Kristang, lost language of the Eurasians

by on September 1, 2015

In the third issue of Unravel, Kevin Martens Wong profiled Kristang, the dying creole of the Portuguese Eurasians in Malacca and Singapore, and explored its decline in its original home of Malacca. In the second part of this feature, he now turns his attention to Kristang in Singapore, and considers its prospects for survival in the Lion City.

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At first glance, you might be forgiven for thinking that the novel-sized volume you hold in your hands is nothing more than a simple glossary of Eurasian cultural terms in English. After all, the book announces itself as The most comprehensive Eurasian Heritage Dictionary. But under the title are the words Kristang-English / English-Kristang. More than 9,000 Kristang and English headwords and sample sentences, the cover adds, and a foreword by BG (NS) George Yeo.

Kristang, says the unaware Singaporean reader to herself. Kristang. What is that? Why have I not heard of that before?

Celebrating the words and traditions of one of Asia’s most vibrant cultures, the book’s cover continues, almost accusingly. How could you not know who we are?

Na Kama Di Morti

As any avid follower of the Kristang language in recent times will tell you (and there are, sadly, really very few of us left today), there presently exist four dictionaries of Kristang, three of which appeared roughly around the same time in 2004. In addition to The most comprehensive Eurasian Heritage Dictionary, there’s also A dictionary of Kristang (Malacca Creole Portuguese)–English, put together by the industrious Dr Alan Baxter and Patrick de Silva, and Joan Marbeck’s two phrasebooks — the Kristang Phrasebook, surnamed A Kristang Keepsake, and the Commemorative Bahasa Serani Dictionary of 2012, which celebrated 500 years of the Eurasian community in Malacca. For a small, dying language with around less than 3,000 speakers left, four dictionaries is akin to lexicographical abundance, although there are a substantial number of Kristang words that continue to go unrecorded.

But besides George Yeo’s foreword, what makes Valerie Scully and Catherine Zuzarte’s The Most Comprehensive Eurasian Heritage Dictionary special is that it is so far the only Kristang dictionary to be published in Singapore. Singapore, with its perennial focus on diversity and celebrating one’s culture and tradition, and learning one’s language. What languages are the Eurasians learning? Mandarin, Malay, Tamil, other languages. Not Kristang.

George Yeo, never one to mince words, tells us how some Eurasians might feel.

Kristang is a dead or dying language, so why bother?

Palabra-palabra di pasadu

Kristang came into being in the 16th century as a mix of Portuguese and Malay, spoken by the descendants of the arriving Portuguese settlers who intermarried with the native residents of Malacca, who we now call Portuguese Eurasians. In the 500 years since, it has evolved into a language in its own right, with a full grammatical system and a wide vocabulary that has evidence of borrowing from not just Portuguese and Malay, but English and other languages as well. Substantial Portuguese Eurasian communities presently exist in both Malacca and Singapore, with smaller communities in Perth and Kuala Lumpur; the Singapore community is around 17,000 strong, although many more people could plausibly be considered Eurasian as a result of mixed marriage.

However, it is important to note that the term ‘Eurasian’, as we understand it in Singapore and Malacca, is not solely applied to people of Portuguese descent; it is also understood to include those who can trace their bloodlines back to Dutch, Danish, German, and British ancestors, and a host of various other European nationalities, all of whom have also intermarried. (Thus, I, for example, trace my lineage back to the Portuguese on my grandmother’s side, and to the Danish on my grandfather’s side.) The Portuguese Eurasian community is hence one small though sizeable subset of the Eurasian community in Singapore, constituting perhaps one-third of the entire community; however, in Malacca, it is much larger. And although language and identity are often hotly contested, it is probably safe to say that Kristang is mostly ‘claimed’ only by those of Portuguese-Eurasian descent as a cultural artifact and important part of their tradition.

Yet in Malacca, Kristang can still be heard in the Portuguese Quarter, at festivals like Easter and the Feast of St. Peter. It is dying there too, slowly losing ground to English and Malay; but its decline there can still be arrested, for there are still many in the community who speak it and use it on a daily basis.

In Singapore, unfortunately, the prognosis for Kristang is far more grim; as one researcher has put it, almost terminal.

Ta skiseh

It may not seem important now but, one day, this dictionary will help us connect us to our past and to communities elsewhere.

It has been eleven years since George Yeo wrote those words, and in that years, the Kristang silence in Singapore has only grown more deafening.

The majority of those who still know the language in Singapore are of advanced age, with few, if any children learning the language at home. Moreover, many of those who can speak Kristang can only do so briefly, with their knowledge of the language and its vocabulary only perfunctory and brief, fragmentary snatches caught from their parents and grandparents when they themselves were children. My grandmother herself only knows a few words from when her own grandmother used to speak to her; and these are only words, things like naki (there) and bong (good), which have only a very limited use in isolation. And since my grandmother didn’t know Kristang, my mother never learned the language; she still does not want to, believing that it lacks utility.

Utility. Is the explanation for Kristang’s much steeper decline in Singapore as simple as that? Malacca has preserved its Kristang speakers’ geographical proximity, with most of them continuing to live in the Portuguese Quarter. Singaporean Eurasians, by contrast, must subscribe to our Ethnic Integration policies; the community here by extension is therefore much more diffuse. Another reason could be more domains of use; until recently, Malacca saw the use of Kristang in church, and in addition to festivals, the Portuguese Eurasian fishermen continue to use it out at sea. In Singapore, by contrast, many of the remaining speakers never had reason to use Kristang outside of chatting with friends or family; as the years go by, and more and more friends and family fade away, there is less and less reason to speak Kristang at all.

It is probably true that utility, or Kristang’s lack of it in efficiency-driven Singapore, has played a very significant role in hastening the language’s demise. When would we ever use it? When would we ever have reason to use it? The authors of The most comprehensive Eurasian Heritage Dictionary themselves rarely have occasion to use Kristang: when I spoke to them, they told me that although they were running a Kristang dance troupe (which too has since shut down), most of the dancers did not know Kristang, and so even in this very ‘cultural’ activity the language could not be spoken. With Catherine’s husband Lionel also unable to speak Kristang, neither of them really uses Kristang in daily life, only according to Valerie “maybe the occasional word or two”. As they mention in their Dictionary, the two of them even conducted classes in Kristang at the Eurasian Association, and both told me how fun it was to have their little group trying to remember words and phrases; but then, as “more got busy with their own personal work commitments numbers started to dwindle”.

In my own, lonely research on Kristang in Singapore, I have found that many older Eurasians actually have a wealth of knowledge and ability with regards to Kristang, with some providing me with songs and anecdotes; even those who believe they don’t understand it, like my grandmother, do find that they are able to comprehend it when it is spoken to them. Yet there is no place for Kristang, it seems, in modern Singapore, where it lacks utility and domains for use, and where its community has been dispersed around the island; for speakers who want to remember the language and use it, there is either no time, or no one else who wants to speak it.

Linggu sigredu

Where can Kristang’s future in Singapore then lie but with those who have both of these things: time, and the willingness to speak it. There are few who possess a strong sense of the latter, of course; but our numbers are growing, and we have that other thing, the quality that most endangered language research agrees is absolutely crucial to revitalising dying languages: youth.

For the six of us, myself and five friends, that have embarked on our own journey to learn Kristang, the language’s appeal is in precisely what it lacks: vitality and utility. No one our age speaks it, and almost no one our age knows of it. It is our own secret language, our own way of communicating, and something that we can really cherish as a unique skill. In keeping this language alive, we also recognise that we are playing an important role in preserving it for future generations through our own ability to speak it. We work with what we have, which is not much: four dictionaries and the sole (though very comprehensive) descriptive grammar of the language, and a scattering of short texts, and, of course, our boundless enthusiasm. Where possible, we try to speak to native speakers, but they are few and far between in Singapore, and with many of them at such an advanced age, they are also relatively immobile. Even worse, the fact that there are few Eurasians my age who are even aware of Kristang at all suggests that there is much working against us if Kristang is to be successfully revived; among the six of us, I am the only Eurasian.

Indeed, for Kristang to survive, both in Singapore and in Malacca, it must look to both its community and those outside it. Both these groups reinforce the other’s interest in the language, and it is my hope that many more Eurasians will come to be interested in learning how to speak Kristang when they see our group being able to communicate fluently in the language. For, ultimately, if the language is to survive, it must be learned and spoken by the next generation of the community as a native language; already, this may no longer refer to us, but to the youth and the children who are coming after us.

It seems a tall order. But there is hope. As I write these words, our group continues to persevere, and there are others, too. The Eurasian Association (EA) is starting a Kristang Corner in its building at Ceylon Road, collecting stories, poems, CDs, and anything else written, spoken or sung in Kristang, and as the hundredth anniversary of its founding approaches in 2019, it continues to seek new ways to revive Kristang and awareness of it in the community. My own research, too, has begun to renew interest, as in searching for the last Kristang speakers in the community, I have spoken to many, Eurasian and non-Eurasian alike, about the need to protect this dying part of our legacy — and indeed, this is something all of us can contribute to, because this is part of our history. As a people, as a nation, and indeed as a species. Kristang may be just one language, but this story is being repeated in countless ways and in countless places across the world, as languages die at an ever-increasing rate; and every language we lose is the irretrievable loss of an immense store of knowledge and another way of looking at the planet we call home.

Some may say it might be too late for Kristang in Singapore, but I aim to prove them wrong. For the first time in perhaps a long while, the language has at least six new speakers this year, and as time goes on, if our efforts continue to succeed and gain support, it will surely gain more. But that support will not come easily; and the best way to secure it is to stimulate interest. Talk about Kristang, dear reader. Ask all your Eurasian and non-Eurasian friends about it. Discuss it at work, in class, in school, anywhere you can. Generate conversation, and help us show that Kristang is something that we should all care about, a part of our history that we will all lose if we let it fade away.

Even languages can come back from the dead. Just ask the speakers of Irish, and Hebrew, Wampanoag, and Miami. As George Yeo writes in the Foreword to The most comprehensive Eurasian Heritage Dictionary,

We may think that the tree has died and all we have left is a piece of dead wood; then, one day, after a little rain, green shoots suddenly sprout from it.

One day in Singapore, after a little rain, and a long, long rest, Kristang may, and hopefully shall, similarly sprout anew.

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