13
Dec
09

 

LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

To liken the dirty Malaysian taxies to the nation’s dirty public toilets may be accepted as an exaggerated comparison! But to say that  the attitude of Malaysian taxi drivers is worse than the dirty toilets is unfair and unacceptable – as Datuk Seri Nazri Aziz has found out!

Twice in a row within the space of a week, the Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department has created a controversy because of  his  language use. The first episode was when he called Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad a “racist” for defending  the National Civics Bureau training modules. 

In both instances there  have been adverse reactions to Nazri’s rather presumptuous  use of language, leading to calls for him to apologise and resign.While Nazri may be able to get away with his “loose talk”  in comparing the behaviour  of “unscrupulous and dishonest” taxi drivers to dirty toilets in the context of  the most frequent complaints of tourists ( last year it was the dirty toilets and this year it is the errant taxi drivers),  his use of the semantically-loaded word “racist” cannot be so easily dismissed.

Idioms and metaphors exist in every language and are very much culture bound. They arise out of the customs and traditions of the people and the context and environment of their lives. There are many types of figurative language – similes (comparisons), euphemisms (understatements) and hyperboles (exaggerations) and they vary in form and structure as they do in their meanings and implications across languages and cultures. Translating  figures of speech and idiomatic language can lead to gross inaccuracies in meaning and use.

The cleanliness of Malaysian public toilets leaves much to be desired and it may be creative to exaggerate and compare the dirty taxis to them. Language is a living entity and grows with the creativity of its community of users. If Malaysians are happy to accept and use a modern simile “as dirty as Malaysian public toilets” then the idiom will eventually become entrenched in Malaysian culture. In English culture it is customary to compare an untidy or dirty room to a pigsty. This would be highly offensive in Malay culture where you would choose other animal metaphors like macam tempat kucing beranak or macam reban ayam. One can just imagine a Malaysian in the UK saying – “this room is so dirty like a Malaysian toilet!” When you translate it into Malay, it sounds even cruder “bilik ini kotor macam jamban/ tandas Malaysia!”

But  regardless of which culture or ethnic group you belong to, it would be unacceptable to compare the behaviour of a group of people to dirty toilets. Not only is comparing human behaviour to something static and lifeless semantically incorrect, it is also not proper for a Minister to degrade the behaviour of the errant taxi drivers in such harsh terms.

As a responsible Minister, Nazri must choose his words wisely and be constructive in pointing out the failings or shortcomings of a particular individual or target group. Instead of antagonising the taxi drivers with insulting remarks, Nazri should himself be a model of  courteous behaviour, and provide information on excellence in taxi service in a nation-wide campaign or competition for taxi drivers and taxi companies. Educating the taxi drivers would be more effective than chiding them!   

Nazri’s use of the word “racist”, however, may not be so easily forgiven. Literal language has a direct, referential meaning defined in the dictionary and thesaurus. “racist”  refers to a person who discriminates against or is antagonistic towards other races. For Nazri to call Mahathir a racist is a serious matter indeed as the term has far-ranging implications in the politics of multiracial Malaysia. He would have to furnish evidence of  the anti-racial discrimination and antagonism that he is ascribing to the former Prime Minister. He would have to show more than his usual bravado of words and take heed of the Malay saying sebab mulut badan binasa!

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