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Verbal and Non-Verbal Symbols: An Investigation into Their Role in Self and Group Identification [in Malaysia]



Asmah Haji Omar







Identity is a sociopsychological construct by which an individual or a group identifies itself vis-a-vis others through the use of certain symbols or features. The question of identity does not arise when there is no contrast with another or others. It becomes a subject of concern when there is heterogeneity. In such a context each individual or group tries to project features which set him/them apart from another or others.


Language has always been taken as an identity factor. Having an identity makes the individual or the group concerned feel that it has a proper existence in its environment. This paper attempts to look at identity and its linguistic correlates at various levels: the community, the group and the individual.


There has been a great deal of research done in various communities of the world on this topic. In Malaysia, a lot has been said (among them by myself) about identity at the national level [Asmah Haji Omar 1976; 1979; 1982]. Interest among Malaysian sociolinguists in language and identity seems to be confined to this level. An explanation for this lies in the language planning processes and the implementation of the national language policy that had been going on in the country since Independence in 1957. A great deal of attention had been given to the programme of building a national identity through the national language. In this way a great amount of literature in the form articles and conference papers have been produced on language national identity.


Identity at the lower level, for example the community or the group, has not really been given much attention to by researchers. Among the few who have made this topic their area of research interest are Maya Khemlani David (1996) in her research on the Sindhis (a minority group) in Malaysia, and Asmah Haji Omar with her research on a group of bilingual academics [Asmah Haji Omar 1991].

Maya David's research which focusses on three generations of Sindhi settlers in Malaysia has shown that there has been a great deal of shifting in linguistic usages among the group, namely from the mother tongue to English. The mother tongue, Sindhi, has been showing an erosion of usage starting from the second generation. The third generation which has undergone the national system of schooling where Malay is the main medium of instruction, evinces no proficiency in the Sindhi language. Hence, those belonging to this generation are not able to communicate in the latter language. They may be familiar with certain lexical items and set phrases which enable them to code-switch with English but not beyond that. A conclusion that can be derived from Maya David's study is that the primordial language, Sindhi, is no longer an identity factor for the Malaysian Sindhis to characterise their ethnicity.


My research on bilingual non-Malay (mostly Chinese and Indian) academics of the University of Malaya (1991) also indicates that the primordial language of the ethnic group usually does not play the role of giving a label to the ethnic group. Most of the respondents were using the language in which they were educated, and that was English. They hardly used their primordial languages which were still actively used by their parents and family members. However, there was a trend towards reversing the language shift when it came to their children. Several Chinese and Tamil respondents were making their children learn their respective mother tongues through private tuition. This can be interpreted as a re-born consciousness of their ethnic heritage.


All these years I have held the belief that there is a correlation between language and ethnicity, such that if national language is said to provide an identity to the nation, ethnic languages may be said to do likewise to the ethnic groups. [Asmah Haji Omar 1998: 58]. This belief is based on the impression attained through observing how the Malays, Chinese and Indians as groups strive to uphold their languages as an identity factor. My observations consist of what I see in the media of what ethnic-based political parties and interest groups have been doing for the continued existence of their languages. The language-based identity of the ethnic groups appear to be projected to the highest prominence during election time. In the most recent general election (29 November 1999), speeches, posters and brochures were rendered in the language of the community a particular political party was supposed to represent. The national language was used only where there was an ethnic mixture of audience. Samples of the ballot paper had instructions in the national language as well as the language of the community the candidate represented and the latter language was the more prominent of the two. This was so despite the fact that the candidate had a mixture of ethnic groups in his constituency.


On the other hand, my observations of social interactions between members of the same ethnic groups, be it in the workplace, the shopping malls, the restaurants, the beauty saloons, family gatherings and so on, seem to give a different picture. And this particular observation has prompted this study which aims to find out the following facts:-


(1) The correlation between linguistic identity and the individual's ethnic heritage.


(2) The place of linguistic identity in the individual as a member of a group or groups.


(3) The correlation between national identity and that of the individual or the group.




Data collection made use of various methods. The first is an in-depth interview of respondents selected for the purpose, the second a questionnaire, and the third surveys of small groups of speakers to get a picture of language choice.


The interview was administered to 12 respondents. All were university lecturers of the University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur. It was an open-ended interview on self-categorisation, choice of language and varieties of language in particular situations, and attitude towards other identity features pertaining to Malaysia and Malaysian way of life.


The respondents consisted of 4 Malays, 4 Chinese and 4 Indians. Although the interview was conducted along the three main topics mentioned above, information gathered at the end extended beyond the chosen topics and it proves to be very valuable for this study. The identity symbols that were discussed in the interview were the national language and the national flag. At the same time, questions arose on other Malaysian identity features such as the Malay woman's costume known as sarong-kebaya (as opposed to the Indian sari and the Chinese cheongsam) and certain categories of food. Matters on language choice circulated around choice of language and varieties of language in various situations: wtihin the family, and in social and professional circles.


The questionnaire was administered to a group of 83 students, doing second and fourth year courses in the Academy of Malay Studies and the Faculty of Arts and the Social Sciences, University of Malaya. This group of students consisted of 53 Malays and other idigenous groups (Iban, Bidayuh and Javanese), and 30 non-Malays (viz. Chinese and Indians). The questionnaire was designed according to self-categorisation, attitude towards certain identity features, and language choice in different situations.


Sixty-five of the students were doing my sociolinguistics course. As part of their training they were asked to carry out surveys of small groups of speakers to get a picture of language choice. The students chose as location the places where they stayed or those they frequented, such as the shopping centres and the night markets. I'm not making use of the students' data for this purpose because the exercise was only a training programme for them. However, I've been able to make one or two generalisations from the students' observations on language choice, and these will be cited in the appropriate places in this paper.

The identity features chosen for the questionnaire were the national language, flag and anthem, and Malaysian multiethnicity. Language choice was focussed on the choice of languages and varieties of languages in situations: within the family, with peers in the university, in asking for direction when one loses one's way, in the choice of newspapers and RTV programmes according to language medium.


For the two groups of respondents, i.e. the lecturers and the students, self-categorisation focussed on how the respondents look at themselves as individuals belonging to different ethnic groups and at the same time as Malaysian citizens. That is to say, they were asked whether they considered themselves first as Malaysians and then as members of ethnic groups, or vice versa.


Statistics was not central to this study although the statistics from the questionnaire came in useful. The main aim was to get information on how people feel and behave when it comes to identifying or categorising themselves through language. Such feelings and behaviour were mostly gathered from the in-depth interview. The statistical data from the questionnaire are used to support statements of identity, belief and behaviour which arose in the interview.


The findings are discussed according to the following topics: self-categorisation, response to symbols and features, language choice, linguistic expressions and ethnic heritage, language and identity features, and identity at the group, national and supranational levels.




All the Malays in the interview placed the ethnic group as the nucleic component in their self-categorisation. That is to say, they are Malaysian Malays. The descriptive "Malaysian" here serves to identify them with Malaysian Chinese and Malaysian Indians on the one hand, and differentiate them from Indonesian Malays, Bruneian Malays and other Malays on the other. Conversely, the Chinese and the Indian respondents described themselves as "Malaysians of Chinese origin/descent", and "Malaysians of Indian origin/descent". Looking at the linguistic texture of this self-description, one tends to make a hasty conclusion that the Malays place more emphasis on their ethnicity vis-a-vis their nationality or citizenship, whereas it is the obverse with the non-Malays.


This finding is not fully reflected in the response to the questionnnaire where 57 out of 85 (i.e. 67%) placed the national category of "Malaysian" as the nucleus of their self-categorisation. More than half of the 57 people who gave this answer were Malays. If the two lots of findings are taken together, the hypothesis that Malays are more "ethnic" in their self-categorisation does not hold water.


An explanation for the ethnic-centred self-categorisation or otherwise can be found in the age-group and the educational background of the two groups of respondents. The interviewees were mostly in their 50's, except for two who were in their early 40's. This means that most of them had not gone through the national education system which was implemented in the early 70's. This system, among other things, has as its objective, to nurture a Malaysian identity through a common language medium and a common syllabus [Asmah Haji Omar 1976].


The questionnaire respondents were in their early and mid-twenties and had all gone through this system. Hence, the great number of Malays describing themselves as Malaysian first and Malay second. Information on racial group that students and other Malaysians see in official forms for various purposes is cued by the word keturunan (descent). This means that the younger group of Malaysians have already been attuned to the phrase orang Malaysia berketurunan Melayu/Cina/India etc (Malaysian of Malay/Chinese/ Indian descent).


Another reason for the ethnic-centred answer among the Malays may be explained from their position in the Malaysian society, specifically in terms of being members of the majority group with certain privileges given to them as indigenous people. This may have instilled in them a sense of security and has had a bearing on their self-categorisation.


Response to symbols and features


The question that was asked of the interviewees was their reaction to hearing people speaking the national language and seeing the national flag, when they were abroad (as all the interviewees had stayed abroad, at one time or another). All said that these two symbols gave them the feeling of nostalgia, of being Malaysian. The same feeling was evoked on seeing somebody in the Malay costume of sarong-kebaya (as opposed to the Indian sari and the Chinese cheongsam) in a far-off place or in smelling the Malay type of curry or sambal (chilli paste). To a certain extent, this feeling is also evoked on hearing Malaysian English being spoken. Such nostalgia is not evoked on hearing Tamil or Chinese being spoken, or seeing women in the Indian or Chinese costume, or in smelling the Indian type of curry.


In the questionnaire, the respondents were asked to mark in terms of priority the symbols/features that they identified with Malaysia. The scores for the national language and the national flag as top priority were identical, that is 24 each. In my discussion with the respondents in class, those who placed the flag as number one argued that the flag transcends language barriers. In any international sporting event where the country participates, it is the flag that is most visible. In the second place of priority the score was 18 for the national language and 22 for the flag. According to the students' assessment, the national anthem and Malaysian multiethnicity were placed below the former two in terms of identity features. There were 17 who placed "people" as top priority, and only one who thought that national anthem should come first. All this goes to show that the national language and the flag seem to be uppermost in the people's perception of national identity symbols.


Language choice


The students who responded to the questionnaire seemed to show a stable pattern when it came to language choice in situations: social interaction, campus life, and in asking for directions. This is summarised as follows:-


(i) Own language or dialect with own ethnic group or subgroup.

(ii) Malay and English or a mixture of the two with other ethnic groups.



In (i) the Malays use Malay (with its regional varieties), the Chinese use the various Chinese dialects, the Indians use Tamil, and the Iban, Bidayuh, and Javanese their own vernaculars. Among the Chinese, the language medium is also Mandarin if the participants concerned have a knowledge of this standard variety. A few of the Indians stated that English was their home language.


However, from the students' observations on language choice it seems that English or Malaysian English is the norm when it comes to intergroup communication particularly between Chinese and Indians. These two groups will use English with Malays, if they know that the Malays can speak English. As a language of intergroup communication, Malay is used only when there is a Malay participant involved, and again this is determined by the Malay participant's inability to speak in English.


The situation-based choice is also the case with the interviewees. The respondents chose the language, i.e. regional or social dialect, they think will be most effective in speaking with their interlocutors. Comfortability was cited as a factor to reckon with. They would not choose a language or variety which they are not comfortable with or which will make the interlocutor uncomfortable. Here comfortability has two dimensions: one is that of the speaker, and the other that of the hearer.


The comfortability factor reduces the sociopsychological distance between the speakers. Participants in a social interaction always look for ways in attaining this goal. One of the interviewees, who was a Chinese, described how she reduced the sociopsychological gap between herself and her students in her English language class: she would start off with a phatic communion and small talk in Malay. After this warming-up she would go into English. This is an interesting contrast to what I had earlier termed the "letterhead format" in language use in public speeches [Asmah 1987: 77-78]. In the latter context, the use of the national language in the short opening paragraph of an official speech has no purpose of closing any sociopsychological distance, because this function is carried by the use of English in the main text of the speech. The brief utterance in the national language is only a show of respect to the national language policy.


The difference in the two cases mentioned above can be explained in terms of the linguistic and social background of the participants involved. In the first case, the teacher is face-to-face with a group of students who are more proficient in Malay than in English. In the second case, the public speaker is addressing an audience consisting of people of a high socioeconomic status, and English is identified with this group of people.


Language choice is also triggered by an effort to conform. Here conformity is not confined to the positive attitude of the speaker towards her interlocutor, but also encompasses the effort to be in the good books of a greater power, i.e. the authorities, through observing the official language policy. In a social interaction it is natural for speakers to conform to one another and to echo each other's choice and style.


On the other hand, in an official setting consciousness of one's own ethnic membership has a role in determining whether the language policy is adhered to. For example, the chairperson of a Faculty meeting who is a non-Malay feels more compelled to conduct the meeting in the national language, as compared to the chairperson who is a Malay. The language policy states that Malay is the official language and should be used for all official purposes. The non-Malay chairperson feels very much obliged to conform, for fear of being construed as showing a non-compliance with the policy. A breakaway from this conformity would not start with him/her but with other participants in the meeting; when they start using English or use code-switching, the non-Malay chairperson feels safe to depart from the policy.


A Malay chairperson would not feel constrained by the policy as much as her non-Malay counterpart. Being a native Malay speaker, and for that she is taken to be a strong supporter of the policy, her departure from the norm is unlikely to be interpreted as a show of defiance towards the policy.


Linguistic expressions and ethnic heritage


An individual may have more than a single linguistic identity. A particular linguistic identity is assumed when a particular language is used. For example, an Indian respondent whose primordial language is Tamil uses Tamil only in religious (Hindu) activities. The family uses English for all other purposes. They express values in English but live an Indian way of life.


Another Indian respondent who is a Christian also uses English as her primary language. She would use her primordial language when prompted.


A respondent who is by birth a Chinese says that she no longer speaks Chinese. Her education and her marriage to a Eurasian of Portuguese descent has moved her away from Chinese towards English. Through English, she feels more Malaysian than Chinese. In fact she describes herself as a Westernised Malaysian of Chinese origin. At this juncture it should be noted that English is the first language of the Eurasians who form less than one one percent of the total population of Malaysia. This includes those of Portuguese descent although the older generation of this group still fries to maintain the Portuguese creole as spoken in Melaka (Malacca).


What is apparent from the facts given above is that the individual does not always stick to the language that he/she inherits. During the course of his/her life, he/she may shift on to using another language, and this adopted language has become his/her primary means of expression and has given him/her the linguistic identity he/she possesses. The language that came with the ethnic group membership has assumed a peripheral role, that of very specific purposes, such as that of religion. The inherited language may also be relegated to the purpose of survival, as expressed by one of the Chinese respondents, such as getting by in one's group, so as not to incur a negative effect. In fact, according to the respondent she feels insulted when she is spoken to by her peers in her Chinese dialect.


As for the Malays, the language that they have inherited from their parents seems to have quite a stable existence throughout their life. The stability of the mother tongue among the Malays can be explained from the following: the indigeneity factor of the language and the speakers, and the function of the language as the national and official language, and as the main medium of instruction in the country's language policy.


Language and identity features


The respondents in the interview were all of the opinion that a person assumes a different identity each time he/she participates in a language event or as a member of a particular group. The identity is engendered by the situation which forms the context of the event and by his/her own performance in the event. In this sense, the identity of a Malay speaker who converses in English with his/her interlocutors in a particular speech event is not a carbon copy of the identity he/she assumes when he/she speaks in standard Malay, and this in turn shows a different identity from that which is reflected in him/her when he/she speaks in his/her own regional dialect. Hence, identity flows with events and situations. It is not something that is permanent. What seems to be permanent is one's membership in the group of one's birth. However, different identities develop along the way. In the words of one of the respondents,


Language is an identity factor. When I'm speaking

and reading English, I assume a certain identity.

My assumption of values is different when I use Tamil.


What can be deduced from the above discussion is that a person usually has multiple linguistic identities, but some of those identities will be more visible than others. This depends on the way of life which determines the dominance of particular identities over others.


Although the respondents in their daily life shift from one language to another, or one variety of language to another, they seem to have a stance on the use of certain varieties. A clear example arose in the discussion on the use of English in formal or less casual situations, such as in meetings and international conferences. One of the respondents said that she always pronounced according to international standard English, which in her case is British-based. This is the attitude she has been adopting all the while. She does not "give in" to Malaysian English.

As for the other respondents, they said that they were diffident in using the British or American-based pronunciation especially when they face native speakers. Neither would they feel comfortable enough to use the slangs usually heard in the speech of native speakers. They would stick to Malaysian English of the high variety i.e. the variety that is commonly heard among educated Malaysians who are proficient in English. Using this Malaysian variety of English comes natural to Malaysians. Among most English-speaking Malaysians, the international standard variety engenders psychological distance.


On the choice of standard and non-standard varieties of Malay, it was the Malay respondents who talked most. The non-Malays did not have much to say on this. According to the respondents, standard Malay should be confined to the written form and to situations which are formal, such as formal speeches and meetings. There is no place for the standard variety in social situations. It would not be natural.


Identity at the group, national and supranational levels


The respondents were of the opinion that the linguistic definition of a Malaysian is one who has Malay (or bahasa Malaysia) as national language and English as a second language (besides their own mother-tongues). To them, Malay and English have to be considered together as forming the Malaysian linguistic identity. In this role, Malay seems to have a bigger part, in the sense that it is applicable to all Malaysians. However, English cannot be subtracted from this role as it has become a most visible feature in the linguistic habits of Malaysians, particularly those in the urban areas. To exclude English from the Malaysian linguistic identity would not be in line with reality. Using the pekat metaphor (pekat in Malay refers to the thickness of liquid), Malay is said to be more pekat than English in their combined role of giving a linguistic identity to the Malaysians. (See Asmah Haji Omar 1992, Essays 3 and 4, where I have referred to Malay and English as primary languages).

Studies on the use of language in various settings such as the ones conducted by Elaine Morais (1994), Mani Le Vasan (1996), Cecilia Fredericks (1996) and Anie Attan (1998) attest to the widespread use of English among Malaysians, particularly in the private and public sectors. At the same time, as has been revealed by non-Malay respondents in this study as well as by the students' surveys, there has been a shift among non-Malay families from their primordial languages to English as their first language, particularly in the urban areas. This is further supported by Maya David's study (1996) on the Sindhi Community mentioned earlier. All these researches seem to concur with my 1991 findings that educated non-Malay families had a strong tendency to shift to English as their primary language. This has always been the case in interracial marriages although there are attempts to teach the children the languages of the parents as well. [Asmah Haji Omar 1991].


The definition of the Malaysian linguistic identity given above also serves to define identity at the supranational level. Hence, in terms of national linguistic identity Malaysians are different from Indonesians, although both countries have the same language as their national language (although of different varieties). In terms of linguistic identity, the Malaysians are closer to the Bruneians.


The same definition can be used to subcategorise ethnic groups which straddle a number of countries. For example, a Malaysian Malay can be said to have a linguistic identity different from a Singapore Malay. Although a Singapore Malay speaks English, the national definition for Malay and English in Singapore is different from that given by Malaysia. Following this, the linguistic identity of a Malaysian Chinese or Indian is different from that of a Singapore Chinese or Indian. In the same way, an Indian Indian would be different in terms of linguistic definition from a Malaysian Indian.


At the ethnic level, the linguistc identity of the ethnic group can be defined according to its language. The Malays are defined as having the mother tongue Malay, the Iban as having Iban as mother-tongue, and so on. Linguistic identity at the ethnic group level may be construed as having a political bias.


The terms "Chinese" and "Indian" when used for group categorisation refer to superordinate structures. The term "Chinese" is accurate even in this structure to refer to the linguistic identity of the big Chinese group, because whatever dialects the subgroups of Chinese use, these dialects still belong to the same linguistic family, the Chinese family of languages. The data gathered from the students' questionnaire and assignments show that the Chinese subcategorise themselves according to the dialects they speak: Hokkien, Cantonese, Teochew, Hainanese, Khek, etc. What they term as the Chinese language is Mandarin. This language/dialect in Malaysia does not have a sizeable number of native speakers to form a community of Mandarin native speakers. It is a superordinate structure which is used by Chinese of various subgroups who know the language, to communicate among themselves.


Not all Malaysian Chinese know Mandarin. Hence, communication among the various subgroups is through the dialect which is dominant in the location where they are in. For instance, if a place is a predominantly Cantonese speaking area, then the smaller dialect groups tend to adopt Cantonese as the lingua franca of the subgroups.


The word "Indian" as a category term for the Malaysian Indians is applicable only when the country of origin is taken into account. The description is not linguistically accurate because the Indian languages spoken in Malaysia belong to different families and subfamilies. Hence, for the purpose of denoting a linguistic identity, it is not quite correct to say that the Indians as a big group have a common linguistic identity. It would be more correct to define their linguistic identity according to their linguistic subgroups, such Tamil, Malayalam, Telugu, Marathi, Sindhi, Punjabi, Bengali etc.


General observations and conclusion.


First and foremost, linguistic identity in the individual is not inborn and is not a fixture. It changes with the individual's development, the environment and situations of language use. Arising from this, an individual may have multiple linguistic identities which are projected with various degrees of strength.


In contradistinction to the multiple identities in the individual, the group or the country/nation tends to have a single linguistic identity which serves a political purpose. This single identity may be represented by more than one language. In the case of an identity with two or more languages, the languages involved may have different degrees of strength.


Identity serves a political purpose more than any other. In relation to this, verbal and non-verbal symbols and features of the group or the country trigger off a feeling of loyalty to the group or country when there is spatial distance. These symbols and features are taken for granted when there is no such distance.


For a multiethnic society where the composition of the population is both indigenous and non-indigenous, it is the indigenous symbols and features that come naturally as the identity symbols and features of the society. In this connection, Malaysian English is considered indigenous, although English was originally an import.


Self-categorisation is an identity projection at the individual as well as the group/national level. Hence, it is personal as well as political.


All in all, identity-building comes with nurturing, and is a result of comparing and contrasting. It does not find a breeding ground in homogeneity.


In formal situations, conformity with the political norm is a greater constraint with minority group members than with those of the majority group. This can be linked to the feeling of security versus insecurity of the members concerned.


If there is movement away from the original linguistic (usually minority) group, it is not always towards the majority language group. Preference is for the language which has a higher prestige in the context of the wider world, as seen in the movement towards English. The security factor may have a bearing on this attitude. Another factor may be used to explain the deflection of minority groups towards English, and that is neutrality. English in Malaysia is the first language of only the Eurasian group as mentioned earlier. Otherwise it is a language with no sizeable first-language speech community, unlike Malay, Chinese, Indian and all the other vernaculars. Hence, being identified with this language means that one does not have to be identified with a vernacular group that is not one's own, and herein lies the neutrality of English.


Certain findings in this study have theoretical implications particularly for language planning and nation building as well as for majority-minority group relationships.




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I wish to express my utmost gratitude to my colleagues who had been kind enough to spare their precious time to be interviewed by me. Most of what they had revealed to me in terms of their feelings as individuals and as members of their groups were very personal indeed, and as such it would be better that only they and I know who they are.


Secondly I wish to record my appreciation to my students of Semester I, 1998/99, who took the courses Sociolinguistics and Iban language, for responding to my questionnaire and for carrying out their survey training. They have made a valuable contribution to this project.