The Moken are a group of nomadic peoples living off the coast of Thailand and Burma. They have had little contact with the outside world, and as such, their language has developed without much influence from other cultures…
Nomads of the Pacific Seas
The Moken, a group of nomadic people who live in islands off the coast of Thailand and Burma, may be one of the few ethnic groups that until recently had little or no contact with the outside world. Also known as “sea gypsies”, the majority live in houseboats and are dependent on the sea for their livelihood as well as their sustenance. Most Moken learn to swim before they can walk, spending equal time under and above water.
Along with their oral tradition of storytelling, it was this relationship with the sea that gave them the ability to predict a tsunami and to safely reach higher ground. Prior to the tsunami in 2004 in Southeast Asia, they noticed a sudden and dramatic decline in the tide. Traditional stories of a laboon, a ‘wave that consumes people’, warn that when the sea begins to retreat in such a way, the laboon is soon to follow.
The Moken Language
Although not a common request for translation services, Moken is a relatively complex language with dialects branching off of it. It is a Malayo-Polynesian language spoken by the Moken people living primarily in the Mergui Archipelago off the coast of Burma and on Mu Koh Surin – a group of islands far out in the Andaman Sea on the border between Burma and Thailand.
The people refer to themselves as Mawken or Moken, and they are called Selung or Salon by the Burmese. The language has approximately 7,000 speakers, and six dialects: Dung, Jait, Lebi, Niawi, Jadiak and Moklen. The written form of Moken is found in Karen, Latin and Thai scripts. The rate of illiteracy among the Moken is high, and this is increasingly problematic as they assimilate into the mainstream culture on the mainland.
No Word for Worry or Want
Like all languages, Moken is greatly influenced by culture. It is noteworthy that some words which are common in Western languages do not have any equivalent in the Moken language. For example, words like “when”, “take”, “want”, “worry”, “goodbye”, or “hello” are non-existent in Moken. Primarily a result of their lifestyle, the Moken vocabulary differs substantially from languages of peoples with comparatively looser ties to nature.
Theirs is said to be a very different perception of time, thus eliminating the need for words such as “when”. As mentioned previously, there is no word equivalent for “want” in Moken, and this is reflected in their culture of day-to-day survival that is entirely dependent on the generosity of the sea. Although it is most likely untrue that the Moken never worry, the fact that there is no word for “worry” tells us something about our own culture.
Is Moken Becoming Extinct?
Over the past ten years, the population of these free-roaming sea nomads has diminished substantially, and there is concern over their survival. Poverty, exposure to other cultures through tourism, and lack of political influence have made it difficult to maintain their culture. After 4,000 years living as sea nomads, contact with Western culture has led a great number of the Moken to assimilate with mainland culture.
Having moved to places where Moken is not the primary language, many no longer follow their traditional migratory lifestyle, which has pushed the language to the brink of extinction. The Moken who predicted the 2004 tsunami persevered, but can these “sea gypsies” survive the waves of modernity?
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