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Taming Babel
Language in the Making of Malaysia


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  • Date Published: March 2018
  • availability: Available
  • format: Paperback
  • isbn: 9781316602607

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About the Authors
  • Taming Babel sheds new light on the role of language in the making of modern postcolonial Asian nations. Focusing on one of the most linguistically diverse territories in the British Empire, Rachel Leow explores the profound anxieties generated by a century of struggles to govern the polyglot subjects of British Malaya and postcolonial Malaysia. The book ranges across a series of key moments in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, in which British and Asian actors wrought quiet battles in the realm of language: in textbooks and language classrooms; in dictionaries, grammars and orthographies; in propaganda and psychological warfare; and in the very planning of language itself. Every attempt to tame Chinese and Malay languages resulted in failures of translation, competence, and governance, exposing both the deep fragility of a monoglot state in polyglot milieux, and the essential untameable nature of languages in motion.

    • Proposes a new view of how language and nationalism are connected in a postcolonial Asian nation
    • Articulates a language-centered alternative to studies of nationalism and ethnic identity in Southeast Asia, focusing on Chinese and Malay languages
    • Goes beyond race paradigms and balances study of Chinese and Malay history in the making of Malaysia
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    • Winner, 2018 Harry J. Benda Book Prize, Association for Asian Studies

    Reviews & endorsements

    'Rachel Leow has written a timely book with an elegance necessary for the tangled cords that characterise the language policies in colonial and postcolonial Malaysia.' Alicia Izharuddin, New Books Asia (

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    Product details

    • Date Published: March 2018
    • format: Paperback
    • isbn: 9781316602607
    • length: 281 pages
    • dimensions: 229 x 152 x 15 mm
    • weight: 0.43kg
    • contains: 2 maps
    • availability: Available
  • Table of Contents

    Part I. The Colonial State:
    1. The technocrats: challenges of governance in a polyglot society
    2. The knowledge producers: taming sounds, scripts and selves
    Part II. Word Wars:
    3. The lexicographers: dictionaries and the making of postwar politics
    4. The propagandists: public relations, psychological warfare and the making of the influential state
    Part III. The Postcolonial State:
    5. The language planners: Dewan Bahasa in the invention and constriction of the postcolonial nation-state

  • Author

    Rachel Leow, University of Cambridge
    Rachel Leow is a university lecturer in Modern East Asian History at the University of Cambridge. She received two full Ph.D. scholarships from the Bill and Melinda Gates Scholarship Foundation and from the Tunku Abdul Rahman Scholarship Fund at St Catharine's College, Cambridge. She was subsequently appointed as a Prize Fellow for the inaugural Prize Fellowships in Economics, Politics and History at Harvard University, Massachusetts.


    • Winner, 2018 Harry J. Benda Book Prize, Association for Asian Studies

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