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"Miraculous diminution" a short note on Kayan avoidance terms.

Introduction (2)

A major characteristic of old Kayan religion (adat Dipuy), and one of the main reasons for its rather abrupt decline not long after Jok Apuy's (3) vision in 1940, was what Rousseau (1998:61) called, its "staggering number of taboos." The two most comprehensive sources on the Kayan taboo complex to date are Rousseau's (1998) Kayan religion: Ritual life and religious reform in Central Borneo and Lake' Baling's (2002) The old Kayan religion and the Bungan religious reform, translated and annotated by Rousseau and published in the Oral Literature Series of the former Institute of East Asian Studies, Universiti Malaysia Sarawak. While Lake' Baling, a locally renowned Bungan priest of his day, could still profit from his own lifelong practice and experience, Rousseau's insights, as he himself pointed out (1998:61), were already "based on informants' accounts rather than observation." It would be bold, then, to believe that ethnographic fieldwork could still produce any new insights on the Kayan taboo complex today. However, when browsing through Southwell's English-Kayan dictionary (1990), which is undoubtedly a treasure trove of cultural knowledge of the Kayan of the Baram river basin of northern Sarawak (see also Blust and Smith 2014:199), I came across a number of interesting avoidance terms, which Southwell relates to what he identified as a "superstition under old customs" (1990:45) in "miraculous diminution" expressed by an "old pagan word" (1990:150), namely mawa' (1990:155). (4) In what follows, I will not give a detailed review of the Kayan taboo complex, but rather restrict myself to a brief overview of Kayan avoidance terms while focusing on those related to Southwell's "superstition of mawa" (1990:45), which, to my knowledge, has not yet found attention in the pertinent ethnographic literature on Kayan religion.

Taboos and avoidance terms

In his Kayan Religion, Rousseau (1998:61) presents us with discussions for a surprising number of 14 different words referring to taboos, prohibitions and consequences of their transgression, namely bawa', busong, due, dawi, lali, panah, parit, puni, sekilah, serana, tepang, tukit, tulah, and uven. Some of these words are used synonymously, others only partly overlap; some of them have a broad application, others are more narrowly defined. Parit, for example, is said to apply to a wide range of prohibitions. Most generally, it refers to "improper contact with, or handling of, someone or something which is supernaturally powerful, such as... head trophies" or becomes effective when accidentally "step[ping] over someones's legs." Tulah is defined as "a supernatural power inherent in powerful people--especially aristocrats and elders; it is unleashed automatically if they are not shown proper respect (1998:62-63)" and puni is activated if "a guest... refuse[s] food, drink, or cigarettes. In order to 'throw away' the puni (mebet puni), one must signify acceptance of the proffered food by touching it (or its container)" (1998:66).

While most of the above-mentioned words find relatively straightforward explanations, the meaning of bawa' still remains hazy. Rousseau states (1998:61): "Bawa' is a word which I have not often heard. It is an impropriety based on ignorance. If I understood correctly, it consists in breaking a taboo one does not know about--as could happen to children or mad people." Indeed, this word does not seem to be widespread. I have not heard it during my fieldtrip to the Belaga Kayan (2015), nor is it mentioned in Barth (1910), Blust (1977), Sombroek (1986), or Effendi (2006). Southwell's (1990) dictionary on Baram Kayan dialects contains the entry: "bawa' (nebawa') 1. courageous; unhesitating. 2. to make an extreme endeavor; to try by all means. 3. thoughtful for others; considerate," while the reduplicated form, bawa '-bawa', translates as "to be bold; to have courage." But Southwell's gloss for bawa' hardly fits Rousseau's interpretation above. However, Rousseau's bawa' may well be related to Southwell's mawa' to be discussed further below.

In adat Dipuy, taboos influenced almost every aspect of life. In addition to taboos regulating, e.g., the behavior towards elders, food taboos and prohibitions related to eating, Kayan society also placed taboos on a variety of ominous things, i.e. particular objects, body fluids etc. "Blood" constituted one of the most essential means in the sacrificial system, e.g. in pelah 'blood sacrifice' or petsah 'the old custom of making blood covenant.' "Blood" was considered "dangerous" and had to be treated with caution. Rousseau (1998:63) lists, among others, the following prohibitions: "[...] someone who has been wounded may not stay in his apartment until he has healed.... men who have participated in the headhunting ceremony... sleep on the veranda in order not to bring effluvia of death into their dwellings. Because it causes bleeding, tattooing is a perilous activity [...]. [O]ne may not be tattooed on the gallery of a successful headhunter (kelunan lakin), a priest, or a person with a Thunder spirit helper, because the spirits of these people would be offended [...]" (1998:63).

In some Austronesian, including Bornean, societies, such cultural attitude towards "blood" even led to the lexical substitution of the word for 'blood,' as e.g. in Sebop pulut 'blood' < PMP *pulut 'breadfruit sap', a replacement for PAN *daRaq 'blood' (Blust 2013:337). For Busang, Barth (1910) reports the expression lemura' puti 'to spit white' as a common euphemism for 'spitting blood.' In cases such as this, anthropology usually speaks of "avoidance terms," i.e. "words that are associated with dangerous referents are avoided so as not to attract the danger they connote" (Blust 2013). Extreme cases of lexical avoidance are called 'word taboos': "A common type forbids the use of words resembling the name of a person of high rank or superior genealogical status. [...] Examples mentioned by Simons include Malagasy, where the use of a word that resembles the name of a living chief is forbidden, and this prohibition continues even after the chief's death, Labuk Kadazan, where use of the name of a parent-in-law will be automatically punished by supernatural swelling of the abdomen (the "busung taboo" in Blust 1981)... "(Blust 2013:338).

The Kayan also have their avoidance registers. As regards the Baram Kayan, Southwell (1990:356-357) refers to it as daho' piho' 'humble' or 'polite' speech or 'evasive' language, while Rousseau (1998:47), with respect to the Baluy Kayan, speaks of daho'ivun 'secret' language, "which animals and spirits do not understand." (5) Thus, in contrast to 'spirit languages', dahun to', which are used by religious specialists in order to communicate with spirit beings, avoidance speech developed in order to distract their attention. Kayan avoidance terms are manifold: To begin with, a very general "euphemism for an object, because of desire not to mention its name," given in Southwell, is ket. As for animals, Nieuwenhuis (1904-07, II:237), Sellato (1983:41) and Rousseau (1998:47) mention the substitution of the word 'dog', aso', for 'tiger'; see also Southwell's somewhat strange glossing of lejau danum, literally 'water tiger,' as 'wolf (see Venz 2013). A further example is temdoh talun 'the rhinoceros of the secondary jungle' which functions as an avoidance term for keliho 'wild cattle,' as it is tabooed as food (Rousseau 1998:120).

As regards Kayan numina, the word kelihau is a "euphemism for a dead man, to avoid mentioning his name, (old custom); anih nah kelihau lake' aya' matei areh dih iah! That's concerning old so-and-so who died a long while ago" (see Venz 2014:263). Southwell also gives the homophone "kelihau the Borneo wild ox. (bos sundaicus)," which is cognate with Baluy Kayan keliho above. A second avoidance term in the domain of numina is "keduruh; to' k. the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth," a second entry of which Southwell glosses "dead leaves fallen from trees." (6) The psychological motivation for this avoidance term becomes understandable when reading Southwell's following example sentence: Menuna' daha' aleng adet pa'un takut to 'keduruh, iha'nah to' daha' matei nganak, formerly people were afraid of the spirit of those who died in childbirth." No doubt, then, 'the fallen leaves' are to avoid the more 'direct' expression matei nganak (< PWMP *matay anak 'die in childbirth', ACD). A last example is to' kepusan 'murder and headhunting victims.' "The derivation of kepusan is not clear," says Rousseau (1998:109), "but it is probably a cognate of 'usan', 'rain.'A euphemism for 'having died' is 'belepok usan', 'hit by rain'."

Rice and the agricultural cycle are also subject to avoidance terms (1998:66). Thus, lemirik 'clearing the underbrush' (usually done in April) is substituted by mati payo 'to fence the sambhur deer.' According to Rousseau (1998:153), this expression "had the magical effect of keeping this deer away from the field and served as an invisible fence until real fences were built later around farm areas." Other taboos, Rousseau states (1998:169-170), are observed during the sowing ritual, lali nugan: "One must not utter the words nugan, 'to sow' or du'i, 'to drink,' otherwise this would draw the attention of spirits and the rice would rot. The secret language (daho' ivun) provided safe synonyms: ngalong tana ('to draw on the earth,' which refers to the pattern of dibble holes) referred to sowing, while ne kelo'ngavok, 'do-like-monitor-lizards' meant 'come and drink.'" In addition, names for particular agricultural utensils also have substitutions in the avoidance register. An interesting example is urung 'the nose,' which was used as a "euphemism for ingen (a padi basket) under old pagan custom [...], not wishing to mention the real name" (Southwell; see also Rousseau 1998:185, 189, 333 on ingen lali 'the sacred basket').

Some other taboos related to the rice complex given by Rousseau (1998:66) are the following: "It was forbidden to enter another household's rice barn, otherwise the soul of the padi would be offended and might leave." Further, "[d]ogs were not allowed to enter barns, otherwise the rice would disappear unnaturally (kesavang)." In this last example, Rousseau introduces, almost casually, what appears to be a Baluy Kayan belief in the 'unnatural disappearance' of rice obviously expressed by the word kesavang. His Kayan Religion contains no further mention of this concept (because, as he recently explained to me, his "informants had no more to say about it; rice disappeared, end of statement. It wasn't attributed to anything; it was just "one of those things", pers.comm.), nor is it indexed in any of the published Kayan wordlists and dictionaries. However, Southwell's dictionary contains a pair of lexical items (or lexical opposites), which obviously refers to the same belief complex in the Baram river basin, namely mawa' and muan.

Mawa'and muan

Southwell glosses muan "2. a superstition under old customs, expecting a sudden miraculous increase of rice," while at a more basic level, it is said to refer to a "1. a continuous flow of water upwards, e.g. a leak in a boat; muan tua ata' nei men pesit haruk anih there is a leak in the boat." Muan is synonymous with nyeman 'to take by surprise, to startle' and also occurs in expressions, such as matei nyeman 'sudden death.' The antonym of muan is mawa', which Southwell defines as "diminishing or vanishing without apparent reason; luman kam pah tei mawa' lahuh your crops diminished, disappear with no apparent reason." As is true for muan, mawa' refers to a 'sudden' event, not a 'gradual' process. Consequently, Southwell contrasts mawa' with letung, one of the meanings of which is "2. to degenerate; as in growth; gradually diminishing quality of growth."

Although Southwell refers to muan and mawa' as superstition, the concept of a 'sudden,' 'miraculous' or 'unnatural' dis-/appearance of crops seems to (have) be(en) an essential aspect of Kayan religio-animistic thinking, both in the Baram and the Baluy areas. It probably reflects an awareness of the unpredictable forces of or in nature as a constant threat to life and a particular concern to secure the provision of food. "Virtually anything unusual (slap) has a supernatural connotation; at worst, it can be deadly (melien)," says Rousseau (1998:69), adding: "Melien is a cognate of lien, 'starving'"! By 'supernatural connotation,' Rousseau basically invokes the realm of 'spirit beings' and, therefore, comprehends daho' ivun as a reaction against 'spirits' (and animals!), whereas Southwell seems to have favored an explanation in terms of 'miracles.' However, his brief comment on mamih (see below) looks as if he also took spirit beings to be the principal agents behind 'miracles.'

Again, insecurity of life, as in the state of mawa', produced a need for safeguards, one of which was the mechanism of avoidance by way of lexical substitutions: According to Southwell, the following substitutes for basic adjectives and adverbs (or determiners) are directly related to the concept of mawa': Southwell glosses "mamih euphemism for 'heavy' used in evasive language due to fear of spirits and consequent "mawa"' (q.v.) old pagan word; mamih lale' ingen anih this basket is too heavy: syn. bahat." Another avoidance term is tabung, "a euphemism for big and well-nourished; tabung lelan batung na' he looks big and healthy." Rousseau (1998:47) gives the following explanation: "Children are particularly vulnerable to spirits and therefore must be made inconspicuous. It is most unwise to state that a child is fat and healthy, because this would bring the baby to the spirits' attention and they might take it away. [...] Thus, a heavy (bahat), healthy (tengo) child is known as mamih and tabung in the secret language." To these, one can probably add the term tu 'ih, which Southwell glosses "grown bigger; grown up; mature, a euphemism used under old customs, owing to superstitious fear that a child would remain small." The linguistic background of mamih and tu'ih is unclear, while the basic meaning of tabung is "1. a money box. 2 a bamboo box for keeping money or valuables." In addition to 'heavy,' 'full' was another candidate for substitution. Southwell gives "hamun euphemism for 'penu' full, owing to superstition of "mawa"' (q.v.) old pagan custom". Hamun may well be related to "(h)amuk 'sand-fly,' as such insects frequently occur in expressions referring to 'abundance.' For instance, "kutun (ngutun) 1. lice, fleas. 2. germs (invisible). 3. euphemism (slang) for abundant masik ilep aleng kutun hungei the ilep fish are seething in the river" (see also kutun < kuto' ' 1. louse; flea. 2. germs). This semantic link becomes more understandable in Southwell's following gloss: "ngutun (kutun) an abundant supply of (a slang euphemism, 'lousy with abundance'), ngutun lan hungei anan the river has an abundance of fish."

Not only adjectives, such as 'heavy' and 'full' have substitutes, but also the adverb (or determiner) 'much.' Thus, Southwell glosses "pina (mina) 2. a euphemism for 'much,' formerly used owing to a superstitious fear of miraculous diminution." Its basic meaning is " 1. merely a little; pina lan kelan dalo' they have got just that much," while its reduplication pina-pina translates as "not to be seen; unseen; pina-pina pah ika' em jam akui tinih it seems that you didn't see me here." Another euphemism for 'much' is pawat "under old adat, owing to fear of sudden diminishing." Southwell does not directly relate the last two avoidance terms to the concept of mawa', but his definitions leave no doubt that they belong to the same belief complex. Rousseau (1998:59) explains as follows: "[...] during the harvest, if a container was full (penu) of rice, one had to say it was hamun. It could be risky to mention that some valuable was plentiful, because this would draw the spirit's attention to the fact and they might bring misfortune. In such cases, leba' ('many') was replaced by the safe synonyms pawat and pina. In adat Bungan, the observance of these restrictions is more relaxed."


Avoidance speech is a phenomenon found in many Austronesian languages (see Simons 1982) and is also attested for several Borneo societies, such as the Kayan (see also Sillander 2009 on the Bentian; Soriente 2014 on the Punan Benalui etc.). While a more comprehensive discussion of daho' piho' or daho' ivun would be desirable, this paper was mainly concerned with entries in Southwell's Kayan-English dictionary (1990), which have not yet been discussed in the pertinent ethnographic literature. Charles Hudson Southwell was an ambitious missionary of the Borneo Evangelical Mission (BEM) and, by profession, highly sensitive to matters he considered "superstitious." This notwithstanding, he certainly had a comprehensive knowledge of Kayan customs and language and his dictionary, together with that of Barth (1910), is still unrivaled.

In addition, Southwell's concept of mawa' of the Baram Kayan finds support in Rousseau's seemingly identical concept of kesavang of the Baluy Kayan, both of which refer to a former Kayan belief in 'miraculous' (Southwell) or 'unnatural' (Rousseau) diminution (of rice/crops). In fact, after reviewing this paper and re-evaluating the evidence, Rousseau finds a cognate link between his bawa' and Southwell's mawa' not at all impossible. His argument runs as follows (pers.comm.): "[L]ooking in my fieldnotes, I get the following gloss: bawa' is a prohibition, it means more or less "impropriety" (ji 'ek jam) and it implies that "there will be a retribution if this impropriety is committed. For instance, it is improper for a young person to call an elder by his name" [The appropriate title should be used.] Similarly, bawa' applied to the prohibition against using some positive words, otherwise the positive situation would disappear. Thus, if a child was heavy (bahat), one had to use another word (mamih), etc. There is some correspondence to Southwell's gloss on mawa'."

As regards the types of associated avoidance terms in Kayan and their lexical sources, the following may be said: The use of kelihau for both, the 'deceased' and the 'ox' in the Baram is an issue of homophony, while the designation of women who died in childbirth as 'dead leaves' is self-explanatory. Body terminology is obviously another lexical source for avoidance terms: While kera' 'the neck', as a component of keran parei 'the stalk (or neck) holding ears of rice,' simply designates a part of the rice plant, urung 'the nose' is an avoidance term for 'padi basket.' Notably, daho 'piho' not only provides substitute terms for names of things, or nouns, but also verbs, such as 'to sow' or 'to drink,' and modifiers--adjectives, adverbs, determiners--which refer to the concepts of weight (e.g. 'heavy'), quantity and space (e.g. 'full,' 'abundant,' 'much'). It is often words for 'creepy-crawly' creatures, such as 'lice,' 'fleas,' etc., which serve evasive language to express 'abundance.' Finally, the majority of Kayan avoidance expressions are clearly of Kayanic origin, while the source of some terms, such as mamih, pawat or pina remains unclear. Pina, which, to repeat, is a euphemism for 'much,' is cross-referenced by Southwell to mina, one of the meanings of which is "a large gold coin (loan word, Greek) " (ibid: 177). The Bible, of course, offers us a parable of the minas (see Luke 19:11-27). However, whether there is a link between Greek [mu]v[alpha] (unit of currency, 70 drachmae) and Kayan mina (pina) certainly requires additional argument.

The phenomenon of avoidance in Kayan surely requires more detailed examination and it is hoped, that this paper will help generate a "miraculous increase" of interest in avoidance speech in other Bornean languages as well.


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Blust, Robert

1977 Sketches of the Morphology and Phonology of Bornean Languages 1: Uma Juman (Kayan). In: Sketches of the Morphology and Phonology of Bornean Languages Canberra: Pacific Linguistics, pp. 7-122.

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Venz, Oliver

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Oliver Venz (1)

Faculty of Social Science UNIMAS

(1) The research on which this paper is based was carried out by the author, Dr. Phil. Oliver Venz, as part of a Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (UNIMAS) Post-Doctoral Project entitled "Bornean Indigenous Concepts of Man in Comparison - An Ethnolinguistic Approach" (2014-2016).

(2) I am grateful to Clifford Sather and Jerome Rousseau for very helpful comments and additional data.

(3) Jok Apuy was a Kenyah who led a poor life in the village of Leppo' Jalan in the Apo Kayan. One day, in 1940, the deity Bungan revealed herself to Jok Apuy in a dream and he learned that the reason for his misery (and that of humankind in general) was the very nature of the adat of the deity Dipuy that they were practising. Relief was only to be found, she told him, in the return to the original religion of Bungan. Jok Apuy thus became the "prophet" of adat Bungan which quickly spread to other Kenyah and Kayan communities, especially in the Baluy area (see Rousseau 1998: 21-37 for a comprehensive discussion).

(4) This term is, according to Southwell (1990:155), different from mawa (awa) meaning "1. to pity; have compassion for relatives of deceased person. 2. to express one's mourning for death of a person, or sudden departure."

(5) Kayan distinguish a variety of different speech styles or registers. Southwell mentions daho' keli'un 'poetic or flowery speech (of Kayan oratory)', daho' kelikun 'speech that has a range of purposes including to conceal and mislead.' Another register, mentioned by Rousseau (1998:260), are the dahun to' 'spirit languages.' The so-called 'bad names' (aran ji 'ek) or 'illness names' (aran kelutun), sometimes given to Kayan children, such as Angah 'soot,' Uning 'ashes,' Lingen 'hidden' etc., can probably also be classed as daho' ivun, as "[s]uch deflect the attention of bothersome spirits and make the child unrecognizable" (Rousseau 1998:276).

(6) Another term for women who died in childbirth in the Baluy is to 'ka' (Rousseau, pers.comm.).
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Title Annotation:RESEARCH NOTES
Author:Venz, Oliver
Publication:Borneo Research Bulletin
Geographic Code:9INDO
Date:Jan 1, 2016
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