Micro or macro connections? Language choice and identity alignment in the Sri Lanka Malay community

Lisa Lim and Umberto Ansaldo

University of Amsterdam, Netherlands, The


This paper presents a comparative study of the language choices and identity negotiations in two Sri Lanka Malay communities – the urban community of the capital Colombo, and the rural community of Kirinda – in which different political-economic contexts result in different linguistic attitudes. While the shift observed in the former is a result of identity realignment following from the metropolitan context which calls for more macro connections via a global, rather than local, Malay identity for purposes of representation, such a need is not felt – nor justifiable – in the periphery, where instead, maintenance of local ethnolinguistic and economic alignments is primary.

The Sri Lanka Malays were settled on the island from their Southeast Asian origins during the Dutch and British colonial periods, and have as their vernacular a unique variety of Malay, Sri Lanka Malay (SLM), which is radically restructured through extended intimate contact with Sinhala and Tamil (Ansaldo 2005, 2007). In recent decades however, two significant shifts in linguistic practices have been observed in the urban Colombo community, both to larger, more ‘global’ languages (Ansaldo & Lim 2006; Lim & Ansaldo 2006). (1) The first shift (the root of SLM endangerment) is to English in the home domain – increasingly the de facto language of commerce and education worldwide. (2) The second and more recent shift is to Standard Malay (StdM) of Malaysia, a ‘global’ target for small Malay diasporas in their attempt, not only to achieve what they believe is the ‘revitalisation’ of their endangered linguistic variety, but also to gain stronger ethnic recognition and increased economic capital in a larger linguistic market.

What is additionally crucial is that the shifts stem from the circumstances in the urban community. A more rural/ peripheral community as Kirinda who still shows strong vitality in SLM is nonetheless also affected by this discourse of ‘revitalisation’ using StdM. We suggest that, as is typical of peripheral environments with lack of higher education, economic mobility and political representation, it is doubtful that a shift to a more global linguistic variety is desirable, as success and survival lies in the vitality of more micro connections and local alliances. In contrast, the urban community does indeed stand to benefit from acquiring StdM which, combined with their higher education and degree of integration in mainstream society, may well provide macro connections and broaden their engagement with a wider Malay cultural, political and economic discourse.

In sum, we will show first that, rather than viewing these linguistic practices as shifts that result from external imposition, resulting in a loss of the vernacular, these trends may be attributed to speakers’ agency in constructing their linguistic identity, resulting in ‘identity alignment’ (Lim & Ansaldo 2007). However, as evident in the comparison between the communities, we will argue that, while empowerment through alignment with a more global Malay identity via certain linguistic choices is an option in urban environments, it is not a viable option (yet) for rural communities, marginalised as they are in the socio-political periphery.

Session: Paper session
Contact 2
Friday, April 4, 2008, 15:45-17:15
room: 10