Problems with identifying what language the Badjao speak
(For help identifying Sinama languages and dialects please refer to the webmaster’s academic article, Language Features and Simple Methods to Help the Non-Linguist Navigate the Sinama Languages and Dialects [Edit 7-2-18])
When asking Sama from Tawi-Tawi, Sulu, Basilan, or Zamboanga what language do the Badjao speak, their answer is all the same. Sinama. However, when linguists examined the Sinama from these areas closer, they concluded that there are actually 4 languages described as Sinama. Northern Sinama (Sama Banguingi), Central Sinama, Sinama Pangutaran, & Southern Sinama.
The largest subgroup or dialect of the Central Sama group are the Sama Dilaut who are known by most as the Badjao. Throughout Luzon, Visayas, & Mindanao the Sama Dilaut we have met all speak Central Sinama. I have often heard that there are two Sama Dilaut groupings: Those from Sulu & those from Tawi-Tawi. According to Arlo Nimmo in his book, “Magosaha”, the Sama Dilaut from Siasi & Zamboanga tend to travel much farther in their houseboats than the Badjao he studied in Tawi-Tawi.
As a student of Central Sinama, I have wondered at the prospects of studying Central Sinama in Malaysia. It is well known that Southern Sinama is more frequently found there, but the strong presence of Sama Tabawan and Sama Dilaut hints at language learning opportunities for me in Semporna. But what Sinama do the Badjao (Sama Dilaut) of Semporna speak?
Clifford Sather in his book, “The Bajau Laut: Adaptation, History, and Fate in a Maritime Fishing Society of South-eastern Sabah” states the following, “Within the Semporna-Sibutu area, all Sama Dilaut speak the same dialect, which Walton and Moody identify as a variety of Southern Sama.”
At first it was by gut feeling that I felt this to be untrue. After listening to Sinama spoken in several documentaries about the Bajau Laut of Semporna, my wife, a Sama Siasi, agreed that seemingly they are speaking the same Sinama as the Badjao that we know. That is Central and not Southern. This again was her impression when we met a family living on a houseboat in Semporna. Unfortunately on our trip we were unable to collect a wordlist from a Sama Pala’u.
Thanks to friend, Erik Abrahamsson, we were able to get a Swadesh Wordlist Collected from a Sama Pala’u living in Semporna. To see the actual wordlist click the following: Badjao Swadesh Wordlist.
These are my initial observations:
Most of the adjectives collected in the Swadesh Wordlist were prefixed with the a- affix. An affix that is absent in Southern Sinama. An example of this is the word aheka, the Central Sinama word for many as opposed to heka the Southern Sinama rendering of the same word.
Several verbs collected use the prefix aN-, also a Central Sinama prefix. Examples of this are anginum, amangan, angutta’, ang’nda’ etc.
Several words collected are only used by Central and not Southern Sinama. Examples are ngga’i ka being used for the word not. The Southern Sinama would be sikeya or siraka. Sai was the word used for the English word who. The Southern Sinama is sayyan or seyyan. To be afraid was atāw as collected. The Southern Sinama is talow. Bu’un is a Central Sinama word. Bū kōk is the Southern Sinama.
Southern Sinama would pronounce words such as daing as deyng, daun as down, ka’a as ka’u, atay as atey, togel as tegol.
There are a few words that may be closer to Southern Sinama than Central. Ulagat is a good example of this. Also using ongka‘ to describe music is characteristic of Southern Sinama. Alabu’ is the Southern Sinama for ahūg or ahulug, meaning to fall.
Conclusion that the Badjao (Sama Dilaut) in Malaysia are Central Sinama Speakers
Actually this wordlist even though it may have many imperfections is a very clear evidence that the Sama Dilaut, those known by Malaysians as the Bajau Laut of Semporna, are speaking Central Sinama. This may make very little difference to the Sama people themselves. They will go on recognizing themselves as speakers of Sinama. For the most part they can understand across the four languages. For researchers and also local governments in Malaysia, this is an important discovery. One that you might be misled about when reading some of the more extensive works on the Bajau/Sama.