As Malacca loses Kristang, Singapore group seeks to revive 500-year-old tongue

Picture from Facebook showing a group of Kristang language students hanging out after their class at National Library Singapore.
Picture from Facebook showing a group of Kristang language students hanging out after their class at National Library Singapore.

KUALA LUMPUR, March 21 ― Kristang, a creole language adopted by the descendents of the 16th-century Portuguese colonialists in South-east Asia, is dying in its Malaccan birthplace today.

A sizeable Portuguese Eurasian community still live there, but there appears to be very few existing written records and just as few who speak it, the BBC reported on its website yesterday.

“Thus, sadly, even though you can hear the creole being spoken in the settlement... there are young people who grew up here but are not fluent in the creole, and instead are dominant speakers of English,” Kristang researcher Prof Stefanie Pillai, from the University of Malaya, was quoted saying.

According to the BBC, there may be just 50 fluent Kristang speakers in the world.

However, their Singapore counterparts offer a glimmer of hope for the 500-year-old language’s revival.

National University of Singapore linguistics major Kevin Martens Wong co-founded a team called Kodrah Kristang or “Awaken Kristang,” which seeks to bring the critically endangered creole language back to the 21st-century.

The half-Chinese, half-Portuguese Eurasian was researching endangered languages when he stumbled upon Kristang in a book and realised it was the language of his maternal grandparents.

His grandparents barely spoke the language, so he had no reference. Knowing the language would die out very soon if nothing was done, Wong and a group of language enthusiasts started holding free weekly language classes.

From there, the group organised visits to the Portuguese Settlement in Malacca, started work on a dictionary and textbook, created free online audio courses, and have even done YouTube covers of pop songs in Kristang, the BBC reported.

The response has been encouraging; to date, 200 students, many Portuguese Eurasians, attend their classes. And Wong has ended up teaching his grandparents their ancestral tongue.

However, resuscitating a near-dead language, especially one that was passed through oral practice rather than the written word, comes with a whole set of challenges.

There is no standardised spelling or even pronunciation system. And due to the long decline, there are also a lot of missing basic words, such as for apple, nurse, station or camera which prompted Wong and his friends to resort to “mash ups” to adapt to present-day circumstances.

Some of the invented Kristang words are “manzang” for apple, which takes its root word from the Portuguese “maca” and adapts it using a Malay linguistic rule; “bruangatu” which is taken from Chinese and Malay and translates to “bear cat” for panda.

Other examples of modern-day Kristang terms are “pintalumezi” for camera.

It has been an uphill slog for Kodrah Kristang, but the group is planning to hold the first ever Kristang festival called Festa, featuring talks, workshops and a heritage tour in May.

“One day we would like to see Kristang be recognised by the wider community.

“There are no economic reasons for it to come back. But it's part of our shared historical fabric and heritage,” Wong was quoted saying.

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