Monday, 21 May 2012

Naming of locations in Bahasa Melayu/Malaysia: the traditional way

It is important to give names to things around us for spatial recognition and/or as points of orientation. Traditionally, in the absence of modern gadgets to aid orientation, early humans depended on the celestial bodies and prominent features of the ecosystem to serve the purpose. The early Malays did the same thing. According to Tham (1990), basically, it was to meet two basic needs: “…the need to give names to places of cognitive significance, and the need to locate or identify villages/towns.”

So, the Malays at the time named locations after peculiar features of the environment, animals, vegetation, and beliefs or occurrences related to Malay myths and legends.

The following examples are to illustrate (meanings of names are of direct translation):

1. Locations named after estuaries (Kuala):

Kuala Lumpur muddy estuary
Kuala Kangsar estuary where bebaru trees are
Kuala Lipis estuary with pulsating water
Kuala Bertam estuary where bertam palm are
Kuala Lukut estuary where lukut trees are
Kuala Muda young estuary
Kuala Tasek estuary of a lake
Kuala Sawah estuary with a paddy field
Kuala Pilah estuary where pilah trees are
(Kampung) Kuala Dingin estuary of Dingin river, which water is cold
(Kampung) Kuala Ayer Putih estuary of “white” (clear?) water
(Kampung) Kuala Kijang estuary where deers are found
(Kampung) Kuala Tawar estuary of Tawar river, which water is tasteless
(Kampung) Kuala Melaka estuary where melaka trees are

2. Locations named after water (Air/Ayer):

Air Meleleh dripping water
Air Kuning yellow water
Air Hitam blackish water
Air Terjun waterfalls
Air Keruh murky water
Ayer Panas hot water
Ayer Sejuk cold water
Ayer Punggai water where punggai plants are
(Kampung) Ayer Kangkong water with waterplants
(Kampung) Anak Ayer Manggis spring of Manggis River
(Kampung) Ayer Limau water with lemon trees
(Kampung) Ayer Lanjut long/prolong/old river
(Kampung) Ayer Molek pretty water
(Kampung) Ayer Dalam deep water
(Kampung) Ayer Pasir sandy water
(Kampung) Ayer Perah wrung water
(Kampung) Ayer Resam custom/norm or a type of fern

3. Locations named after rock/stone (Batu):

Batu Pahat chiseled rock
Batu Belah spilt rock
Batu Bertangkup unturned rock
Batu Feringgi Portuguese rock
Batu Besar large/big rock
(Kampung) Batu Buaya rock where crocodiles are found
(Kampung) Batu Hampar spread out/lay out flat rock
(Kampung) Batu Itam blackish rock
(Kampung) Batu Maung rock with very bitter smell/taste
(Kampung) Batu Ayer Putih rock with “white” (clear?) water
(Kampung) Batu Lintang crosswise rock
(Kampung) Batu Seketul a one-piece rock
(Kampung) Batu Putih white rock

4. Locations named after river (Sungai):

Sungai Manik river which water appears bead-like
Sungai Mentiga a river which divides into three
Sungai Siput river with snails
Sungai Lesu river with fatigue/listless water
Sungai Besi river with iron-ore
Sungai Dua two rivers
Sungai Durian river with Durian tree
Sungai Keladi river  where yam plants
Sungai Selut river with thick mud
(Kampung) Sungai Mati dead river
(Kampung) Sungai Serai river with lemongrass plants
(Kampung) Sungai Buloh river with bamboo trees
(Kampung) Sungai Belati river which looks like a small knife (narrow and long)
(Kampung) Sungai Jernih clear waters
(Kampung) Sungai Baru new river

5. Locations named after land/earth (Tanah):

Tanah Rata where the land flat/level
Tanah Merah where the earth is red
Tanah Tinggi high/elevated land
Tanah Datar flat/plain/horizontal land
Tanah Baru newly-opened land
Tanah Melintang crosswise land

6. Locations named after fort (Kota):

Kota Bahru/Bharu/Baharu the new fort
Kota Lama the old fort
Kota Tinggi high/elevated fort
Kota Raja king’s fort
Kota Kapor of Kapor trees or where kapor trees are found
(Kampung) Kota Aur of Aur trees or where aur trees are found
(Kampung) Kota Bukit the fort on the hill
(Kampung) Kota Mengkuang of Mengkuang plants or where mengkuang  trees are found
(Kampung) Kota Rentang the fort which stretches across

7. Locations named after trees:

(Kampung) Kepayang where kepayang trees are
(Kampung) Ru where casuarinas are
(Kampung) Serai where lemongrass plants are
(Kampung) Durian Tunggal where there is only one durian tree
(Kampung) Merlimau where there are lemon trees
(Kampung) Bakau Tinggi where there are mangrove trees
(Kampung) Binjai where there are binjai trees
(Kampung) Nipah where there are nipah palm trees
(Kampung) Meranti where there are meranti trees
(Kampung) Nyatuh where there are nyatuh trees
(Kampung) Nibong where there are nibong trees
(Kampung) Nangka where there are jackfruit trees
(Kampung) Kundar where there are kundar/kundor trees
(Kampung) Tualang where there are tualang trees
(Kampung) Sago where there are sago trees
(Kampung) Pokok Asam where there are tamarind trees
(Kampung) Pokok Sena where there are angsana trees

8. Locations named after animals:

Alur Gajah elephant’s channel
Kepala Gajah appears to look like an elephant’s head
Pulau Ketam island of crabs
(Kampung) Tekukur of cuckoo birds
(Kampung) Buaya of crocodiles
(Kampung) Kelawar of bats
(Kampung) Lubok Itek where ducks’ deep hollow can be found
(Kampung) Lubok Puyu where puyu‘s deep hollow can be found
(Kampung) Landak of porcupine/hedgehog
(Kampung) Lang Merah of red eagle
(Kampung) Kubang Siput where snails’ mud-hole can be found
(Kampung) Kubang Sapi where cows’ mud-hole can be found
(Kampung) Kubang Beruang where bears’ mud-hole can be found
(Kampung) Kijang of deer
(Kampung) Tanjung Semut of ants
(Kampung) Sanglang of eagles
(Kampung) Anak Gajah of baby/small elephants
(Kampung) Kuala Rimau where tigers can be found

9. Locations named after promontory/cape (Tanjung/Tanjong):

Tanjung Rambutan where rambutan trees are found
Tanjung Pinang where areca palm trees are found
Tanjung Periok which looks like a cooking pot
Tanjung Ru where casuarinas are found
Tanjung Agas where sandflies are found
Tanjung Petai where petai trees are found
Tanjung Beringin where beringin trees are found
Tanjung Bachang Where bachang trees are found
Tanjung Berangan where berangan trees are found
Tanjung Ipoh where ipoh trees are found
Tanjung Jati where jati trees are found
(Kampung) Tanjung Puteri princess’ promontory
(Kampung) Tanjung Musang where civet cats are found
(Kampung) Tanjung Putus which were separated from the mainland
(Kampung) Tanjung Pisang where banana trees are found
(Kampung) Tanjung Besar a large promontory
(Kampung) Tanjung Pari where stingrays are found

10. Locations named after hills (Bukit):

Bukit Tinggi a tall hill
Bukit Mertajam a pointed hill
Bukit Permai a pretty/peaceful hill
Bukit Batuk a “coughing” hill
Balik Bukit the other side of the hill
Bukit Gelugor where gelugor trees are found
Bukit Gemuruh a “moaning” hill
(Kampung) Bukit China Chinese hill
(Kampung) Bukit Gasing which looks like spinning top
(Kampung) Bukit Badak where rhinoceroses are found
(Kampung) Bukit Lada where pepper plants are found
(Kampung) Bukit Hantu a haunted hill
(Kampung) Kaki Bukit at the foothill
(Kampung) Bukit Kijang where deer are found
(Kampung) Bukit Minyak where oil is found
(Kampung) Bukit Merah of red earth

11. Locations named after canals (Parit):

Parit Lintang a crosswise canal
Parit Mawas where apes are found
Parit Paya Lebar wide and swampy canal
Parit Pasir sandy canal
Parit Lanjut long/old canal
Parit Kancil where mousedeer are found
Parit Jawa canal belonging to the Javanese
Parit Jepun canal belonging to the Japanese
Parit Bunga where there are a lot of flowers
Parit Besar large canal
Parit Betung where betung bamboo trees are found
Parit Belukar where shrub/bush is found
Parit Bengkok bent canal

12. Locations named after wells/shaft dugged or drilled (telaga):

(Kampung) Telaga Tujuh the seven wells
(Kampung) Telaga Bijih iron-ore mine
(Kampung) Telaga Gayong which looks like a dipper
(Kampung) Telaga Air water well
(Kampung) Telaga Mas a gold mine
(Kampung) Telaga Bata a well made of bricks
(Kampung) Telaga Batu a well made of rocks
(Kampung) Telaga China belonging to the Chinese

13. Locations named after gulfs/deep hollows (Lubuk/Lubok):

(Kampung) Lubok Nibong where nibong trees are
(Kampung) Lubok Puyu puyu’s deep hollow
(Kampung) Lubok Dalam a deep deep-hollow
(Kampung) Lubok Bunut bunut‘s deep hollow
(Kampung) Lubok Tapah tapah‘s deep hollow
(Kampung) Lubok Macang where macang trees are
(Kampung) Lubok Batu deep hollow filled with rocks
(Kampung) Lubok Buaya crocodiles’ deep hollow
(Kampung) Lubok Gajah elephants’ deep hollow
(Kampung) Lubok Kawah which looks like a crater
(Kampung) Lubok Saga where saga trees are
(Kampung) Lubok Ular snakes’ deep hollow
(Kampung) Lubok Labi turtles’ deep hollow

14. Locations named after bays (Teluk/Telok):

Teluk Intan Intan’s bay (a person)
(Kampung) Teluk Bayu breezy bay
(Kampung) Teluk Jambu where water apples are
(Kampung) Teluk Kacang where nut plants are
(Kampung) Teluk Ayer Tawar bay of tasteless water
(Kampung) Teluk Durian where durian trees are
(Kampung) Teluk Keluang where flying-foxes are
(Kampung) Teluk Layang where kites are
(Kampung) Teluk Nibong where nibong trees are
(Kampung) Teluk Sisek which soil looks like scales of fish
(Kampung) Teluk Gelam where gelam (the tree or heron) are


From the list above, we can see that most of the locations are named after their geographical features, such as estuaries, rocks/stones, promontories, canals, bays and deep hollow. In addition to their geographical features, most of these locations are also named after vegetation or animals, as we can see above. Also evident are places named after beliefs or occurrences related to Malay myths and legends, such as (Kampung) Ayer Perah (wrung water), (Kampung) Ayer Molek (pretty water), Batu Belah (spilt rock), (Kampung) Batu Buaya (rock where crocodiles are found), Kepala Gajah (appears to look like an elephant’s head), (Kampung), Bukit Batuk (a “coughing” hill), (Kampung) Bukit Hantu (a haunted hill), Bukit Gemuruh (a hill which moans), and (Kampung) Telaga Tujuh (the seven wells). Other than that, there are places named after a person/people, such as Teluk Intan (Intan’s bay), (Kampung) Telaga China (belonging to the Chinese), Parit Jawa (canal belonging to the Javanese), Parit Jepun (canal belonging to the Japanese), (Kampung) Bukit China (Chinese hill), (Kampung) Tanjung Puteri (princess’ promontory), Kota Raja (king’s fort) and Batu Feringgi (Portuguese rock).


Tham Seong Chee. (1990). A Study of the Evolution of the Malay Language: Social Change and Cognitive Development. Singapore: Singapore University Press.

Hawkins, J.M. (2006). Kamus Dwibahasa Oxford Fajar: Inggeris-Melayu/Melayu-Inggeris (4th Ed.). Kuala Lumpur: Oxford Fajar.


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