Efforts underway to save Mendriq language from extinction

23 Dec 2023 07:00am
Orang Asli women from the Mendriq tribe jotting down the words and sentences they use when met by Bernama in Kampung Lah recently. - Photo by Bernama
Orang Asli women from the Mendriq tribe jotting down the words and sentences they use when met by Bernama in Kampung Lah recently. - Photo by Bernama

GUA MUSANG - Her round eyes peering at her mobile phone, Ida Terang seems unperturbed by her noisy surroundings, her fingers swiftly typing on the screen.

The 33-year-old religious education teacher has a new mission now which is to prevent her mother tongue, the Mendriq language, from sinking into oblivion.

Ida is among 20 villagers from the Mendriq Orang Asli community in Kampung Kuala Lah - about 180 kilometres from Kota Bharu - who are involved in a project to input Mendriq words and their meanings in Bahasa Melayu onto the online multilingual dictionary Wiktionary.

The brainchild of Wikimedia Community User Group Malaysia (Wikimedia Malaysia), the initiative is aimed at preserving the Mendriq language.

Wikimedia Malaysia organised a two-day programme in Kg Kuala Lah in October to input as many Mendriq words as possible onto Wiktionary.

The Mendriq are a minority subgroup under the Negrito Orang Asli group (which is one of the three main Orang Asli groups in Peninsular Malaysia, the other two being Senoi and Proto-Malay).

Over the years, it became increasingly challenging for the Mendriq elders to preserve their ancestral language as their tribe is dwindling in size with only about 600 of them left now, all of them dwelling in Kelantan in three locations, Kg Kuala Lah in Gua Musang and Kg Pasir Linggi and Sungai Tako in Kuala Krai.

Another reason for the low usage of the native language is the younger generation who are more comfortable speaking in the Kelantanese Malay dialect.

Related Articles:

Language experts interviewed by Bernama previously said the Mendriq language could become extinct in 20 years if no serious efforts are taken to preserve it.

Ida and her fellow villagers who took part in the two-day workshop - facilitated by 18 Wikimedia Malaysia and Islamic International University Malaysia (IIUM) volunteers - were not exactly smartphone-savvy but when it ended, they successfully listed a total of 340 Mendriq words and 107 audio pronunciations on Wiktionary.

Some of the older villagers chose to jot down the words they knew on pieces of paper while their children or grandchildren helped to type them on their phones.


"I’m so happy (to be a part of the project) because I didn’t think there were people out there interested in preserving our language.

"This step (making Mendriq a part of Wiktionary) will not only allow our language to be accessed by our community but also by people around the world,” Ida, a mother of two, told Bernama, adding the online Mendriq dictionary can become a source of reference for future generations as well.

She also said having participated in the two-day programme, she can now share her knowledge with other members of her community and help them to input even more words.

Kg Kuala Lah headman Ali Lateh said he still cannot believe that efforts are finally underway to safeguard the Mendriq language.

"Certainly, we are delighted our language can now be accessed by people around the world who want to know more about it,” he said.

Efforts to uphold and keep the Mendriq language alive started after Wikimedia Malaysia came across an exclusive article by Bernama on June 26 that highlighted the dying language.

Wikimedia Malaysia treasurer Mohd Taufik Rosman said the workshop at Kg Kuala Lah, the first of several initiatives to preserve the Mendriq language, received an overwhelming response from the villagers.

"The level of enthusiasm they showed was unexpected,” he said, adding the participants were taught how to use the Wiktionary platform as well as prepare short write-ups and upload photographs and audio pronunciations of the words.

"We divided them into small groups comprising young and old villagers and each group was assisted by Wikimedia (Malaysia) volunteers and IIUM students.

"We wanted each group to have a combination of elderly and young people because some of the younger villagers can speak Mendriq but not fluently as they mix it with the language of the Temiar Orang Asli from a nearby village. So, they were guided by the older people when drawing up their list of Mendriq words,” he said, adding that most of the youngsters have limited vocabulary.

Documenting Mendriq words for the purpose of inputting them onto Wiktionary was far from easy, declared Mohd Taufik, adding they faced various challenges including ensuring the correct spellings of some of the words.

The process of entering the less complicated words into the online dictionary took them just two to three minutes but the others took much longer due to issues over their spellings, which can be problematic as Mendriq is a spoken language and has never been documented before. Thus, ensuring the accuracy of the spellings presented a significant challenge to the Wikimedia Malaysia team.

They were, however, able to overcome it by consulting Associate Prof Dr Fazal Mohamed Sultan, a lecturer at the Centre for Research in Language and Linguistics, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, who also attended the programme at Kg Kuala Lah.

Mohd Taufik said Fazal has been researching the Mendriq language since 2007 and he can construct the spelling of a word by listening to its pronunciation.

Among the words that were difficult to spell were kenmoh or kermoh (name) which is pronounced differently by the Mendriq people, and nes (mat) due to its nasal sound.

"Each time we want to add a word to the (online) dictionary, it’s crucial for us to ensure its spelling is correct because it will serve as a reference for future generations. Hence, the spelling is something we cannot take lightly,” he said.


Mohd Taufik also said the Kg Kuala Lah villagers were happy and satisfied with the efforts taken so far to preserve their language.

"The excitement is more pronounced among the senior citizens who were earlier worried about the fate of their mother tongue,” he said, adding that the Wikimedia Malaysia team even visited the homes of the villagers who could not attend the two-day programme to "collect” more Mendriq words for Wiktionary.

He said their enthusiasm remains strong to date as they are continuing to add more words to the dictionary.

"The momentum is still there and we’ve been seeing positive developments with more new words being added to the dictionary concerned.”

He said the villagers were given the telephone numbers of volunteers whom they could contact in case they ran into difficulties whilst inputting the words onto Wiktionary.

"This is a technology-related thing. If we don’t assist them, they may lose interest,” he added.

Meanwhile, in response to the Bernama article on the Mendriq language in June, the Ministry of Education (MOE) said in a statement the ministry will work with the Department for Orang Asli Development (Jakoa) to identify the Mendriq Orang Asli community so that their traditions and language can be preserved.

According to the statement, the state (Kelantan) education department and the schools concerned also organise various activities, such as storytelling competitions, in Mendriq as part of their co-curricular activities to preserve their language.

"In 2020, MOE introduced the Jom Belajar programme, which includes a special programme for Orang Asli students and Chup Badui Sikulah, aimed at providing basic education and enhancing mastery of the 3Rs (reading, writing and arithmetic) for indigenous children who have never attended school.”

MOE also said engagement sessions with Orang Asli parents, community leaders, village headmen and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are also held to raise awareness of the importance of education.

For the record, as of June this year, a total of 153 students from the Mendriq community in Kuala Krai and Gua Musang have received education at primary and secondary schools.

In 2011, Jakoa collaborated with Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka to compile a dictionary featuring the three languages of the biggest Orang Asli groups - Proto-Malay, Negrito and Senoi.

Jakoa director-general Datuk Sapiah Mohd Nor said although the publication of the dictionary for sale was deferred due to funding constraints, they remain committed to preserving and upholding the traditional knowledge and linguistic heritage of the Orang Asli.

"Jakoa doesn’t have a special allocation for the preservation of the Mendriq language considering there are more than 18 other indigenous languages in Malaysia.

"Jakoa always supports collaborations with NGOs or other relevant government agencies interested in preserving the Mendriq indigenous language,” she added. - BERNAMA