Date of publication: Feb 28, 2010
Section heading: Main Section
Page number: 022
Byline / Author: By Ben Tan
A FEW decades ago, the Chinese community in Malaysia was a melting pot of different dialects.
Ask any of the elders and they would recall a time when certain close-knit groups would speak only in their dialect no matter where they were.
The Teochews were well known for this. They would only speak Teochew because that was the only dialect they knew.
Cantonese speakers, who are more dominant, would describe that person as a chiew chow cow (Teochew person) or the more derogatory chiew chow chok (Teochew porridge) because of the Teochew's strong accent and their liking for watery porridge.
The community would usually marry within the clan, ensuring that the generations that followed would only be able to speak Teochew.
Today, however, the situation is different. Teochew is hardly ever spoken in public, so much so that it has become rather exotic. Most Chinese today are more comfortable with Cantonese or Mandarin.
With an estimated 15 million native speakers worldwide, Teochew is considered one of the more distinctive Chinese dialects.
Some people consider it an off-shoot of the more popular Hokkien dialect. However, Teochew has some unique words and a lilting sing-song quality.
However, both dialects have many similarities as they can trace their origins to the more archaic Southern Minnan dialect found in areas around Fujian in China.
But of late, Teochew seems to be changing here - some words are dying out.
It's natural for a language to change, so perhaps we shouldn't be too surprised that the Teochew dialect, too, is moving with the times.
According to the Johor Baru chapter of the Teochew Poit Ip Huay Kuan (Teochew Eight Districts Association), the main reason for the loss of this unique dialect is that the Teochews are not as "geographically isolated" as before.
Most Teochews in Malaysia live and work away from the district or state they were born in, and this has contributed towards diluting the dialect further.
In the past, traditional Teochew areas such as Johor Baru, Batu Pahat, Sabak Bernam, Pangkor and several coastal areas in the peninsula were known for their strong Teochew communities.
Johor Baru was even once known as Little Swatow. This was because most of the Chinese in the city were Teochews from the Swatow region in China. But much has changed.
In an attempt to preserve the dialect, the city's Teochew Eight Districts Association has been working hard to promote the use of the dialect among the younger generation.
However, its youth chief, Stanley Seng, says it is a difficult task.
"The dialect may no longer be relevant in today's world. Teochew appears to be dying, especially among the younger generation.
"We plan to promote it through classes like what is being done at community centres in Singapore.
"As most of the younger generation speak English, it is difficult to get them involved in the activities."
There are also groups in the community that are not too keen on reviving the dialects as they believe it will cause "rifts" among the different dialect groups.
They refer to the times when fights broke out between the Hokkiens and Teochews in China, and also to the war between the Cantonese and Hokkiens during the Larut Wars in Perak between the 1860s and 1870s.
They believe linguistic differences can cause friction among the Chinese, even today.
Seng dismisses all the rhetoric. He believes the argument no longer holds true for the Chinese community in these modern times.
He strongly advocates the use of dialects as, without them, the community will lose precious art forms such as traditional Chinese opera. Reviving the dialects will, however, be an uphill task.
Perhaps we can take a leaf from the Hawaiians and the Welsh, who successfully renewed interest in their mother tongues among their youth.
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