Karla Smith

Iranun is one of the more than fifty indigenous languages of Sabah, Malaysia, on the island of Borneo. Like many of the world’s ethnolinguistic minorities at the turn of the millennium, members of the Iranun community have been concerned about what they perceive as a decline in the use of their ethnic language among the younger generation. Their concern is that their children, who are required to learn the national language, Malay, for formal education, are achieving fluency neither in their mother tongue, nor in the national language. In addition, community members are concerned about the amount of cultural heritage and knowledge that is being lost as the older generation dies. In an effort to promote the use of their mother tongue and preserve their heritage, the Iranun community has begun several language development projects. These include developing a written form of their language, using computer technology to develop a library of mother tongue literature, and planning a mother tongue pre-school program as a means of enhancing their children’s cognitive functioning and improving their acquisition of Malay and later English. The key emphasis in these activities is that they are developed as people-centred and community-based processes. Karla Smith is a literacy specialist and works for the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL).

The Iranun’s Strategy for Language and Culture Preservation

There are estimated to be some 15,000 Iranun speakers in Sabah. They are mainly found in one district on the West Coast although Iranun is also spoken in a few villages in another area in southeastern Sabah. The Iranun are Muslim and many live on the coast, earning their living from the sea. Others live further inland and have adopted an agricultural lifestyle cultivating rice and vegetables. The literature lists them as Illanun or Lanun, but Iranun is the name preferred by the Sabahan Iranun, meaning ‘longing for a certain place’, which they say conveys their love for their homeland.

A lawyer and senator, an Iranun, who is a Minister in the Government, felt for himself the concerns of his people. In 1995, he invited the Institut Linguistik SIL to work with his people to help them with their language preservation and development. SIL1 has worked in Sabah for more than 20 years helping other ethnic groups to develop writing systems for their languages. The organization specializes in language analysis and development, assists with developing practical orthographies and grammar descriptions, and provides training in translation and literature production. Our emphasis is on training so that each ethnic group has the ability to develop and preserve their language as they see fit. Many books and technical papers written by SIL members have been published by, and can be found in the Sabah State Museum.

Dr. Howard P. McKaughan,2 a respected linguist and SIL consultant, made his first trip to Sabah in 1996 to work with the Iranun people. Since he had already completed many years of research on the Maranao language, which is a member of the same language family as Iranun, he was well prepared for working with the Iranun. Each year he would return for about two months, collect data and work with a couple of the leaders. By mid-1999 he had completed a preliminary phonological description of Iranun and a description of the grammatical structure of this language.

In 1998 my husband and I were asked to work with the Iranun. One of our first requests to them was to form an advisory committee that would direct our joint efforts and represent all the Iranun villages. They agreed to form the advisory committee, with elected executive positions, and proceeded to define four geographic areas which encompassed all the Iranun villages.

The chairman and co-chairman of the advisory committee then had meetings in each geographic area to explain the aims of putting their language into writing, training people to become writers and use computers, and producing materials in their language. An executive committee was elected for each geographic area.

Different tasks were identified in each geographic area and working committees, each overseen by the area executive committee, were formed for each task. People involved in various ongoing projects would come under the area executive committee. Initial working committees were responsible for (1) collecting oral history and traditional stories, (2) learning to use computers for literature production and (3) developing vernacular literature. This has been a learning experience for them and changes have been made in the committees as they gain a fuller understanding of the methods best suited for the different tasks. The diagram below shows the overall committee structure for the new effort.

An example of a working committee is the picture dictionary committee. It is responsible for putting the names to the pictures of local animals, household items and other everyday things. It is also responsible for deciding what other pictures, especially those that are unique to Iranum culture and traditional lifestyle, should be in the book. Their responsibility includes finding an artist and putting the pictures into a booklet with their Iranun names.

At first these working committees did not know what to do, so we had training workshops to teach them. For example, we taught them how to record their oral history and traditional stories and then transcribe them. They were reluctant to do the transcription because they did not know how to spell the words in their language. Many Iranum words have sounds that are not present in Malay or English. This presented a formidable challenge for those writing their language for the first time. We encouraged them to write as best they could using the Malay alphabet, assuring them that spelling could be easily corrected after the text was in the computer.

Iranun overall committee structure

In November 1998 SIL consultants held an orthography seminar for the Iranun community. Dr. Dennis Malone, SIL International Literacy Consultant, presented general orthography principles after which my husband and I showed how these principles applied specifically to the Iranun language. The proposed orthography was based on the linguistic analysis and preliminary phonological description previously done by Dr. McKaughan and supplemented by study and discussions we had with the people. While there are several principles to be considered when designing an orthography, from our discussions with Iranun leaders the three most relevant to this situation were: (1) that the Iranun orthography be as close as possible to the national language, Malay, in order to facilitate transfer between the languages, (2) that the sounds of the Iranun language be represented as accurately as possible by the orthography symbols chosen, and (3) that the orthography be widely accepted by the Iranun people. At the end of the day, an alphabet was proposed and is now being used and tested. As with any first draft, we expect that there will be changes to the orthography at the next seminar.

With a proposed orthography in place, the Iranun were now ready to write more of their oral literature. In 1999, working alongside the committees, we started a three-part writers’ workshop to train beginning writers. More than sixty people attended the first two sessions with the third session being held in February 2000. For this third session the group was divided into two sections so that it would be easier to work with a smaller group on not only illustrating the stories, but also preparing them for publication.

This was quite a challenging experience for most of the writers. For the young people, the challenge was to identify the words and grammar in their mother tongue rather than resorting to more familiar Malay forms. For the group in general the challenge was in finding the patience to read and reread their own and others’ stories many times. Some of the older generation who were not yet literate participated by listening to the stories and giving suggestions for words and sentence construction. They all found that editing is hard, tedious work, but that did not deter them from wanting to see their language in print.

Malaysia is becoming sophisticated electronically and so the use of computers for local literature production seemed appropriate. Computer committees were formed in each of the four geographic areas and classes are being held in three of these areas using donated computers. Some participants have completed the basic word processing course and are ready to move on to the advanced course. Other classes for using a software publishing program are in process. During the recent writers’ workshops these computer trainees were responsible for entering the handwritten stories into computer. Some of the trainees also learned how to scan in pictures in preparation for making booklets. They produced booklets in their language and also some bilingual booklets in Iranun and Malay. Eventually they hope there will be compilations of these stories into trilingual books: Iranun, Malay and English.

The Iranun have a plan to have a community-owned “learning center” in each area. The building in two geographical areas is already nearing completion. These centers will be used for further language development activites. The computer students that have achieved the necessary skill and ability to teach others will help to staff these. The Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) has donated “486 computers” and so the Iranun people will be able to continue publishing books. This transfer of technology will enable them to participate more fully in a modern Malaysia.

The Iranun have their hopes and aspirations, as does any group of people who are allowed to dream. As they work to make these dreams into reality, only time will tell what will work and what will not. The important thing is that they have begun and although it is early yet (just over two years since they started working together as committees) they are progressing well and have accomplished much.


1 SIL is an international non-governmental organization with members from more than 35 countries, working with minority language communities in over 60 countries. My husband and I, as literacy specialists with SIL, have been in Sabah, Malaysia, since 1996.

2 Dr. Howard P. McKaughan, Professor Emeritus of the University of Hawaii, has published many papers on various linguistic matters. He has worked in Mexico, Thailand, the Philippines and Malaysia, besides spending 25 years as Professor and Dean at the University of Hawaii. He specializes in analyzing the grammar of the language and has co-authored a dictionary of the Maranao of the Philippines, a language related to Iranun.

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