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ISSUE 34 : Hermeneutics of Nusantara
Okui Lala: A Proposal for Our Future Mother Tongue
September 9th, 2017Type: Meeting NML
Author: Okui Lala Editor: Rikey Tenn
Quote From: 群島資料庫Nusantara Archive
Note: The article is rewritten from the transcription of the "NML Residency & Nusantara Archive Project", Meeting NML #18 on 5th, Aug, 2017. The artist imagines our collective identities through language connections and disconnections. In this artistic research, her language proficiency became her tool and boundary: Bahasa Malaysia, Mandarin, English, Hokkien; and within them, the language politics, the accents, the unwritten. Interpretations were based on introduction through language teachers as well as conversations with Malaysian artists, who are and were based in Taiwan. Moving back and forth between the bridges and gaps of the past and contemporary signifier / signified, what will then be the possibilities of our mother tongue and lingua franca in the future along with the development, re- or non-development of the current ones?
8/1北投區榮華里台語班​期末​發表會; photo courtesy of Okui Lala

Before I begin my presentation, I would like to play two short videos for the audience. The first video is “How do we meet? How can we meet?” (2016), a video I made during my residency in Thailand. In the video, the old lady and I repetitively read a chant in some languages (註1), during which we spoke in Teo Chew, besides Thai. The second video that I’m going to share is the beginning from ‘My Language Proficiency’ (2017). Here is the excerpt from the video:

[Mandarin] 今天我們要討論的主題和語言和自己有關。

[Malay] Hari ini kami akan bincang tentang bahasa dan sendiri.

[English] Today we are going to talk about languages. And since we speak varies languages and we are from different backgrounds, we will be interpreting and translating so that everyone here understands.

[Mandarin] 因為有不同的語言和不同的背景,所以我們會翻譯彼此好讓大家都能夠明白。

[Malay] Oleh sebab kita mempunyai beberapa bahasa dan latar belakang di sini, kita akan menterjemahkan satu sama lain supaya semua dapat faham dan berkait di sini.

[Hokkien] Wa ki xiung wa ia iong Hokkien-ua lang kong o. Yin gui ka ca lang xi kong ai iong kaki teh yi 貼切自己eh language lai kong la.

[English] I am thinking if I should use Hokkien. Because just now we said that we want to use the language with which we are most comfortable.

[Mandarin] 我在想應該用福建話嗎?因為我們剛才是有說要用最貼近自己的語言啦。

Okui Lala, "My Language Proficiency" (2017); image courtesy of artist

As you can see here, every sentence in the video is translated into other languages. I come from Malaysia. On the further left is myself speaking in Bahasa Malaysia, which is the national language of Malaysia; the second left person spoke in Mandarin, followed by English and Hokkien. This is a recent work of mine, which was exhibited at the National Art Gallery in May. Language is always one of my media and vehicles. However, earlier this year when I mentioned being “Multilingual”, I was introduced to another term called ‘Double-Limited’. And I started to ponder upon this term. I have wondered about my language proficiency as well as my identities in each of the languages of my own. If you listen carefully to the video just now, you will find that each of the languages here is a mixture or influenced by another. The first sentence I spoke in Malay is also grammatically wrong. I said, “Kami” (“We”, excluding the listener) instead of “Kita” (“We”, including the listener). (註2)


The Shared Mother Tongue in Both Places

When I was invited to participate in the NML Residency and Nusantara Archive Projecy, I began to think about the relation between the term “Nusantara” and “Malay Archipelago”. Coming from Malaysia, I would be more familiar with the later instead. While I was attending an introductory class to the Malay language during my residency here, most of my classmates would assume that Malay language and Indonesia language are of the same. Yes, they have shared the same family origin, but there are also differences in between. This overlapping also happens between Mandarin and (Taiwanese) Hokkien, which is my lingua franca here. The differences in dialects and accents set us slightly apart. (Taiwanese) Hokkien is actually my weakest language, but I decided to mainly focus on the part of my research in the relation between the Hokkien in Taiwan and Penang. For some reasons, it’s what I have decided to investigate here.

During my residency, I attended two Taiwanese language classes conducted by Mr Lee. He wrote my name, “Chew Win Chen”, using the Taiwanese Romanization system into ‘Tsiu în Tsing”. It was the first time I saw my name written in this way. Previously when I wrote in Hokkien, I used a system invented by myself. For instance, a sentence in “My Language Proficiency” is “tua oh teng eh si si beh sai kong fang yan”, meaning “you can’t speak in dialects in the school”. That was my system of writing in Hokkien, which might have got its influence from Malay and English. Because in school, we never learned Hokkien (or other Chinese dialects), let alone write it down on paper. Although Taiwanese and Hokkien are different, seeing someone writing in a language that I had been speaking all this while for the first time was quite an experience for me.

台語老師李恆德​在​北投區榮華里台語班; photo courtesy of ​Seah Yi Zai謝鎮逸

Last week, I attended a public reading of Mr Lee’s Taiwanese class at a community-based school in Bei Tou (北投區榮華里). The students in this class are mostly retired senior citizens, and they have been in the class for two years. They were reciting the ancient poems and reading their own essays in Taiwanese. I was touched when I heard a few of them sobbing during the process. I almost forgot that it is the language I use to talk to my dad and my grandmother, despite being my weakest language. It is our ‘home language’ although I didn’t speak it so much with my dad, who doesn’t speak Mandarin, and I talk more often with my mom to whom I speak in Mandarin. I may not regard Hokkien as my mother tongue, but, through this short residency, I surprisingly realized that there are certain sentiments in me towards this very language.

Aside from Mr Lee, I’ve also contacted Mr Ooi Kee How, a friend from Penang who is an advocator for “Speak Hokkien Campaign”(註3). In a multicultural setting like Malaysia, most people are multilingual. The primary languages we learned were Malay and English. If you attend a Chinese school, you would know some Mandarin. Some might also speak Hokkien, which is regarded as a dialect spoken at home. However, a language expert pointed out that the language might face extinction as not many young people use it nowadays. Kee How and his friends have organised a few online learning activities and a website to promote the language and to prompt people to speak it with older family members. At the beginning of our meeting, I got Kee How to talk about the development of Penang Hokkien, and then I invited him to rate my Hokkien proficiency. I got 6.5 out of 10 points. By his standard, 7 points means the ability to express oneself fluently, 8 points is like his proficiency, and 9 to 10 points signifies fluency for writing and reading effortlessly.


Differences in Spelling Systems and Proposal

Conversations between Penang Hokkien (video 1) and Taiwanese Hokkien (video 2); image courtesy of artist

I later did the rating thing with Mr Lee as well, and I got 7.5 out of 10 for my Taiwanese proficiency. According to him, the standard is based on the proficiency of the general young people in Taiwan. 6 to 8 points indicates the ability to express oneself fluently in the language, while 8-10 points denotes the proficiency in written communication. There are a lot of different sayings on the internet regarding the origins of Penang Hokkien and Taiwanese (Taiwan Hokkien). I did not know how to “benchmark” my Penang Hokkien as my paternal family is of Teow Chew decedents while my maternal family is from Hokkien but based in Kelantan. Therefore, I asked Mr. Lee to conjecture my origins based on the Hokkien I spoke. Mr Lee said that as I didn’t have a strong, distinct ascent, he could only make a rough assumption. But there were two words that made him think I had got influence from Zhang Zhou(漳州): I pronounced “yellow”(黃) as “ooi” instead of “ng”and “porridge” as “môai”(粥) instead of “bê”(糜) (註4), which is commonly used in Taipei. It was quite interesting to see the variations of the pronunciation of the same words in different places.

The etymology of Penang, my hometown comes from the Areca nut palm, which is on the Penang state flag. According to Wikipedia, the word “bīn láng” (betel nut; 檳榔) originates from the Malay word “Pinang”. I found this interesting as betel nut is one of the significant cultural identities of Taiwan too. Peh-oe-ji (POJ; 白話字; Church Romanisation) is said to be developed by Christian missionaries in Penang or South East Asia, later spreading in Southern China before Taiwan promoted it. On the other hand, the current Penang Hokkien Romanisation system used by the Penang Hokkien Language Association is adapted from the Taiwanese Romanisation system. Of course, there are various points of view regarding which system was developed first; some also claimed that it had long existed in Taiwan before it did in South East Asia. Assuming that this Hokkien Romanisation system had started from Penang and then to East Asia, that would mean now it has come back to Penang in an adapted form. While I was interviewing Kee How and Mr Lee in Hokkien and Taiwanese, we used different pronunciations when talking about the same thing. For example, here in Taiwan, people say “lí hó”(你好) instead of “lu hó”(汝好), meaning “How are you?”; and “ha̍k-hāu”(學校) instead of “o̍h-tn̂g”(學堂), meaning “school”. Mr Lee admitted that “o̍h-tn̂g” sounds “older” compared to “學校”. So which one adapted Romanisation earlier? How do we describe the processes of influence proliferation between them? Different interpretations derive from different points of view. I find these lines interesting.

My proposal is related to a future project that I hope to do. The word “future” gives me a lot of space for imagination. On the day Typhoon Nesat arrived (29th July), I stumble upon a song “Stormy feeling”(風颱心情) by a famous Taiwanese Singer Wu Bai(伍佰). The Taiwanese pop songs have inspired me a lot. Language experts predicted that Hokkien might be extinct in Penang in 40 years; Kee How predicted that it would happen (20 years) earlier if no effort were to be done. On the other hand, in Taiwan, The Taiwanese language has been introduced to the education curriculum lately. Although some think it barely helps as it is taught in class only once a week, others are slightly optimistic about it. As once it is in the education system, it may encourage more singer-songwriters to write songs in Taiwanese, and Taiwanese songs will be more popular. In Penang, Taiwanese pop songs are quite popular. Perhaps while Penang Hokkien is slowly fading away, there will be a new adaptation imported via the pop culture from Taiwan entertainment scenes.

Okui Lala, Meeting NML #18; photo: Chen, Chia-jen (陳嘉壬)

As I was looking into the relation between Penang Hokkien and Taiwanese last week, I got to know a Taiwanese(“Huo Luo You”) expert, Mr Chen, through my ex-roommate while I was an exchange student in Chang Gun University. Mr Chen’s research is about “Chinese phonetic symbol”, and to me, it could also be a future proposal for the mother tongue. The “Chinese phonetic symbol system”(視音漢字法) emphasizes how to record “Huo Luo You”(河洛語) more precisely and accurately. According to Mr Chen, the current Romanisation is not capable of accommodating the distinct intonations of “Huo Luo You”. The “Chinese phonetic symbol system”(視音漢字表 ) is an extended system from “Zhu Yin”(Mandarin Phonetic Symbols; 注音符號). During our short meeting, Mr Chen taught me how to read in his system. Unfortunately, I can’t read Zhu Yin, as in Malaysia we learn Han Yu Pin Yin instead of Zhu Yin. Akin to what Mr Lee mentioned earlier on, the uniqueness of Taiwanese language lies in the intonations. For instance, when a single character is used three times in a row (三連音) however respectively in different intonations like “áng-ang-ǎng”(red-red-red), it is meant to emphasise something ‘very or excessively’ red. I find Mr Chen’s work amazing as he aims to make “dialects” more visible. Mr Chen’s proposal of not using Romanisation system is as if a counter-proposal to my previous research.

In the process of my research on Penang Hokkien and Taiwanese, there was a piece of news about Facebook shutting down an AI experiment because the AI (Alice and Bob) program unexpectedly created their own language. I can’t help thinking that in the future more and more languages will disappear, but at the same time, there will be new ones coming along. I meant it metaphorically, no offense to any language or programming expert. In relationship to the case of Alice and Bob, the language used between themselves is a system created by themselves in order to communicate, even though it might not be considered to be substantial by linguists or computer experts. The experiment was aborted because the program failed to achieve the mission assigned to them. Bob said “i i can i i i everything else”, which means that “I can have 3 and you can have the others”. However, I see it in a way that they just were just developing a language which is easier for them to communicate.


Learning a Language with the Artificial Intelligence

Okui Lala, Meeting NML #18; photo: Chen, Chia-jen (陳嘉壬)

I thought of what Mr. Lee said about the “single character used three times in a row”(三連字) used in Taiwanese / Hokkien to emphasise something. That is to use the word in a row but in different intonations. For example, to describe something “very red” could be “red red red” with different tones for each “red”(註5). This usage, however, would be hard to describe in Mandarin as it only carries 4 tones instead of 8 (for Taiwanese / Hokkien). While talking about the future, extinctions and creations are to happen at the same time. At one hand, I was looking at an ancient language (Hokkien / Taiwanese) while the other is Alice and Bob’s language created through programming. Perhaps Bob could be better understood if he had learned and applied tones while saying, “i i can i i i everything else?”

Regarding the naming of Alice and Bob, it might come from A and B, a famous cryptographic couple invented by cryptographers in 1978 for mission protocol to make cryptography easier to understand. The A and B later took on the common Western names Alice and Bob, and then become characterised and known in other cultures outside of the engineering domains. For example, there is a Youtube science channel for kids on which Alice and Bob hold a conversation for science learning. In 2012, Srini Parthasarathy, a computer scientist proposed Sita and Rama from Ramayana to replace Alice and Bob as the first letter of their names (S and R) could better represent Sender and Receiver in this context. He wrote a 5-page document titled “Alice and Bob can go on a holiday!”For me, I would propose to rename Alice and Bob to be A-lē, A-pó.

I would like to dedicate my proposal to A-lē and A-pó, two characters of the future. To date, Google Translate is not capable of translating and reading in Hokkien / Taiwanese. ‘Tones will fade away if not recorded,” said Mr Chen. Perhaps because of that, my accent is easily subject to other influences. Engineers who are working on how to make Artificial Intelligence more human would study human languages. Mr Chen also pointed out that we were always looking ahead and forgot to look back. When a new product is launched, a new name will be introduced. This name is usually foreign to the elders. In his opinion, when designing a new term, one should be able to explain that term to his or her parent. Keeping the idea of moving forward while looking back in mind, I‘m glad to be able to have gained various points of view from others and gathered different proposal.

Can the dialogue of Alice and Bob be understood by “台語兒”?
[1] See: (Accessed on: 2017/9/1)
[2] 因為政治進程、國族意識形態以及語言學的考慮,「台語」又有「河洛語、閩南語、福建話」等可通用或近似說法。台語在本地原指台灣閩南語,在座談裡使用「台灣福建話」以區隔檳城福建話,故在本文也簡稱「台語」。
[3] See: (accessed on: 2017/9/1)
[4] 李恆德老師說,一般台北人長輩大多是來自同安以外的泉州人,因此是講「糜」(bê) 。同安人講「bô 」。
[5] See the “single character used three times in a row”(三連字) exemplified in “閩南語音系” Wikipedia.
See Also
A Dialogue with Okui Lala on Language and Migration ,Okui Lala