Academic journal article SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia

The Peculiar History of the Ethnonym "Temiar"

Academic journal article SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia

The Peculiar History of the Ethnonym "Temiar"

Article excerpt

Introduction: Malayan Ethnonyms

The origins and meanings of the names of the various Peninsular "peoples" have long fascinated students of the endogenous cultures of the Malay Peninsula. Ethnographic or historical accounts usually devote a few words to the question, and some attention has been paid to the people's own ideas on the meaning and origin of the labels by which they are known. (1) But if light is to be thrown on the Peninsula's social and cultural history, folk etymologies are no substitute for linguistically sound etymologies. (2) Etymological study is important not simply for its concern with origins but also for its ability to throw light on political and economic processes. In daily practice, people do not necessarily refer to themselves regularly by the ethnonyms that outsiders apply to them. When talking among themselves they frequently prefer to employ descriptive terms relating to the places or the environment that they inhabit. Strictly speaking, these terms are therefore descriptors rather than ethnonyms. In my own experience, for example, Temiars--whose ethnonym is the subject of this paper--hardly ever use any version of the word "Temiar" spontaneously. Instead, they normally refer to themselves simply as ?[??]? "we (inclusive)", [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] b[??]k "people of the outside [i.e., forest]", or [??][TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] "people of the forested hill-country". (3)

Frequently, though, such descriptive terms come to be taken up as exonyms--terms used by outsiders to identify the population--at which point they often undergo a transformation into ethnonyms. "Senoi" derives directly from words that mean "person, human being" in Temiar ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) and Semai ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). Other Aslian4 examples include the exonym "Semaq Beri" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) and its cognate "Mah Meri" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), which mean "forest people" in those languages. The latter was first recorded in the 1890s, though not necessarily as an ethnonym, for the population more usually known at the time as "Besisi". "Desin Dolaq", one of the terms by which the Orang Kuala of Johor call themselves, means "sea people" in their Austronesian (but non-Malay) language, known as Duano.

Such transparent ethnonyms are therefore not especially interesting from a linguistic point of view (5) Other ethnonyms, such as "Jah Hut" (sometimes written "Jah Het") "people [who say] het [for 'no']" need some explanation before they yield up their meanings, often for sociolinguistic reasons that are of considerable interest in themselves. (6) But there remain around two dozen commonly used ethnonyms--"Melayu", "Jahai" and "Temiar" among them --that have resisted etymological analysis. Often this etymological opacity is simply because the ethnonyms derive from obsolete words that have failed to survive in modern Malay or Aslian speech, or because they were originally foreign terms from languages no longer current in the Peninsula.

The latter possibility indicates that the Peninsula's linguistic history is more complicated than commonly assumed. Little research has yet been done on this question, but it is likely that there have been at least two layers each of Austroasiatic (Mon-Khmer) and Austronesian input--as also suggested long ago by Blagden (1894). Among these, the Mon language (a major member of the Austroasiatic stock) looms large, as it was probably the main language-of-civilisation in the isthmian and northern parts of the Peninsula until around AD 1200 or 1300 (Benjamin 1987, pp. 122-27; 1997, p. 85; Bauer 1992). Some of the Malayan ethnonyms (and several place names too) appear to be most adequately explained on the assumption that they were originally Mon words. (7) Khmer, possibly mixed with Mon (Diller 2003, pp. 167-68), seems also to have been present, probably as an intrusive language spoken by visiting traders and gold miners (8) There is also evidence of the early presence in the Peninsula of Austronesian speech varieties relatively unrelated to Malay and dating from a time before Malay started spreading up through the Peninsular lowlands from the south, probably less than two thousand years ago. …

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