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When a name reflects your identity: English misnomers in Malaysian places

A name, or an identity of a place, is a potent thing. It is a descriptor that allows people to make quick judgments and assumptions about the place. Be that as it may, a strong identity is acquired when the name is congruent with the physical characteristics that are associated with the name. In attempts to realize the sense of place, physical setting, activities and meanings are notable attributes that must be considered. The name is an important aspect under meanings where it underpins the association through the language and the semantics of the word. For places to be memorable, it must have a name that one can associate its character with. For example, Jalan Masjid India has a strong identity as its name portrays a place of concentration of activities, colours or physical elements that are favoured by a particular ethnic group. This has made the place easily identifiable and exuding a strong sense of place and character. It is when a name fails to identify with the physical characteristics of the place, then the place will be difficult to be recalled or identified.

Back then when the country was a British colony, some local names were supplanted with colonialist place designations. A classic example is when Tanjong Penaga was unceremoniously replaced with George Town. The former is more closely associated with the character of the city which is located at the tip of the island, Pulau Pinang. The latter is a constant reminder that we were once colonised by the British. After 63 years of independence, isn't it about time that we dignify Tanjong Penaga by giving back its site-specific and cultural specific name that best described its identity?

The other major issue is when English or foreign-sourced names are being used by the local marketing departments of the developers to sell new housing developments or shopping malls. Hence, trendy names such as KL East, Somerville, Beverly Heights, Mid Valley, Pavilion and others are becoming a new branding culture to sell the image of the ideal living environment or prestigious shopping places. Why must an English name for places be seen as prestigious, up-market, character-giving, and perceived as being better than those having names in Bahasa Malaysia? It is an issue worthy of serious pondering and appraisal if we are to transcend any sense of insecurity we may have about the inherent strength of our local identity.

In order for places to have an identity, they must have names that reflect their physical setting or historical association to the place and echo the predominant activities or cultural groups. A strong congruence between the name and the most dominant character of the place can invariably give it a notable identity. When the new design support this relationship then the place will infer meanings to people and having identity due to the distinctiveness of the physical characteristics that relate to the local context. Under no circumstances would a place be named after the word Presint or numbers as numbers have no meaning and character. Perhaps it is about time to change all the names of streets and areas from numbers to characters giving ones. It is hoped that the local authorities will monitor the names given for new places of physical development during planning submission. Hopefully, foreign-sourced names may be a thing of the past, and proud and creative use of the Malay language in giving names to all the places would be the new norm in the country.




Image by Nicole Geri

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