Going Ape

orangutan

Entries into Word Stories have been admittedly sparse as of late for no better reason than that I’ve been travelling about Asia and while rainforest and pagodas have abounded, wifi access has been patchy to say the least. Saying that, interesting languages have been all over the place and, as always, some of these exotic words have wound up in English. At the moment, I’m in Malaysia so that calls for a look at a nice donation from the Malays: orangutan.

The word comes fairly simply from the Malay version orang utan where orang means ‘man’ and utan means ‘woods’ so orangutan is ‘man of the woods’. It entered English via Dutch in the 1690s. You can still see orang around in Malaysia in words like orang asli, who were the original Malay natives, or orang Malayu, which means the Malay people.

The only point of debate is about whether or not the word for ‘man’ was actually used to refer to the ape, since the Malays already had a specific word for the apes, maias. One relatively likely possibility is that the word was used by town-dwellers to refer to the tribes in the forest on the Sunda Islands and that the Europeans simply mistook the reference for the animals instead. Whatever happened, the Malays now use the word to refer to the apes too.

The first citation of the word comes is found in the Historiae naturalis et medicae Indiae orientalis by Jacobus Bontius in 1631. According to Bontius, the Malays claimed that the ape could, but preferred not to, talk. The orangutan may be one of the most intelligent primates but we know now that language would be impossible for it. Among other limitations, they have a higher larynx and thinner tongues than humans. Still, that hasn’t stopped us from trying to make the ape talk. In 1978, studies began with an orangutan named Chantek at the University of Tennesse. Over eight years, Chantek successfully learnt 150 signs as well as both British and American sign language but never quite got hold of language as we know it.

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