More Language, Good Movie

Two somewhat related notes.  To begin with, we have encountered some more funny language bits.  The first comes from a book about the culture of leadership on Java–which I am reading in order to be able to argue that culture doesn’t explain anything in my dissertation, it’s all plain old corruption.  Anyway, one thing about modern Indonesia that we found interesting is the culture of the preman or jagoPreman comes from the Dutch words for "free man," but refers to local criminals in urban and rural areas who can extract a sort of protection racket in their immediate neighborhood.  You still find these a lot in Java, although modern preman can be different.  For instance, there were a couple of guys who lived outside of our apartment complex and charged taxis a nominal fee to wait there for people to call them, even though they have no actual claim to that piece of property, they just got there first and it belongs to them now.  The word jago, literally "rooster" or "game cock," is another colorful term for a preman.

No really, we have a point.  In this book, one of the authors made a point that the culture of leadership–whatever that means–is one of premanism.  The author then proceeded to trot out some other terms for preman, including the term tukang pukul.  To understand what this means, tukang means "tradesman" or "dealer," like tukang sayur is a vegetable seller or tukang sate is a satay seller.  Pukul means "punch" or "blow."  So, tukang pukul literally means "dealer in beatings."  What a great word.

We also learned yesterday that there are some words in Indonesian that are swear words in Malay.  Some guy at the library stopped me and chatted me up for some unknown reason, and let me in on this little tidbit.  It seems that memerlukan and membutuhkan, which in Indonesian both mean "to require," are not synonyms in Malay, and that membutuhkan in Malay is a very dirty word.  True enough, we looked it up in an English-Malay dictionary, and it is not listed.  Naughty.

Continuing on our theme, last night we went with friends to see a popular new Malaysian movie called Sepet.  We did not know what the title means, but quickly it became clear that sepet is the Malay rendition of the Indonesian word sipit.  Among other things, sipit is an adjective that describes the eyes of East Asians.  With as little prejudice as possible, it is best to translate it as "slanty."  In Indonesia and Malaysia, a common way that people will say that you can tell the difference between a Chinese Indonesian/Malaysian and an "indigenous" one is through matanya sipit, or "slanty eyes."  At any rate, this was a very good movie, even if it did contain just about every Malaysian theme possible–race, religion, class, discrimination, forbidden love, crime, prejudice, languages, etc.  It tells the story of (yes) a young Malay woman who falls in love with a young Chinese man.  There is a bit of a twist on the normal here: the Chinese man is working class, while the Malay woman is firmly upper middle class.  It was quite a wonderful movie, though, highly enjoyable, and thankfully subtitled in English, even the parts that were spoken in English.  If it comes to an international film festival near you, check it out.

Comment 1

  1. fazu March 15, 2005

    re “butuh” and “perlu”, yes, “butuh” does have a bad meaning in malay, but over the last few years, the increased popularity of young energetic indonesian bands and singers have made malaysians more aware of indonesian usage. e.g. with regard to “butuh”, there is a famous song by indonesian band sheila on 7 where the singer melodiously said, “aku butuh kau…” I for one, have heard malaysian youngsters singing this song without even batting an eyelid…

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