A friend's status update on Facebook last week caught my eye. He overheard a Malay proverb wrongly quoted by someone and lamented that it's damaging the language.
What he heard was, `Aku ibarat sepah, habis madu aku dibuang.' The original Malay peribahasa is of course, not expressed as such, although the intended meaning is not far off the mark. This twist in the expression seems more personal... the person who said it feels strongly about the situation to equate himself as the sepah, not caring that he has mangled the original saying in the process. The literal translation of sepah is residue or waste by-product... so you can see what the guy was getting at.
I have long been fond of the Malay peribahasa or proverbs, although I'm quite poor at remembering them, what more to apply their use in daily speech. The beauty of the Malay proverb is in the way a point or message is delivered by referring to something else. Call it metaphor or simile or inference or whatever you like. It is the art of saying something without obviously saying it. You just have to marvel at the way our forefathers come up with such literary gems. Some say that such proverbs were created because of the peculiar Malay trait of not being able to say things directly, whatever the reason may be. It is no surprise therefore, a well-placed peribahasa can sometimes have a more potent effect than just stating the obvious. Jika kasihkan padi, buanglah rumput.
There are hundreds of such classic phrases, but what puzzles me is how and when they originate. The books and online sources that I've read about peribahasa Melayu do not offer any clues as to their origin. Who actually first uttered the phrase? When was it said? Was there a particular situation or event that caused it to be said? When was the first time such saying was seen in print?
Compared to online sources about English word and phrase origins, there aren't any about the Malay language, at least not that I've discovered anyway. I sure hope the cerdik pandai in our universities make some effort in doing research in Malay word and proverb origins and share the research findings with us. It is not enough for me just to know the meaning of a proverb, I want to know how it came to be as well. I'd also like to know if there any recent or modern proverbs and whether it is possible for me to be the creator of one.
This subject of peribahasa Melayu reminds me of an acquaintance whom I met in 2001 while working on a construction project in Kuala Lumpur. This seasoned gentleman we call Pak Lang (short for Alang) is around 60-years old and was employed as the site supervisor. I loved chatting with him because his stories are freely peppered with lovely phrases. He always seem to have an appropriate peribahasa to fit any particular situation. He would tell me the story of some old relationship and then end it with, `Anak sungai lagikan berubah, inikan pula hati orang.' Or he would sound out a warning to one of the lazy workers by saying,`Kau ni macam pahat, tak ditukul, tak makan.' Or when I see him carry out a heavy task and tell him to take it easy, his reply would be, `Alah bisa, tegal biasa.'
I wonder where Pak Lang is nowadays. Hope you are well, my friend. Tuan adalah ibarat tiram di lautan...