re pushing into areas where very often you’re reporting things that have never been reported before. It’s the same as some of the original fieldwork, some of which was like original geographical exploration. I was sometimes walking along ancient forest paths that had been trodden only by Orang Asli or by elephants. Even the basic geography of where I was working was not well known. I had some not very accurate military-type maps, and even now, I don’t think the area is fully mapped out—or perhaps any such maps are not publicly available. So that was always quite exciting.

Do you know of any groups or people who are piloting Aslian language maintenance or supporting revitalisation projects?

There is a linguist in Universiti Putra, called Yap Ngee Thai, who did a PhD thesis on a phonological topic with a great deal of Temiar material in it. In fact, it’s one of the few examples of linguistics on Aslian languages coming out from Malaysia. She was at one stage working on Temiar, and briefly even set up a Temiar language website. But it’s based so far largely on secondary analysis, primarily from my material.

On Semai, the other main Central Aslian language, there are maintenance efforts. Perak State has  attempted to introduce Semai into primary schools, though I don’t know how successful it’s been. There are a few Semai dictionaries of sorts, and one version of it is reasonably okay, though I don’t know how successful it will be because there is tremendous resistance to using vowel symbols other than the five basic ones used for Malay. And of course Semai dialects and Temiar mostly have 30 vowel phonemes, if you include all nine places of articulation (and possibly more in some Semai dialects), plus nasality and vowel length. None of that gets indicated when these languages are written down by anyone but the most committed linguists or anthropologists. But it’s only the Central Aslian languages that have the vowel-length distinction. All the other languages have at least nine places of articulation and some oral-nasal contrast. And at least one of the languages also has a voice-register contrast. None of this gets recorded in most of the accounts written in Malaysia.

Fortunately, there are some exceptions. One ethnographer who records her language very accurately is  Hawaii-trained Lye Tuck-Po in Penang who works on Batek, a Northern Aslian language of Pahang. Sadly, British, Malaysian, and Australian ethnographers are are not taught or even required to take linguistic transcription seriously, so that’s a very awkward area. The quality of ethnography on Orang Asli is on the whole very good, but the linguistic reportage buried within it is too often defective.

Andy Hickson (the son of Sue Jennings,  one of my fellow ethnographers of Temiar) runs a website on Temiar issues, but he’s not a linguist and is more concerned with studying social matters and what can be learnt from Temiar society, such as stopping bullying in schools in the UK, on which he wrote a PhD.

What advice do you have for young linguists who are working on revitalising languages, either Aslian languages or languages in general?

Well, if they’re really serious about working on Aslian languages, they must make sure they read the extensive publications that have mostly come from outside Malaysia. Nicole Kruspe’s book on Semelai is a supreme example of how to write a grammar. I regard it as the finest grammar of any Mon-Khmer language. So any such linguist will need to look at how the best examples are done. To acquaint themselves with the literature they could look at my own 90-page survey in volume 11 of Language Documentation and Description, which should help them get started. It contains a complete and regularly updated bibliography of Aslian linguistics, and is available online.

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