Family Relationship Monikers in Brunei

[Note: This article of mine was published yesterday in the Sunday Edition of The Brunei Times (20th January 2008). This is actually rewritten from two earlier blog entries which I wrote sometime 2006. That is also why the language of the article was more informal than the normal articles I write for Brunei Times. I thought I will share them once again with the new readers of The Daily BR. The photograph accompanying the article in BT is my own family's photograph - me as the baby, my great-grandfather standing far left, my grandfather standing in the middle and my father standing far right.]


IT IS tough being a first time parent, there are many things to think about. One of them is what you want your children to call you. For non-Asians, sometimes this is straight forward. "Daddy" and "Mummy" suit most Western parents, becoming "Dad" and "Mum" as the children grow older. "Father" and "Mother" are seldom used except in the formal written sense or as a third party usage.

In Malay society, it is less simple. For Bruneians especially, even if some more Westernised families will use the above epithets, there is a variety of other usage.

Brunei parents nowadays tend to be called "Babah" (the standard Malay is "Abah") and "Mama" (the standard Malay is "Emak"). "Bapa" and "Mama" are also used, though not as widely as before. Sometimes some Brunei families use "Babu" for their mothers. Some would use the Arabic "Umi" for their mothers. "Ayah" and "Ibu", "Ayah" and "Emak" or similar combinations are more commonly used in Malaysia rather than Brunei.

Malays are pretty unusual too in having specific titles for uncles and aunties. There are not that many other cultures which make a distinction between the different uncles and aunties though some do differentiate even between the uncles and aunties on the father's and mother's side.

Uncles and Aunties are generally translated as "Pa Cik" and "Ma Cik" in standard Malay. Though in Brunei, these are seldom used for calling one's uncles or aunties but they are used colloquially.

Officially, according to the Kamus Bahasa Brunei and as verified by Kamus Nusantara, the titles that you should call your uncles and aunties (if you are a Brunei Malay) should be in the following order from oldest to youngest:

1. tua ("oldest")
2. anjang
3. tangah or angah (from the word tengah or "middle")
4. iring
5. uda
6. amit
7. bungsu, usu or uchu ("youngest")

Most families would get the oldest and the youngest correct. Most others would get some of the "in between" titles mixed up. Some would make them up as they go along. Some would run out of titles simply because there are too many uncles and aunties. The official numbers here only go up to seven but there are a number of families in Brunei whose siblings' number exceed that.

Some families would repeat them, so the male uncle may be called "tangah laki" and a later female auntie called "tangah bini". The only problem is when they get married — the wife of "tangah laki" should be called "tangah bini" and vice versa but the title would have already been used!

In some families, titles got split. For instance, "Uda" may evolve into "Uda Hitam" and "Uda Putih" — in reference to skin colour or any other combination any family can think of. So there can be myriads of usage including combining their names. Some may use "Tangah Rosli" or "Bungsu Rosnah" or something like that. Some even used the name of where they lived like "Tangah Mabuhai" (because they live in Mabuhai).

To say whether the above official order is correct is indeed debatable. But that is the official usage by the dictionary as according to the dictionaries and that makes them as official as can be.

The Malaysian Malays are slightly different, using "Long" for the eldest instead of "Tua", "Ngah" for "Tangah", and one seldom hear them using iring or amit.

They also used the prefix "Pak" or "Mak". So you would get "Pak Long" and "Mak Long" as opposed to the Brunei usage which would be "Tua Laki" and "Tua Bini". One set of parents are called "Pak Teh" and "Mak Teh" — one would have trouble working out what number that title is — until it is revealed to one that it refers to the colour white and hence the title "puteh". So they decide to use that.

As for the more elderly titles of grandparents and beyond, in English, the language tends to be a little bit easier — grandparents, great-grandparents, great-great-grandparents and so forth depending on how far back you want to go. It's simple but less creative, some would argue. Some would equally argue, "why bother?".

Beyond great-grandparents, a lot of people would have difficulty remembering or knowing who they are anyway. That is a pity as Brunei society struggles to remain close-knit; and knowing your ancestors may help us be closer to each other. Unfortunately, we are finding our relationships with each other going further apart.

What are the Brunei Malay titles? This is quite amusing as whoever he was that invented these titles must have a great sense of humour.

We first start off with the usual grandparents who in Brunei context are called "nini", you would get "nini laki" (literally "male grandparent") or "nini bini" ("female grandparent").

For great-grandparents, Bruneians use the word "datu". This is not to be confused with the Malaysians' usage which uses "nenek" as the female grandparent and "datuk" as the male grandparent. So for people with Malaysian connections, things sometimes get confusing.

After "datu" comes "moyang" which is great-great-grandparent. In standard Malay literature we always say "nenek moyang" to refer to our ancestors but Brunei Malay literature has "datu nini" to refer to our ancestors.

The next two words are the fun bit. By the time people ask you who your "moyang" or great-great-grandparents are, you would be struggling to give an answer unless someone in your family happens to collect your family's genealogical lineage of as a hobby. For myself, I think I may have the name of my great-great-grandparents somewhere.

But my great-great-great-grandparents (the parents of my moyang) are unknown — and because this probably applies for most people, the Brunei word for great-great-great-grandparent is surprisingly a typical word we say when we don't know something: antah, which literally translates to "I don't know" (or the standard Malay entah which is "tak tahu").

That's the title. Your great-great-great-grandparent is "antah".

And what comes yet before "antah"? What would the parents of your "antah", that is, your great-great-great-great-grandparents, be called, when you already used the expression "I don't know" and therefore cannot say "antah" any more? You would shake your head, right? Well, the Malay word for shaking your head is "geleng-geleng"; and that's the Brunei title for your great-great-great-great grandparent.

It would indeed be a pity if all these ties and their titles were no longer used by the Brunei Malay society in the future.

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