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The Dusun languages of northern Borneo: the Rungus Dusun and related problems1

Reprinted from Oceanic Linguistics, VOL. VII, NO. 1, Summer, 1968

G. N. Appell
Brandeis University

The term “Dusun” has many referents. The coastal Muslim from the western section of the Malaysian Archipelago used the term to refer to various agricultural peoples of Malaya, Kalimantan, and particularly Sabah (formerly North Borneo). These Dusun peoples shared nothing in common in contrast to other peoples in the area except perhaps a more stable village structure and the propensity to plant groves of fruit trees around their settlements. But this is conjecture.

Coastal Muslim from the eastern section of the Archipelago, mainly Bajau (Sama), used the term “Ida’an” (alternatively rendered “Idahan” or “Idaan”) to refer to similar, non-Muslim peoples but particularly to those in Sabah. This term appeared in the journals of early English voyagers to the Borneo coast (see Forrest, 1779:368), and it continued to occur with frequency in reports on northern Borneo into the late 1800's. However, the term “Ida’an” sometimes was not restricted to the Dusun-speaking populations alone, but included in addition the Murut peoples (Low, 1848:343), the Kedayan of Brunei (Keppel, 1846:194-195), and so on.

Later English adventurers and colonizers, having closer contacts with the coastal Muslim of the western area of the Archipelago, such as the Brunei Malay, adopted the term “Dusun” to refer to the indigenous peoples living on the west coast of Sabah (e.g., Belcher, 1848, I:504-505; St. John, 1862:226). This folk category of Dusun was also adopted by the organizers of the British North Borneo Company (1890). It was used both in their descriptions of the country and later as a category for the governmental censuses, and, consequently, it became accepted for administrative purposes. Thus the fact that many of the culturally heterogeneous peoples of Sabah are frequently referred to as “Dusun” is due more to an accident of history than to a conscious ethnological classification.

This situation of course is not unique. Terms used for ethnic identification that are derived from the folk classifications of peoples foreign to those being identified might, for convenience, be referred to as “exonyms.” And, more frequently than not, exonyms become the accepted names for peoples instead of their autonyms, which recognize the locally relevant distinctions. Difficulties arise, however, when the semantic boundaries of such folk categories are accepted uncritically and incorporated into the linguistic, ethnological, and demographic literature.

The term “Dusun,” when used in the government censuses, thus includes a culturally complex group of peoples. Since I have detailed elsewhere the degree of this sociocultural heterogeneity and discussed some of the resulting anthropological problems (Appell, 1966, 1967, 1968a, 1968b; Appell and Harrison, 1969), I will here only briefly illustrate its scope with the extreme case of the so-called Banggi Island Dusun. The isoglot2 of the Banggi islanders (Schneeberger, 1937) shares roughly only 28 per cent of cognates with the Rungus Dusun, one of their closest neighbors (see Appell, 1967). In other areas of culture the Banggi islanders also differ to a significant degree, suggesting that they represent either a remnant population or an intrusive one. This conclusion finds support in Dyen’s (1965) lexicostatistical analysis of Austronesian languages. Languages in Palawan, just to the north of Banggi Island, appear to be more closely related to languages on the Borneo mainland than is the Banggi Island isoglot. Dyen reports that his Dusun isoglot has 31.4 per cent of shared cognates with his Palawanic subfamily, and it should be noted that the Dusun which Dyen used for his lexical list was from Papar, which is at the southern end of the Dusun language family distribution and is, consequently, one of the furtherest removed from Palawan and Banggi Island.

Similarly, the cultural affiliations of the so-called Dusun peoples of the Sandakan Residency to the main body of Dusun-speakers on the west coast are not entirely clear. Along the lightly populated interior drainage systems of the Kinabatangan and other rivers are a group of peoples called Orang Sungei, who are included in the governmental censuses with the main body of Dusun-speakers, although in fact they may be derived in some cases from Murut populations; in the Labuk River system are various reportedly Dusun-speaking groups; and in the Segama River region are other alleged “Dusun” groups. Clayre (1966), using lexical material, finds the languages of two of these east coast groups — one in the lower reaches of the Labuk River and the other in the upper reaches of the Kinabatangan — closely related to those of the Dusun-speakers on the west coast (see Map 1).

[Map 1 inserted here.]

MAP 1. Location of Clayre’s Dusun dialects. (After Clayre [1966] with Residency boundaries added.)

However, if we exclude such divergent or unknown “Dusun” groups as the Banggi islanders and those of the Sandakan Residency, it is clear from an inspection of the available lexicons (see Cense and Uhlenbeck, 1958, for a bibliography) that the remaining Dusun-speakers living in the geographically contiguous areas of the West Coast and Interior residencies speak closely related dialects or languages. Clayre (1966), using more extensive but as yet unpublished linguistic evidence, reaches a similar conclusion. These peoples form roughly 90 per cent of the Dusun demographic category used in the Government Census and numbered approximately 130,000 in 1960 (Jones, 1962). However, as I have previously pointed out (Appell, 1967, 1968a, 1968b; Appell and Harrison, 1969) even this limited class of Dusun-speakers includes a number of very culturally diverse populations, the members of which recognize no common cultural heritage and do not accept the appellation “Dusun” as applying to them.

As originally used, the term “Dusun” meant “villager” or people of the “orchards” (see Appell, 1965, 1967). To some this has a pejorative connotation, and, since independence, objections have been raised to its use. Consequently, I stress the point that “Dusun” is an exonym and that those peoples to whom it has been and still is being applied consist of a number of culturally diverse ethnic units, and I restrict my use of the term solely to linguistic purposes. A linguistic classification is concerned with recondite concepts and distinctions, and more usually than not it overrides the locally relevant cultural and political distinctions. As such, it is particularly appropriate for the use of exonyms. Consequently, I presently identify and classify the ethnic groupings of northern Borneo by means of a binomial terminology, the first part being the autonym of the group in question and the last term being the name of the language family to which the group belongs. This results in the identification of ethnic groupings as follows: Rungus Dusun, Nulu Dusun, Lotud Dusun, Kadazan Dusun, and so forth. In the Kudat District alone we have isolated fifteen or more named ethnic groups of Dusun-speakers (see Map 2).3

At present the degree to which the members of this category of Dusun-speakers are linguistically related is not completely clear. While it is clear that isoglots geographically separated by one or two speech communities are frequently not mutually intelligible, we do not know whether these isoglots are mutually intelligible with their neighbors from one end of the Dusun distribution to the other.

Clayre (1966) takes the position that Dusun includes several different languages. She is the only person who has yet attempted a systematic analysis of the various Dusun isoglots. There are serious limitations to her data which I shall discuss, after summarizing her findings. Using lexicostatistical techniques and an inspection of morphological material, she concludes that there are two main divisions of the Dusun language family: West Coast Dusun and East Coast Dusun. In her West Coast Dusun she includes four languages (see Map 1): (1) the Ranau, Bundu, and Tambunan isoglots; (2) Lotud; (3) Penampang; and (4) Rungus. For the East Coast, she was able to examine only three scattered isoglots. Because her data are sparse, she is not sure whether the East Coast division includes one or two languages: (1) the Labuk and Mangkok isoglots; and possibly (2) a Rungus-Bengkoka axis forming a link between the West and East divisions.

[Map 2 inserted here.]

MAP 2. The locations of the major Dusun isoglots in the Kudat District.

Clayre has made a very important contribution to our understanding of the Dusun languages and has established for the linguistic domain what I have maintained for some time for other cultural domains: the populations of Sabah, frequently lumped together under the term “Dusun” by the outsider, consist of a number of socioculturally complex and heterogeneous ethnic groupings. A better understanding of the anthropology of Sabah can be obtained, therefore, if we consider first these ethnic units and their differences before attempting to establish the relationships of these groups to one another.

One of the more interesting results of Clayre’s study is that the Lotud have an isoglot that is significantly different from other isoglots along the west coast, and they appear at present not to fit into any continuum of progressive differentiation on a geographical basis. That is, languages on either side of the Lotud — the Penampang and Bundu languages — are more closely related to each other than to the Lotud, which suggests that either the Lotud isoglot or the Bundu and Penampang ones have not evolved in their present loci. Interestingly enough, this linguistic disconformity correlates with another feature of culture. Among the Lotud as well as among the Rungus, heads taken in warfare were kept in the long-house, whereas a separate head-house was used in both the Penampang and the Bundu areas. The term for it, or for those associated with it, bongkawan, is also found among certain groups in the intermontane plains area (Appell and Harrison, 1969). This is not to say that the Penampang and Bundu Dusun have in toto closer cultural affiliations with the intermontane Dusun-speakers than with those along the west coast. As yet we do not have that kind of evidence. On the other hand, the limited evidence available indicates that the major watershed in terms of social structure appears to be between those Dusun-speaking groups who practice wet rice agriculture, such as the Lotud and Penampang Dusun, and those having a swidden-based economy, such as the Bundu and Rungus (Appell and Harrison, 1969).

Clayre’s work, however, has two limitations: her data come from noncontiguous geographical areas and her ethnic identifications in some cases are questionable. First, since Clayre’s material comes from geographically isolated isoglots, we do not know whether the intervening isoglots are mutually intelligible with those of her sample. If they are, there could be shown for Dusun an orderly progression or chain of dialects, which would form, according to one view, a single language rather than a family of several related languages, as now appears from Clayre’s data (see Dyen, 1960; Voegelin et al., 1963).

Secondly, the problem of ethnic identification that arises in Clayre’s work stems from the same external point of view characteristic of the early explorers and the British colonial government. This approach is also found in much of the ethnological and medical anthropological research in Sabah, thus limiting its value (see Appell, 1968a for a discussion of this point). As a consequence of this external point of view, indigenous distinctions are overlooked and problems of ethnic identity arise, particularly with regard to the two Dusun isoglots collected by Clayre in the Kudat District, the area with which I am most familiar.

Clayre (1966) identifies the two Dusun isoglots from the Kudat District as “Rungus” and “Bengkoka.” On her map, she shows Rungus occupying the whole Kudat Peninsula (see Map 1), and she writes that Rungus is “the dialect of the Kudat Peninsula.” Unfortunately this is wrong; like many visitors to the Kudat area, Clayre may have been led to this misconception by the local Dusun-speakers themselves. Rungus is the largest and most visible ethnic group in the District, and frequently Dusun-speakers from other ethnic groups in the area will identify themselves to Europeans as “Rungus” for reasons of ease and simplicity. I have discussed this problem a number of times (1963, 1965, 1966, 1967), and in particular I have shown (1968a) how this misconception has invalidated a medical anthropological study of a so-called Rungus village. In fact, four major isoglots are found on the Kudat Peninsula: Rungus, Nulu, Gonsomon, and Tobilong (see Map 2).

The problem of identifying Clayre’s “Rungus dialect” is compounded by the fact that her principal informant in the study is listed as a missionary who was known among the Rungus proper as speaking with a “Nulu accent.” The Rungus with whom I have done extensive fieldwork state that the Nulu, Rungus, and Gonsomon isoglots are mutually intelligible, differing only in some small respects, particularly with regard to the personal pronouns. I believe we can safely conclude that Nulu, Gonsomon, and Rungus form a single language. However, I would refrain from terming it the “Rungus language” as this leads to confusion between this category, externally constructed and overriding local distinctions, and the indigenous category of the Rungus people, which has significantly different social boundaries. Since such linguistic categories are exogenous, I believe that it makes better sense in the long run and minimizes confusion if geographic terms or exonyms are used. I suggest that the language consisting of at least the three dialects of Rungus, Nulu, and Gonsomon be termed the Marudu Dusun language, since its representatives are found on both sides of Marudu Bay. Eventually, after further linguistic research, Marudu Dusun may be considered to include other Kudat isoglots, such as I have located on Map 2, but as yet there is no evidence for this.

Before discussing Bengkoka Dusun, it is important to note briefly the importance of considering dialects in any type of linguistic typology or historical reconstruction. Dyen (1960:36) makes the point succinctly:

A problem might arise in dealing with a language that covers a large geographical area and is highly dialectalized. It is conceivable that in its spread different languages could have separated from it at different points in its territory. If the extensive language is A, and the offshoots are B and C, it is possible that B is similar to some dialects of A, and C to others, and the family tree that results might depend on the dialect of A that was chosen as representative.

Dyen then makes the point that the correct solution would require that the relation of any two languages be determined by the percentages scored by their most closely related dialects (see also Dyen, 1965 for examples).

This problem of dialect identification and the relationship between local dialects arises in Clayre’s Bengkoka Dusun category. She states (1966:3) that Bengkoka is one of several minor dialects spoken on the Melobong Peninsula, but which of the many dialects it is cannot be identified from her description. On Map 2 I have listed the various isoglots of the Melobong Peninsula as identified by Dusun-speakers themselves. Melobong Rungus are very closely related to the Rungus of the Kudat Peninsula, and the members of these two Rungus sections state that they do not speak different isoglots. It would be interesting to know whether Clayre’s Bengkoka Dusun by chance includes lexical material from the Melobong Rungus.

Before concluding, it might be worthwhile to speculate on the form future classification of the indigenous languages of Sabah might take. At present there are four major groups: the Dusun languages, the Northern Murut languages, the Southern Murut languages, and Bisaya.4 Although there has been speculation that the Tidong languages of the east coast are related to the Murut languages, field research is needed to determine whether this group can in fact be considered an indigenous language group or whether it is one that has moved into Sabah in relatively recent times. Likewise I do not include the language of the Banggi islanders in this classification since the status of their language must still be determined.

My Northern Murut group is equivalent to the North Borneo Murut category of Cense and Uhlenbeck (1958), and my Southern Murut is equivalent to their Sarawak Murut. I have not followed their terminology since the members of these two groups are not restricted to the political divisions of Sabah or Sarawak, as is suggested by this terminology. However, my own terminology should be rapidly outmoded by the work of D. J. Prentice of the Australian National University, who has recently returned from an extensive field investigation of the various Murut groups in Sabah. The results of his significant research will soon be published, and this will clear up a number of important problems such as the linguistic and ethnic divisions of the Northern Murut, the relationship of the Murut languages to the Dusun language group, and the relation of Northern Murut to Southern Murut. I here exclude the Southern Murut from my postulated language family of Sabah since there appears to be a significant linguistic and cultural boundary between the Northern and Southern Murut, with the latter showing more close affinities with a large group of peoples to the south than with the Northern Murut (see Appell, 1968a and Cense and Uhlenbeck, 1958). However, the dimensions of this linguistic discontinuity have never been adequately determined, and the answer will have to await the results of Prentice’s work.

With regard to the Bisaya, Roger Peranio, of the State University of New York at Stony Brook, has collected extensive linguistic data among the Bisaya of Sarawak, and once this work has been analyzed and published it should contribute to our understanding of the relationship of the Sabah section of the Bisaya to the Dusun languages and to those of the Northern and Southern Murut. The Dusun group of languages is still largely unanalyzed, as we have already pointed out, and this extensive group needs the same kind of detailed and careful field study that Prentice has done for the Murut. In the meantime, however, I would like to postulate one language family for the indigenous languages of Sabah, to be called the “Ida’an language family.” This term seems particularly appropriate not only because it is an exonym but also because it has been applied at one time or another to most of the members of this postulated family. This Ida’an family would thus include the three subfamilies of Dusun, Northern Murut, and Bisaya.

Finally, I have appended a basic word list for the Rungus isoglot, which was collected from several informants, all from villages in the Matunggong River basin on the Kudat Peninsula. All of the informants spoke only Rungus until, in their mid-teens, attempts were made to learn Bazaar Malay. All maintain that they are “true Rungus” in contrast to other ethnic units on the Kudat Peninsula. My linguistic analysis is not yet complete, and, therefore, I have omitted several entries where the most appropriate Rungus word is still in question.


Appendix: Rungus Dusun basic word list
1. all kovi’ai
2. and om
3. animal duput
4. ashes avu
5. at sid
6. back likud
7. bad ara’at
8. bark (tree) kulit
9. because sobop
10. belly tizan
11. big agazo
12. bird ombalog
13. to bite mongi’it
14. black itom
15. blood raha
16. to blow (wind) monovuruk
17. bone ulang
18. to breathe momuhobo
19. to burn (intr.) tumutud
20. child anak
21. cloud mituvong
22. cold (weather) osogit
23. to come rumikot
24. to count mongizap
25. to cut monibas (with knife)
26. day (not night) adau
27. to die matai
28. to dig mongukad
29. dirty asakau
30. dog asu
31. to drink minum
32. dry (substance) otu’u
33. dull (knife) ongorol
34. dust avu
35. ear tolingow
36. earth (soil) tana
37. to eat mangakan
38. egg ontolu
39. eye mato
40. to fall (drop) aratu
41. far osodu
42. fat (substance) lunok
43. father tama
44. to fear rumusi
45. feather (large) vulu
46. few okudik
47. to fight miodu
48. fire apui
49. fish sada
50. five limo
51. to float lumantong
52. to flow murulun
53. flower vusak
54. to fly tumulod
55. fog kavut
56. foot rampam
57. four apat
58. to freeze
59. fruit uva
60. to give manahak
61. good avasi
62. grass sakut
63. green otomow
64. guts tina’i
65. hair tobok
66. hand palad
67. he yalow
68. head ulu
69. to hear orongow
70. heart undu-undu
71. heavy avagot
72. here siti
73. to hit momobog
74. hold mangavid
(in hand)  
75. how kurang
76. to hunt (game) magasu
77. husband savo
78. I yoku
79. ice --
80. if ong
81. in suvang
82. to kill patai
83. know (facts) ila’an
84. lake --
85. to laugh mongirak
86. leaf ro’on
87. left (hand) gibang
88. leg hakod
89. to lie (on side) modopodop
90. to live mizau
91. liver ongkovizau
92. long anaru
93. louse kutu
94. man (male) ulun kosai
95. many ogumu
96. meat (flesh) onsi
97. mother tidi
98. mountain burul
99. mouth kabang
100. name ngaran
101. narrow opi’it
102. near osomok
103. neck li’o
104. new vagu
105. night sodop
106. nose odong
107. not amu
108. old laid
109. one iso
110. other vokon
111. person ulun
112. to play mimomoi
113. to pull manarik
114. to push poli’ad
115. to rain dumarun
116. red aragang
117. right (correct) banal
118. right (hand) vanan
119. river bavang
120. road ralan
121. root gamut
122. rope polihan
123. rotten norobok
124. rub
125. salt osin
126. sand pantai
127. to say momoros
128. scratch (itch) mogkukot
129. sea (ocean) rahat
130. to see imut
131. seed linsow
132. to sew monombil
133. sharp (knife) atarang
134. short onibok
135. to sing mongindolongoi
136. to sit mogom
137. skin (of person) kulit
138. sky avan
139. to sleep modop
140. small opodok
141. to smell (perceive odor) osingod
142. smoke lison
143. smooth oludow
144. snake vulanut
145. snow
146. some
147. to spit mongodula
148. to split mongalapak
149. to squeeze mongogot
150. to stab (or stick) monobok
151. to stand ingkakat
152. star korimbutu’an
153. stick (of wood) kazu
154. stone vatu
155. straight alahis
156. to suck monosup
157. sun adau
158. to swell lumonit
159. to swim mintozog
160. tail iku
161. that iso
162. there sori
163. they i’oti
164. thick akapal
165. thin onippis
166. to think mongitong
167. this iti
168. thou ikau
169. three tolu
170. to throw momilai
171. to tie mongogos
172. tongue dila
173. tooth (front) nipon
174. tree pu’on
175. to turn (veer) kumilong
176. two duvo
177. to vomit mongilob
178. to walk mamanau
179. warm (weather) alasu
180. to wash modsu
181. water vai’ig
182. we (incl.) toko
(excl.) okoi
183. wet ozopos
184. what? nunu
185. when? sira
186. where? siombo
187. white opurak
188. who? isai
189. wide ala’ab
190. wife savo
191. wind barat
192. wing alad
193. wipe momihid
194. With (accompanying)
195. woman ulun ondu
196. woods govutong
197. worm gizuk
198. ye iko’u
199. year to’un
200. yellow osilow



1 Fieldwork among the Rungus Dusun of Sabah, Malaysia, during 1959-1960 and 1961-1963, was conducted under the auspices of the Department of Anthropology and Sociology, Institute of Advanced Studies, the Australian National University. The Australian National University also supported an initial analysis of the data collected. NSF Grant 923 supported further analysis of the data and the preparation of material for publication. Support from an ACLS grant made the preparation of this paper possible.

2 I coin here the term “isoglot” to refer to the speech of a group of people who consider their language or dialect to be significantly different from neighboring communities and thus have an indigenous term by which to identify it. I find this term preferable to “language” or “dialect” as these imply a certain linguistic status vis-à-vis other languages or dialects, whereas the term “isoglot” is neutral in this regard. An isoglot therefore refers to the speech of a self-conscious speech community. I also find this term preferable to other terms that have been used and which may or may not stress self-consciousness, such as “communalect” (Wurm, 1964) and “isolect” (Hudson, 1967). There has been an interesting development in linguistic terminology in which the pseudo-morpheme, -lect, has been used with various prefixes to mean speech, for example, those just mentioned and also “idiolect” (Hockett, 1958). This usage, to my way of thinking, is a barbarism whether it is derived from “dialect” or “lecture.” Dialect does not consist of the two morphemes *dia- and *-lect, and lecture on the other hand is derived from the Latin stem meaning “to read.” The term “isoglot” includes two morphemes: iso-, derived from Greek and meaning “alike,” “equal,” or “the same,” and -glot, also from Greek and in a derivative sense denoting “language.”

3 This method of binomial terminology may not be universally applicable in Sabah. In certain lightly populated areas of the interior, social identification through group membership is not in terms of a multivillage ethnic group but in terms of the name of the village in which the individual resides. Thus, no autonyms exist above the village level by which an individual may establish his ethnic identity in contrast to other ethnic groups. This appears to be a function of population density, and I have discussed elsewhere some of the factors involved (Appell, 1968b). It would be interesting to know in these unusual cases to what degree there is dialect differentiation between neighboring villages.

4 Harrisson (1962) has summarized what is presently known about the Bisaya.


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